In 1932 the real Alice in Wonderland met the real Peter Pan.
Peter and Alice, a new play by John Logan, imagines their meeting. What would the 80 year old Alice Liddell Hargreaves and the 30-something Peter Llewellyn Davies talk about?
About childhood, of course, about the inevitability of growing up, and about the role of adults in a child’s journey to adulthood.
It begins, though, with protestations from Alice, played beautifully by Judi Dench, that Peter – whom she does not yet realise was the inspiration for Peter Pan – is not interested in her but in the fictional character:
PETER: Mrs Hargreaves, I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.
ALICE: No, Mr Davies, I daresay you’ve been looking forward to meeting her.
There is of course a delicious irony in Dame Judi, known and loved by millions worldwide for her portrayal of characters from Titania to M, expressing the thoughts of an earlier ‘creation’. Just as Lewis Carroll gave Alice to the public – reshaped and reimagined according to his whim, so the Judi Dench we think we know is only the Judi given to us by writers, directors, costumiers and make-up artists. Her true self is as concealed behind the glittering lights just as Alice’s was between and behind the pages.
And this is a play about fantasy and reality, and which is which. Alice in Wonderland will be remembered – is remembered – long after Alice Hargreaves’ death, so which is the more real?
Peter and Alice feel that they were used against their wills in the creation of their more famous alter-egos, that somehow their respective authors broke the covenant that adults will shield and protect children and allow them to enjoy childhood unburdened by problems that are beyond their years.
The question of inappropriate sexual advances is raised, and both characters deny that they were physically molested but emotionally…well, that’s a different matter. Both feel that somehow they were asked to bear the weight of expectations they were not equipped to deal with. Their authors were lonely and shy, but lost their inhibitions around children and yet were still adults, with adult ways and adult preoccupations.
So we come to the heart of the story – how did Peter and Alice deal with growing up? Both feel it is essentially a negative thing and, like the character written for him, Peter seems to find the burden of adulthood – or perhaps the burden of having grown up too fast too young – crippling and debilitating. Of course, Peter Pan is not the only factor in this: the deaths of both his parents to cancer and the trauma of the First World War were at least as culpable as the unexpected fame brought upon him by JM Barrie. Peter, though, longs for a simpler world, a return to the happy days of adventure and imagination and play.
Alice, on the other hand, does not seem so afraid of the adult world. Early on she describes her older sister getting her first corset. It came in a sumptuous purple box, and “the whale bone was iridescent”.
ALICE: Here was growing up and becoming a woman: and it was *beautiful*… My mother helped Lorina put it on and tighten the laces. Well then I could see it hurt. Lorina cried… And my mother, the look on her face. … What was it? Not quite sadness. Acceptance. Resignation to something vast, and helpless to change it. Powerlessness… Here was growing up too.
Is growing up a tragedy or an adventure? Is more lost than gained? In part, that depends on how you deal with it. For Lewis Carroll, growing up was about a loss of joy and delight:
CARROLL: One day you turn around and you’ve become Mrs Grundy: soberly disapproving of everything that used to give you pleasure.
ALICE: I can’t imagine that! Shan’t I always be able to laugh at things?
CARROLL: Does your mother laugh much?
For Peter Pan, too, it meant losing the ability to fly, but also gaining an ability to reflect on the world and one’s place in it – Pan doesn’t value this, but Alice, the real Alice, apparently does. It is through recognising and accepting reality, and retaining a capacity for flights of fancy that she is able to face the consequences of ageing even as she nears a lonely death in relative poverty.
Peter and Alice is a brilliant, beautiful, rich and moving play. I went home and bought the script straight away, and could easily go on writing, thinking and exploring its themes.
You haven’t much time left to see its London run; it closes on 1 June and there are only day tickets remaining. If you have the chance to see a production of it any time ever, I highly recommend it – and if not, you can always buy the script.
Hurry though, before the ticking crocodile catches up with you!