First, before getting into the actual point here, I want to mention that the new, 50th anniversary deluxe edition DVD of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World from the Criterion Collection has garnered great reviews for its reconstruction, and is currently #1 on Amazon for comedies. Huzzah! I note this because one of the people on the Commentary Track is our good pal Mark Evanier, one of the great experts on the film. The Blu-Ray package includes both the reconstructed original version and the more common, general release. (Impressively, the DVD is also #6 for Action-Adventure. The #167 for all films, period.) If you're interested, you can get it here.
And second, and on to the point, I tend to agree with Mark Evanier most of the time. One can guarantee themselves a journey along the right path of life when doing such a thing. But once in a while, we do have our disagreements. Friday was one of those. He has a piece here which links to an article about reasons why the character of Peter Pan is almost exclusively played by a woman, and Mark also gives what he thinks is an obviously reason that's left out of the article, says that he thinks the show is sexually confused, and doesn't think Mary Martin's performance is that good because she doesn't come across like a little boy, but rather a grandmother.
(I swear it was not intentional that Mary Martin gets mentioned here yet again, in the midst of our Mary Martin Fest, of which more is to come. This was meant to be about Peter Pan. But Mark brought her up. Blame him...)
I enjoyed his discussion (though not agreeing with it), but didn't read the linked-article because, to me, there are two related-reasons that are so profoundly clear that I have a hard time imagining any other reasons, and don't want to waste any effort on a debate. Perhaps there are other reasons, but my two are sufficiently strong that trying to figure out others just isn't worth it to me.
The two reasons are -- 1) the role is much too strenuous (let alone dangerous) for a little boy to play, but a man playing it wouldn't remotely come across like a little boy. A woman does, however, give more of that sensibility. And 2) the main reason is that the show is about childhood -- "youth, joy and freedom." To have the role played by a male, makes the show about a boy. Having it played by a woman intentionally confuses the sexes, and allows the show to be about all children. And I believe it was J.M. Barrie's intent to blend the two.
I say that because the very first performance of Peter Pan had Peter played by a woman, so any explanation that comes after that is moot. The reasoning was already set. And the tradition has carried it.
That aside, I'll add too that I think Mary Martin's performance is spectacular. Everything about the play (and musical) centers on imagination, and in a world of pirates, Indians, fairies, flying, mermaids, crocodiles, and children who don't grow up, I have no problem accepting an older woman in the role. Furthermore, it expands the concept that the show is about childhood -- it's about childhood completely: staying a child forever, keeping the child in us. And having an older women in the role makes Peter Pan about, not just "boys," nor even just about children -- but everyone. About all people who still have a child in them. To me, that's as much as anything that makes her performance a joy.
I completely understand Mark's point about Cathy Rigby's performance seeming more like a little boy. (Sandy Duncan's, too, which I saw live on stage.) And they were both excellent. And if those are performances that any individual prefers -- fine, I have zero issue with that. But that's personal and not inherently what makes Peter Pan work and last for over 100 years. It's a performer who can encompass that entire world of imagination and childhood. Ms. Rigby and Ms. Duncan did that wonderfully. For me, Mary Martin did it best.
(For what it's worth, Mary Martin was 41 when she first played the role. Cathy Rigby is still, impressively, playing Peter Pan. She's now 61. This is not intended as proof of anything. Ms. Rigby first played the role at the age of around 20, and at 4'11" she has always looked more like a gamin. Just an interesting point.)
I mentioned the other day that when my mother was a young girl, she saw the legendary actress Eva Gallienne star in Peter Pan. At the time, Ms. Gallience was no youngster, but in her mid-30s. Neither she, Mary Martin, Sandy Duncan nor Cathy Rigby gave the come-hither kind of performances Mark suggests was needed to get fathers into the theater. That no doubt did occur on occasion over the past 110 years, particularly in the Roaring '20s Mark references, but I just can't believe it's a reason, let alone an obvious one (let alone one that has lingered) for using women in the role of Peter Pan over the past century. If anything, it was a passing quirk of a fad of that one high-living era. In general, what is needed throughout history to get fathers into the theater is that they had screaming children who want, want, want to see something. And mothers who say, "You are going with us."
In the end, I find Mark's article as interesting as always, makes some good points about other things in the musical, and it includes some fascinating history. But we'll just have to agree on the next one, as I'm certain we will.
By the way, here's a bizarrely odd confluence. You remember that book I've been quoting from recently, The Prize, about the history of the oil industry? It actually fits in here! (Honest.)
Two days ago, I was reading about William Knox D'Arcy, an investor who was largely responsible for developing the first major oil strike in what was then known as Persia, an event which opened up the Middle East to oil exploration and helped change the world. The book mentions that his second wife was Nina Boucicault, "a prominent actress" who "entertained lavishly; Enrico Caruso even came to sing at their dinner parties." He references her a few times, notably that she tried to get her husband's name attached to the oil enterprise that took over once oil was discovered, so that his name wouldn't be lost to history. Alas, she wasn't successful, and his name is largely forgotten. Author Daniel Yergin doesn't mention any of her long-ago plays that made Ms. Boucicault prominent and so we just accept it at that. When I did some research for this article here, I discovered something.
Nina Boucicault was the first actress to play Peter Pan.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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