NBC is once again venturing into musical territory with a production of Peter Pan, and the internet is abuzz over the casting of actress Allison Williams in the title role. She’s certainly got the skills for it, as demonstrated from her acting and singing on Girls, and she comes from a long-line of experienced television performers and broadcasters, but some aren’t convinced she’s a great choice. Suggestions of nepotism, Hollywood celebrity dynasties, and more have been flying around since the casting announcement (and one wonders if such criticisms would be dealt out to a man in a similar situation).
Others might be confused about why a girl’s playing a male role, if they aren’t familiar with the Peter Pan tradition. The story of how Peter has become a drag role is actually quite fascinating, and dates back to the earliest production of the play on stage in England. While a few men have trod the boards as Peter, they’ve been notable exceptions. This is one case where the girls have an edge on the boys, and they’ve run with it.
Understanding why Peter has become a woman’s role has roots that run far deeper than J.M. Barrie’s play. In the 19th century, women in drag performed in vaudeville and in other settings, and they also began to play a vital role in opera, filling roles historically taken by castrati. As the fashion of removing the testicles of boys to turn them into singers with eerily high voices declined, conductors and directors were facing a shortage of the right voices for these roles, and they turned to mezzo-sopranos to step in. While their voices aren’t a precise match for those they replaced, they provide a sense of the peculiar, haunting aesthetic of the castrati tradition.
While all stage roles were once played by men and women in the theatre were viewed as morally suspect, by the 19th century, there was a specific niche for women on stage not just in female roles, but also in their male counterparts. That became exaggerated in the 20th century, when many producers and directors pushed at the boundaries of gender and sexuality with crossdressing roles. They brought in genderswapping, scenes with lesbian overtones, and more, taking advantage of the tradition of putting women in trousers in productions that were sometimes bawdy, and sometimes more quietly suggestive or even subversive.
But how, specifically, did Peter turn into a trouser role, given that it was in a production for children, and an early 20th century theatre production, made in an era when risqué productions were not exactly fare for the mainstream? Aisha Harris at Slate delves into the history of the role in a truly fascinating piece that takes a closer look at the factors involved in Peter’s legacy.
Several answers to the question of how a role that embodies quintessential boyhood — don’t all men secretly believe that they’re boys who don’t have to grow up, or take responsibility for their actions? — has been dominated by women have been posited. One simple reason suggested by historians is that a woman was cast in the role in order to keep Peter small to maintain the scale between Peter and the children — and to ensure that the other children would be old enough to handle their roles and avoid running afoul of laws prohibiting children below the age of 14 from performing after nine. There may have also been concern that an actual teen boy wouldn’t be up to the demands of the role, and certainly a man wouldn’t have been appropriate, given that Peter’s entire persona is about being the boy who never grew up.
Producer Charles Frohman, who first brought the show to Broadway, also likely played a key role in the development of Peter. He wanted to see Maude Adams, a personal favourite, in the role, and he lobbied hard for her inclusion. When the production launched in England, Nina Boucicault took it on. The two women simultaneously cemented the idea in the minds of the public that Peter Pan was a trouser role, destined to be played by women. Through various versions of the stage production, women consistently played the lead, creating a rich tradition that became impossible to ignore.
When Peter Pan was adapted as a musical in 1954, it was done primarily as a vehicle for actress Mary Martin, who made the role famous. With women dominating the stage in conventional and musical versions of the production, Peter was effectively sealed into the public consciousness as a trouser role, and few producers looked back.
Intriguingly, though, Barrie apparently wanted to see a man in the role, reflecting the fact that as the story got more and more out of his control, he was less able to shape productions. He reportedly tried to convince Charlie Chaplin to produce and star in a production of Peter Pan for film, but nothing came of it. Barrie had famously only ceded the role to a woman in the first place as part of production negotiations, rather than suggesting it himself.
This intriguing history raises fascinating questions about the history of genderflipped roles, and also about how much authorial control should be ceded to famous works. Shakespeare’s plays, for example, were historically performed exclusively by men, but today, very few companies continue to abide by this convention. In fact, some have gone the other way. Helen Mirren starred as Prospera in The Tempest, Sarah Bernhardt was Hamlet, and women-only Shakespeare productions have also appeared at theatres worldwide.
Williams is stepping into a long tradition, and now it’s time to see if she won the role on merit or backdoor dealings.
Photo by Dan Brady, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license