This play, Barrie's most successful, is the story of the boy who wouldn't grow up. It will never grow old.
Peter Pan drops in on the Darling children. In spite of the efforts of their nurse, the dog Nana, he teaches Wendy and her brothers to fly. They soar with him to Never-Never Land, where Wendy becomes the mother of the lost children who live underground and in the hollow trunks of trees. Adventures with Indians and pirates follow. The pirate chief, Captain Hook, is followed by a crocodile that, having devoured the Captain's hand, seeks the remainder of his meal; but the ticking of a clock the crocodile has swallowed always warns the Captain. There is desperate war between the children and the pirates. Peter's friend, the fairy Tinker Bell -- visible only as a dancing light -- swallows the poison Hook has prepared for Peter. To save her life, Peter appeals to the audience: Do you believe in fairies?, and as the audience applauds Tinker Bell's light grows bright again. Peter leads his forces onto the pirate ship, and the desperados walk the plank. Wendy goes home, promising always to return, for the spring cleaning, to Peter's house in the tree-top in Never-Never Land.
When Barrie wrote Peter Pan in 1904, he took it to Beerbohm Tree, whom he visualized as Captain Hook. Tree at once warned Frohman: "Barrie has gone out of his mind. I am sorry to say it; but you ought to know it. He's just read me a play. He's going to read it to you, so I am warning you. I know I have not gone woozy in my mind, because I have tested myself since hearing the play. But Barrie must be mad. He has written four acts all about fairies, children, and Indians running through the most incoherent story you ever listened to; and what do you suppose? The last act is to be set on top of trees!" Later, Tree said he'd probably be known to posterity as the man that had refused Peter Pan.
Young and old alike respond to the appeal of Peter Pan. Those who maintain -- as many do -- that it is a children's play, the Boston Transcript chided ( May 8, 1929): "Fools and slow of heart! It is middle age's own tragicomedy -- the faint, far memories of boyhood and girlhood blown back in the bright breeze of Barrie's imagination." Percy Hammond made the same point on November 7, 1927: "Peter Pan is as young as it was eighteen years ago -- but I am not." The New York Times ( January 2, 1916) made the point more precisely: "Peter Pan is not children at play, but an old man smiling -- and smiling a little sadly -- as he watches children at play."
"And if there be anybody," said the reviewer of London's King ( January 14, 1905) "who can sit through the performance without an occasional tear, I can only wish for him that he may some day have children of his own, and will then understand why in the first and last scenes so many eyes around him were moist and so many throats felt in them the lump that a tender emotion brings."