Stage Designs of Richard Finkelstein


Some Thoughts on Peter Pan 
and on the Evolution of Scenic Design Concepts

(Written for publication in the production Resource Workbook)


Peter Pan is one of those productions that a designer can spend a whole life dreaming of designing. My own involvement with the work began like most folks of my generation with the magic of The Mary Martin TV production of the fifties (we didn't have MTV to inspire us kids back then).

A decade later, while in High school, I was to act in a production of the work presented by The Baltimore Actors Theatre. I played a lost boy - the one that Noel Coward played in England (I'll leave it to the Peter Pan experts to determine which lost boy I played). It was while working on this production that I first met another great Peter. . . Peter Foy. It was his inspiration that in no small part led me away from the world of acting and into a life as a designer.

As a naturally curious person, I have always had a desire to learn the inside story behind those things that I love - and so, being one to love the story of Peter Pan, I felt it my obligation to return to the play that Barrie himself wrote. I sensed a great passion in that work and in his other plays that I had now been inspired to read. I saw through his plays a degree of pathos and loneliness, and felt determined to learn more about their author. So... through highschool and into College. My first choice of Term Paper projects always dealt with Peter Pan. Unlike many other students, I didn't merely re-write the same paper over for different classes. Instead, I pursued my research more and more until I became quite the Peter Pan expert.

I was always upset, as an English Major in college, that great works of literature were taught as just that. . . isolated and individual projects. In my heart I knew that any art, especially great art is also an expression of a culture, time, and artist's soul. If you haven't caught on to it by now, Peter Pan is far more than just a story. It is fascinating to examine the whole thing from an autobiographical perspective.

Virtually everything in the work -even in the musical- happened in some form or other in real life, often on more than one level. Take Mr. Darling and his alter ego, Capt. Hook; In the story, he starts out as Wendy's father. In actuality, The Darling family was patterned after the real life DAVIES family (the boys), and after W.E. Henley and his daughter Margaret.

Margaret died at age 3, and Barrie, heart broken by his little friends death, re-christened her "Wendy" (her three year old speech had earlier renamed him as her "fwendy"). Let's stop for a second and examine this most important cultural event. In 1904 Barrie changed linguistic history by CREATING the name Wendy. The FIRST use of that name was in the stories of Peter Pan!

Now, back to Hook. . . In real life he was Margaret's father. What most history books fail to get into. . . and this is quite important. . . was the fact that W.E. Henley had been Robert Louis Stevenson's model for Long John Silver!!!! So, Barrie's pirate image was also a bit of a literary "in joke"!

Not one to work on just two levels of reality, yet another level comes into play when one discovers that the original actor to play Mr. Darling/Hook was Sylvia Davies (Mrs. Darling's) brother- in-law!

Imagine my delight while reading Barrie's plays in high school, as I discovered that his publisher was Peter Davies. How's that for a philosophical gem: Barrie creates "Peter Pan" who in turn gives life to Barrie!

Before leaving the world of literary interpretation for the realm of spatial reality (design), I feel driven to make an important comment about the one blemish marring the musical. It is so easy to blindly admire this "boy who wouldn't grow up". Leaving it at that is not one of the most socially useful or sophisticated things to do. In fact these social dangers are spelled out in such books as The Peter Pan Complex outlining the quest of many men to essentially remain boys forever.

Unlike his musical counterparts, Barrie's own play was able to show the down side of Peter's behavior without changing the over- all motif of fun and fantasy. This comes during a brief exchange towards the end of the play when Jane, Wendy's daughter asks about Tinkerbell. We are left with an image of a Peter who doesn't even remember who Tinkerbell is. We discover that in- nocence has its price and that to never grow up is to not be human. What an important lesson for us

Now, as a designer, what does all this mean to my work. To begin with I come to the project with a reverence and understanding of the author, the work, and the society that produced both. Design- ing - in its proper role - is no different from writing or directing. Each of us has the task of illuminating and exploring relationships, ideas, and issues.

Most students realize the importance of development and rhythm in a work. By the end of a work, the characters have gone through a process of change, usually arriving at a better understanding of themselves, and of the world around them. The author hopes by this, that his or her audience will likewise gain new understandings. Well, there is no reason why a designer cannot follow suit and provide a physical environment that develops as well.

For my model, I use the symbolism of the ancient Chinese yin- yang, wherein the world is constantly energized by the tensions of ideals, and philosophies in opposition and continual reversing juxtaposition, with each providing the seed of the other.

As in the case of Amadeus, my last project at ESIPA, Peter Pan sets up a tension between the world of free thought and that of disciplined responsibility. We begin our involvement within the rather rigid military-like regimentation of The Darling Household. It's no wonder that the kids so eagerly escape to Never Neverland!

This "world in transition" conflict also had its expression in the arts and politics of the day. Victoria had just ended her al- most full-century reign. Victoria was not exactly known for free- thinking behavior models. Edward offered a new hope for the British, and the euphoria of the pre-World War I had set in (Just remember the lyrics of the song in Disney's Mary Poppins: "King Edward 's on the throne, it's the age of men"!)

As a reflection of the more rigid model of The Darling Household, I used Victorian architectural modes within the Nursery set. The emphasis is on linear (straight line) forms. Another strong motif may be found in the spindles of the stair railings and bed headboards. Besides relating directly to the ornamentation on the ship, these "spindles" reflect the Victorian penchant for their new-found architectural toy: mass production. This sets the world of the urban social structure in opposition to the world we find in Never Neverland with its free and sinewy floral forms. The spindles of the Nursery may be thought of as reflecting a rather simple symbolism as one begins to think of them as societal "jail cell bars". Note also the fact that both the nursery and the ship sets are the most traditional in terms of theatre design, being a simple "box sets". In many respects, the nursery set doesn't even appear to be a child's room - for children had little place in the Victorian society - at best they were thought of as just min- iature adults. Compare this to Never Neverland, a virtual playground of the visual imagination.

Now if the audience looks carefully, the yin-yang comes into play, for within this rather sterile, rigid environment, the seeds of opposition and future tensions become apparent. The floral patterns in the walls become the seeds of Never Neverland, The boys' toy ship becomes the basis for the ship, The doghouse becomes the basis for Wendy's house. Even the window design be- comes the basis for some of the creatures of Neverland.

The message here is rather simple - our dreams are created from a re-working of our reality. The implications should also be clear - that we can also re-create our reality by listening a bit more, and acting upon some of our dreams "you can find it in your heart...".

This debate between stuffy reality and more freeform philosophies also had its manifestation in the arts of the day - something that I was able to exploit in my designs for Peter Pan. Out of the heavy formal forms of Victorian design, a movement arouse, bent on breaking all the rules, and bent on paying homage to na- ture rather than denying it. Thus began the Art Nouveau era of design. Some of the best graphic artists in history were produced by that era, artists such as Beardsly, Mucha, and Erte (who is actually still alive today).

Art Nouveau provides a good example of the relationships between the fine arts and literature. In Peter Pan, Barrie has clearly created with words a full Art Nouveau world complete with luscious plants come to life, and wild animals at peace with man (except for Hook of course). To me the only choice of visual style for Never Neverland is within the Art Nouveau style.

The first thing we notice in Never Neverland are flowers, flowers, everywhere. The world of Art Nouveau, is the world of plant life. Also, in the world of Art Nouveau, the plants seem to know just where to grow in order that their full artistic potential may be realized. This was the era that gave us the beautiful Tiffany windows and delicate laces so coveted to this day. So... within the Never Neverland set, the flowers and trees are treated as a natural lace of sorts. The emphasis is on layering. Within this mode, by examination of the SHOW PORTAL, one can now see how the Art Nouveau philosophies began to cause the loosening up of the previously stuffy and cold urban industrial world. Now the "Iron" gate to Kennsington Gardens appears to be living in its own right.

Also of note in the Art Nouveau motifs found in Never Neverland is the willingness to abandon strict realism. The plant life is stylized and conducive to romantic imagery.

Art Nouveau wasn't just a style about plants. For The Home Under- ground I took my inspiration in large part from the work of the Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi (1852-1926). Gaudi's buildings were a total departure from the formal European buildings of the past. In my mind they more closely resembled mud castles, or the castles we used to build as children at the beach by dripping whet sand thru our fingers. My initial visualization of the Home Underground closely resembled the Gaudi style, emphasizing natural rock forms.

If the story of Peter Pan were a true story, then the Home Under- ground would be, in real life, a cave. The Gaudi style becomes a logical style to emulate. Not being one to leave behind a good challenge, I added a degree of laciness to this set as well. We don't normally think of rocks as lacy, so it was fun to explore the unexpected.

Within the yin-yang model of the Peter Pan design, we have learned so far, how the seeds of Never Neverland could be found within the Victorian motifs of the Nursery. It stands to reason, that the seeds of the nursery should be found somewhere within the world of Never Neverland as well - and so it is!

For this, we look "TO THE SHIP!". The ship was quite fun to design because I patterned it directly after the nursery. If Barrie could pattern Hook after Mr. Darling, why shouldn't I, as the designer follow suit? As you see the show look carefully at architectural elements such as the ship doors, and posts. Lo and behold, the doors are nearly the same as that of the nursery - and the posts and railings grow from the nursery's bed headboards.

As in the case of Barrie's writings, I also hoped to be working on more than one level. As you look carefully at the show portal, you should be able to read "Kennsington Gardens" written up above. This device has three functions. To begin with I wanted to pay a bit of visual homage to the autobiographical nature of Barrie's work. Peter Pan was born in the gardens. (In a similar vein, the two other great childrens' works of the era, Alice in Wonderland, and Mary Poppins also began in the gardens of or near London). In those early days, Peter was a bird. The area is now preserved as a bird sanctuary. The portal also helps to syn- the size the worlds of discipline and free thought - for on one hand its design has a flowing serpentine Art Nouveau form, but the gate, as it would be in real life anyway, is fashioned from hard, cold iron. Perhaps our own worlds of discipline and creativity can likewise be made to work together. Finally the portal serves somewhat as the gateway between the two worlds found in Peter Pan. It helps to mark both the end of reality, and the beginning of dreams.

And so, my friends.....Dream on!