Why Does a Woman Always Play Peter Pan?

The character's storied history was influenced early on by English labor laws

Photo: NBC

When Allison Williams first posted a picture of herself as Peter Pan on her Instagram account, she quickly got a lesson on how naive people were about the character’s storied history.

“There were so many comments like, ‘Weird how a woman is playing Peter Pan,’ ” recalled the Girls actor, who is starring in NBC’s live production of Peter Pan Live! Thursday night. “It’s just so funny because I’ve been reading and learning a lot about the creation of Peter Pan and it’s typically always been a woman. It’s just so funny to me that that became a question.”

It’s actually been one for many years. The reason a woman has typically played the boy who refuses to grow up dates back to when the play was first staged in England at the turn of the 20th Century. Earlier this year, Slate addressed the subject by citing a section in J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys: The Real Story Behind Peter Pan.

Apparently, it was Broadway producer Charles Frohman who suggested that a woman should play the role because casting a boy would affect the rest of the children in the ensemble, who “would have to be scaled down in proportion.” What’s more, English law stated that minors under the age of 14 couldn’t work after 9 p.m. As a result, a woman was first cast as Pan in 1904.

Since then, actresses like Mary Martin, Sandy Duncan and Cathy Rigby have famously played the role. Williams even spent time with the latter two women and picked up a few tips.

“It feels very natural for me and it’s a huge treat to be able to play a boy,” Williams told PEOPLE. “I mean, I think that’s one of the great privileges for an actor to have, to be able to step into the movie persona and the mindset of a young boy. It’s just incredibly special. I guess I don’t know what I would say to people who are confused. There’s a long of history of it. The beginning of it is very boring and has only to do with the labor laws of women at the time, there’s nothing more complicated than that. From there it’s just tradition.”

Peter Pan Live! airs Thursday night from 8-11 p.m. ET on NBC.

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