The Admirable Crichton

by J. M. Barrie

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Last Updated September 26, 2023.

J.M. Barrie’s 1902 play, “The Admirable Crichton,” tells the story of an aristocratic British family stranded on a desert island. The play describes how their butler, Crichton, rises to leadership, satirizing Edwardian England's class distinctions and aristocracy. Edwardian society was into distinct social classes, with the aristocracy at the top and various levels of the working class below. Class distinctions were deeply entrenched, and individuals adhered to the strict roles and behaviors expected of them.

When Barrie was writing, England was experiencing an intense cultural shift. Social ails were rising to the fore; for the first time, issues such as class disparity were openly discussed. Many began to question the role of the aristocracy, calling it an outdated relic from a past age. In “The Admirable Crichton,” Barrie explores the absurdity of England's rigid social structures through wit and comedy. What makes this play noteworthy is the transformation of the characters, particularly the titular character, Crichton. 

When the play opens, Crichton is a happy servant. However, he is somewhat upset because Lord Loam, the master of the house, holds a monthly egalitarian tea in which he treats his servants as equals. Crichton dislikes this event, as it infringes on the expected household hierarchy and means he must serve tea to the other servants. As he tells Lady Mary, one of Lord Loam's daughters:  “It pains me, your ladyship. It disturbs the etiquette of the servants’ hall.” Crichton is a man for tradition and the status quo. Lord Loam, however, is full of lofty liberal ideas, though he seems comfortable continuing to benefit from his aristocratic position.

At tea, Lord Loam announces that the family will not be taking a full complement of servants with them on their upcoming yacht excursion. His daughters will need to share a single maid between them—something they and the other maids find highly displeasing. 

The second act picks up two months later, revealing that the understaffed yacht has been shipwrecked on a desert island. Lord Loam is presumed to have died in the disaster. Ernest, another aristocrat, composes an exaggerated letter describing their situation and making him look unrealistically heroic. After reading it to Lord Loam’s three daughters, Mary, Catherine, and Agatha, Ernest puts the letter into a bottle and tosses it into the sea.

Later, Mary and Crichton discuss how Ernest refuses to work or help. To resolve this issue, Crichton decides that only those who work can eat: “No work—no dinner—will make a great change in Mr. Ernest.” Soon, Lord Loam straggles in, having survived after all. Mary urges her father to reclaim his position of authority from Crichton. 

However, Lord Loam quickly proves an ineffectual leader in these circumstances, and without trying to, Crichton becomes the de facto leader of the group. Feeling threatened by Crichton’s natural leadership, Lord Loam dismisses his butler from service. This is, of course, a rather useless gesture given their circumstances. Lord Loam and the other aristocrats leave but soon return after realizing that they do not know how to feed themselves.

By act three, two years have passed. The party is thriving, having built a sturdy home and even a water-driven mill. Not only have their living conditions changed, but so have their social stations. Instead of the egalitarian utopia Lord Loam envisioned, class divisions remain. However, they are no longer based on birthright but on ability. 

Lord Loam helps Tweeny pluck a bird for supper. Sounding much like Crichton did years ago in England, Lord Loam says that Crichton is “a master I’m proud to pluck for.” Tweeny is no longer the low-ranking scullery maid...

(This entire section contains 1039 words.)

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she once was. Now, she is the most desirable woman on the island, having caught the eye even of Ernest who wishes to marry her.

Mary, now the party’s hunter, returns to the house with a buck she killed. The other sisters come back with the fish they caught. They all appear to be in good spirits, indicating that they are much happier in their present circumstances than they ever were in England. Crichton, who is now called the Gov., is served dinner in much the same way an aristocrat would be. He exercises his authority to the fullest, keeps everyone in their place, and requires them to work for the common good.

Crichton is most impressed with Mary, who has also fallen for him. The two agree to marry, though Mary ironically protests that she is not worthy of Crichton. With the two now married, the entire party celebrates. Their celebrations come to an abrupt end when they spot a ship offshore. Mary begs Crichton not to light the signal fires, not wanting to return to their old lives. When the sailors land anyway, Lord Loam unconsciously reverts to his former position of authority, and Crichton instantly becomes servile again.

The fourth act takes place back in England. Ernest is writing a fictional novel about their time as castaways, which portrays him as a dashing hero. Crichton, of course, barely receives a footnote. Crichton returns to his position as the family’s butler, and the aristocrats revert to their former lofty selves, experiencing no permanent change from their time on the island. Mary, however, is the exception. She still walks with the unrefined gait she developed as a castaway. Furthermore, she still respects Crichton as a leader.

Lord Brocklehurst, Mary’s original fiancé, arrives, expressing his concern about Mary’s time as a castaway. They interrogate the family and the servants about how well the social hierarchy was preserved on the island. They are reassured when Crichton claims, with an irony they fail to detect, “I think I may say there was as little equality there as elsewhere.” Although Mary does not have strong feelings for Brocklehurst, they agree to renew their engagement.

As the play ends, Mary confides in Crichton that she believes him to be “the best man among us.” He responds that that may have been true on the island, but it is not the case in England. Mary, echoing the sentiments of many people of her time concerning the usefulness of the aristocracy, responds: “Then there’s something wrong with England.”