Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 974
One of the best of Sir James Barrie’s comedies, The Admirable Crichton contains a more definite theme than Barrie generally put into his plays. His satirical portrait of an English aristocrat with liberal ideas is among the most skillfully executed of this character type. Lord Loam, like many liberals, is a kind of social Jekyll and Hyde, accepting the doctrine of the rights of humanity in theory but holding tightly to his privileges in practice.
The immediate inspiration for The Admirable Crichton, as for its successor Peter Pan (pr. 1904), was Barrie’s relationship with the four sons of Arthur Llewellyn Davies, whom Barrie “adopted” as almost his own. Peter Pan was based in the stories Barrie made up for the boys, and The Admirable Crichton was based in the make-believe games he played with them, in which fantasies of being cast away on a deserted island played a major part. The games were fueled by his memories of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and of such boys’ books derived from Defoe’s work as Johann Rudolf Wyss’s Der schweizerische Robinson (1812-1827; The Swiss Family Robinson, 1814, 1818, 1820) and R. M. Ballantyne’s Coral Island (1858). In all these tales the resourcefulness of the heroes invariably allows them to establish a comfortable lifestyle, thereby demonstrating the superior nature of British civilization. The skeptical Barrie probably used the make-believe games to teach the four boys that lighting fires and building huts are not quite as easy as such stories make out—a lesson that Lord Loam learns the hard way.
The title of the play is as ironic as its contents. The reputation—what kind of reputation is a matter of interpretation—of the original Admirable Crichton, a sixteenth century Scots adventurer who died in a brawl at the age of twenty-two, is immortalized in Thomas Urquhart’s Ekskubalauron (1652), for example. The play’s contrasting of the English aristocracy and its servant class is rooted in Barrie’s awareness of the difference in outlook between the wealthy but airy-fairy English and the poor but hardheaded Scots. As a Scotsman from a poor background, Barrie was acutely aware of the delusions of the well-off Londoners among whom he had come to live, and the temptation to subject their affectations to the hypothetical test of castaway life proved irresistible. The silliness that moves along the plot is not as casually satirical as it seems; a depth of bitter feeling in it becomes increasingly apparent as the play progresses.
The blue-blooded Lord Loam poses as a believer in the equality of men, although he sets aside only one day a month for the elevation of his servants’ status. Crichton, on the other hand, makes an obsession out of knowing his place and insisting that one’s rank reflects one’s worth. How ironic this insistence is depends on how the part is played—Barrie’s notes to the cast are relentlessly sarcastic—but Crichton’s keen awareness that worth depends on context indicates that he harbors carefully concealed resentments.
While it is society that determines his worth, Crichton is a dutiful servant, but when the castaways are cut off from society, his true self emerges. When Lady Mary asks him who made up the rule that those who do not work do not eat, he explains that he “seems to see it growing all over the island.” Unlike the rules governing London society, it is no arbitrary invention: It is the way things are. This ability to see things as they are and to apply his common sense to them—which fits Crichton for the leader’s role on the island—is exactly the same ability that fits him to be a butler in Mayfair. On the island this ability receives the approval of nature. His common sense sends him straight back to his former station when the party returns to Mayfair, but he is determined that it will be a temporary measure. Having lived for a while as his true self, he can no longer be content with a lie.
A last inversion in the plot is Lady Brocklehurst’s interrogation of Crichton, who contrives to answer all her questions truthfully while giving a completely false picture of what actually transpired on the island. The result of this deception is that Lady Mary’s promise to marry Crichton does not compromise her engagement to the young Lord Brocklehurst. Afterward, Lady Mary asks Crichton whether he despises her for allowing it to remain uncompromised. This question makes a very subtle point. Instead of having Crichton reply to Lady Mary’s question, Barrie inserts a gratuitous (and inaccurate) note that “the man who could never tell a lie makes no answer.” Shortly thereafter, Lady Mary asks Crichton to tell her that he did not lose his courage; the man who can and did tell several lies calls down the curtain with an assertion that he did not. The author carefully leaves it to the audience members to make up their mind what he means by that remark. He clearly cannot mean that he intends to resume his interrupted courtship of Lady Mary—he just exerted himself to ensure that she can marry Lord Brocklehurst—but perhaps he means that he considers that his obligations to the family are now finally and fully discharged.
Crichton, as an honorable and admirable man, cannot refuse to fire the beacons that enabled his companions to be restored to their place in society, but now that he sees Lady Mary’s marriage prospects safely restored, everything is back in its “proper” place—except for him. Whatever his proper place may be, he must leave in order to find it. The audience is likely to wish Crichton good luck—but one does have to bear in mind the fate of the man after whom Crichton is named.
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