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...
(The entire section is 974 words.)