A journal of turn-of-the-century theatre

Issue 4 - Summer 2012

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J. M. Barrie and Crichton’s Three Islands by Margaret D. Stetz

In the Introduction to their 2006 volume, J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan In and Out of Time, Donna R. White and C. Anita Tarr are unsparing in their judgment of J. M. Barrie as an author, asserting that his “literary reputation rests on one work: Peter Pan” and continuing with another harsh pronouncement—“Alone of all of Barrie’s literary works, Peter Pan remains vital today” (White and Tarr vii). Could theirs be a peculiarly American perspective, reflecting the relative absence from U. S. stages of Barrie’s other plays, but not one that a British audience would share? If we measure the vitality of theatrical writing in terms of ongoing productions and adaptations, then surely many of his comedies and dramas are alive and well, at least on Barrie’s own side of the Atlantic. With their suggestions of forbidden or “castaway” emotions and situations, they have, moreover, another kind of vitality, bubbling up from the sphere of the culturally repressed, that still speaks to spectators and that encourages contemporary directors to speak through them.

Chief among these often-revived works is Barrie’s 1902 comic fantasy, The Admirable Crichton. One of the most recent productions took place in June 2011 at the New Vic in Newcastle-under-Lyme, and one of the most recent adaptations was an audio version by Fiona Kelcher, which was broadcast on 3 July 2011 on BBC’s Radio 4, as part of its “Saturday Play” series. Thanks, of course, to Barrie’s creation of the consummate butler character, Crichton, the popular association with that name has remained so strong throughout Britain that, in 1989, the BBC television series Red Dwarf could use “Kryten” for an android domestic servant in outer space and be confident of its varied audiences getting the joke. We might even note a more commercial appropriation in the form of  “The Admirable Crichton,” a London-based catering business, which advertises itself as “the name behind the world’s best parties.”

If, more than one hundred years later, The Admirable Crichton still has a place in the British cultural imagination—perhaps not as exalted as the one occupied by Peter Pan, but prominent nonetheless, and crossing a variety of media—we might ask why. It is a masterpiece of high comedy, but so are a number of Barrie’s plays that now are less widely accepted as cultural touchstones. Something else must be at work. What appeal to conscious or unconscious anxieties, aspirations, or desires does it make?

From the start, the play has invited political readings, and its earliest reception turned on responses to Barrie’s satirical view of the hierarchies on two “islands”—the fictional desert island in the Pacific on which Crichton and the aristocratic family he serves are shipwrecked, and the very real island that was England in 1902. We get a picture, moreover, of how Barrie’s images of these two islands continued to serve as vehicles for political reflection, midway in the twentieth century, through the best known and most widely circulated adaptation of the play. This was the 1957 cinematic version titled The Admirable Crichton for its British release and re-titled Paradise Lagoon for the American market (perhaps to capitalize there on the popularity of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, a horror film that had been a huge Hollywood box-office hit three years earlier, with its perversely appealing story of the unrequited love of a mutant sea monster for a woman in a bathing suit).

 Politics alone, however, will not account fully for the play’s power. To understand the lasting hold that it has exercised, we must also look to Crichton’s origins on a third “island”— the imaginary island at Black Lake Cottage, J. M. Barrie’s summer retreat, where he played at “castaways” in 1901 with three of the sons of Arthur and Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, the very same island from which the “Neverland” of Peter Pan also emerged at precisely the same time. Thinking in terms of this third island, which was the focus of Barrie’s pleasure and obsession as he was writing the play, will mean seeing Crichton not merely as a critique of the British class system, but as a radical expression of yearnings and wish fulfillment outside the bounds of convention, including the conventions of sexual object-choice. Crichton is a fairy tale about miraculous transformations; yet those who are transformed discover new identities that are fluctuating, unstable, increasingly expansive, and bordering on the outlawed, especially in terms of gender.

 In her essay “Getting Peter’s Goat: Hybridity, Androgyny, and Terror in Peter Pan,” Carrie Wasinger insists that Barrie’s better known play of 1904 was perceived by contemporary playgoers as uncomfortable viewing, for it “confronted” its Edwardian audience with “terrifying experiences of hybridity” (220) and with “their own dangerous gender indeterminacies” (226). Perhaps this was so. But in The Admirable Crichton, especially in the romance that occurs in “Act 3: A Happy Home” between the former butler, who is now the master and father-figure, and Lady Mary, the former aristocrat who is now an adoring maid-servant, there are many “indeterminacies,” and they are not “terrifying” at all. They are instead highly attractive and erotic—like Lady Mary herself, who is both a worshipful follower, eager to give herself to Crichton and, in Barrie’s words, the image of a “stalwart youth . . . handsome and tingling with vitality” (45). At some moments, the text presents Mary as genderless, but also as distinctly underage, as “a naughty, sulky child” (49); at others, she is—to quote Barrie’s published stage directions—a “splendid boy, clad in skins”, who “carries bow and arrow” and “leaps through the window” (45); at all times, she is both a temptation to Crichton and an eager partner in their romance.  In this play, Barrie does something even more daring than in Peter Pan: he invests the relationship between a paternal adult male character and an androgynous, playful, youthful figure not with a façade of innocence, but with passion, and nearly brings to consummation a love that crosses, at least symbolically, the lines of age and gender, as well as of social class.

For those who do not know it, the topsy-turvy plot of The Admirable Crichton is easy to summarize. In “Act 1: At Loam House, Mayfair,” the Earl of Loam orders his reluctant household staff and even more unwilling daughters to participate in a painfully comical monthly tea, meant to promote his notions of democracy, at which the aristocrats must treat the servants as guests. At the end of this Act, Lord Loam prepares for a yachting expedition. “Act 2: The Island” sees Loam, his three daughters, their footling cousin Ernest, and a well-born clergyman all cast ashore after the wreck at sea of the Earl’s yacht. With them are Eliza, a scullery maid who is known as “Tweeny,” and Crichton, the butler, who has been the behind-the-scenes manager of Lord Loam all along, but who now openly takes control of the situation, forcing everyone, including the three indolent daughters, to labor and thus to earn their food and shelter.

The subtitle of the third Act, “The Happy Home,” is an unironic description of what has resulted. Crichton credits “Nature” with having reconfigured the social hierarchy, over the course of two years, and the island’s new “natural” order has developed everyone’s potential in ways that produce energy, purpose, and contentment, where once there was boredom, emptiness, or resentment. Crichton, now known as “the Gov,” commands the new civilization, which runs like a British imperial outpost, where all the Victorian social and domestic niceties are observed. Act 3 appears ready to climax with the marriage of “the Gov” and “Polly,” formerly known as Lady Mary, whose athletic prowess and hoydenish charms have elevated her above her rivals for his affections. (She asks, “[When] was the first time you thought me nicer than the others?” and Crichton’s rather surprising answer is, when they were “chasing goats . . . and you out-distanced us all; you were the first of our party to run a goat down” [52–53].) But the celebration of their engagement is interrupted by the arrival at last of a rescue ship from England.

With “Act 4: The Other Island,” the characters have returned to their original geographical and social locations, and their lives have contracted to their previous narrow limits. Only Lady Mary, who is once again the fiancée of a worthless aristocrat, shows regret over the loss of the bodily freedom and opportunities for (masculine) adventure that she enjoyed, as well as shame for her cowardly renunciation of Crichton, whom she calls “the best man among us” (71).  In the 1918 published edition of the play, Crichton’s future remains uncertain. But it became, in fact, the subject of what R. D. S. Jack has identified as “eighteen different conclusions” devised by Barrie over the course of several decades of stage productions, in some of which Crichton leaves service to open a pub and marry “Tweeny,” the Cockney maid, and in at least one of which “the Gov” and “Polly” remain happily together on the desert island (Jack 125). As Karen McGavrock has said, “Barrie actively rejects fixity, resolution, and certainty in his writing,” for he “found resolution difficult” (McGavrock 199). This was never more true than in the case of The Admirable Crichton, where the emotional stakes were so high both for Barrie and for his audiences, as the play had conjured a vision—one very painful to relinquish—of a fantasy island retreat, immune from British social prohibitions, on which alternative “natural” identities and impossible loves might be realized and enjoyed.

Of course, this subtext of the play’s appeal was unmentioned (and perhaps unmentionable) in 1902 by its original reviewers, who preferred to showcase Crichton as a Shavian problem comedy. For Max Beerbohm, in his role as drama critic for the Saturday Review, the chief political issue that it highlighted was “a problem of modern life—the problem of domestic service” (Beerbohm 232); Barrie’s work, therefore, was supposedly a warning to the upper classes, who were about to lose their supremacy, thanks to “the results of compulsory education”(233) and the rise of a generation of working-class children benefiting from the Education Act of 1880. As Beerbohm wrote, “Our slaves are still servile enough, superficially, but we know that many of them are in all respects our superiors. . . . We have given to them . . . the power to meet us and beat us on our own ground; and who knows how soon they will have the courage to exercise that power? Crichton, the butler, is the type—the fantastically faked type—of these potential monsters blindly created by us” (Beerbohm 233).

With its open invocation of the worldview of W. E. Henley and the National Observer through its nostalgic references to Henley’s poetry of the 1890s—the only book on the desert island belongs to Crichton, and it is a volume of Henley’s poems, from which he quotes—Barrie’s play outwardly supported this conservative political interpretation. At the same time, it also allowed for a different perspective by radically questioning the foundations of the class system itself. As H. M. Walbrook put it, in his 1922 study, J. M. Barrie and the Theatre, “No thinking man or woman could sit through such a play . . . without being momentarily stirred to the depths. Is so highly civilised and organised a society as that of England really a mere fantastic illusion . . . liable to collapse utterly the moment the test of Reality and a touch of Nature are applied to it?” (Walbrook 72). More recently, Lisa Chaney has affirmed this second way of viewing the play, saying that “in The Admirable Crichton it was apparently clear to everyone . . . [that Barrie] . . . had written a biting and sometimes hilarious political satire which held up a mirror to the present social order, headed by a parasitical aristocracy” (189) and invited the audience to reject that class-based hierarchy.

Crichton’s potential to articulate conservative, as well as radical, ideologies made it a useful vehicle decades later, when the worlds of the two islands were filmed in 1957 by the director Lewis Gilbert, who collaborated with Vernon Harris on the adaptation. Lewis Gilbert, who was born in 1920, was a near contemporary of Kingsley Amis (b. 1922) and John Osborne (b. 1929), and his version of Crichton followed in the wake of the latter’s theatrical sensation of 1956, Look Back in Anger. Gilbert’s film, however, offered an antidote to the Angry Young Men’s vision of 1950s Britain as a stagnant, depleted, and disillusioned nation, presiding over a collapsed Empire and offering no constructive outlet for men with aspirations. Here, Crichton the butler leaves service, at the conclusion, as a British capitalist hero and entrepreneur on his way to success—as someone who is in possession of a large stash of pearls, which he gathered on the island of his own little empire, and who is ready to finance his rise as a gentleman. In an earlier cinematic version titled Male and Female—Cecil B. DeMille’s very loose Hollywood adaptation of Crichton in 1919—the ex-butler had to abandon England and find his new opportunities through immigration to the American West, where he wound up as a most unlikely cowboy, sharing love on a ranch with Tweeny, the maid. But the 1957 British film demanded no such exile of the energetic protagonist. The spectator’s final view of Lewis Gilbert’s Crichton, on the contrary, is of the ex-butler as an expensively dressed, self-confident Edwardian, handing into a carriage the now equally elegant Tweeny, whom he will elevate through marriage. (Gilbert’s interest in depicting socially ambitious, working-class characters would continue in several of his later directorial projects, including the 1966 Alfie and 1983 Educating Rita.)

This 1957 version of Crichton employs the expected English heritage-film conventions (e.g., shots of exteriors of great houses, sumptuous interiors, and exaggeratedly elaborate costumes, especially for women) that dominated postwar British cinema, from the screen adaptations of Wilde’s An Ideal Husband (1947) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1952) to original neo-Victorian romps such as Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). It enlists these displays of past grandeur in the service of a tribute to undiminished English pluckiness and resilience in the present. For Lewis Gilbert, Britannia still rules the waves. (Indeed, on the island, Crichton’s residence bears a signboard that reads “Government House,” denoting its status as an outpost of efficient colonial administrative power.)

But the film also endorses a conservative agenda in terms of gender, very different from the rebellious gender ambiguity and fluidity of Barrie’s original 1902 play. Most tellingly, this adaptation invents a subplot in which one of Lady Mary’s two sisters begins as a suffrage sympathizer—arrested, at the start of the film, for assaulting a police officer who is disrupting her protest rally. Her island experience, however, teaches her the naturalness of gender subordination, including the delights of submitting to and waiting on the Übermensch and of competing with other women for his favor. At the film’s end, before he departs in his carriage, Crichton asks this sister sternly, “Kathy, no more suffragettes?” The chastened girl replies, “No, Gov,” reverting to the island name that signaled his mastery and her acceptance of it.

For Barrie’s cinematic adapters, the fixed binaries of traditional gender identities and roles have never been subject to debate, as the essentialist title of DeMille’s 1919 film, Male and Female, suggests. But for Barrie himself, these matters were always in flux. In a 2009 essay, “‘Gay, Innocent, and Heartless’: Peter Pan and the Queering of Popular Culture,” David P. D. Munns describes how popular representations of Peter Pan have “pushed the perceived age of the character upward,” so that the 1904 play “now serves as a vehicle to discuss ideas of developing sexuality and even developing alternative sexualities” (Munns 240). In the case of The Admirable Crichton, the opposite has been true:  It was Barrie who presented gender and sexuality as (dare I say it?) open-ended, and the later adapters and popularisers of Crichton who closed off this possibility.

Nearly a century before Judith Butler proposed the concept of gender as performative, The Admirable Crichton showed gender roles as literally bound up with clothing. R. D. S. Jack may consider food to be the play’s “most powerful leitmotiv” (Jack 116), but clothing is no less important. All the cinematic adaptations of Crichton (including the 1934 Hollywood musical, We’re Not Dressing) depict Lady Mary in skirts, either long or short, or in dresses, or even in dressing gowns, whether at home or on the desert island. On Barrie’s island in Act 3, however, there is only one skirt among the four shipwrecked women. It is owned by Tweeny, and it is the locus of her social advantage over the Loam sisters, for, as Lady Mary says when fighting her for possession, “You know quite well that he,” meaning Crichton, “prefers to be waited on in a skirt.” The skirt denotes and enforces submissive femininity. But Lady Mary loses the battle with Tweeny and remains, throughout Act 3, in the trousers made of “skins” that constitute her “natural” island costume, the one that allows her to climb trees, hunt stags, and leap through windows—the same unfeminine actions that win Crichton’s heart. In Edwardian stage terms, the part of Lady Mary is a trouser role. Audiences in 1902 would have been treated, therefore, to the spectacularly transgressive sight of a love scene (complete with a physical embrace) and a proposal of marriage between two figures, both of whom are wearing trousers, with one dressed as a man and the other as a boy.

No one who studies Peter Pan would deny the echoes there of Barrie’s summer spent playing shipwreck every day with George, Jack, and Peter Llewelyn Davies in 1901—an idyll that Barrie memorialized in the photo-volume The Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island, printed in an edition of two, with one copy for himself and one for the boys’ parents. But the influence of that other “island,” and of the impossible love it made possible, is just as strong in The Admirable Crichton, which also bears the impress of Barrie’s private world of associations. Allusions to that world appear even at the level of language. In the stage directions, for instance, for the 1918 edition of the play, Lord Loam’s yacht is named Bluebell. Clearly, this is a nostalgic tribute to the memory of another treasured moment from 1901, when, as Andrew Birkin notes, Barrie and the Llewelyn Davies boys exulted together in Seymour Hicks’s Christmas panto, Bluebell in Fairyland, subtitled “A Musical Dream-Play” (Birkin 92).

Dream-playing among the Boy Castaways infused Barrie’s writing of The Admirable Crichton with creative energy. Some of that energy was political, pushing the otherwise conservative Scotsman to explore a topsy-turvy, panto-inflected vision of England—a child’s fantasy of complete social reversal—in which the great and powerful would be brought low, and the small and powerless set above them. Part of the energy, however, was psycho-sexual, channeled into musings about romantic and erotic relationships, however forbidden or deplored as “unnatural” on the British Isles, that might be welcomed as “natural” someplace else. Where? To quote Crichton himself, “On an island” (36). J. M. Barrie’s ability to tap into his audience’s unconscious and unspeakable desire to find itself on just such an island, at least for the length of an evening, made his play popular in 1902 and keeps it—to borrow a word from Donna White and C. Anita Tarr—“vital” today.


Works Cited:
Barrie, J. M. Peter Pan and Other Plays. Ed. Peter Hollindale. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Print.

Beerbohm, Max. “A Welcome Play.” Around Theatres. London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1953. 231–34. Print.

Chaney, Lisa. Hide-and-Seek with Angels: A Life of J. M. Barrie. London: Hutchinson, 2005. Print.

Jack, R. D. S. The Road to Never Land: A Reassessment of J. M. Barrie’s Dramatic Art. Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1991. Print.

McGavrock, Karen. “The Riddle of His Being: An Exploration of Peter Pan’s Perpetually Altering State.” J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan In and Out of Time: A Children’s Classic at 100. Eds. Donna R. White and C. Anita Tarr Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006. 195–205. Print.

Munns, David P. D. “‘Gay, Innocent, and Heartless’: Peter Pan and the Queering of Popular Culture,” Second Star to the Right: Peter Pan in the Popular Imagination. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009. 219–42. Print.

Walbrook, H. M. J. M. Barrie and the Theatre. London: F. V. White, 1922. Print.

Wasinger, Carrie. “Getting Peter’s Goat: Hybridity, Androgyny, and Terror in Peter Pan.” J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan In and Out of Time: A Children’s Classic at 100. Eds. Donna R. White and C. Anita Tarr Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006. 207–36. Print.

White, Donna R. and C. Anita Tarr, “Introduction.” J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan In and Out of Time: A Children’s Classic at 100. Eds. Donna R. White and C. Anita Tarr Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006. vii–xvii. Print.