The Admirable Crichton
(1902), a play by J. M. Barrie, is a satirical comedy dealing with class and social structure, about a butler who rises to become the leader of his aristocratic employers after they are all stranded on a deserted island. Barrie, best known for Peter Pan
, was a Scottish novelist and playwright. He was made a baronet and a member of the Order of Merit for his contributions to literature. Barrie died of pneumonia in 1937.
Act I begins at Loam Hall, where Lord Loam, his family, and his butler, Crichton, live. Lord Loam is progressive, believing that class division is artificial and harmful. Although he enjoys all the privileges of the aristocracy, he believes all members of society are equal, and hosts his servants once a month for tea, crossing class lines to treat them as his peers. Crichton, on the other hand, believes staunchly in class differences. He sees social strata as the natural outcome of civilization. The monthly teas are awkward for everyone involved, except Lord Loam.
Lord Loam decides to take the family on a yachting cruise, telling his daughters they can only take one maid along for the three of them. Lady Mary, his eldest daughter, assumes her maid, Fisher, will come along, but Fisher, not wishing to depart on a several-month cruise, resigns. Loam’s valet also resigns, leaving the family with neither of their planned servants to accompany them. Crichton agrees to come along to serve as Loam’s valet for the duration of the cruise and convinces another maid, Tweeny, to join as well.
In Act II, the yacht has been destroyed in a storm somewhere in the Pacific, and the party is stranded on a deserted island.
The pompous Loam tries to assume leadership of the group; after all, he has the highest rank. But his practical skills are few. Crichton, on the other hand, is resourceful and practical. His survival skills mean that he soon assumes command of the party.
At first, the other aristocrats resent Crichton. Since he does not believe in social equality, he is happy to wield his newfound authority. The Hon. Ernest Woolley, Loam’s nephew, clashes with the butler over his obsession with crafting witty epigrams. When Crichton becomes the leader, he dips Ernest’s head into a bucket of water for every epigram he makes in an effort to cure him of what Crichton considers a bad habit. Loam tries to assume leadership of a new group, but they soon realize they can’t get by without Crichton’s common sense. They return and signal their acceptance of his leadership by eating the food he has gathered and cooked.
Act III occurs several years later. Still stranded, the group has established its own small civilization on the island. The other castaways now refer to Loam as “Daddy” instead of his name or title, and he busies himself with simple odd jobs around the camp. Crichton has the nickname “Guv,” and has made a number of improvements to island living, implementing a system of agriculture and building houses for them to live in.
Ernest has emerged as a more practical man and a diligent worker. Mary has proven her abilities as a hunter, adept at killing prey for food. Her younger sisters, Agatha and Catherine, have learned independence. They no longer rely on their maids to cater to their every whim. The maid, Tweeny, proves a competent worker on the island as well.
Their social statuses have been inverted: the others now wait upon Crichton as if he were the lord and them his servants. Lady Mary is in love with Crichton, recognizing his abilities make him superior to anyone else in the group, no matter the setting. Although she is engaged to Lord Brocklehurst back in England, the Islanders have no hope of rescue, and she agrees to marry Crichton.
Just as Mary and Crichton are about to be married, they hear the sound of a ship’s gun. For a moment, Crichton is tempted to do nothing, avoiding rescue. But he gives in and launches a signal so the ship can find them, resuming his status as a butler as soon as the rescuers find them.
Act IV, called “The Other Island,” sees the party back in England, where everyone has reverted to their previous lives and statuses. Ernest has written a book about his experiences on the island, but presents himself and Loam as the leaders and barely mentions Crichton. Crichton is still the butler for the family, but they are made uneasy by his presence because they all remember the truth. Mary is about to marry Lord Brocklehurst as planned. His mother, Lady Brocklehurst, asks Mary many questions about her life on the island, suspicious that she might have been unfaithful to Lord Brocklehurst while she was away. The Loams avoid telling her the truth, but when Lady Brocklehurst suggests Crichton might become Mary’s butler after she is married, she reacts with horror and deems the suggestion impossible.
Crichton saves Mary from embarrassment, saying it is “impossible” because he is resigning. He and Mary exchange goodbyes; she suggests that perhaps something is wrong with English society. Crichton disagrees, saying that he will not hear criticism against England. She asks him if he has lost his courage; he says he has not.
The play deals with class issues in a way that would have been shocking to Barrie’s audience. Barrie claimed to have considered an ending in which Mary and Crichton do get married back in England, but decided, “The stalls wouldn’t stand it.” The Admirable Crichton
has been adapted for film, TV, and radio multiple times, including a popular 1957 British adaptation starring Kenneth More and Diane Cilento.