The recent post about Hugh Thomson’s illustrations to J M Barrie’s play Quality Street attracted quite a bit of attention in an otherwise quiet month so I was happy to take up an offer to do the same with Barrie’s other play of 1901/02, The Admirable Crichton. This was one I had heard of, thanks to the 1957 film version starring Kenneth More, seen many years ago on one of those Sunday afternoons of childhood when you’d watch anything that was on. The final scene has remained in my memory, but no spoilers yet.
1901 had been a good year for Barrie. Quality Street opened in New York and he finished Crichton while he was attending rehearsals for Quality Street. Within a short space of time he had two plays on the London stage. He and his wife were in the process of moving out of their Gloucester Road house to another house in Leinster Gardens, Bayswater which was close to Kensington Gardens, a favourite haunt of both of them.
Crichton is an odd sort of story. It was described as “a fantasy in four acts” but it is also a satire or maybr even some kind of parable about the rigidly stratified structure of Edwardian society. It begins with a portrait of an aristocratic household with the mildly eccentric Lord Loam, his three daughters and Crichton the butler a man who knows his place and wishes everyone else would stay in theirs.
Here Lord Loam addresses his family, some friends and his staff at one of his regular teas at which the family serve the staff. Everyone is uncomfortable with this arrangement but him.
Lady Mary’s fiance Lord Brocklehurst has an uncomfortable conversation with Tweeny the “in between” maid.
Lord Loam has also annoinced that on the forthcoming sea voyage his three daughters will have to share one lady’s maid between them. The whole thing leaves the Ladies Mary, Catherine and Agatha shocked and dismayed.
And then really quite tired.
This portrait of the indolent trio in a state of profound relaxation is one of Thomson’s best. It’s curious to see him portraying contemporary dress.
The next time the three are pictured together is after the party is shipwrecked on an island. They still look pretty relaxed.
Of course the hapless aristos are not really equipped for life in the wild.
Lord Loam cannot get the monkeys to understand him. Just as the story has now moved into the realm of fantasy Thomson’s illustrations shift into another mode to show a partly realistic, partly magical setting.
Crichton and Tweeny of course turn their hands to the business of staying alive on the island.
Their practical skills and the ability to cook food changes the group dynamic and puts Crichton in a leading role.
After a couple of years on the island Crichton is in charge and goes by the title the Guv.
Tweeny now runs the household.
While the three sisters have become able hunters.
This is all very reminiscent of Never Never Land.
Lady Mary now callede Polly hunts down a goat.
Crichton asks her to marry him to general consternation.
At almost the exact moment they hear the sound of a ship. Lady Mary wants Crichton to ignore it so they can all stay in the wild world. But Critchton does his duty as he sees it and sets off a signal to the rescuers. They return to their old social positions back in London for the final act.
They all deny the truth despite an interrogation from Lord Brocklehurst’s mother. Barrie playe around with the ending. At one tiem it was suggested that Crichton and Tweeny went off together to run a pub in the Harrow Road. In the first version I looked at, the limited edition, he simply announces his intention to depart and turns out the light.
The first actress to play the role of Lady Mary was Irene Vanbrugh who has featured on the blog before in this post about Trelawny of the Wells.
She looks a little like Peter Pan in this photograph and even more so in this picture, which was much reproduced at the time:
The first Peter Pan was actually Nina Boucicault the daughter of the impressarion Dion Boucicault (we’ve met him before at his house in the Old Brompton Road).
From a modern standpoint the play looks like a quaint comedy of manners, but writing in 1922 H M Walbrook called it “one of the most penetrating dramatic social pamphlets of the day.” For me it’s an interesting foray into a fantasy world which never seemed too far away with Barrie. And I wonder what influence Thomson’s illustrations had on later works.
Thanks once again to Peter Collins of Westminster Central Reference Library for suggesting the Admirable Crichton and loaning it to me. And thanks to Kim for transporting it.