The Admirable Crichton at the Shaw Festival

We found J. M. Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton, now playing at the Shaw Festival (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario), so clever and delightful in every detail that we’ll see it again if we can. We haven’t enjoyed ourselves so much at the theater in a long time.

Nicole Underhay as Lady Mary Lasenby, David Schurmann as Lord Loam, and Steven Sutcliffe as Crichton

Crichton (pronounced “CRY-ton”) is a 30-year-old butler in the high-toned Mayfair household of the Earl of Loam (David Schurmann), described by the playwright in the printed version of the play as “a widower, a philanthropist, and a peer of advanced ideas.” One of Lord Loam’s ideas is that class differences are artificial, and he has decreed that, once a month, all the servants in his house must take tea in the drawing-room with him and his family as guests and equals. These social events are dreaded not only by Lord Loam’s three daughters, but also by the servants. Crichton, who as butler is head of the servants’ hall, finds them excruciating:

ERNEST: Do you know, Crichton, I think that with an effort you might look even happier. (Crichton smiles wanly.) You don’t approve of his lordship’s compelling his servants to be his equals — once a month?

CRICHTON: It is not for me, sir, to disapprove of his lordship’s Radical views.

ERNEST: Certainly not. And, after all, it is only once a month that he is affable to you.

CRICHTON: On all other days of the month, sir, his lordship’s treatment of us is everything that could be desired.

Lord Loam’s daughters know how profoundly uncomfortable Crichton is with this charade of equality:

LADY MARY (sarcastically): How Crichton enjoys it!

LORD LOAM (frowning): He is the only one who doesn’t; pitiful creature.

CRICHTON: I can’t help being a Conservative, my lord.

LORD LOAM: Be a man, Crichton. You are the same flesh and blood as myself.

CRICHTON (in pain): Oh, my lord!

Under pressure, Crichton reluctantly explains his distaste for “equality” to Lady Mary:

CRICHTON: My lady, I am the son of a butler and a lady’s-maid — perhaps the happiest of all combinations; and to me the most beautiful thing in the world is a haughty, aristocratic English house, with every one kept in his place. Though I were equal to your ladyship, where would be the pleasure to me? It would be counterbalanced by the pain of feeling that Thomas and John were equal to me.

Steven Sutcliffe as Crichton and Nicole Underhay as Lady Mary Lasenby

A few days after the “servants’ tea,” Lord Loam and his family leave on a private yacht for an extended voyage to the South Seas. Crichton suggests a kitchen maid, Tweeny, as ladies’ maid on the yacht for Lady Mary and her sisters, and Crichton himself is persuaded to go along as Lord Loam’s valet.

Two months later, the entire party is shipwrecked on a deserted island in the South Pacific, where it becomes immediately clear that Crichton is the only one of the Londoners with survival skills. Indeed, Crichton finds himself in his element, able, intelligent, and masterful. He disabuses his erstwhile superiors of the notion that they can continue to be idle on the island, and as “nature” takes its course, their roles are reversed: Crichton becomes a benevolent, respected master of a smoothly run island establishment, and the others, who call him “the Gov.” (which is how the servants back in London referred among themselves to Lord Loam), become his servants.

Ready to fend off a wild beast on the island

Nature also takes course in the form of a blossoming romance between Crichton and Lord Loam’s eldest daughter, Lady Mary (who in the new “natural” order of things has been rechristened “Polly”, just as household servants in London households were given arbitrary new names by their superiors). After two years on the island, none of the party expects to be see London again. The sight of a ship forces the issue of what must happen to their relationships if they were to be rescued and restored to Mayfair.

In this show, every touch from director Morris Panych is golden; every minute a dozen small things tickle your fancy. It all works: the narration, the costuming, the songs, the singing animals (Panych’s idea, not Barrie’s), the little bits of pantomime business, the vanity of Ernest, who annoys everyone with his epigrams. The narration is taken directly from J. M. Barrie’s stage directions (reading his plays in print is a treat). The animals sing clever arrangements of swing tunes from the 1920s in close harmony. The “servants’ tea” scene in the opening act is comic genius. Panych’s material is superb, as Barrie’s characters are fully drawn and brilliantly colored, and Panych has given this show all the sauciness and scope of a well-directed musical.

David Schurmann as The Earl of Loam and Marla McLean as Tweeny

What’s priceless, though, is the way this superb cast delivers Barrie’s lines. No better Crichton could have been found anywhere than Steven Sutcliffe. He is as commanding on the stage as a Mayfair butler as he is as the buff, masterful “Gov.” on the island. The diminutive Marla McLean is an arresting and remarkably convincing Tweeny. David Schurmann, a world-class Shavian actor, plays the naïve and ineffectual Lord Loam. We were especially glad to see the ravishing Nicole Underhay back at the Shaw Festival.  Her transformation from a bored, jaded Londoner to an exuberant, accomplished island-dweller is something to see.

Crichton is a marvelous character, and he’d probably be better-known today if The Admirable Crichton hadn’t been overshadowed by the the popularity of Peter Pan, and if P. G. Wodehouse had not created Jeeves, who since the 1920s has been by far the best-known fictional member of the English serving classes. Jeeves was not strictly speaking a butler; he was a gentleman’s gentleman, serving Bertie Wooster as valet, personal secretary, butler, and jack of all trades. Still, Jeeves and Crichton have a lot in common as polished, intelligent, well-read masters of their own domains.

We think Wodehouse, a man of the theater who happened to be one of J. M. Barrie’s cricket pals, surely had Crichton as one of his models when he brought Jeeves into being. Early in The Admirable Crichton, for instance, we learn that Crichton has an ulterior motive for promoting Tweeny as a maid for Lady Mary and her sisters on the yacht:  the promotion will elevate Tweeny’s social status and make her a more eligible mate for himself.

CRICHTON (after hesitating): There is in this establishment, your ladyship, a young woman —

LADY MARY: Yes?

CRICHTON: A young woman, on whom I have for some time cast an eye.

CATHERINE (eagerly). Do you mean as a possible lady’s maid?

CRICHTON: I had thought of her, my lady, in another connection.

LADY MARY: Ah!

We thought immediately of Jeeves. In story after story, as Wodehouse devotees know, Jeeves manipulates his employer to his will, whether to inveigle Bertie Wooster into taking a vacation in the country (so Jeeves can go fishing), to further a romantic scheme of Jeeves’s, or to tighten his control over Bertie’s selection of ties and dinner jackets. Like Jeeves, Crichton manages to further both his employer’s needs and his own personal wishes at the same time.

And who can doubt that the title of Wodehouse’s first great collection of Jeeves stories, The Inimitable Jeeves, echoes the title of The Admirable Crichton?

The two essays in the Shaw Festival’s program for The Admirable Crichton, by Mr. Panych and Michael Billington, claim to find egalitarian socio-political overtones in the play; Mr. Billington says it has “subversive implications.”  We don’t see it at all.  J. M. Barrie was a romantic, not a socialist, and we’ve never detected any political agenda in his novels and plays. Indeed, if anything political can be extracted from The Admirable Crichton, it would be the fundamentally conservative notion that class distinctions aren’t the bastard offspring of leftist bogeymen like imperialism, feudalism, and capitalism, but arise naturally in every society.

But Barrie did have, along with the similarly apolitical P. G. Wodehouse, a genuine sympathy for and interest in servants as human beings. The Admirable Crichton includes an exquisite portrait of the social distinctions between different kinds of servants in large English establishments. Consider what we learn when Tweeny is interrogated by Lady Mary as a possible lady’s maid for the voyage:

LADY MARY: And you and Crichton are — ah — keeping company?

(CRICHTON draws himself up.)

TWEENY (aghast): A butler don’t keep company, my lady.

LADY MARY (indifferently): Does he not?

CRICHTON: No, your ladyship, we butlers may — (he makes a gesture with his arms) — but we do not keep company.

AGATHA: I know what it is; you are engaged?

(TWEENY looks longingly at CRICHTON.)

CRICHTON: Certainly not, my lady. The utmost I can say at present is that I have cast a favourable eye.

Another great English dramatist, by contrast, had no interest in servants as people. Many of Emsworth’s readers will recall the exchange between Algernon and his butler Lane in the opening scene of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest:

ALGERNON: Why is it that at a bachelor’s establishment the servants invariably drink the champagne? I ask merely for information.

LANE: I attribute it to the superior quality of the wine, sir. I have often observed that in married households the champagne is rarely of a first-rate brand.

ALGERNON: Good heavens! Is marriage so demoralising as that?

LANE: I believe it is a very pleasant state, sir. I have had very little experience of it myself up to the present. I have only been married once. That was in consequence of a misunderstanding between myself and a young person.

ALGERNON (languidly): I don’t know that I am much interested in your family life, Lane.

LANE: No, sir; it is not a very interesting subject. I never think of it myself.

But Wodehouse and Barrie do find servants interesting. In “Jeeves in the Springtime,” Jeeves speaks to his employer about his own personal life with the same delicacy and reserve as Crichton. Asked how he knows that Bingo Little’s uncle lives in Pounceby Gardens, Jeeves tells Bertie Wooster, who is narrating the story,

“I am on terms of some intimacy with the elder Mr. Little’s cook, sir. In fact, there is an understanding.”

[Bertie narrates:] I’m bound to say that this gave me a bit of a start. Somehow I’d never thought of Jeeves going in for that sort of thing.

“Do you mean you’re engaged?”

“It may be said to amount to that, sir.”

“Well, well!”

The stories of P. G. Wodehouse owe much of their interest to the cooks, butlers, valets, gardeners, secretaries, and pig-keepers who populate the country estates of Lord Emsworth and Bertie Wooster’s relatives.

J. M. Barrie, one of Emsworth’s favorite writers, was a elegant English prose stylist who can fairly be mentioned in the same breath as Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh. The Admirable Crichton first appeared in 1902, two years before Peter Pan. The play is less fantastical than Barrie’s Peter Pan, and also much lighter — we’re remembering the dark, wonderful Peter Pan at the Shaw Festival in 2001.

To those who appreciate this production of The Admirable Crichton, we recommend not only the reading editions of J. M. Barrie’s plays, but also Barrie’s novels, like A Window in Thrums and The Little White Bird. We hope fervently that the Shaw Festival will be doing more Barrie plays over the next few seasons.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Shaw Festival

Tennessee Williams

(May 11, 2011)  Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is on the short list of plays that we’ll happily see anytime, anywhere. Such glorious poetry — and what else is it but poetry, for who really talks like the characters in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof?  It’s magical how Tennessee Williams brought his characters alive by giving them lines no one would utter in ordinary speech and making them have conversations no ordinary people would have.  The characters in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof are as painfully real as can be.

In the Shaw Festival’s 2011 production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which we saw in a mesmerizing preview performance last weekend, the poetry flows like honey from the lips of Moya O’Connell (a treat for the eyes as Maggie the Cat), Gray Powell (Brick), and Jim Mezon (Big Daddy).  Their characters could hardly be more vivid.

Anyone who has seen the bowdlerized movie version (Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor) will find this a much darker (and more explicit) show.  The long first act shows us only Brick and his sexually frustrated wife (the scenes of the play all take place in their bedroom in Big Daddy’s Mississippi delta mansion house), but through Maggie’s chatter we meet the rest of the Pollitt family as well.  Maggie and Brick also introduce us to a major character who never appears in the play, Brick’s late friend Skipper, and to the play’s great mystery: what Brick and Skipper really felt for one another, why Skipper took his own life, and why Brick no longer has any interest in anything but drinking bourbon until he feels the “click”.

The play’s first act leaves us persuaded that there is nothing left between Maggie and Brick. But the second act teases us with the notion that there is still some palpable affection between Brick and his father, Big Daddy (Jim Mezon).  (The mere appearance of Mezon, once again a superb stage presence, noticeably ratchets up the play’s energy level.)  Father and son find common ground with their mutual detestation of “mendacity,” but Big Daddy’s ego leaves him unable to penetrate Brick’s alcoholic retreat.

Again and again, love is offered and spurned.  Maggie adores and desires a husband who tells her that he can’t stand her.  Big Daddy loves a son who’s weary of listening to his father “gas” about himself.  We are shocked at Maggie’s abasement when Brick rejects her; even more appalling are the scenes of deliberate cruelty in which Big Daddy insults his “fat” wife (who loves him) and humiliates her in front of the family and friends gathered for his birthday party.

Brick, Big Daddy, and Big Mama

As Big Daddy’s feckless, foolish wife, Corrine Koslo manages, against strong odds, to to arouse our sympathy for a thoroughly unlikeable character.  As Brick, Gray Powell gives the best performance we’ve seen from him at the Shaw Festival; it must be a challenge to play a character whose range of emotional response is constrained by his chronically high alcohol level.  We particularly appreciated Patrick McManus in the difficult role of Brick’s older brother Gooper, scheming with his fecund wife Mae (Nicole Underhay, also pitch-perfect) to get what he sees as justice from a father who has always preferred his younger brother.

We know we’re in danger of deep waters here, but we couldn’t help thinking how the playwright’s sexuality kept bursting forth at various points throughout the play — and we don’t mean simply the storyline about the attraction between Brick and Skipper.  Was Tennessee Williams repulsed by women’s bodies?  In the first act, Brick tells Maggie he is “disgusted” only seconds after she refers to her breasts and her figure.  Did the playwright feel threatened by sexually aggressive women?  Brick stubbornly resists Maggie’s sexual advances, and Big Daddy has stopped having sex with Big Mama (who likewise “disgusts” him).  And the playwright is clearly revolted by the sexual appetite and fecundity of Gooper’s wife Mae.

The Shaw Festival’s production might disappoint those who expect the lines to be rendered in the accents of the deep South.  But we probably wouldn’t understand a word if they did.  In this production, fortunately, the actors are all intelligible; they slip in and out of their accents just enough to remind us where the play is set.  And they nailed the main thing: the poetry.