People enjoy Downton Abbey
partly because it's a romanticized view of the past--an elegant lifestyle where everyone had a place. Of course, if you were downstairs, your place was drudgery and poverty, but never mind. Still, even as the audience is fascinated by the class system, no one beleives in it any more. Which is why so many of the plots are built around people attacking these distinctions, and those who try to uphold such traditions generally look foolish.
What fascinates me is how people could believe in something that seems so artificial--even ridiculous--today, building their society around it. And how did attitudes change? The play Pygmalion
, which deals with the class system, was first performed in 1912--the same year the story of Downton Abbey
starts--and was set in the present. The successful 1938 film adaptation was also set in its present. You barely notice, but when Higgins is out on the street dodging cars of the day, it takes you out of it a bit. But My Fair Lady
, the musical version, first performed in 1956 and made into a movie in 1964, moves the action back to the original's date. I'm guessing the creators decided all this class stuff, while not entirely dead, just doesn't play in the 1950s. Back in the 1910s, the West had conquered the world and was full of itself. But two world wars, a Depression, the threats of communism and fascism, and growing opposition to imperialism, made the West question itself. (We're still in this phase.)
Which brings me to The Admirable Crichton
, J. M. Barrie's play from 1902, which I read recently, It was a big hit in its day and has a story that's been adapted into film several times.
The plot, as you may know, is about a British Lord, his family, and his servants, especially Crichton, the butler. They're shipwrecked on an island and nature takes over. The classes do separate, but not as expected--Crichton is soon running things and all others serve him. Then they're rescued and things return to the way they were.
The play isn't revived too often--certainly not as much as Pygmalion
Much of this is because Barrie, though talented, is no Shaw. But also, it's a plot that's hard to believe these days. It was always a fantasy, but to make it work, you have to believe enough in the class system for it to make a difference when its upended.
In the final act, the upper classes pretend they were the heroes on the island, and Crichton, who could spill the beans, decides instead to leave service. On the island, he and the Lord's eldest daughter Mary (Lady Mary--where have we heard that before?) were to be married, and she was delighted. But back in England--"The Other Island," as Barrie calls it--she will marry Lord Brocklehurst, not half the man Crichton is, but a suitable partner socially. While the play has a bittersweet ending, I'm not sure if it works any more. If it had to end this way, in a modern writing it'd probably be played as something more tragic. But more likely we'd have seen the lovers get together despite society's opposition. Allegedly, Barrie considered this ending, but he realized his audience--especially the ones in the expensive boxes--wouldn't stand for it.