I'm haphazardly choosing plays to read, and picked up a volume of J. M. Barrie's (1860-1937) greatest hits. The Admirable Crichton was first up.
The title character of this comedy of manners is a thirty-year-old butler who firmly believes in class divisions as an expression of nature's organizing drive. In the first act, Lord Loam is holding the monthly tea at which he forces his indolent daughters and quipster nephew to play host to the household servants. He hears Crichton grumbling to Lady Mary (yes, another eldest daughter) about the indignity of having to temporarily act as equals with everyone in the room (a butler getting chummy with a peer is as scandalous as a page boy getting chummy with a butler), and tries to reason with him.
LORD LOAM: Can't you see, Crichton, that our divisions into classes are artificial, that if we were to return to Nature, which is the aspiration of my life, all would be equal?
CRICHTON: If I may make so bold as to contradict your lordship---
LORD LOAM: (with an effort) Go on.
CRICHTON: The divisions into classes, my lord, are not artificial. They are the natural outcome of a civilised society. (To Lady Mary) There must always be a master and servants in all civilised communities, my lady, for it is natural, and whatever is natural is right.
LORD LOAM: (wincing) It is very unnatural for me to stand here and allow you to talk such nonsense.
CRICHTON: (eagerly) Yes, my lord, it is. That is what I have been striving to point out to your lordship.
As Crichton realizes and seizes on, Lord Loam can't even fully commit to his own ideals about equality. But the fact that Lord Loam has them convinces Crichton that, demotion though it means, he must accompany Lord Loam on an upcoming yacht trip as his valet; these "dangerous views" must not be left unchecked. Lord Loam's daughters ask Crichton to elaborate on his motivations.
AGATHA: I had no idea you would feel it so deeply; why did you do it?
(Crichton is too respectful to reply)
LADY MARY: (regarding him) Crichton, I am curious. I insist upon an answer.
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.
CATHERINE: But father says if we were to return to Nature---
CRICHTON: If we did, my lady, the first thing we should do would be to elect a head. Circumstances might alter cases; the same person might not be master; the same persons might not be servants. I can't say as to that, nor should we have the deciding of it. Nature would decide for us.
Conveniently, the yachting party is shipwrecked on a deserted island in the unseen interim between Act 1 and Act 2. Inured to manual labor and predisposed to expedient thought as he is, Crichton becomes the obvious head of the group by the end of Act 2---not because he is opportunistic, but because the environment required it. In Act 3, two years have passed. Crichton has built a splendid house powered by a mill, and those who were once his superiors are working happily under him. Lady Mary has become an avid outdoors-woman who goes by the informal "Polly" and thrills to Crichton's proposal of marriage (which slips into conversation as she waits on him at table). But the celebration is interrupted by the sighting of a ship. Everyone realizes that returning to England would reverse the island social standings, but Crichton, ever admirable, still activates the ingenious flare system he rigged, and rescuers arrive. In Act 4, Lady Mary reconciles with her aristocratic betrothed, and she faces a crisis wherein her future mother-in-law nearly finds out about how Lord Loam and his daughters debased themselves in servitude to Crichton. For his part, Crichton only admits to the mother that there was indeed a master on the island, and allows her to assume that that master was Lord Loam. Crisis averted.
(Crichton announces dinner, and they file out. Lady Mary stays behind a moment and impulsively holds our her hand)
LADY MARY: To wish you every happiness.
CRICHTON: (an enigma to the last) The same to you, my lady.
LADY MARY: Do you despise me, Crichton? (The man who could never tell a lie makes no answer) I am ashamed of myself, but I am the sort of woman on whom shame sits lightly. (He does not contradict her) You are the best man among us.
CRICHTON: On an island, my lady, perhaps; but in England, no.
LADY MARY: (not inexcusably) Then there is something wrong with England.
This would be so poignant (if a bit didactic) an ending! But don't forget that it's a comedy of manners. So Crichton replies, "My lady, not even from you can I listen to a word against England."
Some stray thoughts:
I am charmed by how Barrie named the setting of the final act:
Act 1: At Loam House, Mayfair
Act 2: The Island
Act 3: The Happy Home
Act 4: The Other Island
The very end of Act 2 requires an excellent sound designer. Lord Loam, his daughters, and his nephew have briefly decided to go it without Crichton and his perceived impertinence. Crichton sends the family's minister friend Treherne and between-maid Tweeny after them.
CRICHTON: (thoughtfully) They went westward, sir, and the wind is blowing in that direction. That may mean, sir, that Nature is already taking the matter into her own hands. They are all hungry, sir, and the pot has come a-boil. (He takes off the lid) The smell will be borne westward. That pot is full of Nature, Mr. Treherne. Good-night, sir.
(He mounts the rocks with Tweeny, and they are heard for a little time after their figures are swallowed up in the fast growing darkness. Crichton stands motionless, the lid in his hand, though he has forgotten it and his reason for taking it off the pot. He is deeply stirred, but presently is ashamed of his dejection, for it is as if he doubted his principles. Bravely true to his faith that Nature will decide now as ever before, he proceeds manfully with his preparations for the night. He lights a ship's lantern, one of several treasures he has brought ashore, and is filling his pipe with crumbs of tobacco from various pockets, when the stealthy movement of some animal in the grass startles him. With the lantern in one hand and his cutlass in the other, he searches the ground around the hut. He returns, lights his pipe, and sits down by the fire, which casts weird moving shadows. There is a red gleam on his face; in the darkness he is a strong and perhaps rather sinister figure. In the great stillness that has fallen over the land, the wash of the surf seems to have increased in volume. The sound is indescribably mournful. Except where the fire is, desolation has fallen on the island like a pall.
Once or twice, as Nature dictates, Crichton leans forward to stir the pot, and the smell is borne westward. He then resumes his silent vigil.
Shadows other than those cast by the fire begin to descend the rocks. They are the adventurers returning. One by one they steal nearer to the pot until they are squatted round it, with their hands out to the blaze. Lady Mary only is absent. Presently she comes within sight of the others, then stands against a tree with her teeth clenched. One wonders, perhaps, what Nature is to make of her)