My Pilgrimage, Chapter Thirty-Seven: Julian Fellowes’ Divinely Shakespearean Comedy, Downton Abbey
By Michael Moriarty
In Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey, we haven’t heard such an overwhelmingly generous and simultaneous outpouring of history, drama, James Joycean poetry and fiercely unpredictable wit since William Shakespeare!
Yes, in short, Julian Fellowes is, for myself at any rate, an indisputable reincarnation of “The Bard”.
And, on top of that, Downton Abbey is a contemporary turn on Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy.
The major difference between those two literary masterpieces?
The major contrasts between Downton Abbey and Dante’s Divine Comedy?
The Inferno, The Purgatorio and The Paradiso of the Italian… are offered up to us simultaneously, all at the same time, by the Brit!
In the powerfully brief scene by scene pilgrimage of Downton Abbey, we experience hell, heaven… and whatever lies in between… all at once!
That Baron/Lord Fellowes, exactly like the Globe Theatre’s “Will”, began his career in the arts as a member of that infinitely misunderstood priesthood… Lord Fellowes began his life in the performing arts as an actor?!
Talk of Shakespeare’s “reincarnation” is hardly out of the grandest of literary possibilities.
“Coming out”, in the colloquial modern sense, the “hip” vernacular, has an entirely and far more theatrical sense to it than what I am observing now on my television screen.
However, the modern form of “coming out” is also a long and painfully sculpted theme within Downton Abbey.
Meanwhile, King George V, his Queen and, the infamously scandal-ridden Prince of Wales, Prince Albert, soon to become, all too briefly Edward VIII?!
England’s Debutante’s Ball?!
In the hands and wildly unpredictable genius of Julian Fellowes?!
His invention of “The Levinson’s” as American Capitalism at its most shameless?! With Shirley MacLaine’s “American Medea” matching Maggie Smith’s pitiless turn on British Snobbery in general?!
Dame Smith takes no prisoners.
Both her performance and Ms. MacLaine’s are brilliant satires. Deliberately animated cartoons of both the British Aristocracy and the American Nouveau Riche?
Relatively speaking, all of the American wealthy, when compared to the British nobility, are nouveau riche.
And, yes, The Yankee Bourgeoisie.
In this chillingly realistic and, at times, darkly divine comedy, all of the American wealthy, in the eyes of British Royalty particularly, are, relatively speaking, teenagers. Automatically, in the eyes of both The British Aristocracy and The European Elite, the wealthiest of the United States, regardless of how handsome or breathtakingly beautiful they are… i.e. The Kennedy’s or the wife of President Donald Trump… they, in light of a now famous novel, are The Ugliest of Americans.
Why Dame Margaret Natalie Smith, with the savage energy of a music hall comedienne, was chosen to play a woman who couldn’t endure speaking with an actor, actress or, God forbid, “Entertainer”… for longer than it might take a duke or duchess to excuse themselves?!
Why her performance is more vaudevillian satire than reality?!
Making her character more of a ragingly theatrical prima donna than a member of the British privileged?!
The Olivier “Archie Rice” as Grand Dame?!
When Dame Smith is literally surrounded in this film, actually drowning in a level of flawless realism and film acting brilliance that I doubt will ever be surpassed in either quantity or length anywhere?!
The choice of her for that particular role is a central key to just how sacredly high and profoundly Christian is Julian Fellowes’ vision of humanity!
The entire “Establishment of the World”, American, Brit or Transylvanian, the higher they get?! The more cartoonish will they appear.
That is why this 9th Episode of the 4th series of Downton Abbey has been chosen by yours truly to introduce Julian Fellowes, “Scribbler and Bard”, and his “divinely merry and melancholy band of sacredly chosen players… to my readership.
Julian Fellowes is a walking encyclopedia of theatre history and theatrical brilliance.
He can throw a modern and American-style detective caper into the operatic pomp and circumstance of his Royal Debutante’s Ball in Buckingham Palace and still maintain the illusion of historic reality to all of both Downton Abbey, its palatial mansion, and Downton Abbey, the film.
During all of this, the almost Falstaffian quality to the by now legendary cook of Downton Abbey, Mrs. Patmore, culminates with this golden bit of British “propriety”:
Which, of course, brings me to my own personal experience with British propriety, with the great English poet and dramatist Christopher Fry and the ominously serious meaning to the Brits of the word “proper”
Our “reincarnated William Shakespeare” is actually “The Right Honourable Lord Fellowes of West Stafford”.
A TRUE member of the British Aristocracy.
My above question under the photo of Lord Fellowes is inspired by my all-too-brief friendship with the great poet/dramatist, Christopher Fry.
My favorite quote of his? The one most applicable to Downton Abbey:
is an escape,
not from truth
but from despair;
a narrow escape into faith.
My friendship with Christopher Fry ended when I misspelled his name in a letter I’d sent him.
I added an “e” to his last name.
It was not unnoticed by the model for “a man of letters”, or, in the very parlance of the writing fraternity, “scribbler”.
Following his reply to my letter, I was too embarrassed to ever write him again.
You see, I had already revealed my not entirely ugly but rather bumptiously impetuous American side, when I visited him at his home not far from London.
While fixing tea for the both of us, he noticed that I foolishly began to stir my cupful with a fork that lay in the vicinity.
With mild but ever-polite shock, the exceptional author, playwright/poet, said quietly, “Michael, please use the PROPER instrument.”
He had already, many years before, if you’ll forgive my candidness, won an eternal corner of my heart when he, one of the very few to do so, visited me in an English “rest home” – to put it politely – where I suddenly found myself ensconced and dying spiritually amidst a few presumptuously British “good intentions”.
Mr. Fry had once directed my acting class at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, LAMDA, in an excerpt from his play, Curtmantle.
There, indeed, in the midst of all my psychological bewilderment and, yes, ultimately catatonic state from 10 utterly unasked-for and obviously undesired electro-shock treatments, the concerned and most comforting appearance of one of the world’s greatest living poets of that period brought with it a profound glimmer of hope for which I revisited him, years later, to thank him. It was then that my unmistakably bourgeois disregard for “proper” form occurred.
I say all this so my readers understand: When I can share with them a possible lapse of “proper” form within the formal photograph of a true aristocrat, Mr. Jullian Fellowes, Baron of West Stafford, I’m much less despairing over my own similar sins.
Returning now to the “Detective Caper”, Lord Grantham is the surprising mastermind behind the entire adventure. So, in that sense, Lord Grantham kind of… and I stress the looseness of my metaphor, simile or whatever you wish to call it: Lord Grantham, particularly for this, small, literary romp into Peter Falk land, becomes Julian Fellowes himself!
Grantham/Fellowes conjures up, with increasing detail, not only the precise particulars of what amounts to an English Aristocrat’s very Sherlock Holmesian capacity to wear two hats at the same time: sleuth and criminal.
While that is going on, the wonderfully special, American actor, Paul Giamatti, in one of Downton Abbey’s most strikingly fresh roles, that of the wealthy American, Harold Levinson.
For him to arrive in England and carry on the central and two most moving themes of Downton Abbey: Love and Lust?!
And do it with such startlingly Ugly American HONESTY?!?!
Lord Fellowe’s admiration and, yes, LOVE for the entire meaning of America is present here for all to see and listen to. Levinson’s irresistible charm turns whatever frictions between England and America that might have popped up so far?! Renders them almost moot in this particular episode, as an obviously fortune-hunting, young and breathtakingly gorgeous, female aristocrat picnic’s with the best of Ugly Americans, Harold Levinson. The sexual and bliss-hunting lusts within both Harold and his admirer are thrilling!
Following one of the most important ingredients to what I now call THE HEIST of Samson’s Stolen Goods…now there’s an intriguingly Biblical allusion for you… there’s a scene between the ever-mysteriously impressive “Bates” and the ever-more complicated but increasingly moving Lady Mary Crawley.
By now, so much has happened that has wanted to be kept “secret”?!
The pretense of not knowing what you actually know about other members of the Crawley household… in just a simple but loaded exchange of the all-powerful “looks” going on between the heroes, heroines, villains and villainesses and always-interesting bit players that pass in and out of this masterpiece?!
But why not?
The sometimes soul-shattering moments of long-shot cinematography… such as the skies of this
Richard III’s “Clouds, lowering upon our heads”?!
“Lower” pronounced like “glower”!
A subconscious, Richard III/MacBeth allusion to the possibly double villainy hanging about all the great “Houses” of The British Empire.
And the repetitive horrors of two World Wars!
As I’ve already said: In Downton Abbey and its creator, Julian Fellowes, we have the simultaneous recreation of both Shakespeare’s vision and Dante Alighieri’s architecture for his DIVINE COMEDY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
This is just the beginning of my possibly presumptuous “Drama Course” on a few but precious “trade secrets” contained in Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey.
Michael Moriarty is a Golden Globe and Emmy Award-winning actor who starred in the landmark television series Law and Order from 1990 to 1994. His recent film and TV credits include The Yellow Wallpaper, 12 Hours to Live, Santa Baby and Deadly Skies. Contact Michael at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be found on Twitter at https://twitter.com/@MGMoriarty.