Last weekend, my girlfriend and I watched the first three episodes of this series, Downton Abbey, from Masterpiece Theater and PBS, about life in a grand English house starting in 1912 with the sinking of the Titanic. It weaves together the Upstairs (Lord Grantham, his wife, and their three daughters, and his mother), with Downstairs (butler and footmen, chauffeur, cook, and maids), with the drowning of the heirs to the estate and the coming of the new heir: a cousin and his mother.
I’ve only seen three episodes, but already I’m thinking, “wow, they’re just like us today.” You must be thinking, “he’s mad. He’s gone off his rocker. We don’t have servants, or have the time for leisurely fox hunts, or live in great stone palace-castles in England.” (Well, maybe Gordon does, but he talks about flat-mates, and that suggests he lives in a small London apartment.)
ANYway, here’s the thing. We’ve got a paternalistic Lord Grantham trying to manage a little kingdom, a little country really. But his kingdom only functioning because of a large influx of outside money from his marriage 20+ years ago into an American banking family of some kind. And it’s supporting an underclass that would like a share of the wealth and prosperity of the house they serve, but all those servants appear to be Irish immigrants, who are fleeing the poverty and decay that’s resulted from the British Empire stripping wealth from Ireland for more than 200 years. There’s new political and social ideas in the air, but the upper class is trying to do things the way they’ve always done, and suddenly. Black Swan. Titanic sinks. Chaos. The leeches arrive: all sorts of people, aware of the wealth and prosperity attached to the Grantham estate, begin looking carefully at how to join daughter Mary to the authority to run this little kingdom, and to the money.
Here in America, we have business as usual. Underclass here at home struggling from the pushing of work to the periphery of America’s empire, and dealing with the challenge posed by the combination of minimum wage jobs, and immigrant labor exerting downward pressure on people’s lives. The leadership of this class of people, as in Downton Abbey, is trying to exert a morality upon the downcast population, but the real issues are drying-up wages and external, societal changes, which are closing off future opportunities.
OK, I guess it’s not a perfect fit. But I think it’s interesting that we’re never really telling historical stories — we’re always just telling our own story, just in different guises. Even if Shakespeare sets a play in ancient Rome, or speaks of “two houses both alike in dignity, in fair Verona where we lay our scene,” he’s really talking about England.
Even our period dramas are really about us, today, right now. And the story is getting bad — the women have to be controlled and they need men to take charge of them; the property has to belong to the person the law says it belongs to (even if it doesn’t, really); the servants have to live moral and orderly lives for the sake of the upper classes…
It’s really getting to be time for a big change, isn’t it?