About the Play – The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley
What do we do about the servants?
As evidenced in British programs such as Upstairs, Downstairs or Downton Abbey and the more recent Hotel Portofino, the long-suffering members of the upper class have to contend with their servants as much as their own foibles. Remember Rose Buck, who was in the service of the Bellamy family at 165 Eaton Place for forty years? Or Mr. Carson, Mrs. Bates and Mrs. Hughes, all of whom had their own specific dramas? Sometimes, despite the best efforts of the residents upstairs, those below take center stage.
In the case of Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon’s latest installment of the characters from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, this season’s play, The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley, the servants play as much a role in the holiday festivities as the Bennett girls themselves. However, instead of confining themselves to the kitchen and the gardens, Mrs. Reynolds (the head housekeeper), Brian (the footman) and new housemaid Cassie all get tangled up in the madness that is Lydia Wickham’s marriage.
For those who don’t recall, Lydia is the youngest Bennett sister and her mother’s favorite; she and her mother share traits of silliness, flirtation and frequently throw caution to the wind. When she elopes with George Wickham (he’s a cad), the family, especially Elizabeth and her husband Mr. Darcy, have what can only be described as an 18th century freakout – everyone will be ruined as a result of her actions. This is of no interest to Lydia, who tells her mother, “I am sure my sisters all envy me. I only hope they may have half my good luck. They must all go to Brighton. That is the place to get husbands. What a pity it is, mamma, that we did not all go.”
When Lydia arrives for Christmas at Pemberley, the country home of the Darcy’s, there is much relief when she is not accompanied by her husband; in fact, Darcy has all but banned him from the house. But there is much to do to prepare for the arrival of the whole clan: parents Bennett, sisters Jane (and her husband Charles Bingley) and Mary (remember her adventures from last Christmas?), along with Mr. Darcy’s sister Georgianna).
Holidays at Pemberley are always an adventure. Mrs. Reynolds puts in the order:
What follows is the year-end order for Pemberley Estate.
Fifty pound flour
Forty pound sugar
Five pound each, raisins and figs
Two pound each, walnuts and almonds
Cinnamon sticks and clove
And as a post-script, after Lydia’s special request for “loads of those sugary biscuits with the orangey bits on hand?”
And several bags of oranges.
Merry Christmas, sir.
Mrs. Reynolds of Pemberley Estate
Pay attention to those biscuits, as you will see that Mrs. Reynolds uses them to soothe, silence and still the chaos that slowly begins to whirl around her. Despite her best efforts to keep the expectations in check, there are some things she simply cannot control.
It is in this collision of upstairs and downstairs, when love, the holidays and pre-conceived notions of who everyone is, that Gunderson and Melcon truly shine. In taking the characters of Pride and Prejudice outside of Austen’s pages, they afford characters such as Mrs. Reynolds, Brian and Cassie to move from their status as “minor” Austen characters to the stars of their own show. In the case of Brian, his interest in machines and building is noticed by Mr. Darcy, which leads to a change of status (no spoilers here!). For Cassie, her role as a “temporary” housemaid is…tempered… when she collides headfirst with the dastardly George Wickham, leading to Mrs. Reynolds wondering what the best course of action should be. All roads lead to those biscuits, though, and before we know it, there is news and singing and that blasted tree is decorated.
As with the other iterations, Gunderson and Melcon reshape our notions of who the beloved characters that we think we know so well. In doing so, they help remind us of all that the holidays have to offer: a lot of family, a lot of food, and, hopefully, just a little bit of drama. We celebrate those upstairs and downstairs because they are familiar to us. Merry Christmas, one and all!