How 'Downton Abbey' Plundered the Story of 'Fiddler on the Roof'

Tevye and Lord Grantham Are Strikingly Similar Figures

I WIll Be Your Father Figure: Tevye the Milkman was lord of his manor much like Lord Grantham of Downton Abbey (but at a slightly different pay scale).
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I WIll Be Your Father Figure: Tevye the Milkman was lord of his manor much like Lord Grantham of Downton Abbey (but at a slightly different pay scale).

By Michael L. Millenson

Published March 18, 2013, issue of March 22, 2013.
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Lord Grantham is Tevye the Milkman.

As the trials and tribulations marking the third season of BBC’s “Downton Abbey” came to a close, the realization hit me: Julian Fellowes has created a WASP version of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Despite obvious differences, the fundamental premise is identical: how a proud man with three daughters copes with the changing societal norms threatening the traditions that define him. Just as interesting, the way that plotline plays out in both “Downton” and “Fiddler” has startling similarities.

In each world, the traditions seem immutable — explicitly God-given in Tevye’s case, implicitly so to Robert Crawley and his fellow “lords” — as well as innumerable. As Tevye explains: “Here in Anatevka, we have traditions for everything. How to sleep. How to eat. How to work. How to wear clothes.” “Downton Abbey” is pretty much the same, with equally obscure justifications. Why, after all, is dressing in white tie the standard for dinner while black tie is unacceptably informal?

Tradition, tradition — tradition!

The geographic isolation of the Pale has provided Anatevka with a measure of insulation from forces roiling the outside world, just as the Yorkshire countryside has done for Downton. Change comes nonetheless, and it’s felt most keenly by — well, Tevye and Lord Grantham would both agree with this description of the status quo in the opening song of “Fiddler”: “And who has the right, as master of the house/To have the final word at home?/The papa, the papa!/Tradition!”

That’s the theory; however, three marriage-age daughters have a different idea. “Fiddler” and “Downton” immediately follow a strikingly similar path. One daughter (Tzeitel, Lady Mary) is pushed into an engagement with a man she doesn’t love because he promises financial security for her and the family (the butcher Lazar Wolf, the newspaper magnate Sir Richard Carlisle).

But Tzeitel and Lady Mary unexpectedly refuse to go through with the marriage. Though this sudden flare of independence initially causes a furor, the man each woman loves and eventually marries does come from within the tradition (the tailor Motel Kamzoil, the middle-class cousin Matthew Crawley). The family patriarch quickly relents and embraces the new choice.


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