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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The other two daughters have a more difficult time. Here, too, “Fiddler” and “Downton” are parallel. One daughter (Hodel, Lady Sybil) falls in love with a radical (Perchik in “Fiddler,” Tom Branson in “Downton”) who envisions a society where traditions linked to the accident of birth — gender, economic status, religion — no longer defines one’s life. As if that weren’t enough, each man also practices dangerous, anti-monarchical activism: Perchik opposing the czar, and Branson seeking to free Ireland from rule by the British king.

Hodel and Lady Sybil defy the threat of family ostracism by declaring that they won’t seek their father’s permission to marry, yet they’ll still seek his blessing. In that way, we learn that every tradition doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. Prodded by wives who again emphasize personal fulfillment (love) over group norms (that “master of the house” stuff), “Papa” and “Father” give in.

And the third daughter? In “Fiddler,” Chava does the unthinkable, running away with Fyedka, a non-Jew. (Perchik was at least a Jewish radical.) In “Downton,” the potential challenge is even more distressing than a Catholic Crawley grandchild. Lady Edith seems poised to live with a married man whose wife’s institutionalization precludes the possibility of divorce. In both cases, tradition breaks entirely. Now what?

The sense of precariousness surrounding “Fiddler” and “Downton” is not only emotional, but also physical. “A fiddler on the roof” symbolizes Anatevka, Tevye explains, because each person is “trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck.” Downton in its own way reflects that same dread.

True, when Tevye fantasizes about being rich, many of his dreams describe Lord Grantham’s everyday reality: “I wouldn’t have to work hard…. The most important men in town will come to fawn on me.”

But Tevye’s real worry is about losing what he already has, and that same concern, albeit in a wildly different economic bracket, constantly haunts “Downton.” When not caught up in domestic dramas, the Seventh Earl of Grantham frets about losing his estate (no male heir, no money for maintenance) and being unable to provide jobs for servants and villagers. (Tevye and his neighbors have no such “trickle down” worries, of course.)

It is precisely Lord Grantham’s sense of losing control despite his wealth and power that keeps us captivated. As shocked as we are by Lady Sybil and Matthew’s unexpected deaths, it is with a frisson of schadenfreude that we watch Downton’s inhabitants confront the truth that rich and poor alike are subject to life’s misfortunes.

The protection of geography is also fading. The “Downton” initial season and “Fiddler” both take place just before World War I, and in both cases the upheaval of that era is unleashing cultural changes against which physical isolation cannot protect. In both cases, America looms as a land where individuals’ lives are unfettered by traditions linked to lineage and religion. Understandably, that prospect has more appeal in Anatevka than in Downton, even if an American wife and her fortune saved Robert’s family estate.

In contrast to the attention given her American upbringing, Cora Crawley née Levinson’s Jewish maiden name goes conspicuously unexplored on “Downton.” It is omitted by even the sharp-tongued Dowager Countess, who assumes the role of disapproving traditionalist played by an entire village of tongue-clucking neighbors in “Fiddler.” When the flamboyant Martha Levinson visits Downton Abbey, not a single comment about her husband’s presumed religion crosses anyone’s lips.


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