The Pascalian Vision behind Austen's Objections to Play-Acting

This week's chapters look forward to that part of the book which has puzzled and will continue to puzzle readers since people began to study this book around the early 20th century. Why is Fanny and through her Austen so against the play-acting.

Well the particular play is part of the point, but I'll put that off until next week when we are supposed to be discussing the play itself. But beyond the play chosen, both Fanny and Edmund say they like the theatre--Fanny longs to see plays acted and never has, she loves to read them; Edmund says their father rightly encouraged them as boys to act and to see a professional production is something he enjoys--but they object to the production when done by non-professionals above and beyond the fact that they regard it as in bad taste while the man who supports everyone is away working for them, risking his life and would himself be against amateur play-acting.

It's a puzzle. Thomas More did it. Milton wrote Comus. In the 16th-18th centuries, it was an "accepted" thing to do with children; lots of adults passed the time this way too; it occurs in lots of novels. The Austen family did it--though here we have an autobiographical explanation. There is evidence to suggest that when the plays that were done in the Austen household were done, Eliza de Feuillide, the cousin, used her role to inflame the jealousy of Austen's two brothers, and the play was used as a conduit for Eliza, Henry and James Austen to indulge in less than savory flirtations (considering their respective situations, the woman still married for example).

But just looking at Mansfield Park, the text, the experience we are invited to participate in the book, Austen presents the play as a mode of hypocrisy, one which some of the people involved are using to triumph over and conquer others (Henry Crawford and eventually Mary when she maneuvres Edmund into joining in), while others are using it to project vanity (Mr Yates, Mr Rushworth) and still other to filch what they can (Mrs Norris)

What grates on Austen and is seen through Fanny's eyes is the phoniness and misery of it all. From the moment the business starts it brings out the worst in everyone. Vanity, vexation, despising one another for inadequacy--it's all irritation and selfishness. No charity, no kindness towards one another anywhere. And importantly everyone's lying. They're pretending not to care which part they get; they're pretending not to see the sexuality involved; they're pretending not to feel contempt for one another as each one seems ever so inadequate to the other. The idea is when professionals do it they do it to live, for bread, for money, and it's an art with them too; when amateurs do it there's nothing to control the worst aspects of their personalities; it becomes a conduit for triumph, for pettiness. The whole sequence is alive, but not with peace, not with warm-heartedness, not with genuine enjoyment, unless we are to condone the enjoyment of triumph or sexual conquest or creation of heart-burnings of all sorts.

For example, no piece could be proposed that did not supply somebody with a difficulty, and one one side or the other it was a continual repetition of, 'Oh! no, _that_ will never do... Fanny looked on and listened ... to observe the selfishness which, more or less disguised, semed to govern them all (Mansfield Park Chapmen, I:14, 131)

Julia is miserable, Rushworth is a clear imbecile; everyone is ever "cross and teasing"(147) everyone else. See opening paragraph on 145 too; words like _uncomfortable_, _apprehensive_ overpower the occasional moments of pleasure as when Fanny watches Henry Crawford who does speak his lines well (165). In fact Fanny as outsider seems to enjoy the acting as acting more than anyone else because her ego is not involved--that is, until she must watch the man she is in love with make love to the woman he is beginning to fall in love with with her as their prompter, and in her little sanctuary too.

The one interruption of the play-acting occurs when we visit Fanny's small attic room, the old school room without a fire; Chapter XVI: there are a set of quiet paragraphs of real thought as Fanny sits up there, beginning at the top of p 151, and having sentences like:

The aspect was so favourable, that even without a fire it was habitable in many an early spring, and late autumn morning, to such a willing mind as Fanny's, and while there was a gleam of sunshine, she hoped not to be driven from it entirely, even when winter came. The comfort of it ... Her plants, her books ... her writing desk..

Driven downstairs, humiliated by Mrs Norris, finally she accepts the role of Cottager's wife, and in one of those many scenes of vexation and discomfort she finds well, she's of "use." She helps Rushworth with his lines (learns the part herself without his "being much the forwarder" 166): we are told "she was perhaps as much at peace as any." But she too enables Edmund and Mary to make through the the disguise of Anhalt and Amelia and she is very pained (170),

It would appear that Austen through Fanny thinks art does not necessarily set you free; it does not necessarily console; it does not teach most people. I wouldn't go so far as one A. Walton Lutz did when he said "Mansfield Park question the motives & consolations of art itself," if only because Austen seems to think that some people at the Park (Fanny, Edmund) are able to understand and be consoled. But not everyone. Most of them use it to release ugly or other misunderstood emotions. This is underlined in the scene in which Mrs Norris appears in her most ugliest in the book--where she attempts to humiliate Fanny because she is irritated by Edmund standing up for Fanny ("do not urge her any more").

The last time we discussed this sequence I remember I talked about the Barbie doll, and said, if some historian were to come to study the 20th century 200 years from now would not he conclude how everyone loved this doll; how everyone approved of it? The evidence would be overwhelming. But there are some of us who find it (as I do) not just anatomically absurd but obscene, in the worst taste, a positive incitement to anorexia & dying one's hair ridiculous shades of yellow. We cannot know what people really thought about amateur play-acting. We have only the statistics that people did it. Austen may be showing us the underside of why and how many in fact saw it, though they kept silent through emphasizing the hypocrisy of the behavior and all the pettinesses and vanities and sexuality manipulations we see going on.

When I read this sequence I always think of Pascal's statement where he said the miseries of most people is the result of their inability to sit quietly in a room entertaining themselves.

Ellen Moody

Over the years on Austen-L there have been comments and discussions, answers and replies, on why Austen disapproves of play-acting in this novel and I here append a select few of the most informative:

From: Kate Newey

Subject: Lovers' Vows A mention was made of Elizabeth Inchbald's adaptation of Koztebue's Das Kind der Liebe as Lovers' Vows. My colleague, Penny Gay, and I, have done quite a bit of work on this play and its relationship to Mansfield Park. Penny Gay's articles on the topic and theatricality in Jane Austen in general have been published in Sydney Studies in English, with more work in this fascinating area to come, & in 1989, I directed a production of Lovers' Vows using 1st and 2nd year undergraduate students from our Department, which Penny produced on video. We worked on a reconstruction of the staging and acting styles of the early 19C, using actors close in age & type to the characters from the novel. I think copies of this (in Australian video format) are still available for purchase. Inchbald's version of the play is reproduced in the R.W. Chapman Oxford edition of Mansfield Park, The Novels of Jane Austen_(Vol. III). Once you've read the play, the first Volume of MP is never the same again.

Kate Newey

(The reference to Penny Gay's article on Lovers' Vows is as follows: Penny Gay, "Theatricals and Theatricality in Mansfield ParkM", Sydney Studies in English, Vol. 13, 1987-8, 61-73.)

From: Kenneth Graham

Subject: domestic theatricals

A sidelight on Jane Austen's attitude to amateur theatricals is a review of Mary Lamb's *Mrs Leicester's School* published by the Juvenile Library whose proprietors were William and Mary Jane Godwin. The *Eclectic Review* [vol.5, part 1 (Jan. to June 1809) 95] makes this comment in a review: "Those who think it sufficient for children's books that they should be entertaining and harmless, will probably not find much to object against this little publication of Mr. or Mrs. Godwin; excepting that it tends to impress even on children, and even on female children, the propriety of domestic theatricals and visits to the play house."

The *Eclectic Review* was founded on dissenting religious principles, was by no means extreme in its piety, but clearly questioned the propriety of threat of the spirit of the French Revolution. I've been reading reviews written between 1790 and 1810 in which Englishness (and to a lesser degree "Britishness") is located within the boundaries of increasingly narrow notions of "loyalty and piety." I don't think, despite her clear-mindedness, Austen could help being influenced by the new piety (or the new loyalty).

The epidemic of apostasy might suggest the rapidity and intensity of alterations in attitudes to values under threat. Beliefs and behaviours regarded as harmless in 1796 became reprehensible ten years later.

From: Michael Kaye


May I briefly (or 'breifly' as JA might have written) interrupt your discussion on the subject of Mansfield Park to thank those who have shown such kindness in replying to my question about Jane Austen and the Theatre.

In the course of my admittedly shallow researches I have come across facts which seem to contradict one another. Fact: the Austen family, under the strong influence of James, indulged in amateur dramatics at Steventon; in the summer, performances took place in the barn; in the winter, in the dining room.

The presence of Eliza, Comtesse de Feuillide, seems to have enlivened these occasions even further. But when Philly Walters was invited to take part by her half-cousin Eliza, she surprised everyone by refusing. And persisted in her refusal. This action would have been vividly recalled by a Jane who in her teens was wildly enthusiastic for the am- dram activities of the household and wrote sketch after sketch to be read aloud to Cassandra.

Fact: the tone of MP Chapter 13 et seq in Volume I is one of moral disapprobation of the theatre.

The often heated arguments about the propriety of amateur dramatics within the pages of Mansfield Park have been interpreted in a variety of interesting and persuasive ways. Marghanita Laski points to the strong influence of evangelical Christianity over the mores of Christian households after the turn of the century as an indicator of how JA's own views might have altered.

The play Lovers Vows was performed five times in Bath between 1801 and 1805,a period in which Jane would have had occasion to see it. She certainly writes about it as though her readership would have been familiar with the play. Contemporary critical notices proclaimed it as the most successful play on a British stage in decades. Its morality and clarity were praised. Albeit not universally. One critic suggested that a woman who gave herself to her lover even after promises of marriage was wrong and that any seducer should not be pardoned without severe retribution or penance. But, on the whole, Lovers Vows, as they say in the Biz, went down 'like a bomb'.

Then why should disapproval of this play being mounted in the domestic context of MP be the refrain of those characters whose behaviour is apparently intended to meet with the approval of the reader?

Had Jane Austen gone through a change of heart and mind about the theatre? Had Evangelism pentrated her soul?

MP is believed to have been begun in 1811. It was published in 1814. During those years Jane had occasion to travel to London and in her letters to Cassandra from Henrietta Street, she writes of several visits to the professional theatre. In one exhausting evening she watched Antaxerxes, an opera; The Boarding House, a musical farce in two acts; and the Beehive, another musical farce, which she thought was rather better presented than the other shows. (I dread to think how bad the first two must have been, having struggled without success to find the least sweetness in the Beehive.)She was so enthusiastic about Edmund Kean's Shylock that, having passed on to to another subject, she returns to Kean later in the letter. (March 5th 1814).

So we have a book, Mansfield Park,which seems to disapprove of what effect the theatre might have on young amateur actors in the seclusion of their homes; and an author watching the same play in public. Not only watching it - either Jane had a photographic memory or somehow she had got hold of a text of the play. The dramatis personae are clearly delineated by the interloper Mr. Yates at the time of the casting of the play. But whether Jane was familiar with the play from memory or simply from a text is less interesting than the assumption that she seems to be making that her readership would be familiar with the characters and plot of Lovers' Vows.

No complete scenes are reproduced on the MP page. (So perhaps Jane had no text but simply a playbill or programme or newspaper notice to remind her of the characters and plot of a play she had seen and remembered). But interest centres round the scene between Amelia, played by Mary Crawford, and Anhalt, played by Edmund Bertram. In the play itself a charming, optimistic, pert and innocent Amelia declares her love for the serious and very moralistic Tutor-Cleric Anhalt. Mary Crawford is charming, witty and very direct in her views. Edmund is certainly a tutor-cleric figure. But to maintain a true parallel, it is Fanny who should be playing the part of Amelia, not Mary, since Fanny had been tutored by Edmund and loved him deeply. So there is no simple parallelism. Edmund had resisted the invitations to act in Lovers' Vows until it seemed likely that an outsider might play the part of Anhalt. Jealous of another man receiving the advances of Amelia/Mary (and much of the rehearsing was being done in private, by actors who shared a scene a deux)Edmund agrees to participate. But Fanny herself is also on the point of stepping through the looking glass into the saturnalian world of the play, when Sir Thomas returns in the nick of time to prevent the play's continuation.

But the declaration scene between Amelia (Mary Crawford) and Anhalt (Edmund) arouses Fanny's jealousy and makes her aware of her feelings towards Edmund. In the world of Lovers' Vows people act in ways that are forbidden in polite society. The theatre, the domain of the Saturnalia, constitutes a threat to order, to the peace and decorum of MP.

The final elopement of Henry Crawford with Maria is planted during the period of the rehearsals. While Fanny and the reader are directed by JA towards the drama between Amelia and Anhalt, they have forgotten the scenes between Frederic, the soldier,played by Henry, and his long-lost mother, Agatha, played by Maria. It is the same kind of authorial sleight of hand that JA performs more adroitly in Emma. In that novel the sleight of hand is very much part of the plot; in MP it is so well disguised as to be almost overlooked.

In the final analysis, it is impossible to know exactly what Jane's views were on amateur theatricals in the second decade of the nineteenth century. While Fanny's views (shared by Edmund and Sir Thomas) are integral to the plot of MP, I cannot believe they were shared by someone who enthused over Edmund Kean and could even find amusement in the Beehive.

Michael Kaye

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