Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Staging a Lesson: The Theatricals and Proper Conduct in Mansfield Park

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Staging a Lesson: The Theatricals and Proper Conduct in Mansfield Park

Article excerpt

Studies of Mansfield Park often explore the rehearsal of August Von Kotzebue's Lovers' Vows, adapted for an English audience by Elizabeth Inchbald. Simply by acting in a play, the Bertrams transgress the unstated rule of the absent Sir Thomas: Edmund warns his siblings, "I am convinced that my father would totally disapprove it" (114). Lovers' Vows is especially shocking because it portrays inappropriate female passion: the play is about women teaching men, a theme that foregrounds Austen's own exploration of contemporary expectations that women use their exemplary conduct to influence men (see Pedley). Austen questioned the efficacy of women's conduct as a vehicle for social change; however, she also recognized its potential force as concomitantly protective and disruptive of the social structure.

Austen published Mansfield Park in 1814 in the context of a widespread public dispute over the theater's didactic purpose. The conflict involved various parties, one that saw drama (and by extension theatricality) as a destroyer of existing social and moral hierarchies and another that felt that drama was a reinforcer of social stability. Anxiety about the unpredictable forces inherent in representation, particularly in female acting (both public and private), is at the heart of Mansfield Park. The debate about the nature and force of the theater and theatricality was widespread, and Mansfield Park "figures in a broader cultural discourse about theatricality, a discourse shaped by authors whose differences appear even more irreconcilable than those between Fanny Price and Henry Crawford" (Litvak 6). (1) Questions about female acting, both on stage and off, are apparent in many of Inchbald's critical essays--" and in her 1809 response to Hannah More's anti-theatrical rhetoric. Austen alludes to Inchbald's writing (especially, perhaps, to her response to More) by choosing Lovers' Vows as the play for the actors to perform.

More, a former playwright, once hoped--as playwright--that her tragedies would have a positive effect on domestic conduct, forming the basis of a stabilizing rather than rebellious standard of domestic behavior. "From my youthful course of reading," More explains, "I had been led to entertain that common, but, as I now must think, delusive and groundless hope, that the stage, under certain regulations, might be converted into a school of virtue" (Preface 502). More's later evangelism led to her decision to denounce the theater as socially pernicious, especially for young, easily--influenced women. For More, the stage was a "weapon ... against which it is, at the present moment, the most important to warn the more inconsiderate of my countrywomen" (Strictures 320). She was afraid that the elevation of potentially dangerous passions through dramatization--or any other form of embodiment or physicality--would have a damaging effect on women's place within the existing social and moral order. The theater became for More and others a reflection and a cause of the seemingly rampant immorality seen in families of all ranks. She feared that the public theater and its attendant immorality would invade young people's private lives: "By frequent repetition, especially if there be a taste for romance and poetry in the innocent young mind, the feelings are easily transplanted from the theatre to the closet; they are made to become a standard of action, and are brought home as the regulators of life and manners" (Preface 507). More's anxiety that public representations of "romance and poetry" would be "brought home" reveals her fear that the theater was an inevitable part of domestic life. But when More encouraged young women to read plays at home (although never to see them acted on the stage), she actually promoted the theater's encroachment on the home by connecting, as Catherine Burroughs has argued, "theater and drama with domestic and private settings" (96). After her renunciation of the theater, More imagined that a theatrical "school of virtue" like the one she had envisioned could still be powerfully realized, and at the same time controlled, within a domestic setting. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.