Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

"'Don't Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Lady B': Talking about Theatre in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park". (Miscellany)

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

"'Don't Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Lady B': Talking about Theatre in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park". (Miscellany)

Article excerpt

Judith W. Fisher, a professional actress and Associate Professor of Drama at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, where she teaches acting, directing, and theatre history, has written extensively on theatre and drama. She is currently writing a book on the working lives of eighteenth-century actresses.

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IN MANSFIELD PARK, JANE AUSTEN LEAVES US in no doubt that Maria Bertram, the elder daughter of Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, is placed at risk because of the private theatricals undertaken by the young people at Mansfield in the absence of her father. But the extent to which Maria is in moral danger is more ambiguous, a point which has produced lively discussion amongst critics and scholars. My interest in the debate stems from the various professions in which I have been a participant and which underscore my current points of view. As an actress, I deplore the slurs cast on my profession by those who deem acting to be immoral; I even feel Slighted on behalf of my early nineteenth-century counterparts when Henry Crawford suggests in the novel that professional actresses have no "'delicacy of feeling"' (135). As a theatre historian, I am fascinated by the implicit and explicit information provided in the novel about private theatricals, as well as the wide range of opinion such material has elicited. Was theatr icality, as Marc Baer suggests Jane Austen's novels (and those of Charles Dickens) indicate, a prominent part of late Georgian society's way of life (250), or are we, "as modern readers" of Mansfield Park, "sharply reminded," as Ellen Donkin asserts, "of just how alien the theatre world had become to the nineteenth-century middle class" (37)? I shall explore what Jane Austen and her characters in Mansfield Park tell us about their ideas of theatre and theatricality, and set their "talking" within the context of the theatre of the early nineteenth century--its participants, scenography, drama, and its critics--in an attempt to ascertain whether we should feel, as Edmund does, that the Mansfield Park theatricals "'would be very wrong,"' and "'imprudent...with regard to Maria, whose situation is a very delicate one, considering every thing, extremely delicate"' (125).

As many scholars and biographers have pointed out, Jane Austen herself did not disapprove of theatrical performances, by either professional or amateur players. The Austen family began their own private theatricals in 1782, and these productions, as Deirdre Le Faye tells us, "were to become a feature of Steventon rectory life during the next few years" (43). About the Austen family's Christmas festivities of 1787, one of Jane's cousins, Phylly Walter, wrote: "My uncle's barn is fitting up quite like theatre, & all the young folks are to take their part" (qtd. in Le Faye 58). It is not clear in what capacity Jane might have served on these occasions, but she would certainly have been an audience member if not a fully-fledged thespian. On her visits to London, Jane regularly attended the theatre: Covent Garden, Drury Lane, and even the Lyceum Theatre, which in 1817, six years after Jane had seen The Hypocrite there, the playwright Joanna Baillie said was "struggling with many difficulties, above all the terribl e misfortune of not being reckoned genteel, and Mr. Arnold [the manager] has not had such good houses as he & his actors deserved" (Donkin 32). In March 1814, at the more "genteel" Drury Lane Theatre, Jane, along with niece Fanny, saw Edmund Kean as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice and Mrs. Jordan as Nell in The Devil's to Pay, and was much pleased; in November of that year, however, Eliza O'Neal's performance in The Fatal Marriage disappointed her, for she wrote, "I do not think she was quite equal to my expectation. I fancy I want something more than can be. Acting seldom satisfies me. I took two pocket-handkerchiefs but had very little occasion for either. She is an elegant creature, however, and hugs Mr. …

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