Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Seeing Double: Theatrical Spectatorship in Mansfield Park

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Seeing Double: Theatrical Spectatorship in Mansfield Park

Article excerpt

Jane Austen's inclusion of Lovers' Vows in Mansfield Park has engendered a debate revolving around the following two questions: how did Austen read Lovers' Vows and did she approve of the ideas it contained? (1) Many scholars have answered the first question by offering their own interpretations of the play. (2) Those who go on to answer the second question often do so by focusing on Austen's political sympathies. (3) While these readings are interesting in and for themselves, what they have ultimately demonstrated is that Lovers' Vows may be read several ways and that Jane Austen's political sympathies are difficult to define.

We can reframe the issue by considering another reason why Austen may have used Lovers' Vows in Mansfield Park. I propose that Austen's use of the play reflects her engagement in a debate about the effect of the drama on the emotions of eighteenth-century theatergoers. (4) Compared to Elizabeth Inchbald--who adapted the play from Das Kind der Liebe by the German dramatist August von Kotzebue--Austen harbored serious reservations about the consequences of arousing a sympathetic reaction in theater audiences. Her primary interest is in preserving the spectator's ability to reason while experiencing emotion. Austen's position regarding this issue manifests itself in the narrative style of Mansfield Park, particularly in the way she constructs her reader's point of view. (5) By including Inchbald's play in Mansfield Park, Austen is signaling her interest in the question of how one ought to respond to all kinds of fiction, including novels, plays, and the fictions one encounters in everyday life.

The ability of the theater to affect spectators' emotions was widely acknowledged long before either writer was born. In the Restoration, explains Joseph Roach, "it was widely believed that the spirits, agitated by [the actor], generate a wave of physical force, rolling through the aether, powerful enough to influence the spirits of others at a distance." (6) By mid-century, the philosophers David Hume and Adam Smith, and the dramaturges Aaron Hill and Sir John Hill had replaced this material connection with one forged by the spectator's imagination. "As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel," remarks Smith,

we can form no other idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we should feel in the like situation. Though our brother is on the rack, as long as we ourselves are at ease, our senses will never inform us what he suffers ... it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations.... By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body ... and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them. (7)

Despite the lack of natural element binding spectator and spectacle, the spectators' reactions to the play are still physical. Now, though, these reactions depend on the spectators' capacity for sympathy--on their ability to imagine themselves in the place of the person observed.

Throughout the century, the drama's ability to affect spectators' emotions was both feared and admired. For its detractors, the theater was immoral and it fostered corruption in audience members. Women, apparently, were the most vulnerable "because their nerves were [believed] to be more delicate and more susceptible than men's." (8) In a world that insisted on a direct connection between the body and the emotions, prevailing definitions of human physiology endowed women with a greater degree of sensibility. Far more than men, women possessed the capacity to respond--both physically and emotionally--to the affecting in art and in life. However, compared to men, they lacked the emotional detachment necessary to reason. According to such antitheatrical writers as Jeremy Collier, women were therefore more likely to identify with the characters they saw on the stage. …

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