Saturday, 23 July 2016

Jane Austen: 'Lovers' Vows': Amateur Dramatics at Mansfield Park

The acting scenes at Mansfield Park may have been inspired by events when Jane Austen was at her brother's home at Godmersham in Kent. Fanny Knight and her brothers put on Douglas at Christmas in 1805. Douglas is one of the plays considered by the young people at Mansfield Park.

The play eventually chosen, Kotzebue's Lovers' Vows, was adapted from the German by Mrs. Inchbald and first performed at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, in October 1798.

Jane Austen must have seen many plays performed in the Theatre Royal in Orchard Street, Bath, during the five years she lived there. Good actors from London regularly appeared. Lovers' Vows was given six performances at the Theatre Royal while she lived there, so she must surely have seen it.

The Theatre Royal was small, box-like and intimate: it must have been very easy for Catherine (in Northanger Abbey) to look across at the Tilneys’ box.

The plot of Lovers' Vows involves seduction by a baron, illegitimacy, desertion and the baron's son unwittingly drawing his sword on his father. The baron's daughter is courted by the foppish Count Cassel but loves – and is loved by – her tutor, Anhalt.

Possibly Jane Austen was also drawn to the play because its epilogue (spoken by Tom Bertram) fulsomely mentions Sir John Borlase Warren, who had been Commander-in-Chief of her sailor brother Charles. (Possibly, too, Sir John Borlase Warren and his wife were the prototypes of Admiral and Mrs. Croft in Persuasion).

Note the astuteness of Jane Austen's choice of play. The characters are just right for the actors. Cassel is as addle-pated as Rushworth, who plays him. The Baron has heavy, long-winded speeches – just the sort of thing Yates must have enjoyed performing. Amelia is a plain-speaking, playful character (perfect for Mary Crawford). Amelia cares nothing for Cassel but prefers her tutor, Anhalt (played, of course, by Edmund).

There is a scene is which the love of Anhalt and Amelia is avowed (the scene which Fanny dreads). Maria Crawford is in a situation of intoxicated delight, holding Henry's hand (she playing Agatha to his Frederick) at the very moment when Sir Thomas returns.

It is an error of judgement to act the play at Mansfield Park: common sense should tell his children Sir Thomas would not approve of a play in which his daughters were required to make indelicate speeches; and extravagance and merriment were thoughtless at a time when their father was in peril on the seas. Also, such public, exhibitionist activity is inappropriate in the home of a gentleman who insists on privacy and tranquillity.

There is an interesting parallel between the preparations for theatricals at Mansfield Park and the way Jane Austen illustrates self-seeking human nature at work in Sense and Sensibility. In the earlier novel, there is the wonderful scene in which Mrs. Fanny Dashwood incrementally and rapidly scales down her husband’s first proposal to do something for his mother and sisters after the death of Mr. Dashwood senior. In Mansfield Park, the reverse happens: at first, the theatrical activity will be on the smallest possible scale, involving no disruption, no commotion and no outsider. But the self-interested enthusiasts rapidly escalate this to a major operation.

When Edmund tells Fanny he has finally decided to take part in the play, he makes excuses: his decision will prevent strangers from being invited; it will save Miss Crawford from speaking embarrassing lines to a gentleman with whom she is barely acquainted. He hopes Fanny will exonerate him, but succeeds only in proving her strength of purpose greater than his. To Fanny, the decision is 'misery': 

     ....After all his objections – objections so just and so public! After all that she had heard him say, and seen him look, and known him to be feeling. Could it be possible? Edmund so inconsistent. ....

The stage directions require Agatha (Maria Bertram) and her son Frederick (Henry Crawford) to embrace. They require him to take her hand and press it to his heart. They require her to press him to her breast.

Imagine Henry and Maria pressing each other's heads to their respective breasts. In an era when hand-holding off the dance floor was circumscribed, when a kiss was practically illegal, the fact that Maria would press Henry to her breast - especially in the light of her engaged situation - is scandalous.

By the way, there is no point in trying to attend a performance at the Theatre Royal Jane Austen knew in Orchard Street. It was closed in 1805 and shortly afterwards converted into a church. Today's Theatre Royal in Bath is a different building.