Given that the most mundane activities—a carriage ride, a tour of a country house, a walk through its grounds, even a visit to its chapel—can become occasions for flirtation and the prelude to seduction, the vehement condemnation of the Mansfield Theatricals in general and Lovers’ Vows in particular seems a bit unfair. Within the novel, that condemnation comes chiefly from—to borrow Mr. Yates’s phrase—the “unintelligibly moral” (191) Fanny, Edmund, and Sir Thomas, and I’ve begun to wonder how wholeheartedly readers are meant to subscribe to it.1
In Fanny’s case, the emotional basis of her criticism of the play seems to undermine the notion of a principled stand. Her immediate reservations about the play are straightforwardly conveyed by the narrative. “Agatha and Amelia appeared to her in their different ways so totally improper for home representation—the situation of one, and the language of the other, so unfit to be expressed by any woman of modesty, that she could hardly suppose her cousins could be aware of what they were engaging in . . .” (137). While the rehearsal process, however, seems almost to normalize the selection of Inchbald’s play, Fanny’s refusal to act is subject to doubts about “what she ought to do. . . . Was she right in refusing what was so warmly asked, so strongly wished for? . . . Was it not ill-nature—selfishness—and a fear of exposing herself? . . . It would be so horrible to her to act, that she was inclined to suspect the truth and purity of her own scruples . . .” (152-53). Beyond her own disinclination, her resistance seems to rest on “Edmund’s judgment, . . . his persuasion of Sir Thomas’s disapprobation of the whole” (153); “[h]er heart and her judgment were equally against Edmund’s decision. . . . She was full of jealousy and agitation” (159). Later, on the night of the rehearsal, with only a glancing reference to “her duty to keep away,” Fanny finds that “she must yield” (172).
Edmund’s judgment is an even more complicated mix of moral interpretation and ego. Putting on any play, he says, “‘would be very wrong’”: “‘In a general light, private theatricals are open to some objections, but as we are circumstanced, I must think it would be highly injudicious, and more than injudicious . . .’” (125). Those circumstances are the recognition of the potential dangers of Sir Thomas’s Antiguan trip, Maria’s “delicate” and uncertain engagement (125), and the alteration a theatre would make to the fabric of the estate, “‘taking liberties with my father’s house in his absence’” (127, my italics). But as that personal pronoun—invoked even as he’s speaking to the elder son of that same father—suggests, Edmund claims possession of his father’s moral authority: he is “determined to prevent” the theatricals and he takes the first “opportunity of trying his strength” (124-25). When the possibility of engaging Charles Maddox to play Anhalt to Mary Crawford’s Amelia is broached, however, Edmund rationalizes his participation as a means of “‘restraining the publicity of the business, or limiting the exhibition, of concentrating our folly, . . . and of persuading them to confine the representation within a much smaller circle than they are now in the high road for’” (155). As the others recognize, in acting to prevent Miss Crawford from “‘making love to’” (143) Charles Maddox, “Edmund had descended from that moral elevation which he had maintained before . . .” (158). Even Fanny’s response focuses not so much on the right and wrong of the situation but on Edmund’s “inconsistent” (156) posture in doing “‘what you had resolved against, and what you are known to think will be disagreeable to my uncle’” (155). Fanny worries, “‘It will be such a triumph to the others!’” (155).
And what of Sir Thomas Bertram? He, of course, “saw all the impropriety of such a scheme among such a party, and at such a time, as strongly as his son had ever supposed he must; he felt it too much indeed for many words . . .” (187). (No harsher name than impropriety given!) Sir Thomas’s judgment is undercut not so much by Tom’s invocation of his father’s “‘decided taste’” for “‘any thing of the acting, spouting, reciting kind’” (126) as by the narrative’s comic description of his response to the acting. The “pause of alarm” which follows Sir Thomas’s departure to “his own dear room” (181) precedes a dramatic generic shift as Tom watches the meeting between his father and his friend and “the gradual metamorphosis of the impassioned Baron Wildenhaim into the well-bred and easy Mr. Yates” (182). (Compare the comic particularity of the following passage to the depiction of Catherine Morland’s horror and astonishment at the furniture in her bedroom at Northanger Abbey.)
Sir Thomas had been a good deal surprised to find candles burning in his room; and on casting his eye round it, to see other symptoms of recent habitation, and a general air of confusion in the furniture. The removal of the book-case from before the billiard room door struck him especially, but he had scarcely more than time to feel astonished at all this, before there were sounds from the billiard room to astonish him still further. Some one was talking there in a very loud accent—he did not know the voice—more than talking—almost hallooing. He stept to the door, rejoicing at that moment in having the means of immediate communication, and opening it, found himself on the stage of a theatre, and opposed to a ranting young man, who appeared likely to knock him down backwards. (182)
The comedy of this scene—its serial transitions from surprise to astonishment at the disarrangement of the furniture, to the further astonishment of hearing sounds recognized incrementally as loud talking, then more than talking, then almost hallooing, to the likelihood of a comic pratfall—might condition readerly perception of Sir Thomas’s condemnation of the acting. Indeed, the “anger” Sir Thomas initially resists comes from the indignity of “finding himself thus bewildered in his own house, making part of a ridiculous exhibition in the midst of theatrical nonsense” (183). His “glance . . . towards the ceiling and stucco” and his inquiry “after the fate of the billiard table” (183, my italics) convert the Burkean concern with the fabric of the estate to an over-dramatized concrete particularity that underlines the comedy.
Given such ambivalence, then, about the judgment of Fanny, Edmund, and Sir Thomas, we might look more closely at both Lovers’ Vows itself and at contemporary perspectives on acting. I want to suggest that the issues are more complex than whether the play is “improper for home representation” (137) or whether converting Sir Thomas’s room is a violation of his rule. In all her fiction, Austen writes about and for other readers. She encourages the readers of her books to read along with the characters inside them. In Mansfield Park, Austen involves both her readers and her characters in the contentious history of the play itself as well as the fears and pleasures of play-acting; in so doing, she implicates us in the processes of reading and viewing.
Lovers’ Vows, the play the Mansfield troupe selects, is often assumed to be objectionable because of its national and/or generic identity. It is a German play, a sentimental drama of revolutionary sympathies that presents the upper classes as needing reformation for a variety of sexual, moral and economic faults. In the Preface to the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth blames the proliferation of “sickly and stupid German Tragedies” on a “degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation,” one of a number of causes which “blunt the discriminating powers of the mind” (249). There was, as translator and novelist Anne Plumptre commented, a “great difference . . . supposed to subsist between the national taste and manners of the English and those of the Germans, particularly with regard to their dramatic compositions” (82). Stephen Porter, in a “Brief Biography of Kotzebue” prefacing his translation of Lovers’ Vows, pointed to Schiller’s The Robbers as a play “so universally read, and so much admired” in England, “but the genius of the Bohemian, like his native mountains and woods, was thought too rugged and terrible for the refinement of a British Theatre” (iv). At Mansfield Park, such politics might present a challenge. In the early stages of the theatrical enthusiasm, Edmund’s “alarm,” converted into sarcastic vehemence, defines what he believes to be beyond the limits of what will be attempted: “‘Let us do nothing by halves. If we are to act, let it be in a theatre completely fitted up with pit, box, and gallery, and let us have a play entire from beginning to end; so as it be a German play, no matter what, with a good tricking, shifting after-piece, and a figure-dance, and a hornpipe, and a song between the acts’” (124).
A “German play” might translate roughly as a play by August von Kotzebue. Stephen Porter claimed that Kotzebue’s “talents are better calculated, than those of any of his countrymen, for the meridian of England” (iv). During the last decade of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries, translations of Kotzebue’s plays were extremely popular both in performance and in print. Of Age Tomorrow, The Birth-Day, The Horse and Widow, The Bee-Hive, Pizzaro, The Stranger, and Lovers’ Vows were repertory standards in both London and Bath, where Jane Austen saw at least some of them (Byrne 36-44, 150). A checklist of translations, adaptations, and parodies published in England between 1789 and 1805 lists 53 books translating, parodying, or critiquing Kotzebue (Stokoe 180-87). As Jane Moody points out, “Producing Kotzebue, both for the closet and the stage, was a fast-moving and highly competitive cultural business in late eighteenth-century England” (268).
Despite (or perhaps because of) their popularity, Kotzebue’s plays did evoke controversy. A writer for the Anti-Jacobin Review objected to the “violations of all the rules of propriety and decorum” (qtd. in Kucich 74) in Kotzebue’s plays. Others worried about their political tenor. Robert Southey, for instance, “wondered” that Kotzebue’s plays were performed: “[T]hey are so Jacobinical in tendency. They create Jacobinical feelings, almost irresistibly. In every one that I have yet seen . . . some old prejudice or old principle is attacked” (qtd. in J. Wordsworth 115). The Oracle described in 1802 the enthusiasm for Kotzebue’s plays as a “most remarkable species of mental disease, which occasioned a temporary suspension of common sense in this capital[,] . . . Kotzebue-mania. . . . The patients were afflicted with a childish passion for noise, faintings, the startings and ravings of others deeply affected with the same disease, and a strong abhorrence of common sense” (qtd. in Gay 104). Elizabeth Inchbald, writing additional remarks to Lovers’ Vows for The British Theatre collection (1806-08), attempts a more philosophical note:
While it is the fashion to see German plays, both the German and the English author will patiently bear the displeasure of a small party of critics, as the absolute conditions on which they enjoy popularity. Nor, till the historian is forbid to tell how tyrants have success in vanquishing nations, or the artist be compelled to paint the beauteous courtesan, with hideous features as the emblem of her mind, shall the free dramatist be untrue to his science; which, like theirs, is to follow nature through all her rightful course. (9-10)
The very translation of Kotzebue’s 1790 Das Kind der Liebe was embroiled in controversy. In 1798, Elizabeth Inchbald adapted Kotzebue’s play from “a literal translation” (476) for the Theatre-Royal at Covent Garden. Four days after its October 11 opening, Anne Plumptre’s translation appeared in print as The Natural Son (Bode 298). In the following months of 1798, Inchbald’s edition was published, as well as a version by Stephen Porter entitled Lovers’ Vows, or, The Child of Love. In 1800 Benjamin Thompson’s Lovers’ Vows; or, The Natural Son was released. Plumptre’s, Porter’s, and Thompson’s versions are strikingly similar, re-presenting Kotzebue’s play, as Porter put it (perhaps with specific reference to the prologue to Inchbald’s version), “in an English dress” rather than in “the disguise in which he has been represented at Covent Garden Theatre” (ii). Plumptre too criticized “the abridged and mutilated State” of Inchbald’s version, which failed to “reflect the Mind, the Principles, and the Genius of Kotzebue” (ii-iii). While Inchbald attributed such criticism to “the precise decorum of the cold grammarian” and “the rigid criticism of the closet” (477), her competitors tried, in Porter’s words, to give “the literal meaning, and . . . somewhat of the spirit of the original” (ii). Given the popularity of the play on stage and the vigorous discussion of Kotzebue in periodicals such as the Anti-Jacobin Review, the Monthly Magazine, the Times, the Star, the Morning Chronicle, the Oracle, as well as in non-periodical forums, it would be strange if Austen herself were unaware of the controversy. She may even, though I have no absolute evidence for this suggestion, have read one of the translations by Plumptre, Porter, or Thompson.
There’s more to Kotzebue and to this particular play than “the extreme silliness” (95) Margaret Kirkham describes. Lovers’ Vows unites two principal strands, the consequences-of-seduction plot and an unconventional courtship plot: Agatha Friburg, twenty years ago seduced by a young nobleman and now reduced to illness and poverty, reveals to her son, Frederick, that he is Baron Wildenhaim’s natural son; while begging for money to relieve his mother’s needs, Frederick attacks the Baron and is imprisoned. The Baron, wanting his daughter, Amelia, to marry the foolish Count Cassel, sends her tutor, the clergyman Anhalt, to determine the state of her feelings; Amelia confesses her love for Anhalt, who protests that their difference in rank is too great. Through Anhalt’s agency, identities are revealed and the Baron is convinced to marry Agatha; Anhalt’s reward is marriage to Amelia.
The political spirit of Kotzebue’s play was one of the major losses effected by Inchbald’s adaptation. The first act, in which a series of travelers pass the sick and starving Wilhelmina (as Kotzebue names her), is compressed, eradicating its Good Samaritan parallels: Inchbald not only eliminates the Country Girl’s gift of milk to Wilhelmina, but she also cuts entirely the characters of an abusive huntsman and a Jew who gives money despite poverty. The closest character the play has to a villain is similarly redressed. Kotzebue’s Count von der Mulde, a German coxcomb, is transformed into Count Cassel, an “apish” figure of fun whose aristocratic lack of sympathy to the poor is obscured in Inchbald’s version by his more general foolishness.
While Inchbald’s changes represent the loss of Kotzebue’s political text, they also represent a gain ready to be seized upon by a canny ironist. As Plumptre points out, in Inchbald’s version the count “is now degraded into a subordinate State” (iv-v). For Jane Austen’s purposes, this degradation highlights the satire as Rushworth seizes on Cassel in preference to the clergyman Anhalt, the moral center of the play, whom he remembers from the London production as “a very stupid fellow” (138). Further, as Plumptre makes clear, in Kotzebue’s play, the count was “designed as a forcible Contrast to the plain and grave, but elevated Character of Frederick” (iv), an effect lost in Inchbald’s text but restored (with a difference) by Austen as Maria Bertram tries to exchange her Cassel for Frederick, Mr. Rushworth for Henry Crawford.
The changes Inchbald makes to overcome what she terms the play’s “unfitness for an English stage” (477) mute the political tones of Kotzebue’s voice. Christoph Bode argues that in Inchbald’s reshaping of “Kotzebue’s political play into a domestic drama,” even the change in title (from The Love Child or The Natural Son to Lovers’ Vows) is “a political disclaimer” (305).
Kotzebue’s title names both the origin of the scandal (a political, social, and moral scandal) and its remedy at the same time: it is the love child who will eventually overcome social barriers and injustice. Society will redefine itself along lines of emotional affiliation, not along class lines any more. Inchbald transforms almost all of this into something domestic, some private, individual, de-historicized problem: lover’s vows—how easily are they broken, how inconstant is man’s nature! (305)
And again such a transformation is particularly useful to Austen’s fictional purposes. When Lady Bertram’s languid defense of Fanny’s interest in the play results in a question—“‘What is the play about, Fanny, you have never told me?’”—Mrs. Norris’s pre-emptive tautology—“‘It is about Lovers’ Vows’” (167)—actually defines its identity for the Mansfield Players.
If they had been paying attention, however, those involved in the play, including Fanny, might have noticed that even Inchbald’s depoliticized version offers insights into definitions of women and the power of courtship and seduction plots, into the role of the clergy, and, finally, into the tensions between parents and children. The figure of Amelia was the subject of particular controversy. Inchbald claimed that “the forward and unequivocal manner in which she announces her affection to her lover, in the original, would have been revolting to an English audience” (478). Penny Gay contends that Inchbald “subsumes Amelia into the tradition of the witty and flirtatious English ingénue” (113). But Inchbald’s “indelicately blunt” (478) language was to others like Plumptre and Porter the language of Nature. Plumptre, in particular, argues that Kotzebue’s Amelia has been converted from an “artless innocent Child of Nature” to “a forward Country Hoyden”; her virtues are “distorted and disguised, by a Pertness” which obscures “her benevolent Conduct” (v). Julia Bertram’s angry rejection of the role seems almost to echo Plumptre’s language: “‘as to Amelia, it is of all parts in the world the most disgusting to me. I quite detest her. An odious, little, pert, unnatural, impudent girl’” (136). Even Mary Crawford, though she “accepted the part very readily” (138) later acknowledges that “‘[s]uch a forward young lady may well frighten the men’” (144). What Inchbald described as the “whimsical insinuations” (478) of her Amelia suit Mary Crawford more than the artlessness of Kotzebue’s heroine would; indeed Amelia’s playfulness finds an echo in Mary Crawford’s “equivocal” (367) courtship of Edmund. In fact, the Star’s description of the actress who played Amelia sounds much like Edmund’s image of Mary Crawford:
Mrs. H. Johnston is so fascinating in her air and smile—her coquetry is so playful that even her errors please us. . . . [S]he plays the hoyden with so much grace, that we almost wish her to continue to trespass on truth, and please us by being wrong. (qtd. in Pedley 307)
The emphasis for the Mansfield Players is, of course, on lovers’ vows, more specifically in this case on vows made by the heroine before she has been assured of the hero’s love. Mary Crawford defines the role of Amelia in terms of that declaration of love, so that when a near stranger seems likely to play Anhalt, she plans to curtail their courtship scene: “‘I can tell Mr. Maddox, that I shall shorten some of his speeches, and a great many of my own, before we rehearse together.—It will be very disagreeable, and by no means what I expected’” (149). Fanny’s understanding of that scene—“The whole subject of it was love”—overlooks anything other than the “marriage of love . . . described by the gentleman” or the “very little short of a declaration of love . . . made by the lady” (167). Fanny has “read, and read the scene again,” but her “many painful, many wondering emotions,” her obsessive imaginings, her “longing and dreading to see how they would perform” (167), all prevent clear interpretation. For example, Amelia’s unsought love for her tutor, a love that bridges the divide of class, mirrors Fanny’s own secret love for Edmund. Fanny also misses the scene’s emphasis on gratitude. She misses (as apparently do they all) Anhalt’s description of an unhappy marriage motivated by “convenience, and fair appearance joined to folly and ill-humour,” which “forge the fetters” and “gall with their weight the married pair” (505)—a marriage that looks much like the one Maria and Mr. Rushworth will contract. Intriguingly, both Plumptre’s and Thompson’s translations clarify what attends such “convenience”: as Plumptre’s version has it, “if motives of mere convenience (what the world generally terms prudence) if parental authority, rashness or caprice, tie the bonds of hymen, then, alas!” (36). The other marriages Sir Thomas wishes for—of his niece to Henry Crawford, of his son to Mary—are perhaps imaged here.
The play’s other female lead highlights the dangerous relationship between the courtship and seduction plots as well as their effects on women. The figure of Agatha, in Fanny’s mind “unfit to be expressed by any woman of modesty” (137), ought to serve as a warning of the importance of feminine chastity. Some contemporary readers objected to the share this fallen woman has in the play’s happy conclusion. Responding to similar objections to the moral retrieval and return to the home of an adulteress in Kotzebue’s The Stranger, Inchbald, however, argued, “To reconcile to the virtuous spectator this indecorum, most calamitous woes are first depicted as the consequence of illicit love” (4). Inchbald locates Agatha’s sin in vanity succeeded by physical pleasure: “His flattery made me vain, and his repeated vows—Don’t look at me, dear Frederick! . . . Oh! oh! my son! I was intoxicated by the fervent caresses of a young, inexperienced, capricious man, and did not recover from the delirium till it was too late” (487). (In Plumptre’s translation, Wilhelmina’s education is the source of her fall: “my ideas and capacities developed themselves, but so also did my vanity” ). Maria Bertram’s plot springs from such causes. The errant heroine of Lovers’ Vows is punished by exclusion from society and even from the household of her parents, the death of her father, poverty, illness, almost starvation. Agatha’s marriage, the climax of the plot’s happy conclusion, represents restitution rather than reward, the reformation of the patriarch and the community.
Kotzebue’s play also validates Edmund Bertram’s argument for the significance of the clergy. Mary Crawford’s sly invitation to Edmund—“‘If any part could tempt you to act, I suppose it would be Anhalt’” (144-45)—tries to draw him into lover’s vows under cover of assuming his prospective profession. Edmund’s rejection looks forward to his father’s discomfort on stage: “‘I should be sorry to make the character ridiculous by bad acting’” (145, my italics). As his answer suggests, the role is a significant one. Anhalt is the voice of conscience in the play, a role that Edmund undertakes at Mansfield with less success. The pastor powers the play’s main plot, searching out Agatha, effecting the meeting between Frederick and his father, convincing the Baron to act upon his sense of duty. Through Anhalt’s agency, the domestic and the communal are reformed as the play’s concluding marriages breach the barriers of class. While in Mansfield Park domestic and communal reform come through the recognition of the marginal, the incorporation of the poor cousin as daughter, and the validation of the domestic ideals of love, thoughtfulness, generosity, and constancy against the self-interest and vanity of the world, Edmund is not the agent of those reforms. Like the other members of the theatrical troupe, and despite the vows involved in his own ordination, Edmund can focus only on his participation in the love plot.
The audience—as well as the potential audience—for the Mansfield production of Lovers’ Vows also overlooks the play’s exploration of intergenerational conflict, parental tyranny, and filial disobedience. In Kotzebue’s play, relationships between parents and children can distort moral action and identity: the Baron’s desertion of Agatha is in part a concession to maternal pressure; Agatha is blamed for her father’s death; Frederick’s anger at his father finds an accidental outlet in a physical attack on the Baron (who then imprisons his son). Despite such a pattern, however, this play is not as Jacobinical as Southey’s words might suggest. The Baron is no tyrant: despite his desire for his daughter to marry Count Cassel, he (unlike Sir Thomas) never encourages her to marry against her feelings. And while Amelia’s declaration of her love for Anhalt seems to challenge gender restrictions, her marriage is finally in her father’s gift. Although paternal power in Lovers’ Vows is chastised, as at Mansfield Park, it is ultimately reformed and reinstated.
The Mansfield players, however, ignore such issues as they adapt the dramatic and erotic energies of the play to their own purposes. At Ecclesford, Lord Ravenscroft was to play the Baron to Lady Ravenscroft’s Agatha. At Mansfield, however, erotic energy is directed inter-generationally: Henry Crawford, as Frederick, maneuvers to ensure that Maria, the object of his seduction, will play his mother; Yates, claiming the role of the Baron, argues for Julia to play his daughter; even the roles filled by Edmund and Mary Crawford, those of Anhalt and Amelia, depict a tutor/pupil relationship (explicitly connected in the translations of Plumptre, Porter and Thompson to Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Heloise). Onstage at Mansfield Park, maternal, paternal, or filial love serves merely to mask erotic desire. Such an adaptation suggests that the real struggles at Mansfield Park are those between generations.
Lovers’ Vows, despite its contentious history, has much to teach those at Mansfield Park. It’s worth noting, then, that when Sir Thomas “wipe[s] away every outward memento of what had been, even to the destruction of every unbound copy of ‘Lovers’ Vows’ in the house, for he was burning all that met his eye” (191, my italics), he burns only the editions used by the actors. The bound copies of the play (whether by Inchbald, Plumptre, Porter, or Thompson), toward which the narrative gestures, remain in the library of Mansfield Park. Clearly, at least for Sir Thomas, the problem is in the acting.
Why? There was a cultural unease connected to the theater and acting during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to which it would be useful to attend. The theater building itself, with its hierarchies of seating, modeled the social structures of its world. Although by the end of the eighteenth century, fashionable members of the audience were no longer seated on the stage, the drama still offered what Lisa A. Freeman calls “a theater of interaction” (5), an experience in which the audience responded (with shouts, applause, laughter, tears, conversation) to what transpired both on stage and in the spaces occupied by the audience: “No single controlling gaze regulated the space of performance . . .” (5). Meanings were various and communal. William B. Worthen argues that “the eighteenth-century spectator’s sudden, public reaction to the events on the stage confirmed both his engagement with dramatic action and his active participation in the theatrical community. The brassy theatricality of the spectators’ behavior revealed their sympathetic involvement with one another. . . . By responding both to the actors’ and to its own performance, the audience certified the project of the sentimental theater[,] . . . producing the kind of harmonious social pleasure that Shaftesbury, among others, thought ‘superior to any other’” (83).
Attending a play, as this kind of audience participation suggests, was not an experience of giving oneself over to the illusion of watching real people feel and act on the other side of a transparent “fourth wall.” The experience of the drama was discontinuous: members of the audience would come and go throughout the performance (as the example of Henry Tilney suggests). Actors’ performances were structured around “points,” moments of high emotion in which a speech or a scene would be isolated from the action, delivered to the audience, and repeated as many times as the audience required. Such tactics reflected a particular, and non-novelistic, understanding of character. As Freeman argues, the goal “was not for the actor to transcend character, nor character the actor, but rather for each to be constituted in performance as visible planes of ‘character’ that competed with and against one another for control over meaning” (36).
Such planes would include the complex identity of the actor or actress assuming the role. Actors often specialized in certain “lines of business,” lines which came to define the expectations of their audience (Freeman 28). When Henry Crawford tells Julia Bertram that “‘[t]ragedy may be your choice, but it will certainly appear that comedy chooses you’” (135), he invokes conventional practice to mask his own dramatic designs. The personal life of the actor or actress constituted another part of this complex identity. According to Freeman, “eighteenth-century audiences were not only obsessively aware of aspects of an actor’s or actress’s personal life . . . [but] they were also persistently encouraged to draw associations between those private lives and the roles players played. Audiences, in short, were keenly aware of how public and private ‘character’ either converged or diverged in performance” (39). Edmund Bertram’s comparison of the “‘real acting, good hardened real acting’” of professionals to “‘the raw efforts of those who have not been bred to the trade,—a set of gentlemen and ladies, who have all the disadvantages of education and decorum to struggle through’” (124) suggests the potential conflicts between the identities of the Mansfield actors and the roles they would assume.
Moreover, as Kristina Straub has shown, audience interest in the player’s identity, particularly in the case of women, was defined in sexual terms. Henry Crawford’s attempt to cajole Julia into good humor by recommending the part of Amelia implies such a convergence between actress and role: “‘Simplicity, indeed, is beyond the reach of almost every actress by profession. It requires a delicacy of feeling which they have not. It requires a gentlewoman—a Julia Bertram’” (135). Indeed, Henry Crawford’s language echoes that of the Star’s review of Mrs. H. Johnston: “The character of Amelia is that of arch simplicity; the most elegant, but perhaps the most difficult character in nature faithfully to pourtray” (qtd. in Pedley 307). Fanny, who has had no experience of seeing a play, can in one instance at least keep her feeling about the performer and the performance separate: “As far as she could judge, Mr. Crawford was considerably the best actor of all. . . . She did not like him as a man, but she must admit him to be the best actor” (165). Fanny’s concerns about Maria’s acting, however, reveal the fears of the convergence (especially in sexual terms) between actress and role: “Maria she also thought acted well—too well . . .” (165).
This fear of such a convergence is based on certain eighteenth-century notions of acting. Worthen describes and quotes from a letter by Garrick that defines the relationship between actor and role:
when the actor performs on the stage, his ‘Genius’ should enable him to be ‘transported beyond himself’ into a passionate synchrony with his character’s feelings. . . . Garrick’s actor uses feeling, but not in pursuit of personal authenticity. Instead, his feeling motivates an autonomous dramatic role, gives the role’s passion a significant stage reference in the actor’s real emotions. The actor’s feeling sustains the independent, universal signs [e.g., gestures] that stimulate the audience’s emotional response. Rather than presenting himself to the audience through the prism of his role, Garrick’s actor uses personal feeling to substantiate the role’s passions; he realizes only ‘the feelings of his Character’ to the audience. (94-95)
But the problem, of course, is that the Mansfield players—with the possible exception of Henry Crawford—are not real, hardened actors. They have difficulty distinguishing between the feelings of actor and character. When Julia interrupts the rehearsal to announce her father’s arrival, “Frederick was listening with looks of devotion to Agatha’s narrative, and pressing her hand to his heart” (175). Julia recognizes, however, that “he still kept his station and retained her sister’s hand” (175). The indefinite nature of the masculine pronoun reference (is he still Frederick or now Henry Crawford?) is contrasted to the specificity of “her sister’s hand.” Julia’s angry response suggests that she attributes the gesture to the man rather than to the character enacted. Maria, too, defines the he in a way that suggests her own emotional implication: “Henry Crawford’s retaining her hand at such a moment, a moment of such peculiar proof and importance, was worth ages of doubt and anxiety” (176). But when Henry Crawford reveals his plans to leave Mansfield, the gesture is converted back to an expression of stage passion in heightened language that suggests its connection to the sentimental drama: “The hand which had so pressed her’s to his heart!—The hand and the heart were alike motionless and passive now!” (193).
Such issues were given particular prominence by the enthusiasm for private theatricals. According to Sybil Rosenfeld, “The craze reached its climax in the 1780’s, declined somewhat in the 1790’s, increased again slightly in the first decade of the 19th century and, after that, petered out” (11). Jane Austen’s own family, of course, participated in fashion, putting on plays from 1782 through 1789 (Byrne 1-14). At the highest levels of society, aristocratic thespians built theatres, hired professionals to design and construct scenery, to devise elaborate costumes, and to direct. Great, often ruinous, sums were spent (as Tom Bertram’s investment in green baize, pink and blue satin, carpentry work, and a scene-painter from London suggests). Tickets were issued, and performances were even reviewed in the newspapers, as suggested by Mr. Yates’s disappointed hopes of being “so near fame, so near the long paragraph in praise of the private theatricals at Ecclesford, . . . which would of course have immortalized the whole party for at least a twelvemonth!” (121). The problems endemic to amateur productions plagued these. Like Mr. Rushworth, some amateurs could not remember their lines; like Mrs. Grant they sometimes laughed or, more often, like Tom Bertram were incomprehensible or inaudible (Rosenfeld 18-19). The question of what to do for women was answered in a variety of ways: the Earl of Barrymore hired professional actresses for his productions; at Richmond House, ladies related to the Duke and Duchess performed (Rosenfeld 19-30, 35).
The fashionable and genteel often agreed with Henry Crawford that ladies and gentlemen possessed superior abilities to act the manners and emotions appropriate to their own class. Horace Walpole asked, “Who should act genteel comedy perfectly but people of fashion that have sense? Actors and actresses can only guess at the tone of high life, and cannot be inspired by it” (qtd. in Rosenfeld 42). The Morning Chronicle admired in the Richmond House players the “obvious desire to assimilate, and an apparent ardour to assume and to exhibit, the very feelings the characters are actuated by” (qtd. in Rosenfeld 51). But such assimilation, such ardor were also matters for concern. The Oracle in 1798 warned that “the open embraces of the Actor are exchanged without difficulty for the private of the Seducer” (qtd. in Rosenfeld 12). A decade earlier, the Public Advertiser had worried that “the necessary liberties of the stage are unfavourable to delicacy; and the giving and receiving promiscuous embraces, tend principally to the interests of the gentlemen at Doctors-Commons. Parents who regard the future and honour of their children should hesitate at their engagements in private plays” (qtd. in Rosenfeld 12). Surely Sir Thomas Bertram is alive to such concerns!
We hear much of the infectious influence of the theatricals at Mansfield Park. As Julia observes, “‘the Mansfield Theatricals would enliven the whole neighbourhood exceedingly’” (148-49). Rehearsals are spread “‘all over the house’”: Mr. Yates “‘storm[s] away in the dining room’”; “‘those indefatigable rehearsers, Agatha and Frederick,’” occupy the theatre (169); Mary Crawford and Edmund find their separate ways to the East Room. Even Lady Bertram “‘mean[s] to look in at their rehearsals’” (167). Her interest, however, is deferred by Mrs. Norris’s material advice to “‘stay till the curtain is hung’”: “‘there is very little sense in a play without a curtain—and I am much mistaken if you do not find it draw up into very handsome festoons’” (167). That curtain—mentioned five times—proclaims the drama’s essential artifice: framing the action, signaling beginning and end. It conceals what happens behind it, but above all it reminds actors and audience that what happens in the space it defines is play.
The dispersion of the rehearsal space in the absence of the curtain is symptomatic of a larger problem: these players are not, like Garrick’s actor, “transported beyond [themselves].” Instead, the self’s desires become the motive for the dramatic character’s words and actions. Actors and audience alike lose their awareness of dramatic artifice. When Edmund, for example, discovers Mary Crawford in the East Room,
[t]hey must now rehearse together. Edmund proposed, urged, entreated it—till the lady, not very unwilling at first, could refuse no longer. . . . In watching them [Fanny] forgot herself; and agitated by the increasing spirit of Edmund’s manner, had once closed the page and turned away exactly as he wanted help. . . . [S]he was inclined to believe their performance would, indeed, have such nature and feeling in it, as must ensure their credit, and make it a very suffering exhibition to herself. (170)
As the verbs proposed, urged, entreated suggest, this action is less performance than a stage of Edmund’s courtship of Miss Crawford. Fanny’s agitation suggests that in her eyes the “nature and feeling” are attributable not to the characters, or even to the acting, but to Edmund and Mary themselves.
Fanny is not immune to the theatrical “‘infection’” (184). Edmund asserts that “‘[w]e have all been more or less to blame, . . . every one of us, excepting Fanny. Fanny is the only one who has . . . been consistent’” (187). Fanny, however, is more central to the Mansfield Theatricals than Edmund allows. Although she hasn’t read Lovers’ Vows before its selection, during the weeks of rehearsal—through obsessive re-readings, the “innocent enjoyment” of watching and listening (165), and other forms of participation—she comes to know much of it by heart. Through her prompting of Mr. Rushworth, for instance, she not only “learn[s] every word of his part herself” (166) but presumably assumes the roles of the other characters on stage with him: the Baron, Amelia, and Frederick. Maria notices that Fanny knows the role of Cottager’s Wife, characterized by Tom as a part “‘with a good deal of spirit’” (134), well enough to “‘say every word of it . . . for she could put Mrs. Grant right the other day in twenty places’” (172). And of course when Mary Crawford comes to Fanny to rehearse, Fanny’s demurral that she “‘must read the part, for [she] can say very little of it’” (169) suggests an intimate and oral relationship to the roles of both Amelia and Anhalt. Fanny indeed is revealed as a not so “quiet auditor of the whole” (136). No wonder, then, that her imagination is affected by the conventions of the sentimental theatre, as, for instance, she “knelt in spirit to her uncle, and her bosom swelled” (185) in Edmund’s defense.
Though Sir Thomas’s return seems to end the theatricals episode, “to wipe away every outward memento of what had been” (191), it doesn’t quite. For Lovers’ Vows is succeeded by another performance which Sir Thomas authorizes, Henry Crawford’s dramatic reading of Henry VIII. As Lady Bertram declares, “and strongly too[,] ‘It was really like being at a play’” (338), and the effect of Henry Crawford’s reading is registered on Fanny’s body. Kotzebue gives way to Shakespeare, the German stranger replaced by the British national poet. In 1811, the year that Austen began writing Mansfield Park, Samuel Whitbread, one of the new managers of Drury Lane, announced that “his theatre would be devoted to the canon of British drama, Shakespeare pre-eminently (there would be an end to German imports such as the sentimental plays of Kotzebue)” (Bate 106). Perhaps such a strategy, at least in Austen’s terms, was a distinction without a difference. The problem of the Mansfield theatricals is not what play is chosen or even whether acting is dangerous or wrong. The problem is that the inhabitants of Mansfield are neither attentive enough as readers, nor “hardened” enough as actors, nor acute enough as audience. The readerly audience of Mansfield Park must pass a similar test, must read the theatricals episode alive to the complex and contending voices and texts from which Austen constructs her fictional world.
1. At the 2006 JASNA AGM in Tucson, four members presented Act One, Scene One and Act Three, Scene Two of Inchbald’s adaptation. My thanks to Teri Fontes (Landlady), Jane Davis (Agatha), Baronda Bradley (Amelia), and Mike Deal (Frederick and Anhalt), who taught us what pleasure that play might give.
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