Location: Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival, Nazareth College Arts Center, Rochester, NY
Event Date: July 13 – July 24, 2016
Review Date: July 21 and July 22, 2016
To the possible surprise of many readers, dramatic adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels have a long history, dating back to the 1890s and proliferating throughout the twentieth-century. In the case of her most popular work, Pride and Prejudice, at least ten distinct dramatizations emerged prior to the far more famous Hollywood film of 1940, starring Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson, and featuring a screenplay by Aldous Huxley and Jane Murfin (itself indebted to the earlier dramatization by Helen Jerome). Thanks in part to successful versions on stage and screen, as well as to print texts proliferating in the hands of students and amateur thespians, Devoney Looser notes that it became “increasingly possible to gain exposure to Pride and Prejudice’s plot and characters not through Austen’s novel itself but through other popular media” (Todd 180). Today it might seem that such exposure comes primarily through the TV and film adaptations that have become a predictable feature of the media landscape since the 1990s. But what has been less predictable—even difficult to keep track of—are the growing number of new theatrical productions that currently contribute to this exposure, both as plays and also as musicals—and even the occasional opera. Varying widely in their adaptation strategies, from radically reduced experiments to more traditionally staged period pieces, what they all share is a yearning to bring alive for their audiences a sense of both the distance of Regency life and mores as well as the continuing relevance of Austen’s wit and romance in the 21st century.
The most interesting thing about the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival’s splendid production of Austen’s Pride: A New Musical of Pride and Prejudice is its choice to focus not merely on Jane Austen (Lindsie VanWinkle) as a character at the center of the action, but also to bring to life the writing process itself. Demystifying rather than romanticizing the struggle and difficulty involved, the writers have achieved something remarkable that balances the comedy and romance that theater-goers will expect to see with the risk and reward of Austen’s struggle to imagine an audience for her work. In addition to the drama engendered by the novel’s familiar plot, we also discover the additional drama of a largely unknown woman writer at the turn of the nineteenth century—who has just published her first successful novel, Sense and Sensibility, anonymously—seeking continued success without compromising what feels authentic and true to her as an artist.
The conflict between head and heart—originally figured as a battle between reality and romance—is foregrounded from the opening of the show, with beloved sister Cassandra (Jennifer Evans) serving as a vital interlocutor. “I’m not a romantic,” Austen insists at this point in her interchanges with the sister who is both confidante and collaborator. Much of her resistance stems from a refusal of “happy endings,” an objectionable feature that seems to stand in symptomatically for the romanticism (small “r”) that Austen finds unreasonable and unsatisfying in the fiction familiar to her. This is our first sign that the writer raised on eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century novels—from Richardson and Fielding to Radcliffe and Burney —is both a product of her time and very much a trailblazer in the making, an artist actively seeking a new path forward. In returning to the seeming dead-end of her youthful narrative, “First Impressions”—the writers ingeniously constructed an imaginary version of this lost text for the actors—Austen feels overwhelmed by what it doesn’t do, what doesn’t yet work, what feels not just unfinished but in fact half-baked. Cassandra’s encouragement—and specifically, her push for romance and the satisfactions engendered by felicitous narrative resolution—provides a productive, almost dialectical tension as Austen returns to the old manuscript with fresh eyes.
It will not be much of a spoiler to note that in the end Austen finally relents. And there is almost a whiff of repression in the script, since it’s clear that she wants a happy ending for her novel (and, of course, for her life). But the rationale for this decision seems, thankfully, to be two-fold. In part, Austen simply comes to see that “I wrote of things I didn’t know” —love, generally, and the life narrative of her infamous acceptance-turned-refusal of a marriage proposal—but it also seems as if the creative protocols of writing simply lead her there in the end. Whenever she’s unsure of what should happen to her characters, and by extension to the plot, the natural turn of events keeps leading in the direction that has now become so familiar to readers. But the outcome, we see, was never guaranteed. Characters are frustrated initially by the unexpected vagaries of life: seduction and betrayal—or at least their threat—or the more common dangers of speaking thoughtlessly, judging hastily, and making difficult compromises that one might later regret. But ultimately they are destined for the ends they each individually deserve. One could call this process romance by way of realism, or simply, realistic romance. As Pat Rogers suggests in the introduction to the Cambridge edition of the novel, it is perhaps in the nature of Austen’s juxtaposition of light and dark, compared here to Mozart’s compositional practice, that we see what is distinct about Pride and Prejudice in the history of the novel.
The writers, Lindsay Warren Baker and Amanda Jacobs, have wisely and adeptly created an Austen who is herself a character at the heart of the drama, not merely a vehicle for setting the stage. (This choice itself evolved, apparently, from earlier drafts over the course of at least a decade: initially, they told the novel’s tale straight—a total failure by their admission—and then began to integrate Austen slowly, less fully, more as a device.) And this brilliant maneuver enables the production’s fundamental success. In dialog and indeed collaboration with Cassandra (the writers have studied Austen’s letters and other fiction thoroughly), this Austen finds a path that is fresh both for her youthful experiment in fiction and for us, most of whom—if this performance was any indication—are already intimately familiar with the way things will turn out. To work against this drive to depict what we already know is no small feat. We see the process evolve: false starts, clumsy or inadequately nuanced choices, two-dimensional characters gradually fleshed out in what we now recognize as three-dimensional complexity. In addition to what increasingly emerges as a compelling, wholly real Austen-as-writer, the audience also enjoys the great satisfaction of witnessing her negotiations with her characters. They consult each other; they bicker and banter; they commiserate. In one of the most memorable interactions near the end of the show, Austen forcibly embraces Lady Catherine—clearly without warning or consent—then summarily dismisses her, but only after noting that she has been most useful! This is a very funny bit, naturally, but it also seems completely real—like Austen beginning to swoon before her own imagination of Darcy, or battling Elizabeth for dominance while coming to terms with this heroine with whom she clearly —but never simply—identifies. There is both tension and affinity between the author and her creations. They inhabit her consciousness as she inhabits theirs.
So in its conception as a new, imaginative adaptation that is far more than simply retreading the story of Pride and Prejudice, Austen’s Pride succeeds remarkably. With commanding performances such as those of the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival production, this success was redoubled. One of its greatest achievements, surprisingly, is its inspired and affecting musical score. What most often is one of the weakest, least satisfying elements of contemporary adaptations of Austen’s work for the stage soars here with a compelling beauty and honesty that is tailored for each character. From the beautiful, introspective duets shared by Austen and Elizabeth (Heather Botts), “When I Fall In Love,” and by Cassandra (who doubles as Charlotte Lucas) and Jane (Chloe Tiso), “Not Romantic,” to the comic gems like Mr. Collins’ (Zachary Tallman) silly paean to his benefactress, “Lady Catherine de Bourgh,” and Mrs. Bennet’s (Alison England, doubling quite impressively as Lady Catherine) fittingly obsessive, operatic ode to herself, “My Poor Nerves,” nearly everyone has a moment to shine. In a novel and quite effective departure from convention, Lydia (Lorin Zackular) is given her own major production number, an elaborately choreographed dance scene with a group of redcoats who vie for her attentions: “I Can’t Resist a Redcoat.” Even the comparatively minor Caroline Bingley (Chrissy Albanese) is as entertainingly bitchy as one would expect, and her two brief numbers function as epistolary interjections (both titled “My Dearest Jane”) that are hilarious in their self-absorption and brevity. Mr. Bennet’s (David Studwell) ironic tribute to his household, “Silly Girls,” is perhaps one of the few pieces not pitch-perfect: its touches of harshness suggested a more general misogyny rather than simple frustration with his wife and “silly” daughters specifically. Adaptations often struggle to get the Bennet patriarch right, veering from the far too soft-spoken and weepily sentimental Donald Sutherland in Joe Wright’s 2005 film to perhaps the harshest incarnation of all, Edmund Gwenn from the 1940 Leonard film, who lectures Mrs. Bennet on entailment before joking about the benefit of drowning some of their unmarried daughters at birth. Overall, though, the characters here are ideally cast, tremendously talented, and under the expert direction of the great Igor Goldin, they are almost always convincingly Austenian. (The writers themselves acknowledge Goldin as the essential “third leg” of their collaborative process as he has worked with them on multiple earlier productions of the show.)
Where Austen’s Pride comes closest to its contemporary predecessors in musical theater is perhaps in its incorporation of intense, soaring, romantic ballads that seem inevitable in a tale of love nearly lost and finally won. Several are featured—“Had I Been In Love” and “The Portrait Song,” for example—performed by the principals as one would expect. At least two things still set this show apart from other productions, however: first, it uses these powerfully expressive pieces sparingly; and second, it balances all emotional effusions, whether deep romantic angst or joyous celebration, with the darker energies of artistic creation that underlie and enable them. It is not, in other words, that characters simply burst forth in fervent joy or desperate longing, but that these eruptions are shown to us as products of the imagination (drawn, yes, in part from the life) of the author herself. So, perhaps paradoxically, they seem all the more authentic, appropriate, even inevitable, precisely because we see how hard these moments were to come by, crafted out of the chaos and conflict of the writer. If it is true, as Linda Hutcheon suggests, that “[h]istorically, it is melodramatic worlds and stories that have lent themselves to adaptation to the form of opera and musical dramas” (15), then this tradition is mediated in Austen’s Pride by a clever exposure of the conventions of artistic production at the heart of this adaptation. Since Austen’s artistic world is decidedly not that of melodrama—virtually every critic acknowledges the evident mix of satire with romance in her novels—drawing on her works for the source material of a musical would seem to be an exercise in futility, failing to capture the Austenian voice and vision. But this production proves that what may be quite difficult is certainly not impossible: subtlety and sensationalism might find just the right balance both in Austen’s fiction and in a musical adaptation of her work as well.
Despite all of the common hazards—overly broad comedy (as with Mr. Collins or Mrs. Bennet), too earnest or too suddenly expressive emotion (as with Bingley [Woody Buck], or even more so, with Darcy [Gregory Maheu]), excessive harshness (as with Lady Catherine or Caroline Bingley) —these risks are navigated, even flirted with, and ultimately avoided. Darcy’s initial snub of Elizabeth, for instance, is first drafted as an insult too strong—”she is plain”—and Austen immediately senses its unsuitable excess, modulating it into the familiar version we know from the novel: Miss Bennet is merely “tolerable.” This choice enables a more believable conversion for him later, of course, and it also conveys the fact that insult is not at all the point; Darcy is bored, not looking for an occasion for attack. In fact, the added harshness would suggest a level of investment that he simply does not have. If anything, his attention—importantly—is attuned more closely to Bingley and his interactions with Jane. So, too, in the scene at Rosings, where Darcy emerges unexpectedly during Elizabeth’s post-nuptial visit with the Collinses, Austen initially overplays Darcy’s open friendliness and charm: he smiles, laughs, and is unambiguously warm, even flirtatious, while Elizabeth struggles to play the piano for her host (see image above). Quick revision fixes this rushed and seemingly unmotivated development of affection—after Austen screams a decisive “NO!” across the stage to Darcy—and returns the dynamic between our protagonists to something more like cat-and-mouse, with a far less predictable outcome. Originally, Baker and Jacobs’ Austen seems to have planned a quick romantic rapprochement, but she wisely rethinks this too tidy resolution and here, as elsewhere, imagines believable impediments for her characters and introduces—as with Wickham (Graydon Long), especially—distracting alternative possibilities to the plot. The result: narrative suspense, greater complexity of character, and the possibility of the novel producing more than simple pleasures for quick consumption. In other words, we see the development of a novel that, unlike the popular circulating library page-turners of Austen’s day, is meant to be reread.
If so much might be made of attention to one seemingly small choice of words—“tolerable” in the place of “plain,” for instance—then Austen’s Pride shows that it is precisely such small choices, of word or of deed, that might determine the most significant moments of one’s life. “Choices”—a lyric refrain and leitmotif of the production—are what might come to matter most, if they are properly considered, if we engage them with what today would be called mindfulness. Of course, there is a biographical component to this theme as well. Baker and Jacobs wisely avoid making the show a staged biopic, something like “Becoming Jane: The Musical.” There is but subtle allusion to the well-known story of her brief, broken engagement—Janeites will know the story of the less-than-24-hour engagement to Harris Bigg-Wither, who is never named here—so it is not allowed to serve as the cause of her later writing career (sublimation of failed romance) or even of her caustic sense of humor and anti-romantic perspective (cynicism after losing her one good chance at marriage). And consistent collaboration with Cassandra—as well as periodic conflict between the generally loving sisters—contributes to a more nuanced and well-rounded Jane Austen. She is, above all, a writer here, and perhaps nothing is stronger about the show than its insistence on foregrounding this identity and showing us the difficult process of creation as well. It is not merely that Austen struggles to develop “First Impressions” and resolve its own potential for conflicts and conundrums, but also that she struggles as a woman writer to come to terms with her own writerly choices, to do so on her own terms. And in doing so, she becomes real, her struggles authentic, her emotions volatile, precisely because her first impressions must evolve as well.
There was something surprising but ultimately quite satisfying to discover a bit of the sadist in this Austen—mostly playful, but a touch cruel at times with her beloved characters—and perhaps a bit of the masochist, too. (Consult the letters, dear reader, if you object to the propriety of such suggestions.) When Lydia is sent off to Brighton (largely at Cassandra’s insistence, despite its evident dangers) or Elizabeth is forced to dance with Collins at Netherfield—and later, to stumble across Darcy at Pemberley—there seems a mischievousness in VanWinkle’s portrayal that is partly about seeing how things might turn out if set in motion in these ways. But there is also something more, a delight in subjecting her darling creations to a wide variety of mortifications with varying degrees of seriousness. Certainly, the decision to have Lydia run off with Wickham is the strongest example, and coming as it does precisely as Elizabeth and Darcy have begun to work their way to a finally imaginable romantic resolution, it serves to highlight the boldness of Austen’s artistry as well as the torturous paths through which she forces her characters on the way to their felicitous ends. Watching and listening to her write, we are restored to a greater sense of the Dionysian chaos required to achieve the Apollonian artistry now so familiar to us. Process makes product seem richer and more remarkable, in part because we are treated to these credible counterfactual possibilities. So, too, is the process of writing fully humanized, warts and all, characterized as much by uncertainty as by the mastery with which we usually associate Austen.
We are reminded in Austen’s Pride that—as Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park adaptation memorably underscores on film —”it all could have turned out quite differently,” despite the ending every writer must eventually choose and make peace with. This production gives us much more than Pride and Prejudice the classic tale, from page to stage, with the addition of Jane Austen stage-managing the show. It also shows us many of the things that Pride and Prejudice could have been. And given what we know of Austen through her voice, her experiences, and her artistic genius, these roads not taken seem credible, compelling, intuitive. Few adaptations have ever given more credit to Austen, to her work, and to the figure of the woman writer at the turn of the nineteenth century as does Austen’s Pride. It deserves an audience on the world’s finest stages, and with a dream cast such as the one at Nazareth College this summer, it will dazzle both the most confirmed Janeites and those new to Austen’s world as well, probably in equal measure.
Suggested Further Reading
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Ed. Pat Rogers. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
—. The Annotated Pride and Prejudice. Ed. David M. Shapard. New York: Anchor Books, 2004.
Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. New York: Routledge, 2006.
Looser, Devoney. “Jane Austen, Feminist Icon.” Los Angeles Review of Books, Jan. 20, 2014. Web. https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/jane-austen-feminist-icon
Todd, Janet, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Pride and Prejudice. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
Wright, Andrew. “Jane Austen Adapted.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 30.3 (Dec. 1975): 421-453.
Link to a brief promotional video and several song clips: http://fingerlakesmtf.com/2016-season/austens-pride/
Link to “B Roll” with longer video selections: https://youtu.be/K7D40y9spa0
Latest posts by Christopher Nagle (see all)
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