It appears Kate Hamill and I must politely agree to disagree on what a stage adaptation of a Jane Austen novel should entail.
Which, of course, is a dry, Austen-ish way of asking, “What’s up with that?”
Hamill is the actor-playwright at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival who adapted Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice – to rapturous reviews in The New York Times as well as transfers off-Broadway. Both plays have had subsequent productions around the country, and Hamill intends to adapt all of Austen’s novels eventually.
Having seen her version of Pride and Prejudice – currently in its area premiere, staged by artistic director Joanie Schultz at the WaterTower Theatre — it’s difficult to imagine how she might top it. Given this show’s wind-tunnel level of energy and clattering theatrical cleverness (some of it devised by Schultz), when Hamill gets around to adapting Mansfield Park, she may have to hire a troupe of Marx Brothers impersonators, put them in dresses and let them thwack away at each other.
OK. So let’s address some important considerations:
Firs consideration: The WaterTower production is indeed funny at times. Schultz’ direction is inventive. Furniture pieces don’t just roll on; actors use them like skateboards or wheelchairs. The quick-change drag acts are delightfully cheap and cheesy ,and the re-configuration of the entire theater space is welcome (the set design is by Chelsea Warren). Austen’s characteristic wit does peep through occasionally in the dialogue, even though Schultz has a number of actors bark it out in Monty Python-shire accents.
So — from the many absurdities being hurled at us, it seems almost inevitable the show would generate some laughs.
In fact, when the Times reviewed the stage version of Pride and Prejudice in Hudson Valley, it hailed it as “madcap.“
Quick word association: Jane Austen – ‘madcap‘?
If anything, the novelist’s writing has been faulted for the opposite – for being too discreet, too prim, too fiddly with the tell-tale details of class insecurity. Charlotte Brontë famously dismissed Austen for never leaving her well-trimmed garden for the larger, darker world outside. This has been the great accusation her advocates have long denied, that Austen was content to leave most of human life unobserved in order to play a few quiet rounds of ‘How to Win at Love and Estate Planning.’
Indeed, two years ago, when the Dallas Theater Center presented Hamill’s first adaptation, Sense and Sensibility, it reduced Austen’s novel to a trivial comedy of manners. In effect, it fulfilled the charges of Austen’s critics. It was droll, affected and frivolous.
But Emma Thompson – in her Oscar-winning screenplay for the 1995 film of Sense and Sensibility – underlined how high the stakes actually were for Austen’s women. In words the novelist never wrote (she never needed to because her audience knew this perfectly well), Thompson explained how marriage and male privilege utterly dominated the lives of the women, how little influence they had with families, fortunes or their own futures, how terrified they were by the loss of a male heir or the lack of an acceptable husband.
And these dilemmas held true, even though Thompson’s adaptation made Austen’s men more feminist, sensitive and interesting than they are in the book.
It’s true that the end of the first act of Pride and Prejudice, playwright Hamill does include such a description of women’s confined roles. Mrs. Bennet, played by Wendy Welch, completely loses what meager self-control she’s had: Her daughters have failed in their courtships. Our heroine, Lizzy, the sensible Bennet sister, has rejected a marriage offer from her creepy, social-climbing cousin Collins. Simultaneously, the pretty but shy daughter Jane has lost a very lucrative possibility with the marriage-minded Mr. Bingley.
This double-barreled loss causes Mrs. Bennet to read her daughters the riot act about money and marriage and how the two of them have trashed the entire family’s future.
It’s also a speech that doesn’t exist in the original. Perhaps Hamill learned something about explaining women’s plight from Thompson’s screenplay.
At any rate, the stage speech — a rare opportunity for Welch to unleash her inner rampager — remains relatively weightless. That’s because Ma Bennet’s judgment has already been dismissed. She established herself with exclamations of mercenary interest (“Ten thousand pounds a year!” she wails repeatedly). She’s an embarrassment not just to her daughter, the eye-rolling Lizzy, but to Lizzy’s possible love interest, Mr. Darcy, as well as others of his wealthy social circle.
In Austen’s world, Mrs. Bennet’s money-and-marriage obsessions may be valid, but she is definitely Not a Serious Person. (John Mullan, author of What Is Important in Jane Austen: In the novels, important plot information is always delivered by “the stupid people.”) To end the act on the right note of imminent threat and humor, her speech is interlarded with several comic moments — to make sure Mom’s warnings are completely balloon-popped.
Second important consideration: With her first adaptation, Sense and Sensibility, Hamill aimed for creating a bustling portrait of Regency society with a cast of 11 actors, almost all doubling and tripling in and out of roles. With Pride and Prejudice, in contrast, she seriously streamrolls Austen’s story. She reduces it primarily to the immediate Bennet household and the three male suitors (thus, only eight actors are needed).
This tighter focus tends to intensify Austen’s rom-com. It revs up the energy of an out-and-out farce. Schultz has some actors go for broke with extravagant caricatures (Brandon Potter, Steph Garrett, Justin Duncan, Kate Paulsen). We don’t get Austen’s precision-targeted satire of the social classes so much as a quick tour of the family asylum.
But four of the performers (and their characters) do recognize the general madness around them and choose, more or less, to withdraw from the emotional uproar. There’s Kate Paulsen’s delicate performance as Jane, the pretty sister, the family’s hope, the one who cannot comprehend why she’s been abandoned by her dithering beau, Bingley (Justin Duncan).
Meanwhile, as our heroine Lizzy, Jenny Ledel delivers another perfectly tuned performance. Her Lizzy is a smart cookie who’s earnest, exasperated, lovelorn and not as sharp as she’d like to think: Blind to her own longings, she chooses to reject the whole marriage-go-round entirely.
As the paterfamilias Mr. Bennet, Bob Hess has one of those choice little comic roles: He’s the voice of reason who’s given up trying to curtail all the zanies around him. Hess knows the amusing contrast here is what works so well, and he enjoys himself hiding behind Mr. Bennet’s defensive wall of a newspaper while puncturing all the outbursts with the occasional, droll observation. It’s also Hess’s later, drag portrayal of the woeful Charlotte Lucas, a friend of Lizzy’s, that lets us truly feel the poignant (and yes, comic) pains, the constricted choices for Austen’s women.
Finally, John-Michael Marrs plays Mr. Darcy as stiffer, sterner, more furrowed-browed than most. He doesn’t convey the inner, troubled smolder Darcy needs to suggest he’s attracted to Lizzy almost against his will. It’s only at the very end, when Ledel and Marrs are alone, that things quiet down enough that some of their central, motivating romance comes through.
Third consideration: Despite appearances, I am not a loyal traditionalist, a member of the Cult of Jane, defending her honor against all updatings and directorial interventions.
Quite the opposite. I do enjoy the comic sharpness that her novels’ restraint grants them, as well as her hints at deeper, underlying fears. But she’s not really my cup of Darjeeling. I usually prefer the stronger stuff kept locked under the counter.
Which is why I could be convinced that anyone’s umpty-ump version of Pride and Prejudice, could well benefit from a little goosing with wild laughter. After all, scholars and purists were appalled by Colin Firth’s wet-shirted Darcy in the 1995 BBC mini-series. Meanwhile, female Janeites ranked him their absolute fave.
Austen, of course – the product of a long line of clergymen – would never have written such a wet t-shirt contest of a scene.
Or would she?
Feminists have countered that turnabout is fair play for the female gaze. A modern view of the male-as-sex object is one that Austen might have embraced, given that her subject is primarily women’s inner lives. Sex may remain the Great Unmentionable in her novels, but it’s hardly like female desire didn’t exist in 1813. So why not a hunky Darcy now – to shake things up and say what Austen might have wanted to but couldn’t?
Ergo, one might well argue that Schultz and Hamill are doing just this, cracking open the old carapace that confines the novel and making Austen more a modern farceur than aRegency satirist. The WaterTower show immediately announces that things will be unconventional (and more than a bit obvious) by opening with Wayne Fontana’s 1965 hit, ‘The Game of Love.’ On there basketball court, Schultz and Hamill promptly launch their wild and noisy sports anachronisms at us.
Schultz has everyone wearing athletic shoes (the costumes are by Sylvia Fuhrken). And the theater is laid out in what’s typically called “stadium seating.” The audience is divided into two sections, each seated on opposite sides of the playing area, like high school fans at a basketball game. The set is also armed with hoops and there are referee whistles going off and penalty buzzers and a timekeeper’s bell.
Who knew the Regency liked nuthin’ but net?
In short, given the chance, Schultz never gives up hammering a joke. When anyone encounters the homely daughter Mary Bennet (played in drag by Duncan – in a black hoodie that makes him look like a resentful monk), they immediately flinch in shock at her appearance. It’s an oldie but a goody. By the end of two hours, though, what was a running gag about her looks has become humorless, even mean.
With Austen’s satire, there has always been the touch of refined cruelty. At times, she’ll even flat-out call a character “stupid.” (“For what do we live, but to make sport of our neighbors and laugh at them in our turn?”). Here, the other characters’ repeated double-takes mock Mary for her looks, for what she can’t control (Austen depicts her only as plain, not actively gruesome). From the start, Mary is simply a loser in the all-important marital sweepstakes. So much for modern feminism: For the women here, looks do count.
But when the youngest daughter Lydia (Steph Garrett) crows that she’s aced the marriage-and-money game before her sisters have even gotten started, she quickly learns she’s been headstrong and heedless. She ran off and got married without parental consent. She’s sacrificed important social approval for a quick, selfish win.
Austen’s novels always embody lessons like this about balancing propriety with personal fulfillment. Along with her heroines, we readers learn how these people and their society and their inner motivations work — but more importantly, how all of them should act. (It’s one reason some us find her occasionally irksome – those witty but preachy judgments about everything).
But when it comes to any kind of moral tallying up, this repeated joke treats Mary shabbily. It’s not as understanding as Lizzy herself learns to be (and by extension, we do, too).
I’ve gone on about Minor Mary at more length than the character merits solely because it’s a telling fault: The show will eagerly lunge for the laugh, not the character Austen created, and not the humanity, not the quietly valiant feminism that Austen’s novels can represent.
So one can’t help but risk tsk-tsking to note that Hamill and Schultz have been as headstrong and heedless as Lydia. For all of this adaptation’s slam-dunk exuberance, they’ve happily sacrificed much of what makes Austen very much Austen.