Saturday, 17 May 2014

THEATRICALS AT MANSFIELD PARK




Penguin Classics, Mansfield Park (Penguin New Zealand)

The novel, Mansfield Park, is a portrayal of three conflicting social forces, the genteel, aristocratic world of Mansfield Park, the lowly life of Portsmouth and the corrupt life of London. These three forces interact, especially in the concept of family. Sir Thomas Bertram, the head of the family, is removed from the scene when he departs for Antigua to visit his plantations. The cornerstone of the family is absent. This unbalancing of Mansfield Park’s world enables some of these moral conflicts to be unleashed. The theatricals that are proposed and introduced at Mansfield Park by Henry Crawford, Mary Crawford and Tom Bertram’s friend, Mr Yates, are the vehicle for these moral conflicts.
Penny Gay, from the department of English at Sydney University explains Mansfield Park in terms of a medieval morality play, encapsulating characters representing different moral positions. Tony Tanner, a Fellow of Kings College Cambridge, who wrote the introduction for the first Penguin Classic edition of Mansfield Park in 1966, stated, that Jane Austen used the theatricals in Mansfield Park,
“as a vehicle to explore the profound implications of, “acting,” and “role playing,” for the individual and society.”
Katheryn Sutherland, Professor Fellow in English Literature at St Anne’s College Oxford, explains in the most recent (1996) introduction to the Penguin Classics edition,
“…the play poses questions which can only be construed as subversive of settled values and order.”
Penny Gay, describes the characters in Mansfield Park as characters in a Medieval Morality Play.
“we are encouraged to think, at least on one level of our reading, of the Crawford’s as the World and the Flesh (and possibly the Devil) the Bertram family as Pride (Sir Thomas), Sloth (Lady Bertram), Avarice (Mrs Norris, also Self Conceit),Lust (Maria), Envy (Julia, also Anger). (The minor character, Dr Grant is the incarnation of the least heinous deadly sin, Gluttony.) Tom Bertram embodies Dissipation…… Edmund or Everyman, who consciously tries to do good but is tempted and falls… and Fanny, the steadfast woman.”
Morality play characters.
Reproduced in H.W. Mabie, William Shakespeare (1900).

 The morality play is one of the three main types of vernacular drama produced during the Middle Ages together with the mystery play and the miracle play The action of the morality play centres on a hero, such as Mankind, whose inherent weaknesses are assaulted by such personified diabolic forces as the Seven Deadly Sins but who may choose redemption and enlist the aid of such figures as the Four Daughters of God (Mercy, Justice, Temperance, and Truth). It is easy to connect the name Mansfield with Mankind.
Drama and theatre is really a much more positive and affirmative experience than Austen portrays it in Mansfield Park. In Mansfield Park she takes only one possible set of consequences. We know that Jane Austen and her family loved home theatricals. She also loved to go to the theatre when staying with her brother, Henry, at his address in Henrietta Street, Covent Garden. She wrote enthusiastically in her letters to Cassandra about her visits to Covent Garden theatre. To act, a person is taking on a role, trying out situations, emotions and characterisations which might be alien to them. Love, hate, murder, aggression, humour, fear, wealth, poverty and the whole gamut of human experience can be play acted. Educationalists and psychiatrists think this a good thing. Theatre can be used to explore moral and life issues in a safe environment. People can confront mental issues and it can help them to recover. Children at school can explore moral and life issues safely which helps them to mature and develop as human beings.

Middlethorpe Hall   (My idea of what the house in Mansfield Park might look like.)
(Published in the Middlethorpe House website: http://www.middlethorpe.com/)

Henry and Mary Crawford have been described as possessing loose morals. In morality play terms they are the seven deadly sins, a form of evil. The root cause of their dissolute attitude to life is suggested because of their damaged childhood and upbringing. They are left as orphans to be brought up by their libertine uncle, Admiral Crawford. As a result they have been open to many unsavoury influences. They have experienced the debauched social life found in London.  Henry seduces, Maria Bertram who is betrothed to the ineffectual Mr Rushworth. He flirts with Julia Bertram and then makes her life a misery with his rebuttals. He makes a concerted effort indeed for Fanny, who is unattainable to him and therefore the greater conquest if achieved. Mary Crawford plays the temptress to Edmund and almost achieves her goal. Their social skills may be described as play acting. It is no coincidence that Henry is described by Austen as the best actor in Mansfield Park and he himself exuberantly expresses his love of acting. Henry Crawford tells everybody that he loves acting.
“I really believe,” said he, “I could be fool enough at this moment to undertake any character that ever was written, from Shylock or Richard III down to the singing hero of a farce in his scarlet coat and cocked hat. I feel as if I could be anything or every thing, as if I could rant or storm, or sigh, or cut capers in any tragedy or comedy in the English language.
This is an impassioned declaration. We, the reader, are aware that he is the consummate actor. His whole life is an act. His pursuit of Maria, Julia and eventually Fanny, and then returning to Maria is a game to him, all an act. Richard III suave, sleazy, lizard like, cunning, highly intelligent, is Henry Crawford, isn’t he?

King Richard III, by Unknown artist, late 16th century (late 15th century) - NPG 148 - © National Portrait Gallery, London
Richard III  (The National Portrait Gallery)

Fanny, and at first Edmund, only see wickedness and disaster in the whole prospect of the play. In Mansfield Park, the theatricals are used as a subversive element, not a positive thing. Austen reduces the theatrical experience to something detrimental for the sake of the novel. The characters and plot of Lovers Vows is unsuitable on a number of levels. The play is not merely going to allow them to enact hypothetical situations. The parts are closely allied to their own lives and secret and subconscious desires and so becomes subversive. 

Various forms of reasoning and persuasion, by first, Tom and his friend Mr Yates, followed soon after by the Crawfords, encourage and persuade different characters to take part. Edmund uses reason to counteract their arguments, referencing what he thinks his father’s reaction might be. In a way he takes on the head of the household role. The role Tom should take with his father away.  Edmund believes that they are going to desecrate his father’s house. Maria Bertram, at first argues, when Edmund suggests that she declines to take part in the acting,
” I really cannot undertake to harangue all the rest upon a subject of this kind.-There would be the greatest indecorum I think.”
But later she says, and shows her real base instincts. Her reasoning spectacularly loses all its moral high ground
 “If I were to decline the part, “said Maria, “Julia would certainly take it.”
Jealousy, one upmanship, the fear of not acting intimately with Henry Crawford, Julia being with Henry instead, come to the fore in this last desperate unguarded statement. She no longer argues on the high ground.
The greatest threat from the forces of persuasion are when the whole group, including now Edmund, target poor Fanny, the last remaining person without a part and who still does not agree to the play being staged. Even Fanny gets to the point where she is about to capitulate. In a way this is a foreboding of what is to come for Fanny. It is practice for the greater danger she has to face later; the powerful persuasive forces of Henry Crawford who attempts to marry her.

The Mansfield theatre (Wikapaedia)

 In retrospect, the future course of each character is so strongly set, the eventual failure to perform the play merely delays the inevitable or even highlights what is inevitable.
Lucy Morrison, Professor of English at Salisbury University, points out Austen’s more general use of  drama, playwriting and acting in her novels. For instance, she states,  Emma was derived from a drama based on the German playwright Kotzebue’s play, Reconciliation (1799). She mentions the strong links between the characters and the moral and social themes of the play and Austen’s novel. So it seems plays can be central to Austen’s stories.
Lovers Vows, is a play by Mrs Inchbald, a celebrated 18th century female playwright who adapted, Das Kind der Liebe (Child of Love) by Kotzbue. It was first performed in England in 1798. The play relates the story of a character called Frederick. A local baron, Baron Wildenheim who seduced and abandoned a chambermaid, Agatha Friburg in his youth. The play begins with Agatha living in poverty when her illegitimate son, Frederick, a soldier, returns from war. She tells him his father is the Baron. Frederick goes out to beg so that he can help his mother. In desperation he attempts to rob the baron who he meets on the road. At first he doesn’t realise who his victim is. Frederick is arrested. While in prison he reveals his identity to the Baron and tells the Baron that his mother is still alive. With the aid of the pastor, Anhalt, he persuades the Baron, who is widowed, to marry his mother Agatha. Meanwhile the Baron’s daughter, Amelia, who is betrothed to Count Cassel a brainless fop, has fallen in love with Anhalt and wants to marry him. The Baron consents to his daughter’s marriage with Anhalt.


The Georgian Theatre in Bugle Street Southampton during Jane Austen's time in Southampton.

Some of the shocking aspects of this play which affect Fanny and Edmund, are firstly the illegitimacy of Frederick. This suggests lust and inappropriate behaviours on the part of the Baron and Agatha in the past. Also there is the weakening of social barriers which might be disapproved of. The Baron marrying Agatha and Anhalt, a mere clergyman marrying the Baron’s daughter, Amelia are relationships which cross the social divides between the aristocracy and the serving classes. The fact that Mansfield Park house is actually being transformed into a theatre and being physically changed is also a visual metaphor for social and moral disruption. Mansfield Park is no longer an ordinary home with ordinary values, all be it a wealthy home with a rich lifestyle. It is now a theatre where everything becomes unreal and social experiments of all kind can take place.
 Maria Bertram was to play the part of Agatha and Henry Crawford to play the part of Frederick. They have some intimate and emotional moments between mother and son which suggests a strange sort of role play for these two. They also have many scenes together. Baron Wildenheim was to be played by Mr Yates, Amelia by Mary Crawford , Anhalt, by Edmund  and Count Cassel by Mr Rushworth. The part of the Count for Mr Rushworth, ineffectual and slow to understand is obvious type casting. The parts of Amelia and Anhalt reflect Maria Crawford’s and Edmunds situation too. They have to act out their love scene using dialogue heavy with meaning which would provide more opportunities for Mary Crawford to entice and seduce Edmund. The fact that they both ask Fanny to help them rehearse their parts, Fanny taking the opposite part each time, has its psychological undertones.
The whole acting affair comes to a dramatic end and turns almost into farce when Julia Bertram enters,
“….the door of the room was thrown open and Julia appearing at it, with a face aghast, exclaimed, “My father is come! He is in the hall at this moment.” 


A theatre poster for the production of Douglas  in Southampton.

When the participants in this ,”drama,” are debating which play to choose and not being able to decide on any,  a few of Shakespeare plays are suggested, Macbeth, Othello and Hamlet. Other plays popular at the time Mansfield Park was being written were suggested too, such as, Douglas, The Gamester, The Rivals and The School for Scandal. It is evident that Jane Austen suggested these plays for a purpose. Imagine if they decided on Macbeth, the murders, the killing. Do any of them have thoughts and feelings about murder and dark satanic powers? It is almost an exaggerated suggestion. Hamlet might be a closer fit but then there is the killing too. Othello, involves subterfuge and betrayal. Who amongst the Mansfield players could be an Iago or a Desdemona? We might have our suggestions.  Is Jane Austen making a wicked joke about some deep psychological level the characters in Mansfield Park are not aware of?
The play Austen mentions after listing the three Shakespeare plays is, Douglas. It was written by John Home who was a Scottish minister and writer. The plot includes the abandoned child of the nobility brought up by a lowly shepherd called Norval whose name the growing child takes. There is betrayal, suicide and murder involved along the way. There are some similarities with Lovers Vows but without the love element.
The famed actress, Sarah Siddons, played Lady Randolph in Douglas.
 Douglas, incidently, was staged at the theatre in, Bugle Street, Southampton, near Jane’s Castle Square house. A theatre poster for the production states that on Friday evening of the 31st May 1811, Douglas was performed by the pupils of Dr Whittaker at the Theatre, Southampton, to  raise funds for, “The British Prisoners in France.”
The two plays, The Rivals and The School for Scandal by Sheridan, have titles that at first would seem to offer an insight into the goings on at Mansfield Park,  even more so than Lovers Vows. The Rivals and the School for Scandal , are comedies that undermine the social mores of Georgian society. But, to tell the truth, Lovers Vows fits much more closely the scenarios being enacted in the characters real lives than any of these other plays. However, it would have been fun to see some of the others Austen lists, as the chosen production. To fit as closely the action, Macbeth would require Austens plot to be entirely different and if examined, the other plays, to be the right choice for Mansfield Park would also require a different story to be set as the , “the play within the play.” Austen is really having a joke with us all.


Mansfield rehearsals.
However, is Mansfield Park even closer to Shakespeare than just the mention of some of his plays in the suggested list? Is the story of Mansfield Park really a reformed, Midsummers Night’s Dream? It has been thought that Jane Austen’s novels centre on  dialogue. Jane Austen’s writing appears to be very close to play writing. We learn about her characters through what they say and how they interact and all the action is in the dialogue.






2 comments:

  1. Interesting post, Tony. But I would obviously get more out of it if I had read "Mansfield Park" recently. I'll put it on my list!

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  2. Yes, Tony and Clive, I need to read it again soon. I did watch it yesterday, though, and it was a very good production. Well acted to the point that I was talking to the screen a bit before it was over! :D I will reread this post when I reread the book.

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