Meeting report written by member, Jenny K.
The play is extraordinarily bad. The only thing of any merit in it is the comic butler who seems to have strayed in from another play – indeed his farcically inept verses, preposterously at variance with the rest of the drama, were supplied to the authoress (Inchbald) by a collaborator. (Richard Jenkyns, A Fine Brush on Ivory)
The seven JASACT members who sat through the video of a performance of the play by Sydney University English students in 1989 agreed wholeheartedly with Jenkyns. (Perhaps the five who apologised for the meeting weren’t silly?) While the play was considered a radical work by the German, August von Kotzebue, Mrs Inchbald had watered it down so much that it was utterly prosaic, “goody goody,” slow-moving and long-winded. It was hard to imagine Jane Austen and her contemporaries enjoying the show which was performed no less than six times during Jane Austen’s stay in Bath (1801-5.) One can only conclude Jane didn’t.
Did others find it morally uplifting (the illegitimate son recognised by his father), risqué (revolutionary ideas), or titillating (illicit sex)? Mrs Inchbald claimed the first. Since the pulpit had failed to stamp out seduction, she thought the stage “may be allowed an humble endeavour to prevent seduction’s most fatal effects (failure to take responsibility for illegitimate children.”
Thomas Gisbourne, another of Austen’s contemporaries, wrote of the “injuriousness of acting on the female sex: encouraging vanity and destroying diffidence by unrestrained familiarity on the other sex which inevitably results from being joined with them in the drama” (Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex). Certainly Maria and Henry and Edmund and Mary seemed to enjoy these opportunities. Literary critic, Lionel Trilling, made the claim that “in touching one another or making love to one another on the stage, these four are not adopting a pose, but are, on the contrary, expressing their real feelings. The impropriety lies in the fact that they are NOT acting, but are finding an indirect means to gratify desires which are illicit, and should have been contained” (Pelican Guide to English Literature from Blake to Byron). These views seem closer to Jane Austen’s approach in the novel but she may have been sending up Mrs Inchbald. Her subtle use of humour makes it hard to be sure.
However, by introducing the theatricals into the novel, Jane gained the opportunity to make a bold ironical comment on lovers vows and parental responsibility. Even more importantly, she was able to develop the characters and interrelationships of the Bertrams and the Crawfords showing the weaknesses of both. It enabled her to introduce numerous humourous scenes and especially the idiocy of Rushworth. The theatricals provide a dramatic climax for Sir Thomas Bertram’s return from Antigua. His reaction underlines his role as a patriarch from whom Tom, Maria and Julia find it necessary to escape. Jane highlights the vast difference between family theatricals in which the Austen family indulged and those involving outsiders. Furthermore the play gives Jane the chance to demonstrate through Edmund how difficult it is to be moral in all situations, demonstrated by his vacillations.
Fanny was the only one to refuse to act in the play: it appears she simply felt inadequate but in standing up for herself she finally stopped being a victim. In this lies a resemblance to Amelia (in the play) who opposed the approved suitor and eventually gained the man she loves. Perhaps the actual play is unimportant compared with its effect. The events that Fanny observes during the rehearsals convince her that Henry is both manipulative, shallow, inconstant and insincere. This in turn gave her the firmness of moral strength to stand up to the almost unbearable pressure put on her to marry him by the Bertram family.
So a play that Jenkyns even described as “tripe” became the brilliant vehicle for Jane’s technique to reveal her characters and further her plot.
Due to the length of the play, Anna’s talk about her visit to Chawton, and other Jane Austen sites, had to be postponed for lack of time. It will be included in the first meeting next year on January 15 when the first volume of Sense and Sensibility will be discussed.
We did manage, however, to share “secret” quotes and attempt Bill’s quiz – the last one devoted to Mansfield Park. We discovered yet again how little we remember of the finer details!
Finally, JASACT’s annual Jane Austen’s birthday-cum-Christmas celebration will take place this year at PodFood in Piallago on December 18 at 12 noon.