Jane Austen and the Theatre, by Paula Byrne

The performing rites of Jane Austen's society

Loraine Fletcher
Wednesday 29 May 2002 00:00

When she got the chance, Jane Austen went to the theatre two or three times a week. She preferred comedy to tragedy, though she felt like swearing when the tragic actress Sarah Siddons failed to appear in King John. Her lifetime, 1775 to 1817, saw England's second great age of theatre, which flourished in the provinces as well as London. Drama criticism became an art form and a common topic of conversation. Competing for audiences with revivals of Shakespeare and Sheridan were dozens of now-forgotten playwrights whose work Austen knew well, including some women.

Successful actors were celebrities, though Austen's favourite in Bath, the handsome, versatile Robert Elliston, disappointed her when he transferred to London. In January 1814 at Drury Lane a newcomer, Edmund Kean, electrified a first-night audience of The Merchant of Venice. He made Shylock the hero, proving the fluidity of Shakespeare's moral world and the openness of the Romantic age to new thinking – and feeling. Austen took her nieces to see him. Paula Byrne's detailed knowledge of 18th-century drama establishes her many sources of inspiration, from Hannah Cowley's courtship patterns to Sheridan's way of fleshing out opposing concepts such as sense and sensibility.

Byrne refutes the usual view that Austen disapproved of acting. An engaging reader of her own and others' work, she took part in amateur theatricals not just as a child but as an adult. It was a passion her contemporaries shared. The rich built lavish private theatres, the middle classes converted drawing rooms. In a production of Sheridan's The School for Scandal at a Twelfth Night houseparty when she was 35, Austen played Mrs Candour, who comments on her friends' failings with sugar-coated ferocity. She "entered into it with great spirit", an onlooker remembered. She couldn't have forgotten that experience when writing Mansfield Park, where the parts chosen in an amateur production of Elizabeth Inchbald's Lovers' Vows release hidden selves in the actors.

Did she want to be a playwright? Cowley and Inchbald had the right connections, Austen did not. Sheridan, who commissioned adaptations, thought Pride and Prejudice one of the cleverest things he ever read; but in 1813 he was dying. So her life remained private and her publications anonymous, "by a Lady". But she wrote novels that open out into dramatic scenes with ambiguous personalities and free-standing dialogue. Even on the page, characters threaten to elude the control of the all-knowing narrator and take on a life of their own – as they have in stage and film versions.

As Byrne says, a novel with an omniscient teller proposes that absolute truth is possible, but a play's truth changes with each casting. "Austen," Byrne argues, "is more akin to Shakespeare in her perception of the ambiguity of truth." Her characters, like their author, know that the social self is always in performance. I wish Byrne had found room to discuss Persuasion, where the best-read heroine is forced into the dullest role. This scholarly, perceptive book leaves you wanting more from the same author.

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