Jane Austen’s iconic Pride and Prejudice never got the attention it deserved in her lifetime. But in the almost 200 years since she first published her novel, authored by “A Lady,” Pride and Prejudice has never been out of print, and it has been adapted and broadcast innumerable times for television and the stage. Her fans simply cannot get enough of her witty, saucy romance. So what do playwrights J.R. Sullivan and Joseph Hanreddy bring to their new adaptation for the stage?
“There are a couple of very good stage versions. However, we succeeded in telling the story without a narrator and without literally presenting the many letters that are in the novel. This gives the play a theatricality that plays very well,” says Hanreddy.
Like the original author, Hanreddy and Sullivan know their audience and their craft. Austen was a prolific writer. Both Hanreddy and Sullivan have an illustrious career in theatre. The combination of this trio’s work on the stage is a seductive draw for every Jane Austen fan.
Austen was born in Steventon, Hampshire England on 16 December 1775 to George and Cassandra Austen. Like her fictional Pride and Prejudice family, she was familiar with the lifestyle of a large middle-class family. She was the seventh child of eight, and her father, a vicar, provided a reasonable income for his family of six boys and two girls. Austen’s brother Edward was adopted and raised by a rich relative. Later, as heir to the Chawton estate, Edward was able to provide a home for his two spinster sisters and widowed mother. In fact, it was at Chawton that Austen was at her most prolific, producing some of her greatest novels.
Austen’s family also afforded her rich fodder for her works. Through the lives of her brothers she acquired a knowledge of current events, social situations, and military life. Two of her brothers served in the Navy, and one brother served in the militia and later became a banker. Her brother, Henry, who was one of the greatest champions of Austen’s literary work, became a clergyman. Austen often visited him in London where she was able to attend the theatre, art exhibits, and social events. After Austen’s death it was Henry that brought her published works out of anonymity and had them published under her name, something that didn’t happen in her lifetime. Austen’s relationship with her sister Cassandra can often be seen mirrored in her novels. She was both her best friend and confidante. Neither one married, although Cassandra was engaged at one time and knew the great heartache of being “widowed” before she was ever married.
Austen was always a writer; at around the age of twelve she began writing comic stories, known collectively as the Juvenalia. Her first mature work, composed when she was about nineteen, was a novella, Lady Susan, written in epistolary form (as a series of letters). This first piece of longer fiction remained unpublished until after her death (http://www.jasna.org/info/works.html).
In her early twenties, Austen began work on Pride and Prejudice, originally titled First Impressions. Upon its completion, Austen’s father offered it to a publisher but it was promptly rejected. Fifteen years later it was finally published anonymously. Four of Austen’s six novels were published anonymously during her lifetime and although her novels were published under the pen name “A Lady” her work developed a following.
One of her strongest supporters, Sir Walter Scott said of her work: “That young lady has a talent for describing the involvements of feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with” (http://www.biographyonline.net/writers/jane-austen.html).
Like her sister Cassandra, Austen never married, although she had a few fleeting love interests according to the surviving letters between her and her sister and other family members. These snippets of penned conversation offer up some of the most intriguing mysteries of Austen’s life. In 1816, she completed her final novel, Persuasion. Her health was beginning to fail and on July 18, 1817 she died. The cause of her death is yet another mystery and has been attributed to Addison’s disease, lymphoma, or possibly tuberculosis.
Austen left a legacy of six novels, one novella and a couple of unfinished novels. Her work has resonated throughout two centuries perhaps because like her literary heroine, Emma, says, her work was based “on which the daily happiness of private life depends.”
The adaptation of Hanreddy and Sullivan’s Pride and Prejudice is a young play. It made its debut on the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s stage during the 2008/2009 season. Both Hanreddy and Sullivan had aspirations to do a Pride and Prejudice for the stage, and when they discovered each other’s intentions they started writing in earnest in 2008. Both of them have a love for Austen’s works and especially Pride and Prejudice.
Joseph Hanreddy’s upbringing could not have been more different than Jane Austen’s. He was born in Los Angeles to a longshoreman and a receptionist. His family moved to San Francisco Bay during his middle school years, and Hanreddy says, “My teens and twenties were spent in and around Berkeley and San Francisco in the 1960s. I felt very privileged to live in a place where there was such creativity and energy.”
Hanreddy realized his theatre aspirations a little later after high school. As a youth, he had the notion that he would play sports in school—then go into the trades as a carpenter or furniture maker. But one day Hanreddy was given tickets by an employer to go to a play at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. “The play was Tartuffe with Rene Auberjonois in the title role. I was enthralled with everything about it—the humor, the athleticism and the language. I had an instinct that I could be good at it. I saw every play the company did for years after that and took classes in the education department of the theatre.”
While Hanreddy has taken to the stage as an actor several times, his true passion is directing and writing. “My next instinct was that whatever gifts I possessed might be better suited to directing. The first full-length play I directed was The Matchmaker for a community theater in the Bay Area.”
For the past seventeen seasons, Hanreddy has served as the artistic director for the Milwaukee Repertory Theater where he directed over thirty productions, including King Lear, Twelfth Night, Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Seagull, The Playboy of the Western World, An Ideal Husband, Arcadia, The Crucible, and Dancing at Lughnas. Before that he held the position of artistic director at Madison Repertory Theater. In addition, he was the founder and former artistic director of Ensemble Theater Company, Santa Barbara, California.
In 2009, he directed the Utah Shakespeare Festival production of Private Lives. This year (2010) he is directing Macbeth.
Next year he will be joining the faculty of the theatre department at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee to head a new graduate fellowship program for directors and designers. He will keep his directing career honed at the Milwaukee Rep as well as other theatres around the country. Next season he is directing plays for the Milwaukee Rep, The Pearl Theater in New York, and the PCPA in California (Pride and Prejudice)
Hanreddy has been married “for many years” to his wife Jami; they have one daughter and a granddaughter.
J.R. Sullivan shares one similarity to Jane Austen. He too came from a large family. He was born in Oak Park, Illinois as the oldest of eight children. Of those eight children, he and his brother Daniel both went into theater.
Sullivan had his eye on the stage from a young age. Both of his parents were involved in the Civic Theatre amateur group.
“I always thought of the theatre as exactly what I wanted to do once my high school experiences in it happened,” says Sullivan. “Before then I had the usual boyhood dreams. At one stage of life I was absolutely sure playing shortstop for the Chicago White Sox would be a dream come true. But in high school I found out I was not a good enough ball player—and that I might be a good enough actor. So that became the dream. And I guess I’d have to gratefully say that I’ve been living it.”
Indeed, Sullivan has lived his dream. As a freshman in college he directed his alma mater high school’s production of Damn Yankees. After graduating from Beloit College in Wisconsin with a double major in theatre and English composition he was given the opportunity to start a theatre company in his hometown of Rockford, Illinois. The New American Theater was yet another successful endeavor for Sullivan; it stayed in business with Sullivan as the director for twenty-two seasons.
“When you start a theater, you end up directing most of the plays, especially in the beginning; and I think that this certainly determined me as a director first, an actor second.”
In fact, his directing credits are extensive. He has directed seventeen plays just for the Utah Shakespeare Festival. His involvement with the Festival extends further and he has was the associate artistic director for the Festival from 2002 to 2009. He was recently appointed the artistic director of the Pearl Theater in New York City.
The adaptation of Pride and Prejudice was in many ways a labor of love for Sullivan. He has read the book three or four times and admits he could read it again “at the drop of a hat.” Although he and Hanreddy have included some innovations in their stage adaptation, Sullivan was adamant about maintaining many of the story’s original themes.
“Well, the love story is all, and we certainly knew that our focus was going to be Elizabeth and Darcy. Humor was important, from the delicious wit of Elizabeth herself to the situational comedy created by Mrs. Bennet, the Bennet girls, Mr. Collins, etc. Finally, the epic sweep of the story is important to the rhythm and flow of the performance.”
Sullivan continues to pursue his theatrical dreams. He just opened a production of Charles Dickens’s Hard Times with the Pearl Theatre in New York City. And he has big plans and ideas for additional adaptations of classic literature that will hopefully include some of his favorite writers: Austen, Chekhov, and Shakespeare.