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The Play's the Thing

By Diana Major Spencer

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a work of art composed in a compatible genre, must be in want of remaining that way. “I loved the movie,” beams the viewer, “but the book was so-o-o-o much better!” “They left too much out!” “It’s good, but nothing like the book.” Innumerable judgments of genre-swapping oeuvres imply that transmogrification diminishes the original work. Thus, with a 345-page Oxford World’s Classics paperback of Jane Austen’s masterpiece on my right (old enough, by the way, to have cost a mere $3.95) and a 114-page typescript of the Joe Hanreddy and J. R. Sullivan adaptation for the 2010 Utah Shakespeare Festival on my left, I set out, if not to demonstrate the validity of that implication, at least to assess which parts of Austen’s leisurely romantic novel would be sacrificed to three “hours’ traffic on the stage.”

Sacrificed turns out to be the wrong word. For example, my first momentary disappointment was the absence of Austen’s incomparable opening line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”—the lightly ironic observation of an omnipotent narrator introducing readers to the world of Mrs. Bennet, nervous and unfortunate mother of five brother-less daughters, whose only hope in life is to marry well, given that a thoughtless ancestor has locked away the family estate from female heirs in perpetuity. No mystery here about the major theme of the novel or of Mrs. Bennet’s obsession with it. The ensuing three-page chapter introduces—in addition to the news that Netherfield Park is let to a “single man of large fortune”—Mrs. Bennet’s nerves, Mr. Bennet’s “odd . . . mixture of . . . sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice,” and the fact of their five daughters.

But in lines 5-7, motifs from Austen’s opening emerge (“of large fortune!” “A single man?” “Of large fortune!”), and Elizabeth utters the sentence topic as her first speech at line 10: “[Smiling] A single man in possession of a good fortune.” Ultimately, Austen’s sentence, in its entirety, is declaimed as Mr. Darcy’s first speech at the beginning of the Meryton ball. Rather than simply announcing the intentions of the women of Hertfordshire to take aim at the newcomers to Netherfield, Austen’s words now also embrace the aloofness of a thoroughly eligible, handsome, and wealthy aristocrat among strangers—largely female—of quite another social class. Expressing eagerness among the women and reticence from Darcy, our playwrights use Austen’s exact words to crystallize the essential conflict from differing viewpoints.

Encouraged, I followed the kaleidoscope of dances early in the novel that introduces us to the characters and the social and gender contrasts among them. The Meryton Ball merges into Lucas’s. In the script, conversations shrink to one line from each speaker; scenes contract to one or two salient lines and occasionally appear in altered order. Still, the whirlwind of couples dancing in and out of the spotlight captures the essence of courting season, and I recognized Austen’s narrative detail as costume, setting, lights, music, blocking, movement, acting.

It was Mr. Collins who clarified that literature and theatre are not the same and that my exercise would reveal more pleasant surprises than not. Collins’s lengthy introductory conversation with Mr. Bennet supplies ample background about his present state, but, mercifully, a lighting change indicates the passage of time, supplanting seven pages of Collins’s “pompous nothings,” copious narrative commentary on his utter lack of desirability, and the interior critiques of Lizzy and her father. His tedium can be portrayed without itself becoming tedious. A paragraph—

Mr. Bennet’s expectations were fully answered. His cousin was as absurd as he had hoped, and he listened to him with the keenest enjoyment, maintaining at the same time the most resolute composure of countenance, and except in an occasional glance at Elizabeth, requiring no partner in his pleasure—

turns into stage directions, performed concurrently with the pomposities of Mr. Collins. Thus, Austen’s sequential sentences become simultaneous layers of sensory stimuli.

Theatre, after all, requires action. Austen’s techniques of indirect discourse and interior monologue grow into dialogue and action in the script. Lengthy letters become live action; long scenes are condensed to vignettes; and Austen’s descriptions, interior monologue, and ironic commentaries convert to the business of designers and actors. For lovers of Austen’s language, moreover, the overwhelming preponderance of the script is from Austen’s pen.

Be aware, dear Reader, that Pride and Prejudice is all there—except for two or three small scenes. Near the end of the novel, the morning after Lady Catherine’s visit to Longbourn, Mr. Bennet calls Elizabeth to his library to share a letter he has received from Mr. Collins, urging against Lizzy’s pretensions toward Mr. Darcy. In his quirky way, Mr. Bennet teases Lizzy with the absurdity of it all, given that she so despises Mr. Arrogance; but, given that THE conversation with Darcy had not yet occurred, she is only bewildered that Cousin Collins shares Lady Catherine’s assumptions that an engagement—now Lizzy’s fondest desire—is imminent. In essence, this scene is a status report of the affair’s progress, with three distinct viewpoints represented. Collins’s view, of course, merely repeats Lady Catherine’s—though with more words.

Curled up in the cushions of the sofa with a cup of tea at hand, the reader sees Mr. Collins as Mr. Bennet reads his words from a page and sees Lady Catherine as Mr. Bennet reads Mr. Collins’s account of her dismay; sees Mr. Darcy’s early aloofness as Mr. Bennet applauds Lizzy’s rejection of him; sees Darcy’s growing warmth and his generosity in the Wickham affair; sees Lizzy’s confusion, not daring to hope what all these rumors imply; and sees, simultaneously, the now inevitable joyous outcome. The mental stage is plentifully populated; but on a physical stage, two characters, a paper prop, and a lot of words read and spoken by Mr. Bennet to Lizzy’s almost silent inner turmoil do not constitute engaging drama.

During this exercise, I belatedly remembered the many times I’ve searched Plutarch, Hollinshed, Ovid, and other sources for Shakespeare’s inspiration and his treatment thereof. Only one of thirty-seven extant plays lacks an identifiable, or at least projected, source. Last year I wrote about the few characters Shakespeare created for As You Like It; the others the Bard borrowed (stole), edited, chopped, rearranged. So, in reality, Hanreddy and Sullivan emulate the Bard. Someday, as their treatment of Pride and Prejudice outlasts all other stage versions, might there be a footnote to remind the reader that their primary source was a once popular—though minor—British author, Jane Austen, who contributed to their work?

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