Why is Fanny Price, the heroine of Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814), aghast at the idea of a private play being enacted by her cousins in the absence of the head of the house? What is so shudder-worthy in their choice of play – Lovers’ Vows – that she thinks of its dialogues as “so unfit to be expressed by any woman of modesty, that she could hardly suppose her cousins could be aware of what they were engaging in”?
Jane Austen’s readers unfamiliar with the play Lovers’ Vows find these questions exceedingly mystifying. A reading of this play along with Mansfield Park gives us some answers, and also telling insights into societal attitudes towards theatre in 19th century England.
When one character tries to convince another that the absent patriarch will not mind their theatrical pursuits as he had encouraged them to act in their childhood, the other responds:
It was a very different thing. You must see the difference yourself. My father wished us, as school-boys, to speak well, but he would never wish his grown up daughters to be acting plays. His sense of decorum is strict.
That the author agrees with that position is clear – the virtuous heroine of Mansfield Park refuses to act, even as the rest of the young party take on the "depraved" play and try all they can to coax her into it.
There is also an allusion to the difficult conditions of actors in those times when the young clergyman-to-be objects to the home theatrical. He likes "good hardened real acting", he says, but has no patience for
the raw efforts of those who have not been bred to the trade – a set of gentlemen and ladies, who have all the disadvantages of education and decorum to struggle through.
Mansfield Park devotes eight full chapters to the preparations and aftermath of its dramatic performance. There is an allegorical parallel between Lovers’ Vows and the novel but interestingly, the choice of play is not the chief concern of Mansfield Park. Of prime importance is how this play is being enacted – or more specifically, who gets paired with whom? Script modification is planned in order to make an uneasy pairing work. A part opposite the attractive Mary Crawford is so tempting to the hero that he quickly chucks his moral "no theatre for us" stand and obliges to act.
The same politics of casting haunts Jane Eyre‘s (1847) tryst with theatricals when the house-party enacts an elaborate game of charades. It is worth noting that in both Jane Eyre and Mansfield Park, the heroine is a passive spectator of the play, timid and quiet, just as she is morally superior and socially beneath the rest of the party.
"Miss Ingram is mine, of course," says the hero when picking the cast for his team. Jane watches in silent chagrin as the hero and Miss Ingram assume the parts of groom and bride in the first act, and hears him rib her later:
Well, whatever I am, remember you are my wife; we were married an hour since, in the presence of all these witnesses.
Cut to the present, shift a continent – what do we find? When it comes to plays within novels, characters’ motivations are much the same. In Srividya Natrajan’s No Onions Nor Garlic (2006), a bizarre adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is being staged at Chennai University. One part of the novel deals with the Hindutva-spin given to the adaptation, but the more comic angle is of four "despo" students who run to the library to find out how many female leads the play offers, so that they may audition to get paired with them. Their hopes soar on seeing the promising names Hermina, Helenia and Titania in the script and decide to enlist.
No luck awaits these poor men, alas – they get cast as the fairies.