“In a general light, private theatricals are open to some objections, but as we are circumstanced, I must think it would be highly injudicious” — Edmund Bertram (Ch. 13)
A large portion of Mansfield Park revolves around the production of a play by the young people at Mansfield Park. Eight chapters (13 thru 20) are devoted to this subject, and the repercussions continue to the end of the novel.
The idea of acting a play is brought to the Bertrams by Mr. Yates, a friend of Tom Bertram’s, who comes disappointed after the theatrical party that he was involved in at Ecclesford was broken up by the death of a near relative of his host. Tom, his sisters Maria and Julia, and Mr. Crawford, all listen with fascination to Mr. Yates’s narration of everything concerned with the play, and all have a desire to have been there themselves. Henry Crawford, “to whom, in all the riot of his gratifications [acting] was yet an untasted pleasure”, suggests that they could have a play at Mansfield. “[W]hat should prevent us?” he asks (ch. 13). And so it begins. But not all of the family were caught up in the idea. Edmund attempts, unsuccessfully, to dissuade his brother and, when that fails, his sisters.
Tom insists that they will be doing no harm, Maria and Julia are eager to be acting, and Mr. Crawford is all alive at the idea. Only Sir Thomas (who puts a complete stop to the project when he returns home), Edmund, and Fanny (who completely agreed with every objection Edmund stated to Tom) find anything about the plan to censure. Many readers are puzzled to find the reasons against acting that seem so blatant to Edmund and Fanny. It seems like an innocent form of entertainment, and many will agree with Mr. Yates, that Sir Thomas in this case is “unintelligibly moral”. Even Fanny has transient doubts that her refusal to participate in the play can be justified. Mrs. Norris “was ashamed to confess having never seen any of the impropriety which was so glaring to Sir Thomas” (ch. 20).
Jane Austen participated in private theatricals, so she knew what they were like. If she approved of them — or, at least, approved of them under these circumstances — why would she have portrayed them as wrong? To make Edmund look stuffy? If she just wanted to make Edmund stuffy, why did she make him right? After all, in the end the theatricals did harm — even Tom realized that.
What made the play wrong? Edmund does not condemn all theatricals — he loves a play himself and would go far to see one. Nor does he condemn all private theatricals point blank, though he does point out that, “In a general light, private theatricals are open to some objections”. His objections are personal to his family.
Want of Feeling
Edmund points out two objections. First, it would show “great want of feeling” on their father’s account. Sir Thomas was absent “and in some degree of constant danger” — at sea, where any number of things could happen to prevent his ever returning. Mrs. Norris depends on being the one to break the news to the family, if “poor Sir Thomas were fated never to return”. And Sir Thomas’s actual voyage was not without danger. Upon his return, he is interrupted while telling his family a story “of his passage to England, when the alarm of a French privateer was at the height”.
Sir Thomas’s danger did not only come from his voyage. He was living in the West Indies, which were well-known to be an unhealthy place for Europeans to live. Fanny notices when Sir Thomas returns that “he was grown thinner, and had the burnt, fagged, worn look of fatigue and a hot climate”. In her book Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels, Deirdre Le Faye comments on this.
Sir Thomas seems to have been lucky …. The West Indies were notoriously unhealthy for Europeans, with yellow fever the greatest risk, the progress of which could be so rapid that it was not unusual for the doctor, the coffin-maker and the undertaker to be sent for at the same time. Other local diseases were the incurable ‘black scurvy’ (either leprosy or syphilis) and some unnamed infection which covered the body with itching boils.1
In fact, Jane Austen’s own sister, Cassandra, lost her fiancé, Reverend Thomas Fowle, when he accompanied his cousin Lord Craven to the West Indies. He died there, in February 1797, of yellow fever.
On top of their father’s danger, there is the conviction that Sir Thomas “would totally disapprove” of them acting a play. Even if there was nothing else wrong with the scheme, Sir Thomas’s disapprobation would have been enough to make it blameworthy. The house did not belong to the young people. They had no business rearranging their father’s house or otherwise using it in a manner that they knew would be disagreeable to him. And they did know. Tom, Edmund, Maria, and Julia all knew. Their consternation when he arrives proves it. Julia’s assertion, “I need not be afraid of appearing before him” (a statement she is only able to make because, after not receiving the part she wished for, she refused to have anything more to do with the play), shows her consciousness that Sir Thomas will not approve of their activities. The fact that they all viewed Edmund’s joining the scheme (as he eventually did) as a moral fall — “a victory over Edmund’s discretion” that was “beyond their hopes, and was most delightful” (ch. 17) — reveals their awareness that what they were doing was wrong.
Even Mr. and Miss Crawford knew that what they were doing would not be approved of by the master of the house. When Sir Thomas arrives home, Mr. Yates considers it only a temporary interruption, but the Crawfords, “from better understanding the family … felt the total destruction of the scheme to be inevitably at hand” (ch. 19).
While, as Tom pointed out, Sir Thomas would probably not have minded slight rearrangements being made in his absence, his children had no business making such serious alterations as building their theatre involved, or rearranging Sir Thomas’s own room. Soon after Sir Thomas arrives, “he found that he could not be any longer in the house without just looking into his own dear room,” but is “a good deal surprised to find candles burning in his room; and … a general air of confusion in the furniture. The removal of the bookcase from before the billiard-room door struck him especially”. Indeed, “it needed all the felicity of being again at home, and all the forbearance it could supply, to save Sir Thomas from anger on finding himself thus bewildered in his own house, making part of a ridiculous exhibition in the midst of theatrical nonsense”. “Tom understood his father’s thoughts, and … began to see, more clearly than he had ever done before, that there might be some ground of offence, that there might be some reason for the glance his father gave towards the ceiling and stucco of the room; and that when he inquired with mild gravity after the fate of the billiard-table, he was not proceeding beyond a very allowable curiosity” (ch. 19).
Despite Tom’s assurances that the theatre “will be on the simplest plan” and that perhaps it “might cost a whole twenty pounds”, the damages must have cost Sir Thomas rather more than Tom had admitted. Edmund is vexed when “entirely against his judgment, a scene-painter arrived from town, and was at work, much to the increase of the expenses”. When Sir Thomas dismisses the scene-painter, he leaves “having spoilt … the floor of one room, ruined all the coachman’s sponges, and made five of the under-servants idle and dissatisfied”.
On three points, therefore, did the private theatricals show “great want of feeling” on Sir Thomas’s account. First, they were insensitive when Sir Thomas was “in some degree of constant danger”. Secondly, the Bertrams, and, indeed, the Crawfords, knew that Sir Thomas “would totally disapprove it” because of his strict sense of decorum. Finally, it was taking liberties with his house while he was absent, which, as Edmund pointed out, “could not be justified”, and, in light of Sir Thomas’s financial situation, were “wrong as an expense” (money troubles were, after all, the reason for Sir Thomas’s absence in the first place).
Edmund’s second objection was that it would be “imprudent … with regard to Maria”. Maria was engaged, but could not marry until her father’s return. The lack of her father and her extended engagement were both disadvantages to Maria.
Considering her engagement, most plays would have brought Maria into an intimacy that must be inappropriate, however the particular play chosen was very inappropriate, and almost all involved felt it so. Though resistant to the idea of any play being done, both Fanny and Edmund were shocked by the particular play chosen — Lovers’ Vows, by Mrs. Inchbald. And Edmund and Fanny were not the only ones who recognized that the selected play was improper for them to act. Maria blushed when she acknowledged the part she was to play and even the worldly, London-bred Miss Crawford was embarrassed to think of acting her part with a stranger.
Maria was worried about her fiancé’s reaction to what she was doing, though he was also to act. She needn’t have been anxious, however, as Mr. Rushworth is too stupid to “draw any of those conclusions, or feel any of that displeasure which Maria had been half prepared for.” Still, Maria is ashamed to admit that she is to play Agatha, instead stating ambiguously, when Edmund asks her, that she is to take Lady Ravenshaw’s part. Miss Crawford also feels the impropriety of her part — or, at least, she recognizes it when she finds that she is not to act with Edmund. Once convinced that Edmund will not act, she is eager to have someone that she has at least met — “for it will be less unpleasant to me than to have a perfect stranger.” She tells Fanny, “I am not very sanguine as to our play … and I can tell Mr. Maddox that I shall shorten some of his speeches, and a great many of my own, before we rehearse together. It will be very disagreeable, and by no means what I expected.”
Like Edmund, Fanny is amazed that such a play has been chosen. “Agatha and Amelia appeared to her in their different ways so totally improper for home representation — the situation of one, and the language of the other, 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” (ch. 14). Edmund remonstrates with Maria, “I think it exceedingly unfit for private representation, and that I hope you will give it up. I cannot but suppose you will when you have read it carefully over. Read only the first act aloud to either your mother or aunt, and see how you can approve it. It will not be necessary to send you to your father’s judgment, I am convinced.”
Edmund and Fanny both consider Lovers’ Vows inappropriate for home, or private, representation. Something that may be appropriate in a public, professional setting, might be injudicious in the more intimate setting of a private home. And, as Deirdre Le Faye writes, “Although the play ends with morality restored, some critics of the time considered it still too risqué.”2
Agatha, the character that Maria plays, is an unmarried woman with a child. It is this “situation” of Agatha’s that makes Fanny so astonished that this play was chosen. In the play, Agatha admits to her grown son, “His [her seducer’s] flattery made me vain, and his repeated vows—; Don’t look at me, dear Frederick!—; I can say no more. Oh! oh! my son! I was intoxicated by the fervent caresses of a young, inexperienced, capricious man, and did not recover from the delirium till it was too late.”3 In the same scene (it is the one that Maria and Mr. Crawford rehearse “so needlessly often”), Agatha rises and embraces her son Frederick (played, of course, by Mr. Crawford) and he “leans her against his breast”. During her confession, Frederick “takes her hand, and puts it to his heart”, and, at the end of the scene, “embraces her”. When Sir Thomas returns during a rehearsal of the play, “Frederick was listening with looks of devotion to Agatha’s narrative, and pressing her hand to his heart”, an action he continues “in spite of the shock” of the news. In the last scene of the play, Baron Wildenhaim (Mr. Yates) runs and clasps Agatha in his arms and she embraces him. The play ends with this action, “Frederick throws himself on his knees by the other side of his mother—; She clasps him in her arms”, &c.
During the time period of Mansfield Park, it was inappropriate for unmarried men and women to do much touching, such as holding hands, &c. Mrs. Norris insists that “if there is anything a little too warm … it can be easily left out”, but she is too busy “saving … half a crown here and there to the absent Sir Thomas, to have leisure for watching the behaviour, or guarding the happiness of his daughters”. And, though, according to Maria, some omissions were to be made to the play, the fact that when Sir Thomas’s arrival is announced, Henry is pressing Maria’s hand to his heart, shows that, at least, not all of the touching was edited. Fanny notices that this particular scene is practiced over and over, obviously for the flirting pleasure of Henry and Maria. One time, Miss Crawford and Mr. Rushworth come across Henry and Maria rehearsing “and it happened to be exactly at one of the times when they were trying not to embrace” (ch. 18). (And note that, when touching is not generally allowed, small touches take on greater significance, than they otherwise would.)
Despite his initial obliviousness to the position acting would put his fiancée into, Mr. Rushworth does not continue unconscious. After watching Maria rehearse with Mr. Crawford so often, Mr. Rushworth experiences “a return of his former jealousy, which Maria, from increasing hopes of Crawford, was at little pains to remove”. Maria might have had “increasing hopes of Mr. Crawford”, but he had no serious intentions towards her. He used the play only as a vehicle for his flirtation with her. He had no intention of fulfilling the expectations that he was raising, as Maria found when the play was over. “The hand which had so pressed hers to his heart! the hand and the heart were alike motionless and passive now! Her spirit supported her, but the agony of her mind was severe.”
Amelia, the character which Miss Crawford undertakes, was almost as inappropriate in her way as Agatha. Fanny is astonished that “any woman of modesty” would speak as forwardly as Amelia does in the play, and even Miss Crawford admits that “really there is a speech or two”. Amelia’s forwardness consists in her forcing her tutor, Mr. Anhalt (ultimately played by Edmund), into confessing his love for her (“Why do you force from me, what it is villanous to own? —; I love you more than life —”4) by pressing him with declarations of her love for him, when he is sent to her by her father to find out how she feels about marrying Count Cassel. She pretty much proposes to him and then undertakes, before he even accepts, to talk her father into allowing them to marry. As Mr. Anhalt has been secretly in love with Amelia for some time, and Amelia’s father does consent to their marriage, no harm is done, but the lady’s language makes her part, like the part of Agatha, “totally improper for home representation” — especially when played with someone not of the family.
As for the other characters, Count Cassel (played by Mr. Rushworth) is a man who has shamelessly seduced many young women, and even boasts of his conquests, considering “that when a man is young and rich, has travelled, and is no personal object of disapprobation, to have made vows but to one woman, is an absolute slight upon the rest of the sex.”5 The “rhyming” Butler (played by Tom) recounts the Count’s exploits in verse:
Count Cassel wooed this maid so rare,
And in her eye found grace;
And if his purpose was not fair
It probably was base.
The sire consents to bless the pair,
And names the nuptial day,
When, lo! the bridegroom was not there,
Because he was away.
For ah! the very night before,
No prudent guard upon her,
The Count he gave her oaths a score,
And took in change her honour.
Then you, who now lead single lives,
From this sad tale beware;
And do not act as you were wives,
Before you really are.6
Mr. Yates plays Baron Wildenhaim, the man who seduced Agatha and left her pregnant, eventually marrying another woman (his wife dies before the action of the play). They are reconciled in the end with Agatha forgiving the Baron, and he agreeing to marry her. Frederick’s actions have already been touched on.
The parts were very purposely cast for the convenience of the passions of the young people involved. When Mr. Crawford and Mr. Yates are debating which of them should play the Baron and which should play Frederick, Maria, “feeling all the interest of an Agatha in the question, took on her to decide it, by observing to Mr. Yates that this was a point in which height and figure ought to be considered, and that his being the tallest, seemed to fit him peculiarly for the Baron. She was acknowledged to be quite right, and the two parts being accepted accordingly, she was certain of the proper Frederick.” (Agatha has only one scene with the Baron.) She, like nearly everyone else involved in the play, wanted to use the part to be able to get around the forms of the time that didn’t allow the degree of intimacy she wanted. Mr. Crawford, in his turn, entreats “Miss Julia Bertram … not to engage in the part of Agatha”. “Pleasantly, courteously, it was spoken; but the manner was lost in the matter to Julia’s feelings. She saw a glance at Maria which confirmed the injury to herself: it was a scheme, a trick; she was slighted, Maria was preferred; the smile of triumph which Maria was trying to suppress shewed how well it was understood”. Julia knew as well as Mr. Crawford and her sister, why the parts were being cast as they were.
Both Mr. and Miss Crawford knew that the play would be used as a vehicle for Henry’s flirtation with Maria, and Miss Crawford, though so aware of “what it would be to act Amelia with a stranger”, had no objection to acting the part with Edmund. “I should not particularly dislike the part of Amelia if well supported”, she says. She wanted to play the part of Edmund’s love interest, as a vehicle for her flirtation with him.
Edmund, though thoroughly convinced of the imprudence and indelicacy of doing this play (or any play), when he finds that his brother is to ask Charles Maddox to act with Miss Crawford, decides to undertake the part of Anhalt himself. Some delicacy for Miss Crawford he may have had, but I believe that he was also driven by jealousy to act as he did — he recognized the intimacy acting together would give Miss Crawford and Mr. Maddox, and, being in love with Miss Crawford himself, was jealous of Mr. Maddox having that. This apparently blinds him to the fact that, if Miss Crawford seriously objected to the position of acting with a stranger, she could still decline the part.
Fanny continued to judge rightly, even after Edmund’s fall. “Her heart and her judgment were equally against Edmund’s decision: she could not acquit his unsteadiness”. “I am sorry for Miss Crawford;” she tells Edmund, “but I am more sorry to see you drawn in to do what you had resolved against, and what you are known to think will be disagreeable to my uncle.” After consideration, she realizes that “she could never have been easy in joining a scheme which, considering only her uncle, she must condemn altogether.”
The play was not a family affair. A great and dangerous intimacy could come from acting together unprofessionally, especially as young adults. Having people other than the family involved (the Crawfords, in particular) was unwise. Edmund recognizes the danger of inviting Charles Maddox to act with them. He sees “the more than intimacy — the familiarity”, “the mischief that may, … the unpleasantness that must arise from a young man’s being received in this manner: domesticated among us; authorised to come at all hours, and placed suddenly on a footing which must do away all restraints”. “To think only of the licence which every rehearsal must tend to create. It is all very bad!” However, he doesn’t seem to acknowledge that the same mischief and license would be created by his acting with Miss Crawford, and that it would be just as wrong for him to undertake the part as it would for Mr. Maddox to do so. The same argument held for the Bertrams acting with the Crawfords and Mr. Yates, as with Mr. Maddox. None of the others acknowledge this, either. When Edmund joins the theatricals, the others are glad to be quit of Mr. Maddox. “To have it quite in their own family circle was what they had particularly wished. A stranger among them would have been the destruction of all their comfort” (ch. 17, emphasis mine).
Edmund says that to see “good hardened real acting”, he would go far — “but I would hardly walk from this room to the next to look at 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.” When you enter into something as a profession, you bring different feelings, a different perspective to it than when you are just doing something for entertainment. The Bertrams were not professional actors, and their feelings were therefore more susceptible.
The brothers become blind to the emotions of those around them, failing to notice that Julia had been hurt by Mr. Crawford and that Maria was involved with him, or even that Mr. Rushworth was jealous. “They were totally preoccupied. Tom was engrossed by the concerns of his theatre, and saw nothing that did not immediately relate to it. Edmund, between his theatrical and his real part, between Miss Crawford’s claims and his own conduct, between love and consistency, was equally unobservant” (ch. 17).
Even in the short term, acting brought no great happiness to any of those involved. “Everybody began to have their vexation.” Against Edmund’s judgment, his brother hired an expensive scene-painter from town and began to invite “every family who came in his way.” Tom tires of waiting, and begins to wish he had a more significant part and that they had chosen some other play.
So far from being all satisfied and all enjoying, [Fanny] found everybody requiring something they had not, and giving occasion of discontent to the others. Everybody had a part either too long or too short; nobody would attend as they ought; nobody would remember on which side they were to come in; nobody but the complainer would observe any directions. (Ch. 18)
When Sir Thomas unexpectedly finds the theatre, he returns to the drawing-room “with an increase of gravity ”, having not suspected their acting to have “assumed so serious a character.” Mr. Yates tries to entertain Sir Thomas with a detailed account of their theatrical proceedings and is so blind as to not see “Sir Thomas’s dark brow contract as he looked with inquiring earnestness at his daughters and Edmund”. In Mr. Yates’s relation of his theatre at Ecclesford, Sir Thomas “found much to offend his ideas of decorum”. Sir Thomas tries to turn it all off, and excuse his children as much as he can, “That I should be cautious and quick-sighted, and feel many scruples which my children do not feel, is perfectly natural”, but he is disappointed in them.
Sir Thomas saw all the impropriety of such a scheme among such a party, and at such a time, as strongly as his son had ever supposed he must; he felt it too much, indeed, for many words; and having shaken hands with Edmund, meant to try to lose the disagreeable impression, and forget how much he had been forgotten himself as soon as he could, after the house had been … restored to its proper state. (Ch. 20, emphasis mine)
Deirdre Le Faye excellently summarizes the problems with the Mansfield theatricals.
Some people wonder why, since the young Austens themselves performed plays at home in Steventon, Jane should apparently disapprove of the amateur dramatics at Mansfield Park; but such critics here confuse reality and fiction. The point Jane is making in the novel is not that amateur dramatics are themselves wrong in principle, but that the Bertrams know their father would disapprove and are therefore disobeying him in his absence, as well as choosing a play which, as Fanny realizes, is unsuitable for performance in a domestic circle, and which only exacerbates the jealousies and quarrels already existing among the young people. As Jane intended, the sexual tensions created at this time between Maria and Henry Crawford, and Edmund and Mary Crawford, as they rehearse their parts all too enthusiastically, make the production of Lovers’ Vows the turning point for the eventual collapse of the Bertram family group.7
“We mean nothing but a little amusement among ourselves,” said Tom, “just to vary the scene, and exercise our powers in something new.” “What should prevent us?” is Mr. Crawford’s comment. “I have no fears and no scruples”, Tom tells his brother.
“For every tree is known by his own fruit. For of thorns men do not gather figs, nor of a bramble bush gather they grapes.” (Luke 6:44). The play is proved wrong by its result. A harmless scheme would have caused no harm. Instead, the intimacy it created between Henry and Maria led to her expecting a proposal from him, led to her marrying Mr. Rushworth out of spite after Henry jilts her, and led, finally, to the then-married and very discontented Maria running away with Henry, and her subsequent abandonment and disgrace, as well as Henry’s loss of the woman he truly loved. Maria’s guilt also precipitated Julia’s elopement with Mr. Yates, and caused great suffering to all her family. Realizing much of this, Tom suffers “self-reproach arising from the deplorable event … to which he felt himself accessory by all the dangerous intimacy of his unjustifiable theatre” (ch. 48).
1 Deirdre Le Faye, Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2002), p. 242.
2 Ibid., p. 241.
3 Mrs. Inchbald, Lovers’ Vows, Act I, Scene I.
4 Ibid., Act III, Scene I.
5 Ibid., Act IV, Scene I.
7 Le Faye, p. 242.
This post is a largely edited version of an earlier post of mine: “We Mean Nothing but a Little Amusement”.