|dc.description.abstract||This study examines how Jane Austen’s knowledge of theatricality and performance influenced her work. Scholarship of the last two decades has revised the once popular opinion that Austen was suspicious and critical of the theatre. Now, it is widely accepted that Austen was a frequent patron of theatres and well-versed in the theatrical techniques and drama of the day. Using Austen’s first three published novels as case studies, I explore how Austen’s knowledge of contemporary ideas about performance, theatre, and audience influenced her work.
The theatrical focus of "Sense and Sensibility" is Marianne Dashwood. Her hyperbolic performances of sensibility are rooted in a desire to be absolutely truthful about how she feels. However, this desire is not often compatible with social interaction. The duty to perform social graces often falls to her elder sister and foil, Elinor, whose constant attempts to educate Marianne about the necessity of politesse are generally ignored. When Marianne’s behaviour strays into spectacle, it begins to parallel techniques developed in London’s illegitimate theatres. The strict Theatre Licencing Act that were put into place in 1737 dictated that only theatres patented by the Crown were permitted to permitted to perform serious works of drama. However, almost as soon as the law was in place, unlicensed theatres sprang up attempting to circumvent the law. These so-called illegitimate theatres relied on mime, music, and spectacle to entertain their audiences. Marianne’s affinity for music and her often voiceless tableaux are reminiscent of the illegitimate theatres. Thus, Austen’s affirmation of Marianne’s sensibility suggests she had a more liberal take on the theatre than many scholars once presumed.
In "Pride and Prejudice", Austen’s exploration of theatricality broadens to include an ensemble cast. Here, she focuses on the complexities of social performances, using music as a motif to highlight attitudes towards such performances. Partway through the book, heroine Elizabeth Bennet makes an overt analogy between musical performance and social performance. The application of Elizabeth’s analogy throughout the rest of the text offers revealing insights into how characters view their societal obligations. In turn, these insights begin to reveal the intentions behind many social performances in the novel. The question of intention becomes critical in the text, as both protagonists and antagonists either use or avoid social performance for reasons based on their personal moral codes. Acting is seen as an ambivalent necessity rather than a corrupting force; in "Pride and Prejudice", intentions dictate a character’s perceived morality, and the conclusion is that theatricality is a part of life. Even when performances begin to disappear from the novel, drama and theatricality is heightened, and becomes a major part of the last volume of the novel.
Finally, in "Mansfield Park", Austen examines the role of the spectator in theatre. Unlike the Dashwood sisters or Elizabeth Bennet, Fanny Price’s strength lies in careful and perspicacious observation of the society around her. The focus of the novel is not the morality of the theatre or performing—both of which are treated ambivalently—but the necessity of being an intelligent, critical spectator. Placed in a position of spectatorship from her arrival at Mansfield, Fanny becomes the only person in the novel who is able to accurately discern the malleable sense of morality shared by the superficial Crawford siblings. Her judgments of character are based on how the people around her behave rather than a preconceived bias against performance. Though she suffers from stage fright, by the end of the novel she has been assimilated into the society of Mansfield Park. Whether she is allowed to do so while retaining her perceptive abilities or not drives the tension of the latter half of the novel.||