It’s nearly Twelfth Night and the Christmas season is almost over for another year. It was, of course, at Christmas that Jane Austen’s family used to perform their own private theatrical at Steventon Rectory ,and thus it is highly appropriate that I make one final post about such Christmas activities. In December I had the extreme good luck to be able to travel to Chawton House to watch a rare recreation of how Private Theatricals were played out in country houses during Jane Austen’s era. The students of the Drama Department of Royal Holloway College, University of London recreated a rehearsal performance of some scenes from a play inspired by the oriental tale of Nourjahad as written by Frances Sheridan. Frances Sheridan was the mother of Richard Sheridan,the playwright, and was a well known and respected author in her own right. The student authors of the play within the play were Samantha Wynn, Naomi Lawson, Lauren Buckley, Felix Clutson, Ben Hodson and Belinda Campbell.
This the frontispiece of my copy of Mrs Sheridan’s tale, and this edition was published in Dublin in 1802.
Sadly, I was not granted permission to take any photographs of this performance or its surroundings, so I will have to rely on images from my collection to try to relay to you want a successful event this was.
The students very cleverly took two parts- characters in the play and those of the figures in the social circle of Elizabeth Craven,the Margravine of Anspach- who in 1803 had performed The History of Nourjahad at her home, Brandenburg House at Hammersmith, in honour of her husband’s birthday.
(©Chawton House Library)
The evening began with the audience -around 50 of us- congregating in the wonderfully restored kitchen at Chawton House.There we were treated to oriental inspired nibbles and hot mint tea-very welcome on so cold and icy an evening. The rehearsal scenes took place in the Great Hall at Chawton- cleared of all its sofas etc…
and the Dining room was used by the Students as their Green Room. This echoed the event of 1803, for although the Margravine had a Gothic sham castle/ theatre at Brandenburg House, seen below in a print from my copy of The Beauties of England and Wales by John Britton,
she actually used the Great Gallery adjoining the Dining Room at her house for the performance. Here is a close up of her little theatre, below.
The tale of Nourjahad was fashionably oriental. The story was of the King of Persia’s favourite who was raised to glory , underwent trials of morality and finally was happily reunited with his loyal wife and admirers. As the programme produced by the students notes:
The Arabian Tale teaches the young courtier Nourjahad-and us- to be careful what one wishes for. Nourjahad quickly learns that unending youth and inexhaustible riches are not the recipe for happiness that he thought , and his increasing violence and depravity leads instead to punishment and remorse. Is there any hope of redemption for young Nourjahad?
Here are some scans of the text to give you some idea of its tone ( do note that you can enlarge all the images in this post by clicking on them):
The students wrote their play within a play themselves and very ingeniously managed to portray the petty and serious rivalries and tensions these private theatricals inevitably created, something that Jane Austen, who had watched all the goings-on between her brothers, James and Henry and her cousin Eliza de Feuillide during the series private theatricals performed at the barn at the Steventon rectory, re-created very successfully herself in Mansfield Park.
It was clear that the Margravine shown above, and played by Louise Parker, was the star of the show even though she did not actually appear on stage during the rehearsal. Her direction was authoritative and woe betide anyone who dared to veer from her dictates or question her staging directions. Nourjahad was portrayed by William Beckford, the fabulously rich owner of Fonthill,that magnificent folly of a mansion just outside Bath, and author of the gothic tale,Vathek. A member of the Margravine’s social circle, he was played suitably languidly by James Potter.
As was the case with many of the grandest private theatricals produced by members of the English aristocracy a professional was on hand to give assistance to the amateur players. In this case it was Mrs Frances Abington, who was, of course, a very famous actress of the era and had been a long-standing member of the company at the Drury Lane Theatre in London.
Mrs Abington, played by Kayleigh Tremaine,was acting the role of the Sultan. She was most anxious that her talents were not being used to the full advantage of the company (and herself!) . She had hardly any scene and hardly any lines! And was most vocal on this point!
The Margrave, played beautifully by Felix Clutson, made an unepxected appearance bringing the rehearsal to a prompt halt…all in the search for his slippers, which had been misappropriated as propos.
The harem girls were vain and all were a tempting to gain the most of the limelight…..there was fierce competition for possession of the best props and jockeying for the most advantageous positions on stage….
The hapless Miss Emily Graves, shy assistant to the Margravine played by Katie Harrison was hard pressed to correctly interpret the imperious Margravine’s wishes, or rather commands.
This was a most intriguing evening,and reflected many of the issues that the Mansfield Park theatricals exposed – feeling of pride,resentment and jealousy in the performers. I was very privileged to have seen the rehearsal scenes performed in such suitable surroundings by the very talented drama students,who played their dual roles with such verve. Professor Judith Hawley and Dr. Elaine McGirr of Royal Holloway are to be congratulated for so successfully directing their talented charges,and for re-creating such a rare and elusive event.