Last Monday I was very lucky to see a performance of Elizabeth Inchbald’s play 1798, Lover’s Vows, at the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds. What made this performance very special was the cast: the actors were the members of the same cast which is currently appearing in the touring production of Mansfield Park, which I reviewed, here. As a result we saw Edmund play Anhalt, Mary Crawford play Amelia, Maria Bertram play Agatha, Fanny Price playing the Cottager’s Wife, Henry Crawford playing Frederick, and Mr Rushworth as Count Cassell. I am a firm believer that plays are better understood when seen rather than when merely read, and so it was with this production.
It was, I hasten to add, a Script in Hand performance: one where the actors had had one read-though, then performed the play on stage, script in hand without benefit of costumes or scenery . I’ve seen an amateur performance of this play, but it was revelatory to see it acted by good hardened real professionals. In addition seeing it performed in the tiny Regency theatre at Bury St Edmunds was wonderful: the theatre is very intimate and suits this type of play-where there are many asides made directly to the audience. Another joy was that the theatre was kept illuminated during the performance, just as Georgian theatres were.We are all- actors ands audience, on view. A further layer of appropriateness was that Mrs Inchbald was born in a small village only five miles away from the town: she was born Elizabeth Simpson at Standingfield on October 15th 1753, and she knew Bury St Edmunds well. Her plays, along with most of the Georgian repertoire are very rarely performed these days. However, the restored Theatre Royal has established a very noble tradition, since its restoration in 2007, of performing these forgotten plays and attempting to “restoring them to the repertoire”. They have performed many of Mrs Inchbald’s plays, which is very appropriate given the local connection, and it is obvious that Colin Blumenau , the director of these two plays and once artistic director of the Theatre Royal, is a strong supporter and admirer of her works.
The play is, to modern eyes and ears, and odd mix of high drama and low comedy. And it is clear that the subject matter- the fate of a fallen woman who had given birth to an illegitimate son, and who was cast off by a noble family, combined with the love story of a young noble girl for her priest- is not at all suitable to be played by the unmarried and engaged Bertram daughters and Mary Crawford. It is really no surprise that Edmund is initially aghast to discover that this particular play was the one the Mansfield Players decided upon:
I cannot, before Mr. Yates, speak what I feel as to this play, without reflecting on his friends at Ecclesford; but I must now, my dear Maria, tell you, that I think it exceedingly unfit for private representation, and that I hope you will give it up. I cannot but suppose youwill 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 yourfather’s judgment, I am convinced.”
Mansfield Park, Chapter 15
If you would like to read the play you can, by clicking here. After the play had been performed, a question and answer session with the actors and the director, Colin Blumenau was fascinating.Their insights into the technique needed to successfully portray scenes where the actors are requited to switch abruptly from tragedy to comedy were compelling.
Since seeing the play, I’ve had the opportunity to consider it and how Jane Austen used it in Mansfield Park. It is clear that she was very well acquainted with it. As a woman who was very interested in the theatre, she no doubt followed the news of its great success ( it was performed 45 times at its initial presentation at Covent Garden in London) and the controversy surrounding its translation from the German playwright, Auguste von Kotzebue’s play, The Natural Son. She many even have seen it performed, though she does not mention this in her letters. She did have the opportunity, for it was performed at least five times while she lived in Bath, IIRC. For her purposes it was the perfect vehicle for the young people at Mansfield. From its first performance it was a controversial play- with its themes of illegitimacy, inappropriate love,and the decency of the lower orders as opposed to the arrogance and cruelty of the upper classes – and it suited her purposes not only to have the young people act in defiance of Sir Thomas’ strong sense of decorum but for them also to choose to perform the most unsuitable play that they possibly could. Its plot lines also gave them many opportunities to “act out’ their own secret passions and desires, to use the play for their own purposes.
But it goes deeper than that; by casting the play as she did, she subverted and even satirised her own characters. Let’s consider a few examples. Mr Rushworth, the dim but rich cuckold, is transformed into a boastful man about town, Count Cassell,who had made “vows of love to so many women that on his marriage with (Amelia) a hundred hearts will at least be broken. Maria, the adulterous wife who lived openly in sin with Henry Crawford and eventually is cast off by her family to live with Mrs Norris in
an establishment being formed for them in another country, remote and private, where, shut up together with little society, on one side no affection, on the other no judgment, it may be reasonably supposed that their tempers became their mutual punishment,
Mansfield Park, Chapter 48
plays Agatha, who is welcomed back into the bosom of her lovers family with great pomp and circumstance, having previously been abandoned to shift for herself and her son. Fanny- who was finally coerced into agreeing to play the Cottagers Wife, though Sir Thomas’ return prevented it, is meek and kind but relatively powerless to do good until she is exiled to Porstmouth, when her little store of money provides food and intellectual stimulation for her siblings: the Cottager Wife is kind, taking Agatha into her home when no one would help, but sensible enough to eventually take the financial reward offered by Anhalt on Count Wildenheim’s behalf despite the protests of her husband. The Butler, Verdun, is a long comic role: his rambling poetic speeches with concluding morals( which were not written wholly by Mrs. Inchbald but by her friend and college, John Taylor) ramble on: in Mansfield Park , the Butler,Baddeley has only two speeches, and of these the second is of vast significant for it indicates the extent to which the odious Mrs Norris is held in contempt below stairs at Mansfield Park:
Mrs. Norris called out, “Stay, stay, Fanny! what are you about? where are you going? don’t be in such a hurry. Depend upon it, it is not you who are wanted; depend upon it, it is me” (looking at the butler); “but you are so very eager to put yourself forward. What should Sir Thomas want you for? It is me, Baddeley, you mean; I am coming this moment. You mean me, Baddeley, I am sure; Sir Thomas wants me, not Miss Price.”
But Baddeley was stout. “No, ma’am, it is Miss Price; I am certain of its being Miss Price.” And there was a half–smile with the words, which meant, “I do not think you would answer the purpose at all.”
Mansfield Park, Chapter 32.
Mary Crawford, a woman of strong opinions which are fatally and morally flawed, played Ameila , a girl of strong opinions, who was seen as outrageously forward by some sections of its 18th century audience, but who is truly moral and kind, and prepared to marry and love a clergyman, which Mary Crawford, most definitely, was not.
The most striking contrast is found in the attitudes of the head of the households, Baron Wildenhaim, as opposed to Sir Thomas. The Baron,who had been forced by his parents to abandon the low-born Agatha and their son, Frederick, and despite having married and become a widower, regrets ever having to take such a drastic course of action. He assures his daughter, Amelia, that she would never be forced to marry without affection. Once he discovers the true nature of Count Cassell’s sexual offences and bragging, he forbids her to marry him, and eventually consents to her marrying his Chaplain, Anhalt, whose strong moral advice has allowed him to recover Agatha and his natural son Frederick and, also, to give them respectable positions in society, as his son and wife. Sir Thomas, though he offers to allow Maria an escape route from the marriage with Rushworth, failed to allow Fanny the same advantage and punishes her for her “inexplicable” rejection of Henry Crawford, a morally flawed man,who can offer riches and status and, through his connection the Admiral, has arranged for the promotion of her brother, William. There are many more parallels…but I’ll stop here.
As you can see, I’ve been thinking a lot about this play and I now wonder how influential Lover’s Vows was in sowing the germ of the idea for Mansfield Park in Jane Austen’s head. I used to think she merely inserted it as an (in)appropriate play in the private theatrical section of the book, but now…I think the evidence is that its influence is much stronger and deeper with her than that. I do thank the Theatre Royal, its Restoring the Repertoire programme, and the cast of Lover’s Vows for their inspiring performance.