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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…

(©Chawton House Library)

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.

Sheridan’s wonderfully funny farce, The Critic is currently being performed at the Chichester Festival Theatre, and I thought I ought to bring it to your attention not only because it is a superb 18th century play that is rarely performed these days, but also because it would appear that Jane Austen admired it too.

The Critic had its first performance at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London on the 30th October, 1779.

This was Sheridan’s opportunity to expose his own experiences in the theatre: of his exasperation with pompous and fretful actors, playwrights who could not abhor criticism, hapless directors, scene designers and, of course, critics, gleefully modelling some of the play’s characters on people with whom he had worked. His play, a satire on the fashions of the theatre of the day, concerns the doings of The Critic, Mr Dangle, and, during the last act, how he and another critic, Mr Sneer and the anxious playwright, Sir Fretful Plagiary,  react to the rehearsal of Mr Puff’s “historical tragedy”, The Spanish Armada.

This play within the play needless to say is ridiculous, a romance that is historically inaccurate and satirizes the theatrical conventions of the day : ranting, addressing soliloquies only to the pit, all concluding with  crazed processions that were the stock in trade of many of the productions in the 18th century repertoire:

“Flourish of drums-trumpets-cannon etc etc Scene changes to the sea- the fleets engage- the musik plays ”Britons strike home”-Spanish fleet destroyed by fire ships etc-English fleet advances-musick plays Rule Britannia-The procession of all the English rivers and their tributaries and their emblems etc begins with Handel’s water musick ends with a chorus to the march in Judas Maccabeaus-During this scene Puff directs and applauds everything-then

PUFF: Well, pretty well-but not quite perfect-so ladies and gentlemen if you please we’ll rehearsh this piece again tomorrow.


Exactly the type of production Edmund Bertram sneers at in Chapter 13 of Mansfield Park

“Nay,” said Edmund, who began to listen with alarm. “Let us do nothing by halves. If we are to act, let it be in a theatre completely fitted up with pit, boxes, and gallery, and let us have a play entire from beginning to end; so as it be a German play, no matter what, with a good tricking, shifting afterpiece, and a figure–dance, and a hornpipe, and a song between the acts. If we do not outdo Ecclesford, we do nothing.”

By the time of The Critic’s premiere, Richard Brinsley Sheridan had already enjoyed great success as a playwright: his first comedy, The Rivals, had opened at Drury Lane four years earlier and was followed by The School for Scandal (1777), which was widely regarded as his masterpiece. Sheridan had by this time also purchased an interest in Drury Lane and eventually became its manager.

Jane Austen must certainly have read the play by the 1790s when she was writing her History of England, for she ironically uses The Critic– or really the play within the play, Mr Puff’s The Spanish Armarda- as a primary source for her statement about  Sir Walter Raleigh in the section concerning James I:

Sir Walter Raleigh flourished in this & the preceding reign & is by many people held in great veneration & respect-But as he was an enemy of the noble Essex, I have nothing to say in praise of him& must refer all those who wish to be acquainted with the particulars of his Life to Mr Sheridan’s play of the Critic, where they will find many interesting Anecdotes as well of him as of his freind(sic) Sir Christopher Hatton.


In Love and Freindship (sic) from Volume the Second of the juvenilia, there is another reference.

“We fainted Alternatively on a Sofa”

This is a clear allusion to the stage direction in Act III Scene 1 of The Critic, when during rehearsal of The Spanish Armarda The Justice’s Lady is melodramatically reunited with her son :

Mother: O ecstasy of Bliss!

Son: O most unlook’d for happiness

Mother : O wonderful event!

[They faint alternatively in each others arms]


Sheridan in his turn, was an admirer of Jane Austen’s works:

Richard Brinsley Sheridan speaking to a Miss Shirreff at a dinner party ”at Mr Whitbread’s when Pride and p came out…asked her if she had seen it, and advised her to buy it immediately for it was one of the cleverest things  he ever read

( see David Gilson: A Bibliography of Jane Austen, page 26)

The current production has had rave reviews. Libby Purvis writing in The Times said

The rendering of the rehearsal of  Mr Puff’s heroic patriotic Armarda play is blissful.

As you can see from  the wonderful production photographs in this post taken by Manuel Harlan it is a beautifully correct staging of this period piece. It is being performed as a double bill in conjunction with the same cast taking part in a performance of The Real Inspector Hound by Tom Stoppard-which was of course originally entitled …The Critics ;-)

And for fans of the BBC’s  1995 production of Persuasion, there is an additional reason to go and see it. Captain Benwick, played by Richard McCabe is in this production: see him first on the left in the picture below,as the hapless Mr Puff.

So, do, if you can go to Chichester Festival Theatre before the 28th August when this production closes to see it and discover exactly the sort of clever and hilariously funny wordplay that so attracted Jane Austen. You will not be disappointed.

I should like to give my profuse thanks both the staff at the Chichester Festival Theatre, with especial praise to Ellen Holbrook, and to their amazing photographer, Manuel Harlan, for their kindness in granting me permission to use their wonderful images of the production in this post.

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