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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.

The chapters dealing with the private theatricals at Mansfield Park are one of my favourite in any of Jane Austen’s novels. Her attitude towards private theatricals and the theatre has long been debated as a result of her seemingly contradictory writings, and I’ve added my little part to the debate here. But what that intriguing episode in Mansfield Park most certainly did, without doubt, was to reflect the real “itch for acting‘ that seemed to consume polite society in England and Wales from 1780-1820.

There were many many instances of private theatricals performed in country and town houses and in some cases in specially  built theatres attached to country houses, during this period.  The Earl of Barrymore, shown below performing in his production of  the Beaux’ Stratagem, acted on the public stage and also  constructed  his very own and elaborate private opera house in the grounds at his estate at Wargrave in Berkshire where he also performed.  Finished in 1792, it cost the  (amazing for then!) sum of £60,000.

He employed Mr Cox, the carpenter from Covent Garden, to ensure everything was constructed to the highest specifications and was truly authentic. Mrs Lybbe Powys, Jane Austen’s kinswoman by marriage and friend to the  Leigh Perrots, Jane’s  aunt and uncle, attended one of the performances there, and thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle.

The Duke of Richmond had a theatre constructed in his town home, Richmond House, in Whitehall. The aristocrats who performed on stage there were coached by Elizabeth Farren, depicted below by Sir Thomas Lawrence.

She was one of the most  famous actresses of the era, and she eventually married one of the aristocraic performers she met there, the Earl of Derby.  The screen painter at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and John Downman the portrait painter were employed as scene painters. King George III and Queen Charlotte and the whole troupe of royal princesses  even attended performances.

One of the most intriguing series of private theatricals were those staged by the Margravine of Anspach, at her home, Brandenburgh House at Hammersmith, then a village separate from London, in Surrey near the Thames.

The Margravine was an interesting character to say the very least. Born Elizabeth Berkeley

shown above, painted by Ozias Humphrey, she had first married the 6th Baron Carven ( pictured below) and was mother to his children, including his heir who became the first Earl of Craven, and who was of course

a kinsman and patron of the Fowle family at Kintbury. They became estranged after both began a series of extra marital affairs and then always lived apart until his death.

Sybil Rosenfeld in her magical book, Temples of Thespis describes Elizabeth’s extraordinary private life after separating from Baron Craven:

She travelled about Europe for some years until she finally settled at the court of the Margrave of Anspach in 1787 as his “adopted sister”. In 1791 only a month after she heard of the death of her husband she married the Margrave in Lisbon and persuaded him to give up the ruling of his principality and retire with her and his fortune to England. Her precipitancy was considered indecent and, on her return, she found herself cold-shouldered by the court and high society. The Margrave, a stolid German who seems only to have wished for a peaceful life, purchased Brandenburgh House a country villa on the bank of the Thames at Hammersmith and spent the rest of his days there. His wife built a theatre in the grounds where she coud entertain him and at the same time indulge in her favourite past time of taking the centre stage….

The Margravine, socially under a cloud and not visited by the more rigid and respectable members of high society, threw herself into organising her theatricals:

The Margravine was a vain and egotistical creature with a strong streak of exhibtionism in her nature, who yet was capavle , where her happines was involved, of showing detemination and strength of character…..

(Tempels of Thespis,as above page 53)

The theatricals performed at Brandenburg House were lavish and extravagant -the theatre fantastically built in the manner of Horace Walpole’s’ Strawberry Hill as a faux castle ( plainly to be seen in the scan of my print of the theatre and house taken from my copy of The Beauties of England and Wales 1801, above). Here is an image of the interior of the theatre:

The Margravine’s theatricals were expensively and lavishly produced. The Margravine was heavily involved in all aspects of the productions, and was naturally, most often to be found centre stage. The goings on at Hammersmith caught the eye of Gillray who satirised poor plump Lady Buckingham, one of the members of the company, below:

One of the more famous of the Margravine’s productions took place in 1803. It  was a three act comedy called Nourjad, adapted from Frances Sheridan’s novel,  The History of Nourjad.  The production was created in celebration of the Margrave’s birthday and was not performed in the lavish theatre but in the great gallery adjoining the dining room of Brandenburg House. A temporary stage was erected at one end of the gallery and green baize served for the side screens. Shades of Mansfield Park indeed.

If you would like to experience this type of private theatrical, indeed this particular production, then you will be enchanted to note that, for one night only, you will have the chance to do so. The Margravine’s 1803  staging of Nourjad will be re created at Chawton House on 10th December  under the direction of Professor Judith Hawley of Royal Holloway College, University of London:

Professor Hawley and Dr McGirr are leading a network of scholars, literary critics, theatre practitioners and stake holders in the heritage industry to investigate the history and contemporary possibilities of this form of entertainment. Central to their investigation is a practical exploration and on 10 December the great hall and kitchen of Chawton House in Alton, Hampshire will be transformed into a make-shift theatre to evoke an event which took place on 24 February 1803 at Brandenburgh House, Hammersmith. On that night, the theatre-mad Elizabeth Craven, Margravine of Anspach, staged her adaptation of Frances Sheridan’s Oriental fantasy, ‘Nourjahad’ as a birthday entertainment for her husband. Chawton House, once owned by Jane Austen’s brother, is both a magnificently preserved Elizabethan manor house and a centre for the study of early women’s writing.

Professor Hawley said: “Theatre history has concentrated almost exclusively on the public theatres but there is a fascinating aspect of private life waiting to be uncovered. The possibilities for the transformation of space and self were so appealing that hundreds of upper class families got in on the act, while others decried the liberties so taken. We are very grateful to Royal Holloway for supporting this endeavour which is intended as a pilot for a more extensive project.”

“Students from the Drama Department will perform their interpretation of Lady Craven’s elaborate entertainment as a play within a play, to explore the ways in which texts were tailored to particular spaces and performers. Recapturing the spirit of amateur drama, this performance will bring both history and the house itself back to life”, explains Professor Hawley.

This sounds a fascinating experiment, and one I’d love to attend. Further details of the project are available here. A symposium is also being held and details can be obtained by contacting Professor Hawley by email on

j-dot-hawley-at-rhul-dot- ac-dot-uk

replacing the dots etc with the usual punctuation.

This is a once in a life time opportunity to time travel and to experience the sort of private theatricals that play such a prominent part in Mansfield Park…I do wish I could go.

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