George Justice, Editor

It’s About Time   
Jane Austen and the Theatre

By Penny Gay.
Cambridge University Press, 2002. xi + 201 pages.
7 b/w illustrations. Hardcover. $50.00.

Reviewed by Nora Nachumi.

For those of us who have long harbored the suspicion that Jane Austen’s attitude towards the theatre was not entirely negative, Penny Gay’s Jane Austen and the Theatre seems long overdue. Gay’s study examines “the intersections between [Austen’s] theatrical interests and experience and the six mature novels.” The resulting text conclusively demonstrates that Austen’s relationship to the theatre was, for the most part, a positive one. Austen’s fascination with drama, Gay argues, informs her novels, enabling her to dramatize and analyze the theatrical nature of the society in which her heroines perform.

Gay begins with an overview of Austen’s own theatrical experience. Following in the footsteps of Claire Tomalin and Herbert Tucker, Gay describes Austen’s childhood participation in private theatricals. She emphasizes the importance of Bath as a center of theatrical activity and provides an analysis of the state of the London theatres at the end of the century. Given a dearth of physical evidence about Austen’s activities, especially at Bath, some speculation is inevitable; however, Gay proves that Austen was familiar with a great many plays that were being performed at the time. The chapter concludes with a theoretical section in which Gay considers the relationship between Austen’s representation of this theatricality and issues of female identity her novels consider. “If patriarchal society…objectified women,” she argues, “then a woman who turns her own gaze back on this society is actively deconstructing the authority it claims to have.” Austen’s novels, she concludes, are fables that undermine “the notion of a stable identity” by dramatizing the theatricality of everyday life.

To develop the implications of her thesis, Gay puts the six mature novels into dialogue with specific examples of late 18th and early 19th Century drama. In Chapter Two she reads Sense and Sensibility in light of developments in 18th Century comedy. Marianne’s story, she argues, ultimately conforms to the model of sentimental comedy: “she suffers, she survives, she reforms, is rewarded.” Elinor, in contrast, resembles the heroines of modern comedy in that she both thinks and feels. However, Gay contends, Austen was not limited by the constraints of the theatre, with its emphasis on spectacle; Austen’s depiction of Elinor thus results in a kind of female interior drama unable to be performed on the early 19th Century stage.

Chapter Three makes a similar point about the limitations of plays by exploring the relationship between Northanger Abbey and gothic drama. Gothic drama, Gay argues, enforced ideologically dominant stereotypes of gender that both Henry Tilney and Catherine Moreland adopt and eventually grow beyond. Likewise, in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet moves from a concern with social performance to a “more individually defined process of self-reflection and moral growth.”

Here, as in the following chapters, Gay argues that Austen’s novels dramatize what constitutes moral behavior in a theatrical world. In Mansfield Park, she argues, Austen demonstrates that “theatricality, like the world—is always with us—and it cannot be harnessed uncomplicatedly to serve the cause of morality.” This does not mean that Austen attacks the theatre in her novels, but rather that she attempts to “alert the reader to the highly theatricalized nature of the society that she anatomizes.” Moreover, her novels train their readers to read with a certain degree of critical detachment. “Our tendency to be seduced by theatricality, to consciously theatricalise our own personal history and actions, is here ironised; as is the audience’s temptation to treat fiction (whether in theatre or in novels) as reality.”

Gay foregrounds issues of individual agency in the final two chapters. In Emma, she notes, all the world is a stage. Specifically, she argues that this novel destabilizes the notion that the gaze empowers the spectator over the spectacle. Since everyone acts, the best that we can do is to act rightly, both in a moral and a theatrical sense. Chapter Seven links the “almost unbearable emotional intensity” of Persuasion to the melodrama’s characteristic use of silence and gesture. Like melodrama, Gay argues, Persuasion is organized around a climactic moment of “speaking out” and, in doing so, dramatizes a fantasy of “agency, the possibility of single handedly being able to challenge authority and to change it.”

Laughing comedy, sentimental comedy, gothic drama, private theatricals, melodrama, individual plays—the scope of Gay’s knowledge and the specificity of her examples effectively counter assertions that Austen disapproved of the theatre. The theatre inspired Austen’s imagination and informed her writing. Theatrical images and allusions enabled her to dramatize the performative nature of gender and class; they helped her call readers’ attention to the theatricality of their own society; and they underscored the fictional nature of both novels and the plays. Published shortly before Paula Byrne’s identically titled Jane Austen and the Theatre, Gay’s text is one of a growing number of works that effectively reevaluate Austen’s relationship to the theatre and recognize the interdependence of theatre and novels at the time Austen was writing.

Nora Nachumi is an assistant professor in the Department of English at Stern College for Women/Yeshiva University in New
York. She is writing about Austen criticism, popular culture, and the Internet.

JASNA News v.19, no. 1, Spring 2003, p. 16

See more book reviews

Return to Home Page