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Mansfield Park: The Musical

Mansfield Park, Jane Austen’s masterpiece about Fanny Price’s life and relationships with her upper-class English relatives and their connections, is a work especially suited to adaptation for the stage. The richly developed characters and their complex relationships would make for engaging and vibrant theater as the staged production of the work sheds new light on Austen’s vision and work. Of course, with the translation from a novel to the theater, there are changes and compromises that arise, but the important, key focus of an adapter should be to deliver the soul of the work—to convey what makes Austen’s work engaging and important. What is the best way to do this? Mansfield Park should be a musical. This may seem like an offbeat or radical proposition, but Mansfield Park has everything needed to create a musical production: a vibrant cast of characters, a story driven by people’s authentic actions and not by plot conventions, and moments of brilliant emotional tension. Austen created true art in Mansfield Park, and a musical version of the story has the potential to be entertaining and engaging while shedding new light on the story. The adaptation of this story into a musical would be the best way to deliver the complicated internal life of Fanny Price, the emotions and tensions of the ensemble of characters within the book, the overarching tone of the work, and (most importantly) Austen’s vision for her story and characters, while applying Austen’s brilliant ideas to a new medium in a new era, heightening and complementing her great legacy.

At the heart of Mansfield Park is the intriguing, quiet, and subtly captivating character of Fanny Price. Fanny is one of the most difficult parts about adapting Mansfield Park to a musical. She is described initially as “quiet” (Austen 8) and “passive” (8), and remains that way for much of the story, only confiding to Edmund regularly and “speaking only when she [can] not help it” (159). The overall impression of Fanny is built up subtly throughout the story, through Austen’s omniscient narration and the regular conversations between Fanny and Edmund, as well as Fanny’s bursts of passion at the rejection of Crawford’s proposal (162) or when she avoids joining the performance of Lovers’ Vows (78). Fanny’s moments in the spotlights are brief for a protagonist, and she often slides into the background as an observer of the action instead of a participant. The temptation (especially in a musical) is to turn Fanny into an extroverted, impassioned heroine whose character is delivered directly to the audience through musical soliloquies. This would be a stylistic alteration similar to the 2007 adaptation of Mansfield Park, where Fanny is constantly running around, smiling and laughing, a direct contradiction to her reserved nature in the book. To bend Fanny Price into a boisterous, charismatic figure is to destroy her journey from an insecure and miserable young girl into a woman capable of handling herself in the society she has been prepared for. No longer would the subtle, character-based journey Austen creates be the emotional through line for the audience. Instead, Fanny’s journey needs to be rendered with respect.

A musical adaptation could deliver Fanny’s character as Austen intended in three ways that would avoid the trap of eliminating the heart of Mansfield Park. The first is in the evolution of Fanny’s singing. As this is a musical, the characters are expected to render their emotions and thoughts through song. Fanny’s singing would often take place when she is alone onstage, away from the overbearing eyes of her relatives. Her thoughts could leak out, initially as small and sweet melodies that provide a glimpse into her mind that evolve throughout the performance into beautiful ballads that show her growing strength as a character. The music and songs would replace Austen’s narration as the primary insight into Fanny’s journey from quiet and meek to triumphant and confident. Maybe, at first, Fanny doesn’t sing, unable to do anything but sob, overcome by tears and needing to “finish her sorrows in bed” instead of interacting with her relatives (Austen 7). Another song could come midway through her character journey, as she muses on her affection for Edmund and conflicts between emotion and principles relating to Henry as she notices his growing attention, as described in Chapters 24-26. She could have a final song late in the show as she responds to the revelation of Henry and Maria’s affair and realizes she has stuck to her principles and beliefs and how she wishes Edmund would do the same. There’s no need for the direct and clunky exposition of character exhibited in the 2007 adaptation of Mansfield Park (McDonald, Mansfield Park) as Fanny describes her affections for Edmund as coming “to love him as more than a cousin.” Songs could delve into the richness and subtleties of this love, using musical themes and tunes of sweet romance to accompany words that only need to gracefully point to the affection.

The second way a staged musical could deliver Fanny’s character relies on another aspect of musical theater: dance. While it’s hard to imagine kick-lines and tap dancing in the uptight world of English gentry, there are two balls described by Austen in the narrative of Mansfield Park. The first is a spontaneous ball put on during the summer visit of the Crawfords (Austen 63), where Fanny is briefly shown to be “waiting and wishing” for it to be over or to join in (and briefly does join with her cousin Tom), and the second is the one put on by Sir Thomas for Fanny and her “growing up into a pretty woman” (103). The contrast between these two scenes, rendered on the stage, would show Fanny’s growth in character and beauty as she begins to step into the limelight and her romance with Edmund is kindled. Similar musical themes could accompany both scenes, as they parallel each other in everything but one essential way: Fanny dancing. In the first ball, we could see Fanny’s disappointment and limited engagement with Tom and his selfish use of Fanny as a way to avoid a card game (64), while in the second she would be more open, dancing with Henry gracefully and demonstrating her maturity as a young woman (another important theme Austen explores).

The third important aspect of Fanny’s character has to be rendered through the performance by the actress. She has to handle the character in a way that makes the audience care about Fanny and understand her morally uptight and emotionally uptight nature, while rendering the scenes that require more emotion, such as Fanny’s sadness after Sir Thomas’s rant (165) and her growing affection for Edmund throughout the story. Without the audience able to access Austen’s narration, Fanny must be rendered convincingly through every action and line by her actress. So, adding deeply developed acting to the dancing and singing of Fanny Price provides a key core to the story of Mansfield Park.

While Fanny is the center of Austen’s novel, Mansfield Park is truly an ensemble piece, with a large group of characters that are developed individually and relationally. It could even be argued that the novel is more about the interactions that take place in and around Mansfield as opposed to a particular character. Fanny is the character that requires the most development, as she is the heart of the story that the audience connects to, but the other members of the cast also have to be developed thoroughly in order to create the complicated world and relationships that make Mansfield Park engaging and authentic. It is rare that a character is alone in this story, and often, many characters are present and interacting all in the same place, such as the visit to Sotherton (45), Sir Thomas’s return during the play rehearsal (91), and Fanny’s ball (141).

The most fundamental way to convey characters and their relationships comes through their interactions. Not much has to be changed from prose to play in terms of dialogue, but the burden is on the actors rather than the author to provide reactions. “When Julia looked back, it was with a countenance of delight,” is changed to Julia acting delighted. Through interactions and reactions, the audience is able to absorb much about the various relationships between the characters.

These interactions set the stage for deeper looks into the various characters. Just as Fanny needs songs and solos throughout the musical that keep the audience updated on her internal state, so do the rest of the characters. Maria and Julia could sing of their competing love for Henry. Henry and Mary could have a short duet about their romantic pursuits and plots, mirroring their first conversation after meeting the Bertrams, and showing the audience their scheming and not-quite-trustworthy nature (23). Sir Thomas could have a song ranting against Fanny for refusing Henry, including the intertwining feelings of “astonishment” (162), “stone coldness” (164), and the anger displayed through his lecture of Fanny (165). These songs add a second layer to the foundation established by the simple interactions between characters, adding emotional richness and engagement at specific times throughout the show in order to convey story beats and character moments.

However, the final level of ensemble characterization is the most difficult. Representing interactions, conflicts, emotions, and thoughts that exist with stagnant characters at particular times is easy, but Mansfield Park is a story that details the personal growth of various characters. Fanny grows from a shy, looked-down-upon child to a capable and respected woman throughout the story. Edmund deals with the struggle of managing a household and preparing for his transition into clergy and marriage. Sir Thomas gains understanding of what it really means to instill character in his children. The problem that a two-hour production faces in adapting Mansfield Park is that the goal of hitting the major plot points can override the development of the characters, leaving the audience with only shallow impressions of growth and with a lack of connection to the characters. This can be circumvented, however, by the nature of musical theater. Placing songs in the correct places throughout the story can serve the double purpose of keeping the plot intact while also developing characters. For example, a song detailing Edmund’s assistance in helping Fanny become accustomed to life at Mansfield and helping her grow (as described in chapter 2) would carry Fanny from childhood to adulthood and set up Edmund as a responsible, caring teacher and friend. Another song could take place with duets and solos between Edmund, Fanny, Mary, and Henry about their various relationships and affections for one another, progressing the plot towards the marriage of Edmund and Fanny and the rejections by Mary and of Henry. Through song, we get the feelings and thoughts of characters, the progression of the plot, and the interaction and conflict required for development. Songs in musicals, like Shakespearean monologues, can accomplish multiple layers of storytelling simultaneously. A finale song could mirror Austen’s chapter-long conclusion where she “restore[s] everybody, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest” (236), with a duet for Fanny and Edmund to show their kindling love, and a reflective piece for Sir Thomas reflecting on his faults as a father and putting Mansfield back in order, ending like a classic comedy should—with a wedding. And so, in a way that a movie or a play could not, a musical can progress many different elements simultaneously, preserving the audience’s connection to both the logical structure of the story and the emotional progression of the characters.

With Fanny intact as a character, and the rest of the ensemble well-developed, the themes of Mansfield Park can begin to shine through. In the novel, Austen explores themes slowly, allowing characters and their actions to exemplify the ideas she wants to bring forth. The themes Austen develops can be used as fundamental parts of songs. For example, much of Mansfield Park is concerned with the idea of growing up. We see Fanny’s maturing from girl to woman in the middle of the novel, as she is seen as more beautiful and able to leave the shadow of her cousins. A song about growing up would make a fantastic Act 1 finale, just after Sir Thomas returns and shuts down the Lovers’ Vows productions and William is brought to stay at Mansfield. The people around Fanny (and Fanny herself) c ould remark on her growth and developing beauty. Another theme Austen spends a lot of time on throughout Mansfield Park is internally held principles in contrast with external appearance. The attractive and charismatic Crawford siblings turn out to lack moral principles, while Fanny’s self-described “foolishness and awkwardness” (14) is only an external covering on deeply held beliefs about morality. Almost everyone is enamored by the appearance and charisma of the Crawfords, but Fanny holds to her principles and knows that Henry and Mary will never live up to them. Edmund and Sir Thomas eventually realize Fanny was right, which creates the conclusion to the story. A few songs could arise from this theme. A song for the young characters called “Putting on a Show” (or something similar) could set up the Lovers’ Vows production, with a double meaning relating to how the Crawfords are beguiling the Bertram family. Another song could end the show, perhaps titled “Not Who I Thought She Was,” beginning with Sir Thomas’s recognition that he didn’t raise his daughters with internal principles, only external projections (as shown by Maria’s affair with Henry). Then Edmund could end his relationship with Mary, as he realizes she doesn’t hold the same beliefs as him. Both Sir Thomas and Edmund could then realize Fanny’s virtue and steadfastness, as well as her growth, leading to the marriage between Edmund and Fanny. In this manner, the themes of Mansfield Park are exhibited naturally through the conventions of musical theater.

The final element required in order to make Mansfield Park into a musical is the spirit of Jane Austen. Her themes and ideas, as well as witty authorial tone and accurate observations, are really what set Mansfield Park apart as a great work of literature. Yes, the characters are engaging and the plot is intriguing, but all of it is elevated through Austen’s narration. Obviously, a musical adaptation can’t have the words of Jane Austen as a running commentary throughout the story in the same way the novel can. Largely, Austen’s wit and commentary has to disappear and become implied. Song lyrics can echo thoughts of Austen, poetically rendering some of her ideas. The characters like Lady Bertram (who becomes a bit of joke in Austen’s satire) can be brought out through humorous treatment within the script. Even the voices of the actors can reflect Austen’s vision, giving Sir Thomas a powerful baritone and Fanny a sweet, quiet soprano voice.

This may not be enough for those who feel like they lost something in translation from novel to stage. But the nature of an adaptation is losing some artistic conventions to show the story in a new light. A musical would provide deep insight into the characters, making them living, breathing human beings who you empathize with through their human performers. A novel has the limitation of existing in the mind of the reader. A musical is a visual art form that gives the best of both worlds of characterization (internal and external) in full detail. For this adaptation to work, Austen’s well-crafted story and characters need to be respected, because an adaptation of Austen’s work should live up to her reputation. It would be a shame to see the work of a great artist vanish and be replaced by a production resembling Mansfield Park in nothing but name. Austen’s original novel and the musical adaptation would share the same soul, although the bodies may look different. A musical version of Mansfield Park is the best way to keep intact this artistically crafted story.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. 1814. Project Gutenberg, 2008. www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/141. PDF.
  • MacDonald, Ian B., director. Piper, Billie, actor. Mansfield Park. Company Pictures, 2007.
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