Lovers’ Vows: Literary Pedigree

Hi there everybody! It’s time for my first blog post of the season, and you know what that means: we’ve started rehearsals for an upcoming show! We will be opening this season in early November with Lovers’ Vows, by 18th-century novelist and playwright Elizabeth Inchbald, based upon the German playwright August von Kotzebue’s Das Kinde der Liebe [literally The Child of Love/Love-Child but occasionally translated as The Natural Son -ed.]

Unless you’re a student of 18th-century German theatre (or, surprisingly, political history), and if you’ve found your way to this blog post you may just be, you’ve almost certainly never heard of Kotzebue. He was a minor but reasonably popular author who was most famous for his murder as a “traitor to the fatherland” at the hands of Karl Ludwig Sand, a pro-German Unification student, during one of Germany’s many unfortunate flirtations with nationalism. I’m not especially interested in talking about him.

Of much greater interest to me is Elizabeth Inchbald, the actress, playwright, novelist, and critic who you’re also unlikely to have heard of. She is MUCH more interesting and I will certainly be digging deeper into her life at another time, but for now what is most relevant as regards her is that she wrote the play Lovers’ Vows, which we are staging this November and which you might have heard of if you worked your way deep enough into Jane Austen’s bibliography to read Mansfield Park, in which this play features prominently.

mansfield park

From Company Picture’s 2007 Mansfield Park. L-R: Joseph Beattie as Henry Crawford, Billie Piper as Fanny Price, Joseph Morgan as William Price, and Blake Ritson as Edmund Bertram.

Grateful as we are to Jane Austen for choosing to immortalize this play by its inclusion in Mansfield Park, it is worthwhile to speculate why she would do so. What purpose does it serve in the story and, more importantly, why she specifically chose THIS play, instead of the dozen or so others that Tom Bertram proposes. There is a simple answer that Austen supplies in the text, which also happens to be part of our own reasoning for selection: “They wanted a piece containing very few characters in the whole, but every character first-rate, and three principal women”. But there are some more thematically complex reasons that are worth exploring as well.

THOUGH I WILL DO MY BEST TO OBFUSCATE AND SPEAK IN GENERALITIES THIS BLOG POST WILL INCLUDE SOME SPOILERS FOR BOTH LOVERS’ VOWS AND MANSFIELD PARK. READ ON WITH CAUTION BUT ALSO IT WILL MAKE MORE SENSE IF YOU’RE FAMILIAR WITH AT LEAST ONE OF THEM.

First, a convenient inverse-similarity exists between many of the characters of the two stories, most noticeably the confident and forward Amelia and her retiring but righteous tutor Anhalt in the play, and in Mansfield Park the meek protagonist Fanny and her insufferably prudish and sanctimonious cousin/crush Edmund, perhaps the least likeable of Austen’s male love interests [What is it with characters named Edmund? King Lear, Narnia, this, all Edmunds are terrible -KH] {Edmond Dantes, star of our upcoming Count of Monte Cristo, gets a pass because he changes his name ~KH}. There are also comparisons to be made between Agatha and Fanny’s cousin Maria Bertram, both of whom loved not wisely but too well, and between Amelia’s father Baron Wildenhaim, and Fanny’s uncle and guardian Sir Thomas Bertram, who have differing views of their wards’ judgment and their own moral authority. And also a direct 1:1 similarity, with no ironic double meaning or inversion, between Austen’s Henry Crawford and Count Cassel, who both demonstrate feigned sincerity and inherent aristocratic respectability covering their shallow lusts. By happy coincidence almost all of these mirrors happen to align the actors in Mansfield Park with the characters they would have played! The only exception is Sir Thomas, who not only wasn’t going to appear in the show but also shut down the performance when he returned from his business trip to Antigua and ordered every copy of the play in his house burned. These mirrored characters and their in-play actions foreshadow their actors’ fates in the second half of Mansfield Park, a sort of preview of the story for those readers in the know.

[It is not impossible that there exists a reference to Mansfield Park in my personal favorite book, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, also, as the fate of the fiery Maria Bullworth in JS&MN seems to mirror that of Maria Rushworth nee Bertram eerily closely, with the role of notorious rake Henry Crawford being played expertly by the villainous Henry Lascelles. This has nothing at all to do with Lovers’ Vows and I don’t know what to do with this information, or even know for certain that it is an intentional homage (although those names are very similar to each other), but I noticed it and I cannot now fail to bring it up, because my mind is broken in a Very Particular Way which makes it impossible for me to stop talking or thinking about Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. -KH]

Strange Norrell Bullworth

From Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, 2004, chapter 36, All the mirrors of the world. L-R: Maria Bullworth, Jonathan Strange, Christopher Drawlight. Illustration by Portia Rosenberg.

On a broader level, Sir Thomas’ and that tattletale Edmund’s reactions to the allegedly prurient and offensive Lovers’ Vows (which dares to suggest that a woman should be honest and proactive in her desires, and that a man should be held at least as accountable for his actions as a woman) allows Austen to satirize the outrageous moral standards of her time. She contrasts the dangerous moral of the play, which ends with communication, understanding, satisfaction, and love between all parties, with the unsatisfying “happy ending” of Mansfield Park, in which seduction goes unpunished, the outspoken learn their place in meek servitude to their elders and betters, and the obsequious and passive are rewarded for their servility. Clearly a play with such a progressive and subversive message would truly be too dangerous to even see, much less perform, in this sort of society.

Fortunately for us, we now live in a world that, while still very bad, is not quite so upfront about its hatred and fear of transgressive art, nor so successful at restricting it, as the world of Mansfield Park. None of our dads even tried to burn our scripts when they found out what show we were doing. Please join us in November for the show, celebrate our freedom to stage a comparatively unknown but once extremely controversial show and see what all the fuss was about! Tickets are on sale now!

Frankenstein History Lesson: Isn’t It Romantic?

Welcome back, boys and ghouls! The continual clouds and drizzle outside have informed me that, at long last, DC’s hot miserable humid nightmare of a summer has ended and we can finally move into the comparative comfort of our cooler but somehow equally sticky autumn. And with the changing of the seasons returns We Happy Few, emerging from our opposite hibernation to prepare for our upcoming season. Beginning in mid-October we will be presenting our first performance in repertory, as we conclude our first Classics-in-Action Cycle with the Horror Rep. We are remounting 2016’s A Midnight Dreary and last year’s Dracula and, just in time for the 200th anniversary, introducing our brand-spanking-new adaptation of Frankenstein! As you might imagine, since you’ve already read at least 6000 combined words about our adaptations of Poe and Dracula, and since I mentioned the whole anniversary thing, and also because of the title at the top of this blog post, I’m planning on spending some time today talking about Frankenstein. Specifically the literary origins and context of this, a cornerstone of Gothic fiction and arguably the foundation of both science fiction and horror [yr. humble narrator’s two favorite genres, in case I haven’t made that abundantly clear -KH], borne from deep within the English Romantic movement. Let’s get to it.

The grim weather of DC fall puts me in the mind of the legendary origins of Frankenstein. On a similarly grey and drizzly day while on vacation in Geneva in 1816, Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, his lover and wife-to-be Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, their boyfriend and fellow Romantic writer Lord Byron, and his doctor John Polidori decided to entertain themselves by writing spooky stories when they couldn’t play outside. Percy wrote a largely forgotten ghost story, Polidori a moderately famous novella called The Vampyre, Byron doubtless wrote something tedious about himself, and Mary, unable to offer anything at the time, wracked her brain for a while before offering up the foundation for what would become Frankenstein. Contrary to popular (or, at least, my) belief, she did not write the story at one go on that very evening, as if in a trance or fugue state, but rather worked at it for months before it was finished and saw print. Mary Shelley’s own introduction to the second edition of the story describes her husband frequently asking as to her progress and encouraging her to expand the story from a mere fragment to the full-length masterpiece it would become. It should be unsurprising that a woman with the blood of revolutionary intellectuals Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, and so frequently in the company of Romantic greats Percy Shelley and Byron, should produce such a remarkable and long-lasting story. But I’m getting ahead of myself. What was this “Romanticism” that Mary found herself surrounded by, and what influence could it have had on her writing?

Romanticism as an artistic/cultural movement varied somewhat from country to country (unsurprising for something so deeply connected to the rise of nationalism), but there are a handful of universal elements: a fondness for pastoralism, an affinity with nature, the idealization of the past and accompanying mistrust of progress, and increased trust in emotion and individuality at the expense of reason and parochialism. In America Romanticism tended to focus on the frontier and the vast swathes of unspoiled nature that could be found there. In Continental Europe, particularly in France and what is now Germany and Italy, it frequently took on a political flavor and often emphasized shared cultural traditions, especially language, and was instrumental in the consolidation of both of those nations as nations.

wanderer-above-the-sea-of-fog

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, by Casper David Friedrich, 1818. I still maintain that this picture will tell you everything about Romanticism you need to know.

English Romanticism cannot be so easily keyholed, not least because I am more familiar with it and did extra research about it, in order to write this blog post. It did not have access to the Great Wide Open that inspired the Americans, nor their bright and youthful optimism. It also largely avoided the political and revolutionary timbre of the Continentals, presumably by the same mysterious force that quarantined the island from the bloody populist rebellions which swept across Europe in the 19th century. [Please refer to the author’s unpublished dramaturgy notes from Henry V and to Chapter 38 of the Napoleonic Faerie novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell for two contrasting theories on how these rebellions could have been avoided. -ed.] While German Romantics explored their own storied history, the English Romantics usually spent their energies on the Ancient Greeks and Romans, presumably because the Arthur legend had been claimed by more conservative, reactionary writers of prior generations. For every English poem where a poet spent his ink on tales of that legendary past (Percy Shelley’s Ozymandias and Prometheus Unbound, most of Byron) there was another who had concerned themselves with nature and meditation (Keats’ Ode to A Nightingale, Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey). Percy and Mary Shelley were avowed and vehement atheists, while Blake wrote an entire book, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, to interpret his faith through his Romantic beliefs.

But I’m not just here to talk about English Romanticism, I’m here to talk about Frankenstein. And despite its pedigree and the unique circumstances of its birth, Frankenstein is clearly NOT a true Romantic work in the way that Prometheus Unbound or Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage or Tintern Abbey are. It certainly contains some of the earmarks, though queerly twisted; note the story’s ambivalence towards the pursuit of knowledge, or Nature’s cruelly destructive majesty typified by the glacier, the lightning bolt, the Arctic. But it does not reflect Romantic beliefs so much as reference and question them. In this way it almost seems like a reaction to Romanticism, the dichotomy within both the Doctor and the Creature between their reason and their emotion mirroring, perhaps, Mary Shelley’s conflict with the movement. In any case, our story thematically hews closer to a Gothic aesthetic. Frankenstein’s aristocratic protagonist, the propensity by both him and the antagonist for melodramatic versifying, the suspiciously well-timed thunderstorms at dramatically convenient moments, the twinges of the supernatural, all aesthetically link the story more closely to the crumbling castles and tortured antiheroes of Gothic icons like Bram Stoker and Edgar Allan Poe than to the bucolic likes of Wordsworth and Keats. Which is convenient, because we are not presenting dramatizations of Romantic poems, but of Frankenstein, Dracula, and Poe.

Neuschwanstein Lightning Filippo Rome.jpg

Neuschwanstein Castle. Photo by Filippo Rome. This picture is, likewise, basically just Gothic literature in a nutshell

Some other time I will come back and tell you about the bona fides of Frankenstein’s connection to horror and science fiction, as I mentioned earlier. For now I hope that this high school-level recapitulation of Romantic literature and my vague assertions as to how it alternatively influenced and differs from our story piques your curiosity about our show. Tickets are on sale now for performances of Dracula, A Midnight Dreary, and Frankenstein! Come check it out!