(& scroll all the way down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Sir Thomas Bertram’s (and Jane Austen’s) ‘encouragement’…of theatrical rebellion in Mansfield Park

I’ve found that one of the greatest delights of rereading JA’s novels is in hearing, for the first time after multiple rereadings, an unsuspected echo between two (or more) passages --- usually within the same Austen novel, but also at times between passages in multiple Austen novels. I’ve had that experience hundreds of times, and it never gets old.

Because I’ve already found so many of them, they don’t happen for me as often as they used to; but when they do, I always feel an eager anticipation of a better understanding of some aspect of JA’s meaning. These echoes are almost never accidental or unconscious on JA’s part, and I usually find, after further analysis, that JA meant for us, upon repeated rereadings, not only to hear these echoes in our mind’s ear; but then, more important, to thereby grasp something new and significant in her stories.

Here’s a perfect example which I happened upon a few days ago (while looking at something else), which I had never noticed before.

First, in Chapter 13 of MP, the Bertram boys get into it about Tom’s suggestion of staging an amateur home theatrical during their father’s absence far, far away in Antigua: 

[E] “I cannot agree with you; I am convinced that my father would totally disapprove it.”
[T] “And I am convinced to the contrary. Nobody is fonder of the exercise of talent in young people, or promotes it more, than my father, and for anything of the acting, spouting, reciting kind, I think he has always a decided taste. I am sure he encouraged it in us as boys. How many a time have we mourned over the dead body of Julius Caesar, and to be'd and not to be'd, in this very room, for his amusement? And I am sure, my name was Norval, every evening of my life through one Christmas holidays.”
[E] “It was a very different thing. You must see the difference yourself. My father wished us, as schoolboys, to speak well, but he would never wish his grown-up daughters to be acting plays. His sense of decorum is strict.”

Now, with that passage in mind, read what I now see is the bookend to the above exchange, six busy chapters (but only one week of fictional time elapsed) later, when Sir Thomas returns unexpectedly to hear Tom’s excuse for the omnipresent evidence of implementation of Tom’s home-theatrical vision:

“This was, in fact, the origin of our acting,” said Tom, after a moment's thought. “My friend Yates brought the infection from Ecclesford, and it spread—as those things always spread, you know, sir—the faster, probably, from your having so often encouraged the sort of thing in us formerly. It was like treading old ground again.”

Surely you now hear the echo, too? It’s in Tom’s repetition of his previous reference to their father’s early “encouragement” of him and Edmund reciting theatrical monologues, as justification for his own idea to produce an actual Mansfield Park theatrical. Tom speaks to his father “after a moment’s thought”, and, at least in part, it’s surely because he’s recalling that exchange with Edmund six chapters earlier. He said it to Edmund, and now he doubles down and says it to his father as well.

A lesser writer might have written something like “after a moment’s thought about his earlier strained exchange with Edmund”, to assure that all her readers connected the dots back to the earlier passage. Not Jane Austen – as we know from her famous comment to Cassandra, she did not write for dull elves lacking ingenuity, and one part of ingenuity is the ability to recognize and then explicate whispered echoes of words read earlier, without relying on any heavy-handed authorial reminder.

And so, when Tom refers to “treading old ground again”, JA means for us to remember, or at least to flip back a few chapters and retrieve, that Chapter 13 passage; and then (most crucial) for us to hear Tom’s first “encouragement” alongside Tom’s later “encouragement”. And then, perhaps, to ask ourselves, might Tom have been thinking for “a moment” about anything else, besides his earlier justification to Edmund?

“Encouragement” is an interesting word; its origin clearly lies in the word “courage”, which has always been used to refer to bravery, the willing to take risk in order to do right. ‘Encouragement’ is rarely, if ever, used to refer to “courage”. Instead it means something like “strong suggestion”; And at first blush, it appears that such milder meaning is what Tom had in mind. But, upon reflection, I believe Jane Austen meant for readers to eventually learn to also read it as referring to “courage” – but, if so, courage to do what, exactly? What sort of risk and what sort of doing right?

Well, I suggest to you that a giant clue to the answer to that question lies in the very same plays which Tom seems to mention in an offhand way, as the sources for the speeches that he and his brother recited under Sir Thomas’s tutelage. Let’s take a closer look at them, to see if they really are ‘offhand’.

Everybody knows that the cited speeches in Julius Caesar and Hamlet both have to do with rebellion against illegitimate regal authority. Prince Hamlet contemplates suicide as he angsts over whether to challenge the apparent usurper, his uncle King Claudius; and there is mourning over the dead body of Caesar, because Brutus et al have assassinated the would-be emperor Julius Caesar, who seemed on the verge of usurping the fair share of governance of Rome from its proper holder, the Senate.

But what about that other line Tom quotes--- “My name is Norval”? As has long ago been discussed in Janeites, that was, like “To be or not to be” in Hamlet, and “Friends, Romans, countrymen” in Julius Caesar, the most famous line from Douglas, a play written two decades before JA’s birth, but which was still famous (especially that speech) a half century after its writing, while JA was writing MP.

Here’s what I wrote about Douglas 8 years ago in Janeites:
“It's no coincidence that Douglas is one of the plays mentioned by Tom Bertram, and also that the son in Lover's Vows, like Oedipus, comes back on a very long journey to the place of his birth without realizing who his father is, and nearly coming to the point of killing his father. It makes ya wonder to what these allusions tend in MP, in terms of proverbial chickens coming home to roost.”

“My name is Norval” is the line spoken by the young hero, during the “Big Reveal” of Douglas, i.e., when we learn that he is actually the long-lost son of Lady Randolph; after which, as in Hamlet and Julius Caesar, pretty much everyone, including the hero, dies.

So Douglas is, like Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and Lover’s Vows, also about rebellion against hypocritical authority! And what I now realize as a result of recognizing that “encouragement” echo, is that Tom is really saying, first to his brother and then, again, to his father, that Sir Thomas opened Pandora’s Box when he encouraged Tom and Edmund to recite passages from plays about rebellion. I.e., ironically, despite all the furor in MP about whether it would be “moral” for the Bertrams and Crawfords to perform Lover’s Vows, Tom is actually suggesting that theatre can be a very powerful force for good, by encouraging those who experience a drama about rebellion to rise up and take action against tyrannical, usurping authority themselves.

It’s been twelve years since I first realized that, in the shadow story of MP, Tom is not a dissolute bum but is actually a hero, who has defiantly staged Lover’s Vows in order to confront his father with his sins, just as Hamlet stages The Murder of Gonzago to elicit a guilty reaction from Claudius.

I’m also reminded that this is yet another reason to believe that Tom Bertram derives his Christian name not only from “Poor Tom” (i.e., Edgar) in King Lear, but also from another clever fellow named Tom (you all know his last name), who wrote the following memorable words about rebellion against illegitimate tyranny, while Jane Austen was still in her mother’s womb:

“When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

And there’s one other thing about John Home’s Douglas that fits like a glove with what I’ve outlined as Tom Bertram’s use of theater for the worthy purpose of exposing immorality in his father. To explain, I will begin by quoting from an extraordinary scholarly article, “The Cultural Politics of Antitheatricality: The Case of John Home's Douglas" by Lisa A. Freeman in The Eighteenth Century  43/3, Theater and Theatricality (Fall 2002), pp. 210-35:

“In February 1755, John Home set out for London on his trusty steed Piercy, a band of merry supporters by his side and a copy of the completed manuscript for his tragedy Douglas in his greatcoat pocket in anticipation of a production review by David Garrick. Despite Home's strong letters of introduction and ample connections, Garrick still rejected the play, finding it ‘totally unfit for the stage’. Not to be discouraged, Home and his supporters arranged for a production of the tragedy to be mounted on the Edinburgh stage, reasoning that ‘if it succeeded in the Edinburgh theatre, then Garrick could resist no longer’. Performed for the first time on 14 December 1756 at the Canongate Theater in Edinburgh and ‘attended by all the great literati and most of the judges’ of the day, the tragedy was indeed an ‘unbounded success’. It sent the town of Edinburgh into an ‘uproar of exultation that a Scotchman had written a tragedy of the first rate, and that its merit was first submitted to their judgment’. Indeed, so moved by the play and by Scots pride at the origin of this effort was one audience member that he is reported to have cried out mid-performance, "Whaur's yer Wully Shakespere noo!" thereby inaugurating a nationalist critical tradition that would find its way into all subsequent discussions of the merits of the play. Based on the old Scottish ballad Gil Motrice and written in declamatory blank verse, the play itself offers the tale of Lady Randolph and the rediscovery of her long-lost son Norval, the secret offspring of her clandestine marriage to a scion of the great Douglas clan. The tragedy unravels as the young Norval is murdered by a jealous villain, and the devastated Lady Randolph commits suicide by throwing herself off a cliff. Set in medieval times and played against the background of a gloomy and dark landscape, the tragedy, with its scenes of extreme pathos and sudden eruptions of violence, anticipates the kind of gothic melodrama that became so popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
In the more immediate event, Home's triumph in Edinburgh did attract the attention of London; and John Rich took the opportunity forfeited by his rival Garrick to bring the tragedy to Covent Garden in March 1757, where it enjoyed a respectable run of 9 performances in its first season. For all its eventual success on the stage, however, it is arguably the case that the ‘most remarkable circumstance attending its representation,’ and perhaps the motive for Rich's interest in the transfer of the play to London, was, as Henry Mackenzie comments in his Account of the Life and Writings of John Home, ‘the clerical contest which it excited, and the proceedings of the Church of Scotland with regard to it.’ John Home, as it turns out, was actually the Reverend John Home, a minister in the Presbyterian Church of Scotland with a parish at Athelstaneford. While the "literati" of Edinburgh may have celebrated and cried up Home's tragedy - indeed they were probably responsible for much of its success on the stage - an equal uproar of outrage was raised both against the play and against theatricality more generally by a well-organized and more orthodox faction in the church.’ ….”

I think I hardly need explain how relevant that metatheatrical history (i.e., how Home’s personal status as a clergyman who wrote a play, became a giant court fracas) is to the two parallel discussions between Henry Crawford and Edmund Bertram regarding the giving of good performances in the theater, and the giving of good sermons in the church. It could not be more clear that, by having Tom Bertram mention Douglas’s famous speech (and even emphasize it by noting that his father had him repeat it daily during one Christmas season!), Jane Austen, in her infinitely subtle manner, was thereby “encouraging” her alert readers to take this deeper look at Tom B’s covert homage to theatrical tragedies of rebellion.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

No comments: