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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Mansfield Park Theatricals: Troilus & Cressida as "the most insipid play in the English language"

Last Friday, I made the claim that Troilus & Cressida was the unnamed play which was dissed as "the most insipid play in the English language" by the participants in the Mansfield Park amateur theatricals:

This morning, someone responded skeptically to my said claim, and I responded as follows:

...Take a second look at the entire passage in context, and you will see that the passage I quoted comes _immediately_ after the reference to the best plays:

"...All the best plays were run over in vain. Neither Hamlet, nor Macbeth, nor Othello, nor Douglas, nor The Gamester, presented anything that could satisfy even the tragedians; and The Rivals, The School for Scandal, Wheel of Fortune, Heir at Law, and A LONG ET CETERA, were successively dismissed with yet warmer objections. No piece could be proposed that did not supply somebody with a difficulty, and on one side or the other it was a continual repetition of, "Oh no, that will never do! Let us have no ranting tragedies. Too many characters. Not a tolerable woman's part in the play. ANYTHING BUT THAT, my dear Tom. It would be impossible to fill it up. One could not expect anybody to take such a part. Nothing but buffoonery from beginning to end. That might do, perhaps, but for the low parts. If I must give my opinion, I have always thought it THE MOST INSIPID PLAY IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE. I do not wish to make objections; I shall be happy to be of any use, but I think we could not chuse worse."

So we see that right after considering "the best plays", the group, in desperation, widened its search to include lesser plays which Jane Austen coyly described with "a long et cetera" (which is the "twin" of Emma's coy reference to the long footnote on mismatched love in the Hartfield edition of Shakespeare). And as to those lesser plays included within that long et cetera, note that the group perceives "buffoonery", "low parts", "most insipid play", and "could not chuse worse"----those are not exactly words that one would expect to be used to describe Shakespeare's most famous and beloved plays, but they fit the negative early 19th century view of Troilus & Cressida (a play that was not even performed publicly for centuries, and only has come within positive critical notice in the 20th century) to a tee.

And if you take the time to read through all of my posts about Troilus & Cressida allusions in Mansfield Park, which I linked to in my above linked post, I think the weight of _all_ that evidence I present is strongly supportive of JA's having had Troilus & Cressida front and center in her imagination as she conceived and wrote Mansfield Park. It is very clear to me (and I am not alone) that JA did not merely know Shakespeare in bits and scraps--no, she knew him pretty thoroughly---and that
thoroughness would include knowing the least popular of his plays, in part because I am also certain that JA perceived Shakespeare's entire body of work as a unity (the way Harold Goddard so famously did in the mid-20th century), and so not to know Troilus & Cressida, or any of the less famous Shakespeare plays, would mean not knowing Shakespeare as a unity.

So, e.g., I believe that JA recognized the common theme of jealousy in Troilus & Cressida _and_ Othello, hence her alluding to _both_ of them in regard to jealousy in MP.

The most telling aspect of all of JA's allusions to Troilus & Cressida in MP, from my perspective, is the Pandarus-ness of Sir Thomas. When we hear Edmund Bertram cluelessly rationalize Sir Thomas's disgusting ogling of Fanny's body....

""Your uncle thinks you very pretty, dear Fanny—and that is the long and the short of the matter. Anybody but myself would have made something more of it, and anybody but you would resent that you had not been thought very pretty before; but the truth is, that your uncle never did admire you till now—and now he does. Your complexion is so improved!—and you have gained so much countenance!—and your figure—nay, Fanny, do not turn away about it—it is but an uncle. If you cannot bear an uncle's
admiration, what is to become of you? You must really begin to harden yourself to the idea of being worth looking at. You must try not to mind growing up into a pretty woman."

...I cannot help but think of Pandarus's sleazy, sexualized sliminess, in brazenly rationalizing all manner of sexual commerce.

And equally significant, I think, is the way that JA took Cressida with her split personality, and created Fanny Price out of one half of Cressida, and Mary Crawford out of the other half!

Shortly, I will post my followup to this post, in which I extend my Shakespearean-Austenian connections in a surprising and exciting new direction!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: In response to a further comment in Janeites about the Troilus & Cressida allusion in Mansfield Park, I further wrote in relevant part as follows: was I who asserted that Troilus & Cressida is a key allusive subtext of Mansfield Park. I first made that claim nearly three years ago.....

....after I saw Troilus & Cressida performed at the Globe in London in July 2009 (right after I gave my talk about the shadow Jane Fairfax at the Chawton House Conference), and I realized that Cressida's invitation to Troilus "the morning after" in Act IV.....

CRESSIDA: Did not I tell you? Would he were knock'd i' the head!
[Knocking within]
Who's that at door? good uncle, go and see.
My lord, come you again into my chamber:
You smile and mock me, as if I meant naughtily.


CRESSIDA Come, you are deceived, I think of no such thing

...was very likely a key source for the following memorable bit of dialog in Mansfield Park:

[MARY CRAWFORD] "....Certainly, my home at my uncle's brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals. Of Rears and Vices I saw enough. Now do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat."

Edmund again felt grave, and only replied, "It is a noble profession."

We can be pretty sure that Mary C. very much meant to be suspected of an infamous pun, but I am on the fence about whether Cressida's naughty pun is intentional or unconscious.

P.P.S.: By the way, the witty phrase "a long et cetera" was one which I believe JA borrowed from Elizabeth Hamilton--to whom JA referred in a late 1813 letter written while JA was writing Mansfield Park. Hamilton used this phrase as follows in her Letters on Education published in 1812, in a passage JA would have been extremely interested in, in which Hamilton advocates for women (especially married women) cultivating their intellect by reading high-quality fiction, instead of mindlessly
indulging in romanticized pulp fiction:

"It is for the sake of the associations it excites, and not for the esteem it produces, that the melting softness of fictitious sensibility has had so many admirers among the sensible part of mankind. The real virtues of modesty, gentleness, and humility, produce sentiments of esteem and complacency; but though in a mind of delicacy these sentiments may touch the heart with emotions still more tender, they cannot be expected to make much impression, unless where their virtues
are so thoroughly understood as to be properly appreciated. Not so with ALL THE LONNG ET CETERA OF FEMALE WEAKNESSES. A dear creature crying for she does not know why, or palpitating with terror at she does not know what, excites, by her tears and her terrors, associations of tenderness that produce emotions, which, though very foreign to those of esteem, are nearly allied to passion. By those who consider such emotions as superior to every species of intellectual enjoyment, we may be assured
the cultivation of intellect in our sex will never be countenanced or encouraged. To the younger part of our sex, they will deem such cultivation to be injurious; and to the married woman, they contend that it is useless. But is it really so? Does it never happen, that a woman, from being incapable of taking a comprehensive view of her own and her husband's interests, unwittingly contributes to the ruin of both? Does no inconvenience ever arise from the pursuit of pleasures, which reason would disapprove? Do eager disputes concerning trifles never throw a little mud into the perennial stream of matrimonial felicity? Let these questions be answered by experience, and whatever may be pronounced with regard to youth and beauty, the cultivation of the reasoning powers will, to the married woman, be allowed not altogether unnecessary...."

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