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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Sounds like the new Off-Broadway Sense & Sensibility is spot-on!

After reading Ben Brantley’s NY Times review  of the new, recently tweaked Off-Broadway production of Sense & Sensibility now playing in the Village in NYC, I’m really sorry that I’m not going to be able to see it during its projected 3 month run—but I still can hope that, with reviews like his, it could be so successful that the run gets extended long enough for me to see it later in the year!

From Brantley’s (very favorable) description, it sounds like Kate Hamill’s adaptation is radically different from the flood of overly sentimental, superficially faithful, yet shallowly worshipful and uninsightful, theater adaptations of JA’s novels—especially, of course,  Pride & Prejudice ---which has been widely propagated during the past decade. Even beyond the perils of popular theatrical pandering, Austen’s novels are indeed extraordinarily difficult to adapt for the stage—only P&P has enough dialog already written to not require that a great deal more be invented for the stage. And, even when tastefully done, a play version of an Austen novel, taken straight, still is highly unlikely to equal the emotional jolt of an Andrew Davies film version, which has the advantage of world class actors and production values sufficient to transport us back two centuries to a lost world.

While you should read Brantley’s cogent review in its entirety, I was particularly struck by vivid this description:

“And suddenly, they’re all talking at once, wildly and obsessively — to us, to one another, to themselves. What we’re hearing is a whirlwind of gossip, of voices bearing conflicting truths and falsehoods about love affairs and scandals, independent incomes and inherited real estate. Such gossip is the architect of Austen’s society. And perhaps the most ingenious element of Mr. Tucker’s production is its use of gossip as the force that shapes the destinies of Austen’s characters. No matter how private the scene, there are always eavesdroppers nearby, waiting to spread and reconfigure the latest rumors.”

That tells me that Hamill has understood just how crucial the sense of claustrophobic conversation, subject to constant risk of overhearing, is in all Jane Austen’s novels (and her letters, for that matter). It  results in one drawing-room tete-a-tete and ensemble after another, some of which are subtler versions of the famous scenes in Much Ado About Nothing, when the matchmaking pranksters stage performances of “accidental” eavesdropping, in order to gull Beatrice and Benedick into acknowledging their repressed love for each other.

And it does sound as if Hamill has a gift for reverse engineering JA’s novels from their narrative format focused on the heroine’s point of view back to their Shakespearean roots, given how deeply JA grasped the Bard’s genius on multiple levels.

Curiously, Brantley says not a word about the one character in Sense & Sensibility who, in my subtext-based interpretation of the shadow story of the novel, is the secret Machiavellian schemer who, Archimedes-like, uses her wit and audacity to tip the supposed movers and shakers of the story in the direction she desires---Lucy Steele. I’d be willing to bet that she gets a chance to strut her stuff in Hamill’s version, and I sure hope that is the case.

As I first detected in 2005, and have mentioned and blogged about many times since then, Jane Austen left a giant clue in ALL CAPS in the text of Sense & Sensibility, which alerts us to the “true” identity of Lucy – it is the brief letter she writes to Edward giving her “explanation” for why she suddenly dumped Edward for brother Robert----but only after first making sure, by her subtle, masterful manipulation of Mrs. Ferrars, that Robert inherited a vested interest in the Ferrars family fortune!:

"Being very sure I have long lost your affections, I have thought myself at liberty to bestow my own on another, and have no doubt of being as happy with him as I once used to think I might be with you; but I scorn to accept a hand while the heart was another's. Sincerely wish you happy in your choice, and it shall not be my fault if we are not always good friends, as our near relationship now makes proper. I can safely say I owe you no ill-will, and am sure you will be too generous to do us any ill offices. Your brother has gained my affections entirely, and as we could not live without one another, we are just returned from the altar, and are now on our way to Dawlish for a few weeks, which place your dear brother has great curiosity to see, but thought I would first trouble you with these few lines, and shall always remain,
"Your sincere well-wisher, friend, and sister,
"I have burnt all your letters, and will return your picture the first opportunity. Please to destroy my scrawls—but the ring with my hair you are very welcome to keep."

Did you get it?   LUCY FERRARS  =  LUCYFER! And of course Lucifer would “burn”  letters, and write in “scrawls”. And I won’t even get into the fairy-tale significance of the devil’s hair……  ;)

Brantley, who does not seem, to me, to be a hardcore Janeite, had no idea how right he was about S&S when he wrote, “this version captures the vertiginous apprehensions that lie within a seemingly quiet novel about the rewards of resignation.” --- it’s really about so much more than that, once you free yourself from the tyranny of Elinor’s repressed, constricted point of view!

For more about the diabolically clever Lucy Steele, here are posts in my blog archive on this topic
unpacking the large significance of that bit of wordplay….

And if you want still more, check out Arthur Conan Doyle’s picking up on that wordplay nearly a century and a half ago:

“LucyFer-rier in A Study in Scarlet from Lucy-Fer rars in Sense&Sensibility 

So, if anyone reading this has seen, or goes to see, Hamill’s play, I’d love to hear more about it. Together with the wonderful gift of the brilliance of Whit Stillman’s adaptation of Lady Susan….   2016 is turning into a banner year of Austen adaptations, and we’re still only a month in…..

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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