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|Special Topic : Private Theatricals at Steventon
Written by JulieW
(5/11/2004 1:45 a.m.)
Jane Austen’s brothers, James and Henry, appear to be the main instigators of this activity, and, indeed, James wrote the prologues and epilogues for the plays they performed.
Jane Austen was 7 years old when these theatricals began and 14 when they ceased.
The first production staged at Steventon, probably in the dining parlour was “Matilda” by Dr Thomas Franklin, a friend of Dr
This had originally been produced on the London stage by David Garrick (the famous actor/manager and playwright- him again!), in 1775.
It was an historical but “sensational” drama. The part of the eponymous heroine was made famous by Mrs Siddons. It was probably unintentionally comic, and was the only tragedy that the Austen family performed at home.
After this they performed only comedies.
In 1784 they performed The Rivals by Richard Brindley Sheriden. This play was first performed in 1775 and tells of Jack Absolute’s masquerades as the Ensign Beverly in order to woo the novel-addicted Lydia Languish.
In 1787 they probably used the barn as a setting for their plays for the first time.
They performed Susannah Centlivre’s “The Wonder! : A Woman Keeps A Secret” (1714), after rejecting a request by their cousin Eliza de Feuillilde to perform “Which is the Man?” by Hannah Cowley, or “Bon Ton or High Life Above Stairs” by David Garrick.
The” goings- on” that accompanied the performance of this play will be dealt with in later posts, but suffice it to say that the opportunities for players to have physical contact not normally allowed in late Georgian Society abounded and would certainly not be lost on Jane Austen,
“ a sharp eyed girl of twelve”
…as Betty Askwith noted in her article Jane Austen and the theatre (JAS Report 1893).
There were two performances of The Wonder after Christmas and in the New Year the same company perfumed The Chances, David Garrick’s revision of Buckingham’s rewrite of Beaumont and Fletcher's original play.
This again was quite a risqué play to perform, even though Garrick’s revisions had supposedly removed most of the worst of teh2 indecencies”.
Mrs Elizabeth Inchbald in her introduction to the play in her workThe British Theatre wrote;
“That Garrick, to the delicacy of improved taste, was compelled to sacrifice much of this libertine dialogue, may well be suspected by the remainder which he spared…”
Faint praise indeed.
The main character of the play Don Juan is a charming libertine, who is finally converted by the love of a free-spirited witty young woman. But on the way encounters female drunkenness, gluttony, large bosoms (!) and goings on in and out of bed!
They also performed Fielding’s Tom Thumb in 1788 to a small circle of friends on 22nd March. This was a quite a mad farce with a cast of giants and midgets and was a parody of the excesses of Shakespearean tragedy.
This was followed by a private theatrical performance, and we have no note of what was performed on that occasion.
In 1789 the “Austen players” performed two plays: The Sultan written by Issac Bickerstaff and James Townley's comedy, High Life Below Stairs.
The Sultan was a favourite play of the two leading actresses of the day- Frances Abington and Dorothea Jordan (of whom more alter)
High Life etc… was a very popular play in the 18th century. The plot is simple. While their master is away the servants play-aping their upper class habits usually on show before them. The master returns in disguise then reveals his true identity to dispense harsh justice for the servants' impudence and extravagance. The servants return to being "lowly" servants and the status quo are preserved.
This rollicking comedy was the last that was ever performed at Steventon.
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