The Play within a Play
Setting: The drawing room at Mansfield Park. October 1808. After supper.
A fire roars in a huge fireplace situated between the Broadwood Grand and a grouping of richly upholstered chairs with a sofa. Pug sits sleeping on the sofa. Lady Bertram enters and lumbers over to the Sofa. She sits and places Pug on her lap, disturbing her sleep, for which she gives her mistress a lazy lick on the hand.
Lady Bertram (scratching Pug behind the ear): Did you miss me, Pug? I brought you a little morsel from my own plate.
Mrs. Norris enters and walks directly to the largest chair, placed next to Lady Bertram's left hand. As soon as she sits, she glares at Fanny Price just entering through the drawing room doors.
Mrs. Norris: Fanny, will you please close those doors? Must I tell you every evening? What does your Aunt Bertram do on the evenings when I am absent? She must positively freeze in this room with the drafts, as you are so remiss in your duties and never take proper care.
Lady Bertram: No, that is not quite right, sister. I am always quite comfortable when Fanny is with me.
Fanny closes the door and walks silently to the small chair on Lady Bertram's right. She picks up Lady Bertram's work and arranges it on her aunts lap so as to be handy but not in either the Lady's or the dog's way. She then sits and takes up her own work. Maria and Julia enter in high spirits leaving the door open. Maria half-dances over to the pianoforte, takes her seat and begins to play a country dance. Julia approaches her seat to Mrs. Norris' left.
Julia: Must I sit and work. Oh, how tedious is the life of a gentlewoman. I want to dance and sing and ... I know not what! Anything but work.
Mrs. Norris: Fanny, did I not tell you to close that door? What an obstinate, headstrong girl you are! You have no consideration for anyone. How ungrateful you are for the preferment you have so unjustifiably received. Must I do everything?
Fanny is already back in her seat after immediately rising at the beginning of this speech, closing the door again and returning silently to her work. Mrs. Norris glares at her then smiles at the fidgeting and guilty-faced Julia.
Mrs. Norris: What has you so discomfited, Julia?
Julia (hesitating, then volunteering): Mr. Yates' stories of Weymouth and Ecclesford, Aunt. I long to go to such exciting places. I long to have some diversion. Why is it my lot to be left at home, without companions or Society? My sister will be married and I will still be at home working and longing for Society.
Mrs. Norris: Why, I will have to contrive some amusement for you, my dear girl. It is most vexing to be young and idle... What think you of Mr. Yates, Julia?
Julia: Oh, he is handsome enough, and is quite entertaining. However, there is something lacking, some je ne sais quoi which a gentleman must possess to captivate my attentions. But upon my word, I wish I could have been at Ecclesford. It sounds as if it was more entertaining than anything I have ever experienced. Even without the play finally being performed, there were the rehearsals and the excitement of the play. How I should have reveled in all of the preparations! And if the play had only been allowed to be done one time straight through, what felicity!
Mrs. Norris: He pays admirable attentions to you.
Julia: I suppose. But he is a bit of a coxcomb. Do not you think?
Mrs. Norris: Upon my word, no, I think he is indeed a charming young man. (Fanny looks up with a smile at her aunt). What have you to smile about, Miss Price? Surely, you are not sitting in judgement on your betters. (Fanny's head is immediately down, concentrating on her work. Her aunt's face twitches in discontent.) ... He certainly seems to have been affected by the loss of the theatre at Ecclesford. Such strong feelings in a gentleman of his stature! ... His stories put me in the way of remembering our little attempts at such a pleasant diversion in Huntingdon. Oh how pleasant it all was... I was quite the actress, all our acquaintance testified to it.
Lady Bertram: Yes, I do remember how we did like a play in our day.
Julia (impatiently): Yes, but it would be very pleasant to have such a diversion at Mansfield. I wonder that we have not had a theatre here. My brothers acted some scenes with my father when they were younger. I remember it was great fun to watch them. How I should love to act!
Fanny Price peeks up at her cousin and aunts with interest but then quickly looks back down to her work.
Mrs. Norris: I am certain that it would be a harmless entertainment for you young people.
Julia (with interest): Do you truly think so, Aunt? I should be wild to act. Upon my word, I should like it above all things. (Looking over at Maria, who is playing, oblivious to their conversation.) But do you think it would be quite proper for my sister to act? After all, she is an engaged woman. Society expects much more out of her at this time. She must pay far more attention to her dignity. Do not you think so, Aunt?
Mrs. Norris: Certainly, my dear Julia. But a play is not such a bad thing as could tarnish her reputation -- if she chuses her part with care and acts with decorum.
Lady Bertram (awakes with a start): I was only closing my eyes for a moment. I was not sleeping. Now, Pug, do be less troublesome. (The dog is aroused from sleep and looks up at her languidly). ...Oh... what were we speaking of, Sister. I have quite forgotten.
Mrs. Norris: We were speaking of the plays at Huntingdon, Sister. Were they not delightful? And such a respectable diversion for young ladies, do you not think so?
Lady Bertram (slowly): I do not know... I have never seen a play since retiring to the country. We used to see them in London. And I always thought them agreeable. But, Sir Thomas was frequently out of spirits after the play, I think. ... Indeed, I can not remember if Sir Thomas approves of plays or not... I believe he must certainly agree with you, Sister, but I can not be certain.
Mrs. Norris: I have heard Sir Thomas speak with great approbation of Mr. Garrick. He does not esteem Mr. Richardson highly because of his politics, I have heard him say. But I think he has no complaint with the theatre in general.
Lady Bertram: You must be right, Sister. You always know how Sir Thomas will think on any subject.
Maria (calling out from the Pianoforte): Mamma, I want so much to dance. Will you write Papa and beg him to allow us to give a ball?
Lady Bertram (starting): Oh, I am sure I should have no idea of asking such a thing. It would put poor Sir Thomas out of spirits, to be sure. He would want us to wait for his return, I am certain. It is only to be November. That is barely a month from now. Do let us wait for Sir Thomas.
Maria sighs and continues to play.
The gentlemen enter from the dining room. The Honourable John Yates, a friend of Mr. Tom Bertram's, accompanies Tom and Edmund Bertram. The gentleman is attired in the latest and most expensive Ton fashion, with his hair curled and carefully coiffed in the newest fashion. He speaks as a dandy. He is almost as tall as Edmund, slightly taller than Tom Bertram, but exceedingly thin. His eye flits immediately to Julia, who is looking up at him, blushes and looks back to her work. Tom carries a decanter and drinks from a glass as he sits, placing the decanter within his easy reach on a small table.
Mr. Yates (to Tom): It was just the thing, I assure you, Mr. Bertram. It was such a disappointment to all of the company to have all our hopes dashed in such an unfortunate way. I was quite put out that Lord and Lady Ravenshaw should have chosen that moment to leave Ecclesford for their grand-mamma's funeral. The dowager could hardly have expected such a sacrifice even if she had still been conscious. It would have only required three more days to have found us acting the play and all my hopes would have been reached, though I should have found it disagreeable to have seen Lord Ravenshaw's ranting through the part of the Baron. Quite a little, squeaking voice as he has. It was ...
Edmund (To Mr. Yates, with reproach): We rejoin the Ladies, Sir, and should leave off this conversation for the present.
Mrs. Norris: What is it that you feel we should not hear, Edmund?
Edmund: I do not say you should not hear our conversation, Aunt. Only that we owe you our attentions after staying from you so much longer than is our custom.
Tom: (Lifting his glass to his friend in a silent toast) Mr. Yates has been entertaining us with the tale of his disappointed hopes of a theatre at Ecclesford, Aunt. I am quite delighted with the idea of such amusement here at Mansfield. What say you, Aunt, Maria, Julia?
Maria (jumping up from the pianoforte and running to her oldest brother): How delightful, Tom. I should like it above all things. What play are we to have? ... What great fun it shall be!
Julia (close on her heals, speaking at the same time as Maria): Oh yes, Tom, do let us do a play, but it must be a Tragedy. I can not bear a comedy.
Edmund: I fear that my father would be quite vexed if we were to hold theatricals. Acting, even in one's own home, is not a proper pursuit for gentlewomen. If we were to expose them to ridicule, my father would be exceedingly angry.
Yates (to no one in particular): In all my acquaintance, I have never met with a more amiable gentleman nor family than Mr. Tom Bertram and his family. How pleased I am to have been invited for a visit. Perhaps we will find entertainment that will soothe my injured spirits. One can not withstand such disappointments as I have been made to suffer without loss of spirits indeed. But such an amiable host and home almost cheer me completely. If one could but contrive a play!
A servant brings a fresh decanter and carries away the empty one.
Tom: It is indeed a tragedy that the Ecclesford production of Lover's Vows was canceled. That is as much of a tragedy as I ever care to witness. Such a triumph it would have been if the Ravenshaws could have persisted in their plan. The only alloy in such felicity would be that you, my friend, were not in place to play the Baron. I should have loved to arrive at Ecclesford and see my great friend playing the Baron. But the Count would have been blessed by being portrayed by you. (Yates bows solemnly to his friend and his bow is returned.) No greater tribute could be paid to Mrs. Inchbald than to have gentlemen and ladies of such calibre portraying her characters.
The curtain falls as Tom, Maria, Julia and Yates are all speaking at once. Mrs. Norris is adding her two cents without any one noticing. Lady Bertram starts out of her sleep and looks alarmed. She resumes her work without seeming to notice the mayhem surrounding her. Fanny and Edmund look to each other with understanding and concern.
Later: The ladies and Yates have retired. Tom and Edmund stand gazing into the fire from opposing sides of the fireplace. Tom still drinks, emptying glass after glass without appearing the slightest intoxicated.
Edmund: How do you know this Yates fellow?
Tom: Must you disapprove of all my friends, Edmund. You are worse than my father. You do remember that I am the older brother and you are not my father but only my younger brother.
Edmund: Yes, dear older and revered brother, how did you meet Yates?
Tom: We met at Weymouth.
Edmund: Is it a long acquaintance?
Tom: Ten days
Edmund: How came you to invite him to Mansfield?
Tom: I never thought he would come. He was engaged to Ecclesford. We had struck up a pleasant acquaintance and I wished to give him the respect he was due as a very entertaining gentleman.
Edmund: So you invited him to stay at any time, without notice, at my father's house?
Tom: Yes. As the heir of Mansfield, I feel that I am entitled to such an indulgence.
Edmund: I have no doubt that you do...What ill wind blew the gentleman to our home at this time?
Tom (impatiently): He went to Ecclesford, in Cornwall, with the intention of remaining there for several weeks with his friends, Lord and Lady Ravenshaw. The company at Ecclesford was enthralled with a private production of Lover's Vows. (Such a delightful piece! how excellently Mrs. Inchbald writes!) Unfortunately, word came of the death of Lord Ravenshaw's grandmother three days prior to the first performance. And as the old lady had a sizeable jointure, left her by her husband for her maintenance during life, which of course was settled on the current Lord Ravenshaw, he left hurriedly to Kent, where the lady lived. The Lord and his Lady left Cornwall almost immediately, ordering their guests to leave immediately, as the owner knew not when he would return.
Edmund: The misfortunes of Cornwall are Northamptonshire's gains.
Tom: Indeed. We are fortunate to have such an amusing fellow come to us at such a time.
Edmund: Do not you think that the company of such an amusing fellow might be an unwelcome influence on our sisters. They are idle and very desirous of employment. His fashionable manners and empty-headed pursuits could tempt them in less than respectable directions.
Tom: How little faith you have in our sisters' judgement!
Edmund: They have never been called on to develop judgement. I am concerned that they have some opportunity for guidance by my father
Tom: Let me worry about my sisters, will you!
The breakfast room. The following morning.
Yates: This would have been our second performance. All the neighbourhood was invited and expressed great excitement to see our play.
Edmund (without looking up from his breakfast, with a flat tone of voice): How interesting.
Fanny (shyly): You would have acted to others in the neighbourhood?
Yates: Of course. The entire company was wild for it. They all wanted to act it as many times as an audience could be collected.
Fanny: And you had ladies acting before their neighbours?
Yates: It is a very common thing in Ton. All the ladies are wild to act.
Edmund and Fanny stare at him without speaking.
Maria: Good morning Edmund, Fanny. Good morning, Mr. Yates. How did you sleep?
Yates: Quite well, Miss Bertram. I dreamt of our play.
Maria: Then it must have been pleasant but disquieted sleep.
Maria (to no one in particular): Mr. and Miss Crawford should be here by now, should they not. I wonder that they are delayed. We must get an early start to reach Canons Ashby and have some time to look around so we can return in good time.
Edmund: I am certain they will be here in time. Miss Crawford is very anxious to test her riding skills in such a protracted ride. I am not certain it is wise. But the mare is gentle and Miss Crawford is indeed a prodigious rider.
Maria: Will the day be fine, I wonder? I should be so distressed if we were obliged to cancel such an anticipated outing.
Maria busies herself at the buffet, gathering breakfast. Julia enters. 'Good mornings' pass among the company.
Julia: How pleasant the day appears for our exploring party! I am so looking forward to the exercise and the company.
Henry and Mary Crawford are shown in by the footman.
Crawford: Good morning ladies and gentlemen. Have we missed any of the excitement?
Mary C (speaking at the same time as her brother): Good morning Miss Bertram, Miss Julia, Miss Price. (Turning gravely towards Edmund): Good morning, Mr. Bertram. I pray this morning finds you well and well disposed to our journey.
Edmund: Tolerably (with a grin at her).
Yates (sitting back down to his breakfast and paper): I should have seen a long paragraph in the Times this morning in praise of the private theatricals at Ecclesford, the seat of the Right Hon. Lord Ravenshaw, in Cornwall, which would of course have immortalised the whole party for at least a twelvemonth! Oh, to have been so near, and to lose it all, is an injury to be keenly felt. I doubt I shall ever recover. (He sighs and looks around for sympathy. He gathers looks from both of the Miss Bertrams that begin to soothe his injured soul.)
Julia: How I should love to have a theatre here at Mansfield. Then you should be justly recompensed for the loss at Ecclesford, Mr. Yates.
Yates: I shall urge your brother to follow through with his idea of last evening and allow us to be so indulged.
Edmund: It would not be wise, Julia. Young ladies are not expected to participate in theatricals. Propriety forbids it.
Maria: How can you say so, Edmund? Surely there is nothing wrong with saying lines that are only spoken from the heart of a fictional character. No one could think that these speeches are our own thoughts.
Edmund: But the ladies in plays are frequently in positions of impropriety. That is what makes the play interesting. A story about an upright and proper young lady would not be very popular. But surely you do not wish to be seen in such a light. You were brought up to a life of gentility. How very unlike you are to the common woman who would consent to public display of her graces.
Mary looks at Edmund enigmatically during the whole of this speech.
Maria: I am not going to act in a public theatrical, only in one in this house, if I may. And only for our family's entertainment.
Yates: It is not such a bad thing for a young lady. It only stretches her imagination. To act a part, even of a woman of infamy does not hurt a proper young lady so much as the desperate desire for diversion.
Edmund: Sir, I am grateful that my father did not entrust you with the duty of watchfulness over my sisters. I was given that trust and can not consent to such shameful activity.
Yates (unaware that he has been insulted): I am certain that your father would not object to such private theatricals.
Edmund: As you have never met my father, that is a trifle presumptuous of you.
Yates (still unruffled): Mr. Bertram, your older brother is of my mind.
Edmund: You and my brother are fortunate to share a mind, else you might lack one completely.
Maria and Julia gasp. Fanny looks from Mr. Yates to Edmund in alarm. Mr. Yates plays with his neck cloth and drinks his tea in apparent oblivion. Henry and Mary chuckle. Tom enters and sits heavily at the table.
Maria, Julia, Edmund, Yates: Good morning Tom.
Fanny: Good morning Mr. Bertram.
Tom: Please do not greet me in such audible tones. Have mercy on my poor head. Fanny, would you be so good as to ring for Badderly. He knows a marvellous cure for my present condition. ...But please ring quietly.
Fanny complies -- holding the bell outside the door to ring it. Tom winces. Fanny sits.
Badderly enters, speaks in low tones to the Master of the house and exits.
Enter Lady Bertram and Mrs. Norris. Good mornings are shared by all. They sit and are immediately served their breakfasts by maids. One brings Tom a glass of vile-appearing liquid before waiting on Mrs. Norris. He drinks it slowly.
Yates: Such wonderful parts for Ladies were found in Lover's Vows. Lady Ravenshaw was to portray Agatha and her performance was inimitable. Of course, I was only to do Count Cassel, which is a trifling part, and not at all to my taste, and such a one as I certainly would not accept again; but I was determined to make no difficulties. Lord Ravenshaw and the duke had appropriated the only two characters worth playing before I reached Ecclesford; and though Lord Ravenshaw offered to resign his to me, it was impossible to take it, you know. I was sorry for him that he should have so mistaken his powers, for he was no more equal to the Baron--a little man with a weak voice, always hoarse after the first ten minutes. It must have injured the piece materially; but I was resolved to make no difficulties. Sir Henry thought the duke not equal to Frederick, but that was because Sir Henry wanted the part himself; whereas it was certainly in the best hands of the two. I was surprised to see Sir Henry such a stick. Luckily the strength of the piece did not depend upon him. ...The duke was thought very great by many. And upon the whole, it would certainly have gone off wonderfully.
Julia: It was a hard case, upon my word, that you should be denied the actual performance when you put so much effort into the play.
(Julia receives a smile and gallant bow from Yates. As Maria speaks, he continues to smile at Julia.)
Maria: I do think you were very much to be pitied.
Edmund and Fanny regard each other but say not a word.
Yates: It is not worth complaining about; but to be sure the poor old dowager could not have died at a worse time; and it is impossible to help wishing that the news could have been suppressed for just the three days we wanted. It was but three days; and being only a grandmother, and all happening two hundred miles off, I think there would have been no great harm, and it was suggested, I know; but Lord Ravenshaw, who I suppose is one of the most correct men in England, would not hear of it.
Tom: An afterpiece instead of a comedy. Lovers' Vows were at an end, and Lord and Lady Ravenshaw left to act My Grandmother by themselves. Well, the jointure may comfort him; and perhaps, between friends, he began to tremble for his credit and his lungs in the Baron, and was not sorry to withdraw; and to make you amends, Yates, I think we must raise a little theatre at Mansfield, and ask you to be our manager.
Maria: Oh, do let's!
Julia: Oh, please Tom. We simply must have a theatre.
Mary C.: Yes, do, Mr. Bertram.
Tom: Ladies, please. Not so loud. Yes, if you can control your enthusiasm for the present. I believe we must.
Yates: Oh for the Ecclesford theatre and scenery to try something with.
Maria and Julia agree, smiling at Mr. Yates and Crawford.
Crawford: I really believe I could be fool enough at this moment to undertake any character that ever was written, from Shylock or Richard III down to the singing hero of a farce in his scarlet coat and cocked hat. I feel as if I could be anything or everything; as if I could rant and storm, or sigh or cut capers, in any tragedy or comedy in the English language. Let us be doing something. Be it only half a play, an act, a scene; what should prevent us? (regarding the smiling faces of the Miss Bertrams) Not these countenances, I am sure. And for a theatre, what signifies a theatre? We shall be only amusing ourselves. Any room in this house might suffice.
Tom (after downing the last of 'the cure', grimaces, wipes his mouth: We must have a curtain, a few yards of green baize for a curtain, and perhaps that may be enough.
Yates: Oh, quite enough, with only just a side wing or two run up, doors in flat, and three or four scenes to be let down; nothing more would be necessary on such a plan as this. For mere amusement among ourselves we should want nothing more.
Maria: I believe we must be satisfied with less. There will not be time, and other difficulties might arise. We must rather adopt Mr. Crawford's views, and make the performance, not the theatre, our object. Many parts of our best plays are independent of scenery. (She finished this with a coquettish smile at Mr. Crawford, which was returned in kind.)
Edmund: Nay, let us do nothing by halves. If we are to act, let it be in a theatre completely fitted up with pit, boxes, and gallery, and let us have a play entire from beginning to end; so as it be a German play, no matter what, with a good tricking, shifting afterpiece, and a figure-dance, and a hornpipe, and a song between the acts. If we do not outdo Ecclesford, we do nothing.
Julia: Now, Edmund, do not be disagreeable, nobody loves a play better than you do, or can have gone much farther to see one.
Edmund: True, to see real acting, good hardened real acting; but I would hardly walk from this room to the next to look at the raw efforts of those who have not been bred to the trade: a set of gentlemen and ladies, who have all the disadvantages of education and decorum to struggle through.
No one speaks for a moment. They look uncomfortably at each other. All except Edmund who concentrates on his breakfast.
Tom: I must have a comedy.
Julia: No, I can not abide a comedy. A tragedy's the thing.
Crawford: Miss Julia, 'The play's the thing' according to Lord Hamlet. But I agree with you. I long for a tragedy, though I would be happy to do a comedy as well.
Maria: I would like a tragedy, Tom.
Crawford: Thank you, Miss Bertram for lending our cause your support. What say you, Mary?
Mary (with an apologetic smile to Edmund): I must always prefer a comedy for my own tastes, but I will do what ever the group decides.
Mrs. Norris: I am certain that nothing in the world could be easier than to find a piece which would please you all.
Yates: I am determined to act something or other.
Edmund: Mamma, what say you to this plan?
Lady Bertram: What plan is that, Edmund?
Edmund: The plan to have your daughters acting in a play.
Lady Bertram: I ...do ... not ... know. Perhaps ... it would be a pleasant amusement... I do not think Sir Thomas would object.
Mrs. Norris: Certainly not. He always loved the theatre. You remember how we all loved the theatre.
The curtain falls.
The same evening. The drawing room. Edmund stands looking thoughtfully into the fire. Lady Bertram is on the sofa. Fanny is close beside her arranging her work and Pug for her. Pug glares at her through half closed eyes. Fanny finishes the arrangements and sits down to her own work.
Lady Bertram: Thank you, Fanny, now I shall be comfortable. (She settles as if to work but very shortly falls asleep.)
Edmund looks over at the pair in amusement, then back to the fire. Fanny regards him with concern.
Enter Tom, speaking loudly as he enters.
Tom: Such a horribly vile billiard-table as ours is not to be met with, I believe, above ground. I can stand it no longer, and I think, I may say, that nothing shall ever tempt me to it again; but one good thing I have just ascertained: it is the very room for a theatre, precisely the shape and length for it; and the doors at the farther end, communicating with each other, as they may be made to do in five minutes, by merely moving the bookcase in my father's room, is the very thing we could have desired, if we had sat down to wish for it; and my father's room will be an excellent greenroom. It seems to join the billiard-room on purpose.
Edmund looks alarmed.
Lady Bertram starts and upsets Pug at the start of Tom's speech above. Pug lets out a half bark and then settles back to sleep.
Lady Bertram: What is the matter? Is any thing the matter? What is all this yelling about?
Tom: No, mamma. I was just a little excited.
Lady Bertram: Oh. Very well. (She almost immediately begins to nod off again.)
Tom approaches the fire.
Edmund (in a low voice): You are not serious, Tom, in meaning to act?
Tom: Not serious! never more so, I assure you. What is there to surprise you in it?
Edmund: I think it would be very wrong. In a general light, private theatricals are open to some objections, but as we are circumstanced, I must think it would be highly injudicious, and more than injudicious to attempt anything of the kind. It would shew great want of feeling on my father's account, absent as he is, and in some degree of constant danger; and it would be imprudent, I think, with regard to Maria, whose situation is a very delicate one, considering everything, extremely delicate.
Tom: You take up a thing so seriously! as if we were going to act three times a week till my father's return, and invite all the country. But it is not to be a display of that sort. We mean nothing but a little amusement among ourselves, just to vary the scene, and exercise our powers in something new. We want no audience, no publicity. We may be trusted, I think, in chusing some play most perfectly unexceptionable; and I can conceive no greater harm or danger to any of us in conversing in the elegant written language of some respectable author than in chattering in words of our own. I have no fears and no scruples. And as to my father's being absent, it is so far from an objection, that I consider it rather as a motive; for the expectation of his return must be a very anxious period to my mother; and if we can be the means of amusing that anxiety, and keeping up her spirits for the next few weeks, I shall think our time very well spent, and so, I am sure, will he. It is a very anxious period for her.
Edmund and Tom look towards their mother, who is sunk back in one corner of the sofa, the picture of health, wealth, ease, and tranquillity, was just falling into a gentle doze, while Fanny gets through the few difficulties of her work for her. Edmund smiles and shakes his head in amusement.
Tom (laughing and throwing himself into a chair): By Jove! this won't do! To be sure, my dear mother, your anxiety--I was unlucky there.
Lady Bertram (starting, disturbing Pug who offers a discontented growl): What is the matter? I was not asleep.
Tom: Oh dear, no, ma'am, nobody suspected you!
Lady Bertram begins to nod again.
Tom (returning to the fire): Well, Edmund, but this I will maintain, that we shall be doing no harm.
Edmund: I cannot agree with you; I am convinced that my father would totally disapprove it.
Tom: 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. Indeed my father's love of Douglas: a Tragedy is probably the source of my love for comedy and abhorrence of tragedy.
Edmund: 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.
Tom: I know all that. I know my father as well as you do; and I'll take care that his daughters do nothing to distress him. Manage your own concerns, Edmund, and I'll take care of the rest of the family.
Edmund: If you are resolved on acting, I must hope it will be in a very small and quiet way; and I think a theatre ought not to be attempted. It would be taking liberties with my father's house in his absence which could not be justified. I will not oppose you further than this warning. But I must ask some guarantees. I believe it would be less offensive to him if his own room and adjoining room were not disturbed. Will you use some other room than the billiard room?
Tom: If you insist on it. Yes, could we not use the small drawing room? That would be inoffensive to him and not disturb anyone else since it is not used but in the summer when this room is too warm.
Edmund: Agreed. Now, I wish to counsel you on the choise of a play. Will you limit yourself to plays which have women not in improper situations?
Tom: What if we limited our choices to Shakespeare? Would that satisfy your sense of propriety?
Edmund: Yes, I believe so. Though, I must ask you to think over your choice carefully. Consider not only the number of men and women needed but also the situations and language of each of the characters. Even in Shakespeare there are women of questionable propriety.
Tom: If I agree to all this, will you agree to join us? We will need another man to fill out the cast, I am certain, in almost any play we chuse.
Edmund: (hesitating): If that is the only way to convince you of the need for moderation, I might join you. But I must add some last requirements. No theatre, no sets and no outsiders involved.
Tom: (eyeing him warily): Yes, I will agree to this. But we must have some little costumes and a curtain.
Edmund started to speak but Tom interrupted him: Come, you have gotten many concessions from me this night that are vexing to me. You must give in on this one point.
Edmund, looking grave but saying nothing, shakes his brother's offered hand.
Exit Tom. Edmund sits on a stool close to the fireplace and stirs the fire in thoughtful vexation.
Fanny, who had heard it all, silently arises from her chair, crosses to him and sits at his feet. She regards him sympathetically for a moment without speaking. He puts his hand on her shoulder and gives it a squeeze.
Fanny (softly): Perhaps they may not be able to find any play to suit them. Your brother's taste and your sisters' seem very different.
Edmund: I have no hope there, Fanny. If they persist in the scheme, they will find something. I shall speak to my sisters and try to dissuade them, and that is all I can do.
Fanny rests there a few moments, looking up at him affectionately, then returns to her work.
Fanny (settling herself) : I should think my aunt Norris would be on your side.
Edmund: I dare say she would, but she has no influence with either Tom or my sisters that could be of any use; and if I cannot convince them myself, I shall let things take their course, without attempting it through her. Family squabbling is the greatest evil of all, and we had better do anything than be altogether by the ears.
The next morning. The Breakfast room. Edmund and Fanny sit quietly eating. Enter Maria and Julia. 'Good morning's come and go from all as the sisters prepare their plates and sit down.
Edmund: I must appeal to you, my sisters, to not condone this plan for theatricals. It is not proper for young ladies, indeed it is unthinkable for an engaged woman, especially one who is engaged in such a singular fashion as are you, Maria.
Maria: Why should you say so? Mamma has no objection to the plan, and I am not in the least afraid of my father's disapprobation. There can be no harm in what has been done in so many respectable families, and by so many women of the first consideration. Indeed, it must be scrupulousness run mad that could see anything to censure in a plan like ours, comprehending only brothers and sisters and intimate friends, and which will never be heard of beyond ourselves.
Julia: I will allow that Maria's situation might require particular caution and delicacy--but that can not extend to me. I am at liberty.
(Maria looks at her sister with daggers in her eyes.)
Maria: I consider my engagement as only raising me so much more above restraint, and leaving me less occasion than Julia to consult either my father or my mother.
Edmund: I do not understand your logic. Please explain that statement to me.
Maria: I am almost a married woman. As such, I should have the benefit of being thought wise enough to make some decisions for myself, without applying to my brothers or my parents.
Edmund: But have you applied to your fianc» for his approval?
Maria: No, why should I. Mr. Rushworth will certainly participate in any theatricals we produce.
Enter Henry Crawford, excited.
Crawford: No want of hands in our theatre, Miss Bertram. No want of understrappers: my sister desires her love, and hopes to be admitted into the company, and will be happy to take the part of any old duenna or tame confidante, that you may not like to do yourselves.
Maria gives Edmund a look of triumph while he returns one of surrender to superior forces. He then turns his back on his sister and has a look of faraway -- not unpleasant -- thoughtfulness.
Enter Lady Bertram and Mrs. Norris. Good mornings are shared by all. They sit and are immediately served their breakfasts by maids.
Maria: Mamma, we shall have a theatrical at Mansfield. Is not that grand? Should you not like it above all things.
Lady Bertram: Yes, I think I will like it. I remember how we always liked seeing plays in Huntingdon.
Mrs. Norris: Indeed we did. Such a pleasure it was and such a respectable pursuit for young ladies.
Lady Bertram: Of that I'm not certain. I know we enjoyed seeing them. But it seems to me as if there were some scandalous happenings among the players. Was that not true, Sister?
Mrs. Norris: Oh, perhaps. But this is different. We will be here to guard the young ladies from similar fates. And I can make a very grand theatre curtain -- as economically as possible of course. Oh, and I shall need to stay here at the park, as I am certain to be wanted at all hours. So I must leave my little house deserted. And of course I shall bring my servants here and put them to work in your service while I am here.
The curtain falls on Mrs. Norris' self-satisfied smile, Edmund's faraway look, Fanny's wary regard of him, Maria's and Julia's rapturous look at Henry Crawford and Mr. Crawford's valiant attempts to compliment them both with all of his attentions. Lady Bertram looks from face to face with confusion.
Italicized text is directly from Mansfield Park, Jane Austen, 1814, Chapter 13(-18 eventually).
Continued in Act 2
© 2001 Copyright held by author