After our “Austen Assizes” play in Brooklyn (at the 2012 JASNA Annual General Meeting) Syrie James and I, much to our delight, were commissioned to write a “behind the scenes” play-within-the-play in Mansfield Park for the Montreal AGM. We knew this would be even trickier to bring off, as Mansfield Park is arguably the least comic, and most structurally complex, of Austen’s novels. So we decided to begin with a series of brisk sketches, each a dialogue between two characters, and then move into the rehearsal scenes incorporating dialogue straight from Lovers’ Vows. That would link that play to the Mansfield Park “actors,” and reveal what they would have been rehearsing. We didn’t think the interaction between the two had really been shown before, and it would be enlightening, and funny.
The actual writing was mostly done in the last six months when time started to press in! (“We’d better get serious.”) Our method was basically to take turns, each writing a scene, the other countering with rewriting and then adding new material, back and forth, with several in-person discussion meetings (fortunately we don’t live far apart), until we had what looked like an hour-long play. The polishing we did by sitting together and reading the whole play aloud, in several sessions, to meticulously refine the dialogue and make it funnier. By the time it was done, as usual it was hard to remember who had invented what. We do know that our friend Laurel Ann Nattress of the Austenprose blog suggested the green baize and curtain rod a la the Carol Burnett “Went With the Wind” skit, and Syrie actually sewed the contraption! The writing was a true joint effort, done in workmanlike, waste-no-time fashion, that always surprises me, since I never wrote anything in partnership before. The most fun was the reading aloud and making subtle changes; we would alternate speeches, and both Syrie and I “were” Tom, Henry, Mary, Julia, all the characters, at different times. It gave us a facility and intimacy with all the roles, and a good idea of how the speeches should be delivered.
That settled, we knew that we’d ask the two well-known academics Juliet McMaster and Miriam Rheingold-Fuller to play parts, as they’d been in other plays of ours. Syrie would be Maria Bertram and Miriam would be Mary Crawford. Juliet plays en travestie amusingly, with a specialty in clergymen, so she would be Edmund. The difficulty was finding men, reasonably young and handsome, with real acting ability, and who would also be in Montreal for the AGM! We needed Tom, Henry and Mr. Rushworth. Not easy! Laurel Ann suggested the brilliant young scholar and writer Edward Scheinman for Henry Crawford, Professor Natasha Duquette’s Shakespearean actor husband Fred was Tom Bertram, and I thought it would be funny to have McGill professor Peter Sabor be Rushworth – such a brainy man playing a complete dolt!
Syrie drafted her husband Bill as Sir Thomas (fortunately he was amenable), and we knew stylish Kimberly Brangwin of Seattle would be the perfect languid funny Lady Bertram. Lovely Austen Variations author Karen Doornebos would be the petulant Julia, in the cat-fight with Syrie, and Miriam volunteered her adorable twenty year old actress daughter Ellen to be Fanny
We intended Natasha and Fred’s pug dog Esmee to play herself, with Natasha as the maid to mind her. Unfortunately, two days before we were to fly to Montreal the hotel decided that poor Esmee must be caged, muzzled, and heaven knows what restraints put on the poor little thing. So, scratch Pug (so to speak), and we had to immediately come up with dialogue to explain her absence, since we didn’t want any stuffed Pugs! Natasha remained in the play, doing her Maid with a soft Irish accent, and actually “maiding” me in earnest, helping me into my unwieldy costume, which tended to slip down my back.
It was a coup to get Patrick Stokes, former head of the English Jane Austen Society, and an Austen family member, to play the Prince Regent. Having met him in England, I knew he would bring the house down as the prince, but my emails went wrong, and I was sending him ones that began “Say no, if it is to be said,” when he replied with bafflement that he didn’t know what I was writing about, he had received nothing! When it was all explained, he jumped in with full alacrity and played the part to the hilt. There was the problem of his costume, since he was already bringing an Admiral’s uniform for his own presentation, but Bill lent a brocade vest, Patrick brought a very effective white wig, and I found a jeweled crown in the Salvation Army! He looked magnificent.
We had two hour-long rehearsals, one the day before and the other the day of the performance. Despite scheduling difficulties, everyone got to at least one rehearsal. Syrie used her staging knowledge to wield microphones and effectively direct the troupers, difficult for her as she had the most ghastly cold acquired on a chilly Quebec river cruise prior to the conference; she had to save her voice for her part, but she is a trouper, and on the day of the play her voice merely had a sultry huskiness that was just right for her part!
I was quite nervous when the actors assembled for the first rehearsal, not sure if the play would work or be as funny as the Assizes; but in the very first minute, when Fred Duquette stood up and delaimed in his resonant booming flexible voice:
“At Mansfield Park, November comes
There’s naught to do but twiddle thumbs…”
I knew everything would be absolutely all right! All the words we had written jumped to vivid new life when spoken by these speakers of talent. Everyone was wonderful, and when Peter Sabor contorted his face into that of the doltish dunce and spoke in tones that showed complete inside comprehension of Mr. Rushworth, the effect of the whole was fantastic! (A YouTube highlights video will soon be available.)
The actors assembled on the stage in the big ballroom at 7:15 for the 8 PM performance, and sat in their row of chairs, all but me, Bill and Patrick, who were going to make “surprise appearances,” and mustn’t be seen by the audience. We sat in a little tented alcove on the stage, in a litter of crowns, green baize, scripts and curtain rods. As the audience came in, I asked Syrie, who was sitting on the stage (in a “stage whisper” of course), “How’s the house?” “Every seat is full,” she said with suppressed excitement. Patrick and I amused ourselves counting and lost track at 500.
We began. Elaine gracefully introduced us, Fred as Tom did his Prologue, and people started to laugh as Maria and Julia expressed their booooredom. Everything rolled out with perfect timing. My own entrance was anything but an easy one! I had to emerge from the tent, wearing this curtain rod contraption across my shoulders, swathed in green baize, and walked forward slowly to the microphones. Laughter began, and built, so I took my time. Then at the microphone I read my lines, remembering to project as young Ellen Fuller had coached me. She must have done it well because I was LOUD, and in Mrs Norris’s meanest moments, the audience hissed – a new sensation for me!
Syrie was particularly wonderful as a deliciously amoral Maria, and got a lot of laughs, but then, everyone did – each part was played to perfection, with the elan and enthusiasm of people who are having fun, heightened by the audience having fun too! Special bring-the-house down laughter greeted Sir Thomas, straight from Antigua in his Bermuda shorts, talking of Mai Tais; and the Prince Regent, sweeping Maria away to see the Cupids on his ceiling. Lots of applause, call for “Authors!” and then we left the stage for picture-taking, and rapturous happy mutual compliments. Oh, what a night! And for the rest of the conference I had the happiness of being recognized everywhere…as Mrs. Norris!
A Dangerous Intimacy has since had a second performance, at the Los Angeles winter meeting at the University of Southern California, celebrating Jane Austen’s birthday. Except for Syrie, Bill and myself, we had to recruit an altogether different cast, but had the same lively terpsichorean fun. It’s pleasant to think that Jane Austen was very fond of a play herself, and acted in home theatricals as well as being an eager theatre-goer when in London.
A View from the Third Row
by C. Allyn Pierson
My miniscule part in “A Dangerous Intimacy” began almost a year ago when I followed Diana’s Facebook posts and blog posts about the 2012 AGM and I discovered that she and Syrie would be writing a new play and presenting it for the 2014 AGM in Montreal. During her comments she lamented that her only Regency gown had been deemed DOA by her friends and that she would need to get a new gown, sighing that she would have to have someone make one, as she does not sew. I volunteered to sew her a new gown…but it took about 2 weeks to convince her that I really meant it! It would be a dangerous thing (not intimate, but clearly dangerous…) to volunteer such a thing if I didn’t mean it!
After some wasting of time, twiddling of thumbs and a couple of months, we finally came down to the cotton thread (sort of like the brass tacks a làsewing…) and I obtained royal blue satin and selected and altered my pattern. I used the wrong side of the satin, as Diana wanted a gown that could be used for daytime as well as for any Regency balls she might come upon, so she did not want it to be too glossy. I chose to make it a drawstring dress so that she could not only adjust it to fit perfectly, but she could actually get in and out of it on her own (those who have been to Jane Austen events have probably dealt with the “OMG! How do I get out of my dress here, alone in my hotel room? Is this included in room service?”).
After the gown was finished and as the AGM approached, I offered her a cap, fichu, etc. and then discovered that she would be costumed in green baize! When I finished laughing, I went on to work on my fleur-de-lis embroidered gown, hoping to finish it before I left for beautiful Montreal (I finally finished it 45 minutes before the Saturday evening banquet…whew!)
I have to say that Julia and Maria Bertram did far too good a job at cat fighting…I hope this was just for the stage ladies…ahem. The best part about the vignette was that the actors obviously enjoyed their parts! I do still wonder what Mrs. Norris did with that roll of green baize with which she absconded when Sir Thomas returned from Antigua earlier than expected…
The theater-goers trickled out after the play…far too busy laughing and talking about the play to hurry on to the next entertainment. They were still talking about it the next night at the banquet and ball, and I’m sure will continue to do so until the next AGM.
The ball on the following night was an excellent example of how difficult it is to put together a multinational production, when the Austen Variations gang tried to get together for a picture…we finally managed to get three of us in one place (unfortunately, we could not find Syrie when we had the inspiration for the photo, but you may look on Diana’s Facebook page and this blog for pictures of the cast)…Diana Birchall in her new royal blue gown and beautiful embroidered shawl, Karen Doornebos in my pearls and pearl hairclip (and her new ball gown), and me in my fleur-de-lis gown. I think we made a respectable showing! Somehow, even though Diana and Karen wore heels and I wore ballet slippers, I managed to tower over their delicate selves…but then being tall was one of the signs of Maria’s and Julia’s superiority…I will say no more than that.
Well, except to look forward to a reprise of Diana’s earlier play, “You are Passionate, Jane,” with herself and Syrie playing respectively Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen, which may happen at the 2017 JASNA AGM in Huntington Bedach, California, with a “Jane Austen in Paradise” theme. Oh, dear, how can I make a Regency gown look more…Brontë?