Theater in Jane Austen's Time
All the best plays were run over in vain. Neither Hamlet, nor Macbeth, nor Othello, not Douglas, not the Gamester, presented any thing that could satisfy even the tragedians; and the Rivals, the School for Scandal, Wheel of Fortune, Heir at Law, and a long etcetera, 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!' (Mansfield Park, 110).
As seen here, Jane Austen was more than familiar with the plays that were being produced and read during her lifetime. It is safe to assume that Jane Austen, an educated and talented writer would not include in her list of theatrical critique a play with which she was unfamiliar. More probable than not, the plays above listed were one's she understood quite well. With that assumption in mind, it is also probable that the characters for certain reasons rejected the plays. Perhaps the subject matter was a bit too close to home. In this light, I have undertook to find out about the playwrights that wrote the plays and the story lines each play followed.
Edward Moore was the son of a minister. He began his career as a simple linendraper. However, that soon became to dull for such an active mind, and Moore began to write. His first attempt was a collection of Fables for the Female Sex. The nominal success was soon followed by his first play The Foundling, which is still rather well known in theatrical circles. The play of his the Jane Austen mentioned was The Gamester. It follows the story of a gamester's downfall through and infatuation with gambling. Basically, he had a gambling addiction. The story also included the elements of murder, suicide, and men who wanted other men's wives, a bit too close to the lives of Tom Bertram and Henry Crawford for their liking (British Drama).
John Home was the son of a town clerk. He attended the University of Edinburgh where he followed the curriculum of a minister in the Church of Scotland. He was licensed to preach, however his enlistment in the loyalist ranks made his taking order difficult. Eventually, after a complicated military history of imprisonment and escape, he took orders. Home had always been deeply interested in Greek and Roman culture. Somewhere along the line he began to write plays. Jane Austen mentioned his play Douglas. This is the story of secret marriages, lost sons, and defending family honor. I can see where Henry would exclaim "no!" to this one (British Drama).
Richard Cumberland, son to a rector who later became an Irish bishop, was educated at Westminster and Trinity. Both schools were well known for their education of clergy. Cumberland was secretary to the Earl of Halifax. In his spare time, he would write plays including Wheel of Fortune. It was this play that Jane Austen made note of. As the theme of the story was revenge and repentance, it is sure that someone among the Mansfield "back stabbing" party would have a strong objection (English Drama).
Son of George Colman the Elder, George Colman the Younger was born to a family already entrenched in theatrical life. Colman the Elder was educated at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford. It is with Colman the Younger that we conclude the interesting trend of Jane Austen's reading playwrights who had strong ties to the clergy. Not surprising for the daughter of a minister. Colman's play mentioned by Jane Austen was Heir at Law. Born to a family with a theater history, Richard Brinsly Sheridan was not a man with strong connections to the clergy. He eloped with a woman after fighting two duels for her. He later married her but not until he had spent a number of years living with her out of wedlock. His education was conducted in Bath and London. In essence, the streets of the city educated him. Jane Austen mentioned two of his plays, The Rivals and School for Scandal. The Rivals is the story of disguised suitors, wagging and exaggerating tongues (it was probably Mrs. Norton who objected to this play), and woman who refuse men they love on the basis on the excess of money. The play School for Scandal relates forbidden love, deceit, cheating spouses, and beautifully charming villains. The way this play captures the language of its time period has been compared to the way Shakespeare captured the Elizabethan language.
The play finally decided upon by the Mansfield party was Lover's Vows. Elizabeth Inchbald, and actress, playwright, novelist and editor wrote this play. Her life was steeping in the theater, as she married an actor in conjunction with all she did with the stage ("Elizabeth Inchbald").
The theatrical culture of Jane Austen's time was as diverse as the literary culture. Many of the same trends were being repeated. Since Jane Austen lived in the breach between the 18th and 19th centuries, trends in theater were moving from the old to the new.
The two main centers for the production of plays were Drury Lane and Covent Garden in London. These two theater houses were the only legitimate theaters, the only two supported by the monarchy. Many little theater houses sprung up allover the city and the country, however they continued the trends set by the two larger ones. They created no trends of their own.
In Jane Austen's time, the propriety of attending theater was in an upheaval. Though the upper classes were still attending plays by disconnecting themselves from the common crowd by sitting above them in the boxes, the theater became a place of wildness hedonism. Audiences actively engaged in the show by booing, clapping, or hissing at appropriate and not-so-appropriate moments. The middle classes sat in the pit below the stage, and the working classes sat on the edges, in the galleries. The theater reached its heights of hedonism at this time when it became popular to pick up prostitutes here instead of the streets (Burroughs).
A wide variety of trends were seen in the types of plays audiences viewed. Between 1800 and 1830, gothic tragedy or gothic thriller dominated main stage (Burroughs). As we see in the trends of art and fashion a pseudo classicistic style was emerging in other areas of theater. Operas began to flourish at the same time as a means of escape from the high melodramas and dark Gothicism. Similarly, pantomimes began to be staged in between acts of such plays in order to give the audiences a moment of relief from the emotional intensity of the plays (Nineteenth C. Drama). Highly decorous comic operas, comedies of manners and sincere poetic dramas were tends also seen during Jane Austen's life (English Drama). Another common trend was the publication of poet dramas that were published for the single purpose of being read. These plays were never produced. The authors of these plays believed that this type of play enable the audience to get into and understand the psychology of the character more so than stage production would allow. To them, Hamlet was the perfect example of a play meant to be read, not watched ("Mental Theater").
Among these smaller movements, a large movement emerged that greatly changed the face of theater. The idea of sentimentalism was given birth to as it related to thought, idea, and conception. With sentimental theater came a surge of true and false sentimentalism. False being that of mushy, weak, pitiable theater. True sentimentalism focused on thought and reflection as well as humanitarianism, recognition of social problems, and the expression of ideas, opinions, and stands on issues. It was the first time that theater was used as a vehicle to promote social change (English Drama).
Austen, J. Mansfield Park. London: Penguin Books, 1996.
Burroughs, C. "Theater." Encyclopedia of Romanticism: Culture in Britain, 1780's- 1830's. New York: Garland, 1992.
Burroughs, C. "Mental Theater." Encyclopedia of Romanticism: Culture in Britain, 1780's-1830's. New York: Garland, 1992.
Cruchuns, T .C. "Elizabeth Inchbald." Encyclopedia of Romanticism: Culture in Britain, 1780's-1830's. New York: Garland, 1992.
Goldstein, N .B. "Sentialism." Encyclopedia of Romanticism: Culture in Britain, 1780's-1830's. New York: Garland, 1992.
Nicoll, A. A History of Early Nineteenth Century Drama: 1800-1850. London: Cambridge UP, 1930.
Nicoll, A. A History of English Drama: 1660-1900. Vol. 3. London: Cambridge UP, 1955.
Nicoll, A. British Drama: An Historical Survey from the Beginnings to the Present Time. New York: Thomas Y. Cromwell Company, 1925.