Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Bedlam Theater's Sense & Sensibility

One of the main points about writing a pop culture blog is that most of what you write about is available for your readers to consume.  In fact, much of what I write is from a perspective that assumes that my readers have already read the book, seen the movie, watched the TV show, and are now willing to talk about them with someone who is equally informed.  Which is part of the reason why I don't tend to write much about theater (the other being that most of the theater available to me year-round is in Hebrew), and that when I do, it's about something like Hamilton, whose original cast recording has become its own phenomenon, available to millions of fans who may never even see the play.

Today, however, I'm breaking my rule to talk about Bedlam Theater's adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, which I was lucky enough to see this week on my vacation in New York.  If you're in the city, I strongly urge you to try to get to see this play before it closes in November.  If you're not, you're just going to have to suffer as you read about, what is to my mind, not only one of the most delightful theatrical experiences I've had in a long time, but a genuinely exciting take on the novel--which is all the more impressive when you consider that, like Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility has had a definitive adaptation in the form of Emma Thompson and Ang Lee's 1995 movie, which inevitably overshadows any attempt to make something new of the original text.

Directed by Eric Tucker and adapted by Kate Hamill (who also plays Marianne), Sense & Sensibility gets around the inevitable comparisons to the movie by, first, staging a deliberately intimate, stripped-down version of the story.  The play is staged on a bare, small space in the center of the room, with the audience arranged in three rows of chairs on either side of it.  The actors move in and out by moving into the aisles and behind the audience's seats.  What little set dressing there is is more often used to suggest a setting than to evoke it, and the costumes, though period-appropriate, are similarly simplified.  (For this reason, and because Sense & Sensibility makes so much use of the intimacy of its setting, it's impossible to imagine this adaptation working if it was filmed, or even moved into a larger and more traditional theater space.)  The play begins with the actors dancing to modern music, and as it shifts into a more traditional melody, their dance moves also shift into a patterned dance--as if deliberately reminding us the artificiality of what we're about to see.  In other scenes, the actors themselves act as the set dressing, contorting themselves into a bed or a carriage for the characters to sit in or on.  The few bits of furniture on stage are all on wheels, allowing the actors to not only reconfigure the setting quickly, but to enact specific scenes.  In one case, two actresses on chairs play four characters, with Laura Baranik doubling Lucy Steele and Fanny Dashwood, and Samantha Steinmetz doubling Anne Steele and old Mrs. Ferrars.  When either of the women needs to switch roles, the actors behind her shoot her chair across the stage, indicating that she is now portraying a different character.

Hamill's take on the text is not as revolutionary as her staging--in fact, her version is remarkable for its fidelity, replicating almost every major scene and including even some characters that the Thompson version had elected to streamline away--but she nevertheless makes some very interesting choices, chiefly revolving around her own character.  Where other adaptations of Sense and Sensibility have tended to depict Marianne as ethereal and soulful (this is the approach taken by Kate Winslet in the 1995 movie, and rather unimaginatively imitated by Charity Wakefield in the 2008 BBC miniseries), Hamill's Marianne is bossy and shouty.  Her passion for poetry and the full expression of emotion, and her ironclad belief that she alone has a handle on how to live life correctly, result in a tendency to berate, browbeat, and even bully people into behaving as she believes they should.  This can result in comedy, as in scenes in which Elinor (Kelley Curran) has to physically restrain Marianne from making scenes when she believes the people around her are being unspeakably ridiculous.  But it also leads to tragedy, as in the final confrontation between the sisters, when the full extent of Marianne's selfishness, her willingness to impose on others, is driven home, and it suddenly seems possible--as it never quite does in Austen's novel--that the rupture between her and Elinor will be a permanent one.

Nevertheless, Hamill also leaves space for Marianne to be young and vulnerable, and never more so than when she depicts the relationship between Marianne and Colonel Brandon (Carman Lacivita).  Marianne's reaction to catching Brandon's eye is revulsion and even fear, and while Hamill allows her actors to replicate the text's attitude, in which that distaste is viewed as a sign of immaturity and even a lack of generosity in Marianne, her staging and the play's direction teach us to take another approach.  While Sense & Sensibility stops short of depicting Brandon's pursuit of Marianne as sexual harassment, it makes no bones of the fact that it is unwanted and, to Marianne, deeply uncomfortable--most notably, in a scene in which Marianne, first realizing that she's caught Brandon's eye, is pressed up against the edge of set dressing by the entire cast, recalling so many familiar instances of women who try to make themselves small in order to escape an unwanted suitor, only to be literally cornered.

Perhaps as a result of this approach, Brandon feels almost incidental to this version of the story--he appears in the scenes in which he is necessary for the plot's progression, but is not the kind of presence in his absence that he is in the novel or the movie, and the flowering of his and Marianne's romance is not an important plot point (like so many takes on the story, Hamill elides the fact that Marianne marries Brandon out of convenience and a broken heart, rather than out of love).  Taking his place is Edward Ferrars (Jason O'Connell), who here emerges as a remarkably complex, sympathetic, but also flawed figure (leading me to wonder whether an adaptation of Sense and Sensibility can have a good Brandon, or a good Edward, but not both).  Where most readings of Sense and Sensibility tend to assume that the story contrasts Brandon with Willoughby, Hamill's adaptation suggests that the true contrast is between Willoughby and Edward, with one sacrificing his happiness so as not to break his word, and the other so wrapped up in his own selfish pleasures that he heedlessly destroys people's lives in the pursuit of it.  And yet at the same time, O'Connell injects Edward with a streak of bitterness--at his frustrated desires, and at his inability to start his life due to his mother's interference--that makes him seem so much more mature and believable than previous iterations of the character, and, paradoxically, makes it easier to pass criticism on him for leading Elinor on, however unintentionally.  (Another display of O'Connell's abilities comes when he doubles the role of Robert Ferrars, trading Edward's stiff decency for complete debauchery, and somehow persuasively arguing that Robert's nonsensical speech from the book about the wonders of cottages is somehow all about sex.)

The main reason to watch Sense & Sensibility, however, is less the adaptation's approach to the text, and more the way it uses its stripped-down staging to highlight the text's obsession with appearance, perception, and the face we present to the world.  Many scene changes are signposted by the actors suddenly starting to talk over each other, playing the role of the chattering Regency society that the Dashwood sisters move through, and reminding us that everything they do is subject to comment--and often ridicule.  When Elinor or Marianne are in distress, suddenly realizing that their behavior (or, more often, the behavior of the men in their lives) has subjected them to public comment, the rest of the cast swarm them, reminding us how predatory and merciless this kind of scrutiny can be, and how happy society is to see the sisters fall and be destroyed.

In other scenes, Tucker takes advantage of the barrenness of his stage, staging an intimate conversation with the two actors at opposite ends of the room.  Set in the middle of the story--when Edward and Elinor confront the unspoken truth that they can never be together, or when Elinor and Marianne try and fail to understand each other--the distance imposed on these scenes drives home just how much is being left unsaid, how much must be left unsaid according to the rules these characters operate by.  But it's also a staging that forces the audience to make a choice in how they consume the story.  Sitting so close to the stage, and with the actors at either end of it, we can either choose to look at the person speaking, or at the person reaction to them, but not both.  It's a requirement that drives home just much Sense and Sensibility is a story about how people react to outrageous, abusive, infuriating behavior, and how they are judged on their reactions.  (This is also a good opportunity to praise Curran's work as Elinor.  She's as much the heart of the play as Hamill, but has what is often the tougher job in that most of what she does is react to others, and try not to reveal how hurt, angry, or bewildered their behavior makes her.  That she nevertheless manages to bring across both Elinor's intelligent bemusement, and her deep unhappiness, is an achievement worth celebrating.)

If there's anything to be said against Sense & Sensibility--and, to be clear, this isn't actually a criticism of the play--it is that its emphasis on how the events of the story are driven by public perception and an often gleeful desire to see women fail crystalizes for me how much the original book is a problem novel.  This isn't simply a matter of changing mores--we are, after all, still happy to read Pride and Prejudice, a novel that takes it as a given that the teenage victim of a sexual predator is at fault for his actions, and that the best solution for her is to marry her abuser--but a fundamental unfairness in the novel's premise.  I struggled with this when I last wrote about the novel, but Hamill's take on the story really brings home the fact that I simply do not see how Marianne is in the wrong for being open about her feelings towards Willoughby.  Obviously, she's wrong because she lives in a society that judges her harshly, and will even declare her ruined, for exposing herself in such a way (while allowing the men who encouraged her--and even Edward Ferrars, who nearly has the same effect on Elinor--to walk away unscathed).  But that's a point against that society, not Marianne, and her conclusion at the end of the novel that she should have modeled her behavior on Elinor's restraint, which is presented as a moral awakening, has always felt to me more like a capitulation to unfair, misogynistic social norms.  It's very clear that Austen realizes this, and yet Sense and Sensibility is a work in which her understanding of human nature runs aground on her fundamental conservatism--she isn't able to come out and say that Marianne is a victim, and that it is the people around her who are in the wrong.

Sady Doyle, in a very fine early essay, has tried to argue that what Sense and Sensibility decries Marianne for is her selfishness, her willingness to cause pain to her family, and her belief that because she feels grief, she is entitled to impose on everyone around her (and that anyone who does not do so, such as Elinor, can't truly be feeling sorrow).  There's some truth to this, obviously, but just as obviously it is not the full intent of the novel.  No one in the society that surrounds Marianne is condemning her for being selfish and imposing on her mother and sister with her grief.  They're condemning her for making no bones about the fact that she wants a man--and, at the same time, gleefully hoping that she crosses the invisible line that will make it OK to strip her of her reputation.  Selfishness doesn't really enter into it.  (One wonders whether Doyle, who has recently published a book about women who are "trainwrecks", whose self-destruction society eagerly anticipates, would reevaluate her take on the novel today.)

What's more, one of the things that Hamill's take on Elinor drove home for me is that I'm really not sure whether it is desirable to act as Elinor does.  Self-control and selflessness are good qualities, but they can be taken too far.  Do we really want to say that women who are as put upon as Elinor should smile sweetly and hold it all in?  Curran's performance, with its obvious undercurrents of anger and despair, drives home the pressures that Elinor is under, and it's easy to imagine her buckling under them, giving into bitterness and rage.  Hamill's version of Sense and Sensibility quite clearly sees both Elinor and Marianne as sinned-against and imposed upon, but the original text doesn't quite have the flexibility to allow for that reading.

You don't necessarily think of Jane Austen's writing as something that would benefit from the conscious artificiality of theater, much less its potential for experimentation.  Our canonical form of an Austen adaptation is carefully naturalistic, with just the right settings, costumes, and modes of behavior.  Hamill's adaptation of Sense and Sensibility proves just how limited that approach is, and how much Austen benefits from a less awestruck, more critical approach--even if, in the end, that approach can end up exposing her limitations.  Once again, if you're able to, do try to get to see Sense & Sensibility before it closes.  For the rest of us, we can only hope that Hamill--and the fine performers in this production--go on to even greater things, on a stage that more of us have access to.


rushthatspeaks said...

A thing I think you're missing in the portrayal of Marianne in the novel, concerning the idea that her lack of restraint is a moral issue, is an intellectual current that had been present in English letters since the Augustan period: self-control as virtuous in and for itself. This comes from voices like Pope and Addison; the trend of what was known as the Age of Reason was to use a carefully controlled, ironic detachment to skewer current mores. There was no pretense of objectivity, but the thought was that you couldn't truly understand something's faults unless you had some distance from it, and that self-control in minor matters was necessary discipline to allow self-control at times of overwhelming emotion.

And this is, in fact, the tendency of Austen's usual voice. It's so controlled, so careful, that she can get away with noticing and commenting on astonishing and subversive things. Despite Marianne's freely admitting desire for Willoughby, I have always thought that Elinor comes closer to true rebellion, because she has the conversation that admits to desire *with the person involved*. It's a remarkably frank talk that does not have parallels among other literature of the time period. The fact that Edward isn't willing to go all in for Elinor, that he won't go as far for her as she has already gone for him-- because, given the things Elinor says to Edward, the context and the way that she says them, a man of that period without Edward's integrity could find in Elinor's conversation the self-righteous excuse to make false promises or to rape her-- the fact that they have the conversation as mature adults, as equals, is astonishing. Edward cannot get past society's expectations of him, and Elinor cannot defy convention to have him unless he's there with her. And they actually talk about that honestly!

Marianne doesn't get to have that conversation with Willoughby. She doesn't get to be an equal partner in sitting down and talking out the future. She fears that no one has been willing to take her seriously because she has been so openly emotional, and she regrets not having controlled herself because she sees that Elinor has more closure in her failed love affair. You're right, Marianne is entirely the victim, and no one in that society can see that; but the thing that she isn't seeing in her regrets is that being self-controlled would not have helped her get over or deal with Willoughby, because Willoughby isn't a responsible adult. If Elinor had fallen in love with Willoughby and tried to approach things the way she did with Edward, it would have gone... very badly. And Marianne doesn't know that, but I think Austen knew it, and the reader can be expected to realize it. So I'm not at all sure that Marianne's regrets are meant to be entirely narratively accepted as correct.

zahrawithaz said...

This is a great review, and it does make me wonder if I could get to New York for the play!

I think the problem of Austen's social conservatism--not only in being pro-slavey and anti-the Romantics, but in her approach to women's rights and conduct, which is more central to her texts--is difficult to wrestle with, and I'm glad you've raised it here. I recently read "Love and Friendship and some of Austen's other juvenilia, and found the combination of lively and very youthful energy with the merciless mocking of people who don't adhere to conservative culture norms (like letting their parents choose their mates) almost shocking. Is that because I disagree, or because it runs counter to my ideas of 14-year-old girls? I'm not sure.

It sent me immediately to Persuasion, where you can see how her critique of Romanticism has matured with some understanding of its appeal (though of course Anne explains to another person disappointed in love the proper way to grieve, which involves dumping his Wordsworth for rational control of feelings). Of course Persuasion comes the closest to critiquing society for its social norms.

In a strange way Austen seems to find people like Marianne and all those she exemplifies oddly threatening, which feels odd to me given how much Marianne loses and how uneven her battle with social norms is. But it is an interesting insight into the backlash against the ideals of Romanticism in the emotional realm, and a counterpoint or echo of the battle between the abolitionists and the pro-slavery forces and other political battles.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


I take your point about Elinor representing rationalism, but I'm not sure it counters my argument that S&S is a problem novel, since (as Zahra says), in order to promote the ideals of rationalism Austen feels compelled to drag Marianne through the muck. More importantly, there's a difference between feeling that Marianne has the wrong life philosophy (which I might even agree with) and completely ignoring the fact that her misfortune has a lot less to do with that, and a lot more to do with her precarious position as a woman, which is what Austen does. I do agree that the novel holds up Elinor as an ideal, and that even Edward doesn't live up to her example, but, not unlike the case of Anne Elliot from Persuasion, there's a point where Elinor's withdrawal and reserve come to seem more pathological than principled.

I'm not sure I buy the reading that we're meant to question Marianne's conclusion at the end of the novel. I take the point that Marianne is the sort of person who leaps from one extreme to another, but I've never read anything in that scene that felt intended to undermine her. Certainly it's not something that anyone adapting the novel has suggested, though as I note that's also the case for the resolution of Marianne and Brandon's romance.


Was Austen pro-slavery? I don't remember reading anything about it one way or another (aside, of course, from Edward Said's reading of Mansfield Park which excoriates her for not noting that the family's fortunes rest on slavery). I would have assumed that, like most of her social set, she would have been pro-abolition, although perhaps not fervently so.

As for Austen finding Marianne threatening, if you buy into society's norms - especially the ones that oppress you - you will naturally feel threatened by people who don't. Even if, in S&S, the difference between conformity and rebellion is rather hard for modern readers to parse.

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