On adapting Austen

All the time, I’m thinking two things. 1. will Jane Austen forgive me? And 2. will the audience love this bit as much as I do?

Emma, UK Tour 2017

Two hundred years ago, on 18th July 1817, Jane Austen died at the age of 41. She’d completed six novels which revolutionised literature and have subsequently become popular classics. For her legion fans, the observations she made of the society in which she lived are as funny and speak an emotional language as relevant as anything written today. As Amanda Vickery noted in the Observer (18.12.11), Austen is almost alone among writers ‘in enjoying highbrow, middle-brow and mass appeal’. Her books have also spawned an ever-growing adaptation industry. Ang Lee’s 1995 Sense and Sensibility featuring Kate Winslet and Emma Thompson as the Dashwood sisters has perhaps been a highlight, but no film version was more successful than Amy Heckerling’s updated Emma (Clueless, 1995).

Obsessed by themes of control, influence and power, Austen deals with perennially urgent concepts for whichever time or society we live in: the power an individual has over another, herself and the world; the influence our upbringing exerts on our character; the importance of education; and the economic and social powerlessness of a women subjected to the restrictions of a patriarchal society.

I began working on Austen fourteen years ago when I adapted and directed a production of Northanger Abbey for the Theatre Royal in York. Having subsequently reworked Persuasion, Mansfield Park and Emma for various regional theatres and touring companies, and with Emma having its first production in May 2017, I decided to organise some ideas I’ve had on my journey through the four books and outline a few of the factors that have guided me in reworking them. It’s inevitably been a story of tension between my love for Austen and my desire to keep a contemporary audience entertained – for two-and-a-quarter hours, and no more!

I’ve never transformed the plot into something else, as for example Helen Fielding did in two of her Bridget Jones books, and I’ve routinely set each piece in the period in which it was written. Which isn’t to say that more iconoclastic approaches haven’t worked for others. Bollywood retellings, such as 2004’s Bride and Prejudice, tend to function extremely well because the prevailing social conditions of contemporary India map uncannily accurately onto Georgian England’s layers of morality and formality, from arranged unions to an abhorrence of pre-marital sex.

Austen only functions because we understand that her characters aren’t able to say things or swear or shag before marriage

Even though Austen herself never directly engaged with the political issues of her day – the abolition of the Slave trade, the expansion of the Empire, the Napoleonic and American Wars, or turmoil, revolution and terror closer to home – one of the pleasures of adapting is to be found in exposing the contemporary resonances within the work. I’ve emphasised the extent to which Henry Tilney (Northanger), Anne Elliot (Persuasion) and Mary Crawford (Mansfield Park) express proto-feminist opinions. However, for me, it’s essential to retain Austen’s time period if the play’s to be set in England. If you set Austen’s stories today, I’d suggest little voltage remains in any of the situations she’s created. Well-heeled, twenty-one-year-old Emma may not travel beyond her village or apply for a job. In Persuasion, twenty-seven-year-old Anne Elliot is considered dangerously old to nurture romantic desires. Austen only functions because we understand that her characters aren’t able to say things or swear or shag before marriage. Social ostracism awaits those who divorce or have sex with anyone other than their spouse. As John Mullan wrote in the Guardian (1.11.13), taboo powers the plot.

Making a novel a play is the art of inventing an appropriate conceptual approach while also knowing how to face the more pedestrian challenges involved in slimming sixty characters down to ten or twelve and resolving which elements of the story might reasonably be jettisoned. In the New Republic (December 1924), Virginia Woolf reported that ‘there are twenty-five elderly gentlemen living in the neighbourhood of London who resent any slight upon [Austen’s] genius as if it were an insult offered to the chastity of their aunts’. Nearly a hundred years later years later, especially since veteran Austen adaptor Andrew Davies’ 1995 testosterone-fuelled Pride and Prejudice, the ‘twenty-five elderly gentleman’ have morphed into a vast army of Janeites who refuse to countenance alterations of any stripe. As an Austen fan, I see their point. As a dramatist, I have to work within strict logistical parameters – and that involves altering all sorts of things.

Northanger Abbey in Chicago, 2013

The first rule for me is that all members of the audience must be able to leave the theatre in time to catch the last bus home. The second is that I’m not allowed to bankrupt the company by insisting I’m only able to tell the story with twenty-five actors. Plot must be refashioned, and that often entails expanding or compressing time in different ways from the original. Characters can become distorted. A line said by Elizabeth in the novel might be uttered by Mary in the play. A favourite cameo character will probably have to be sacrificed or conflated with another. A narrative event that pivots around a moral tenderness so far removed from the way we operate today might have to be elided or struck completely. Regency love must be rendered vivid and three-dimensional in line with twenty-first century tastes. And, although it would be nice to think that adapting is just ‘copying out the best bits’, much of the language needs updating, though not so anyone would notice. Speeches have to be distilled down to their absolute essence.

For every judgement call – and thousands are necessary for each play – the question I’ve learned to ask myself is ‘What is the story I’m telling, and does this character (or scene or line) support it?’ The spine of the story might be: ‘Catherine simultaneously gains an education and earns her man’, ‘Fanny finds love by rejecting family duty for the higher calling of moral integrity’ or ‘Emma learns humility’. When in doubt, I check what I’m writing against this single sentence. In Mansfield Park, for instance, up against a tight budget, I had to ask myself whether I needed both Lady Bertram and her dog. If I retain them what else must I lose? And if I go with the dog, is it a real dog, in which case we’ll have to pay for a wrangler. If it isn’t, we have to make a convincing dog. Which is cheaper – fake dog or wrangler? And does a fake dog establish the right tone? (Probably not). And all the time, I’m thinking two things. 1. Will Jane Austen forgive me? And 2. Will the audience love this bit as much as I do?

Ann Radcliffe was a considerably more successful author than Austen at the time in terms of sales, and Austen takes great delight in satirising her rival throughout Northanger.

The right conceptual approach for Northanger Abbey took a long time to materialise. The story concerns impressionable teenager Catherine Morland and her obsession with the ‘horrid’ romances and adventures she finds in her favourite kind of Gothic literature, hugely in vogue in Regency England. Catherine can hardly bear to tear herself away from the page to do what she’s been taken to Bath to do – find a man. And when eventually she does raise her eyes to the real world, she observes ‘horror’ everywhere. On meeting polite clergyman Henry in the Pump Room, she summons up a fearful scene from her favourite novel The Mysteries of Udolpho: an attack at night by banditti in the Pyrenees on its tragic hero Valancourt. The Mysteries of Udolpho was written by Austen’s contemporary Ann Radcliffe, a considerably more successful author than Austen at the time in terms of sales, and Austen takes great delight in satirising her rival throughout Northanger.

So I decided to weave elements of Radcliffe’s book into the action, effectively demonstrating to the audience the heroine’s inner monologue as well as her girlish obsessions – a fetish for crumbling grandeur and decayed buildings – without having to resort to discursive explanations. When the over-attentive John Thorpe plagues Catherine for a dance, he morphs into Count Morano attempting to abduct his victim from her captivity in a castle prison, only to whisk her away to Venice and have his wicked way with her. Catherine’s on the floor, clinging to his leg, imploring him to desist, which she couldn’t really do in a Bath Ball!

Salisbury Playhouse production of PERSUASION, UK 2011

By switching periodically in this way from early nineteenth-century Bath to the melodramatic antics of a medieval Mediterranean, my version also served to ensure early Nineteenth Century Bath seemed relatively normal, and went some way to avoiding the chocolate box twee-ness of Austen adaptations which perpetuate the notion of her as perfect, pretty and restrained. It delivered a Catherine both quotidian and approachable and hopefully drew attention to the main theme of the book – the peril of being beguiled by literature: how romance-obsessed young women are not (but might and should be) educated to realise their own power, and gain a practical awareness of the limits of that power.

Each novel requires an equally original trick to make it stage-worthy, and, whatever device I’ve found, it’s usually emerged as a response to solving the toughest of all pre-feminist-novel-adapting problems: how to convert the protagonist’s inner monologue, so fluidly expressed in a novel, into something effective on stage. It’s a formidable predicament, especially since, unless it genuinely adds something, in a play I think it’s best to avoid direct address, letters, flashbacks or any kind of narrator.

The issue was particularly pronounced with Mansfield Park because Fanny remains more or less voiceless for the first third of the novel. While silence can be eloquent, an audience will eventually insist on knowing what she actually feels, especially about her beloved Edmund. Expanding the character of William, her sailor brother, gave her someone to whom she could credibly talk.

I can recall no scene from any Austen novel in which a man talks to another without a woman present, and this fact became an acute hurdle at one point in Persuasion, when a slight re-plotting demanded a confidential discussion between Frederick and his friend Captain Harville. Frederick’s been careless about flirting with Henrietta to the extent that he now has a duty to consider himself an engaged man, even though he’s never asked her to marry him. The solution meant that it was necessary to invent dialogue from scratch, which involved learning the individual tune of each character’s voice and creating sentences for them that no one could distinguish from the original.

I sensed that opening an Austen play with the stage direction “An English man-of-war – a great rippling crash as a broadside shot is fired” might be quite arresting.

Taking inspiration from Andrew Davies’ stricture on the craft (‘Don’t be afraid to change things, especially openings’), the most extensive all-male scene I wrote opens Persuasion. Austen’s novel tells the story of sailor Frederick Wentworth as strongly as it does the heroine, Anne’s. So I was keen to let the audience connect upfront with what Austen outlines in a mere sentence or two: Frederick’s valour. I situated an encounter a few miles off the coast of ‘Santo Domingo’ featuring the dashing hero of Anne’s imagination singlehandedly beating the French in naval battle. Plus, I sensed that opening an Austen play with the stage direction “An English man-of-war – the ship’s drum volleys and thunders – a great rippling crash as a broadside shot is fired” might be quite arresting.

Nor did I think it inappropriate to set the tone of the play with a high-stakes scene, one literally of life and death. Persuasion, unusual for Austen in being set in autumn and winter, is much more reflective than, say, Northanger Abbey. It’s more considered, serious-minded, and has much more at stake. Austen completed it a year before she died and was often in pain while writing. While, in Northanger, giggly and excitable Catherine Morland is beginning a journey as an eligible single woman, in Persuasion mild-mannered, sensitive and gentle Anne Elliot is finishing hers. She’s aware that one more season, two at the most, and it’s going to be over for her. Compared to Northanger with its carriages, balls, gowns, fantasy men and clownish idiots, Persuasion features a boy falling from a tree, a girl knocking herself out in Lyme and the consequences of a heart-breaking decision that haunts the narrative like a ghost. It seemed entirely suitable to drag war from the background to the foreground.

Uniquely, in adapting Emma, I found no necessity to contrive a device to help the protagonist express herself. Emma’s the most forthright of Austen’s protagonists, and one whom many have found unsympathetic. Although she’s almost entirely unconscious of the workings of her own heart, she’s not shy, especially with Mr Knightley with whom she enjoys some fantastic sparring scenes. My problem in Emma lay in another direction. The technique of ‘free indirect style’, with which Austen bends narration through the distorting lens of the protagonist’s mind, works sensationally well in the book in which focus is tightly controlled. But who knows where the audience might choose to look on the stage? It’s only just before the end of the book that the reader realises what’s really been going on, because that’s when Emma realises it. Only then is her folly exposed to her and to us, and she understands she’s been the victim of Frank Churchill’s trickery. So, in order to sympathise more fully with the conceited, classist, domineering Emma, I decided in the play that the audience should know from very early on that she’s at Frank’s mercy, that she’s being manipulated to the same extent by him that she’s manipulating others. Although the power of Austen’s late reveal is lost, there’s plenty of dramatic irony along the way to replace it, as we witness Emma walk confidently and open-eyed into Frank’s trap, and witness her invent a malicious backstory for Jane.

Happily, experience tells me that I can take all sorts of liberties and even the purists won’t protest too vociferously provided I’ve honoured the basic thrust, dynamic and emotional topography of the story, and united a hearty helping of comedy with an authentic dollop of sentiment delivered at the right moment. Generally speaking, it’s been my observation that an audience will leave perfectly happy, as long as the heroine has truly struggled against obstacles both external and internal, and, in so doing, rearranged her moral perspective to prove herself a good woman. And a company dance at the end helps too.