The extraordinary posthumous career of Jane Austen — a modest success in her short lifetime and a spectacular juggernaut of culture today — as she enters her third century is one of the greatest underdog stories in literary history. With little more than her humble credo that “three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on,” Austen has conquered not only the entire known novel-reading world but also the cinema and now, it would appear, the stage. Beginning on Thursday, November 30, and running until December 17, Ensemble Theatre Company will present the latest in a seemingly unending stream of Austen artifacts, Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon’s original drama Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley.
The play, which received a rolling world premiere in 2016, takes up the story of the characters established in Pride and Prejudice approximately two years later as they gather at Pemberley, the lavish estate of Fitzwilliam Darcy and his wife, Elizabeth Darcy, née Bennet. Inserted among the usual Pride suspects — Jane and Charles Bingley, Lydia Bennet Wickham, Mary Bennet, and the gloriously pompous Lady Catherine de Bourgh — there’s a relative newcomer, Lady Catherine’s scholarly nephew, Arthur de Bourgh, who happens to be in line to inherit Rosings, Lady Catherine’s substantial property.
As anyone with even the slightest acquaintance with Austen’s novel will know, young men who stand to inherit “good fortunes” are inevitably in want of something, and it’s not a landscape architect. This is where Mary Bennet comes in. As the quietly moralizing and “bookish” Bennet, she played a minor, mostly comic role in the original novel. In Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, as the last unmarried Bennet sister, Mary necessarily steps into the spotlight — ready or not. Speaking with the play’s director, Andrew Barnicle, I learned that one of the script’s chief virtues is that it does a “magnificent job of re-creating Austen’s prose style in dialogue,” a reassurance that will have Austen fans heaving a sigh of anticipatory relief. “The characters fight,” he said, “but they do so in such a wonderfully polite way that it’s often quite funny,” which is very much the idiom of the original narrator’s archly dry and subtly wicked sense of humor.
In working with the talented cast that will bring the play to life on the stage of the New Vic, Barnicle reported that a great deal of research had to be done into the intricate protocols that governed Regency England’s complex class hierarchy. “We were rehearsing one scene, and an actor crossed his legs,” said Barnicle. In most shows that would not be worth noticing, but in this context, the posture needed to be fact-checked. “I had our dramaturg look into it,” Barnicle said, “and it turns out that there were strict rules about men crossing their legs at that time. A gentleman might do so when there were only men present, or in the company of his spouse, but when there were ladies about, or in public, male leg crossing was strictly out of the question.”
To see what else has changed in terms of what’s okay and what’s “not done,” and to appreciate a brilliant and sometimes poignant examination of the high stakes of the early 19th-century marriage market, get thee to the New Vic, where, this holiday season, Christmas supper will be served Austen-style.
Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley plays Thursday, November 30-Sunday, December 17 at the New Vic (33 W. Victoria St.). For tickets and information, call 965-5400 or visit etcsb.org.