Last night, I had the pleasure of attending a live performance of Sense and Sensibility at my local theater. It’s an excellent theater, and the well-regarded playwright Jon Jory adapted Jane Austen’s novel for the stage. I had read advance press about the play and was very excited about Jory’s admiration for Austen’s works and his adaptation’s faithfulness to it. (I remember enjoying Jory’s award-winning adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, which I saw at Actors in 2008; alas! I wish I could remember more of the performance!)
I enjoyed the play. I went with my mom (thanks, Mom!), we’re both Austen fans, we were definitely glad we went. And yet I was disappointed. I wanted better. I wanted more.
There is a point in the play at which the passionate sister Marianne (“Sensibility”) falls to her knees in agony when she’s curtly dismissed by the man she loves, and whom she is sure loves her. And when her sensible, staid sister Elinor (“sense”) is asked what the trouble is, Elinor replies, “She is the victim of expectations.”
As am I. Jory’s adaptation wasn’t bad. I thought Helen Sadler made a brilliant Marianne, Elinor was decent, if a little borish, and the supporting characters were all solid. My only major moment of pain was the horrible Scottish brogue of the doctor attending Marianne in the second act.
But Jory tried way too hard to be funny. Jane Austen is funny, and more: she’s wise and witty and brilliant. She doesn’t need a humor boost. But Jory inserted a few running gags into the script that made for screwball comedy. The plot was largely intact, and it played. But the insistent injections of ill-timed humor didn’t. And trying too hard is never funny.
Looking out over the audience (which was 80% female), I wondered: how many of us were devoted Jane Austen fans, and how many were just giving her a try tonight? Because if you were in the audience last night, and you’d never read a word of Jane Austen, I can understand how you might think you didn’t like her work: Jane Austen seems to be about empire waists, British accents, running gags, and outdated, overblown concerns about manners and morals.
That’s a shame, because Jane Austen is well worth reading, just as she is. She shines brilliantly on her own, she doesn’t need any “boost” of added humor, or costuming, or wit. Austen understands people–who they are, and why they do what they do–and she translates them to page so well. Her characters are wonderful, and they leap off the page0–even 200 years after they were first written. Austen’s characters don’t need any canned jokes in order to shine.
If you’ve never read Austen, don’t assume she’s not to your taste just because you’re not into Regency dress and old English houses. Give her a try! I suggest you start with one of my own (constantly shifting) favorites: Pride and Prejudice, Emma, or Persuasion. (Those links are all for free Kindle editions. And yes, Jane Austen has 6 major works, and I am listing half of them as favorites. It’s too hard to choose just one!)
Jon Jory says he’s currently working on an adaptation of Persuasion. My expectations persist in running high, and I’ll be there when it hits the stage at my theater.
But please, Mr. Jory, don’t try too hard this time. Jane Austen shines without it.
Are you an Austen fan? Which book is your favorite?
*All you Austen fans will want to check out the series The Definitive Guide to Pride and Prejudice on Film, which reviews the Pride and Prejudice film adaptations from 1940, 1980, 1995 and 2005.