It is remarkable that the English, so reserved in their emotional displays in ordinary existence, should have always shown such capacity, even genius, for enacting them on the stage. Or perhaps it is only logical, theatre being for us an escape from our natural inhibitions. Whatever the explanation, we have led the world in acting for half a millennium now, and still do, emphatically. Such performances as Michael Gambon as Falstaff, or Eve Best as Hedda Gabler, or Laura Michelle Kelly as Mary Poppins — and these are only the outstanding examples — are not to be seen anywhere else on earth. There is about the West End of London, today as always, not so much a whiff of grease paint as an almost visible presence of histrionic spirits, the shades of Olivier and Thorndyke, Irving and Terry, Macready, Kean and Siddons, and beyond them Garrick and the great Elizabethans, hovering over the stages and whispering encouragement to those who now hold them.
There is also a powerful current of theatre which runs through English literature, and by English I do not merely mean our own people but all who write for performance in our tongue; for what would the theatre be without Sheridan and Wilde, Shaw and O’Casey, not to speak of Behan and Beckett, to list only the Irish contribution? Then again, there are authors who, without being playwrights, were obsessed by the magic of theatre and longed to master it. Byron and Shelley wrote immense and resonating poetic dramas, intended chiefly to be read, as they themselves read the plays of Shakespeare, but not beyond performance — as brave experiments occasionally show. Dickens was in and out of the theatre all his life, being a natural actor and a master of comic dialogue, graduating from highly polished amateur performances of the classics, via such extravaganzas as the sensational tragedy of arctic exploration, The Frozen Deep, which he caused his novelist friend Wilkie Collins to write, and acted in and directed himself, to his tremendous public readings of his own works, electrifying audiences on both sides of the Atlantic (and in Paris) and shortening his life by the profligate expenditure of his emotional energy. Every episode in a Dickens novel is a scene demanding to be animated by flesh-and-blood creatures, however grotesque and incredible, and his works will be staged and filmed and televised, and gobbled up by modes yet undreamed of, till doomsday.
There are some less obvious instances of English authors who were crypto-dramatists, the outstanding one being Chaucer. There was no stage in his time. Had there been such in the late 14th century, he would certainly have dominated it. Indeed, if he had lived two centuries later, he would have challenged Shakespeare for leadership, with his equally embracing knowledge and understanding of all conditions of men and women, and his extraordinary capacity to bring them to startling life. I have been rereading his works recently, especially The Canterbury Tales, and have been struck by how much of the action is conducted in direct speech, often in dialogue, and how skilful Chaucer was in using the vernacular of the street and inn and parlour; in slang and accents, in cursing and conversational hyperbole and metaphor. Chaucer’s characters create themselves in our minds chiefly by what they say, and how they say it.
His talent for driving the action through speech leads me directly to Jane Austen, for that is what she does too, virtually throughout her novels. I do not know whether anyone has made a calculation of what percentage of her texts is speech, but it must be a high one; and certainly all the key developments, both in presenting the characters and in the action of the novels, are done through speech and dialogue. Perhaps better than any other writer in English (though Evelyn Waugh is a close competitor), Jane Austen displayed the virtue of economy of words. The fewer you use, the more effective they are. And speech is the great economiser of fiction. A snatch of dialogue is worth pages of narration. Jane Austen learnt this early, for she wrote at least three juvenile playlets and a full five-act drama. She tells her tales chiefly through her characters’ remarks and remains, as an author, discreetly offstage for the most part. Her villains and grotesques are particularly loquacious, Mrs Norris and Mr Collins, Mrs Elton and Lady Catherine speaking themselves into derision. Miss Bates lives entirely through her ramblings. Some of Jane Austen’s most fascinating characters — I am thinking particularly of Mary Crawford and Frank Churchill, both of whom hover brilliantly on the brink of earning our disapproval — are stunning artists of the spoken word, as of course is Elizabeth Bennet. The spoken exchanges between Emma and Mr Knightley, which provide the moral framework of the book, are wonderfully contrived — one of the best duos in English fiction.
The word ‘performance’ is apt for all Jane Austen’s tales. They trip on to the stage, in all its forms, effortlessly. During the 1990s, dramatising Austen became a multinational industry, from Hollywood to Pinewood, and updating her plots, as in Clueless and Bridget Jones’s Diary, was commonplace. I have lost count of the books about her published in the last decade or so. I used to take pride in adding them all to my shelves, but the sheer quantity has defeated me. There have been studies of Austen and the navy, and the Church, and food, and politics, and the family, and women, and I don’t know what else. But the best of them all, because it touches the heart of the creative imagination, is Jane Austen and the Theatre, by Paula Byrne. It was published by Hambledon and London in 2002, but I have only just read it, and relished every page. Let me recommend it enthusiastically to all Janeites as perfect holiday reading this summer. The author has done a vast amount of research on published and non-published primary sources, and tells us all about the theatre of Jane Austen’s day, and its impact on her life and work. Equally important, her knowledge of everything Austen wrote has an enviable thoroughness and also a degree of sensitivity and perception which is rare among Austen scholars and which illuminates the whole of her text. I am tempted to say this is the best book on Jane Austen I have ever read.
What gives Jane Austen her extraordinary grip on her devotees is the fact that you can read and reread the six novels and each time discover fresh felicities. Disraeli read Pride and Prejudice 16 times and on each occasion found something he had missed before. I think I have read Emma a score of times without quite getting to the bottom of its subtleties. Paula Byrne produces fresh readings of all six by exploring the ubiquitous theatrical dimension, but it is — naturally — her presentation of Mansfield Park, where theatricals are the key, which crowns her book. Under her expert and imaginative guidance, this dark but luminous work becomes yet more tenebrous and even sinister, and its flashes of lighting and chiaroscuro almost Caravaggioesque. What a lot about human nature she knew, this witty spinster, scarcely 40 when she died, and how deftly, almost imperceptibly, she allows us to peer into her Pandora’s box of the world’s follies. God bless her, I say, and God bless a clever scholar who permits us to know her better.