Page to Stage: Sense & Sensibility

The Family You (Help to) Found: Female Empowerment and Morality in Kate Hamill’s Adaptation of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility

Leave me, hate me, forget me! But do not ask me not to feel!
Marianne to Elinor upon losing Willoughby’s affections (Hamill 66)

Someday her disposition will settle. I hope.
Elinor speaking about her sister to Marianne’s other suitor, Col. Brandon (Hamill 33)

You can’t choose your parents, and those parents depicted in Austen novels (especially the mothers) tend to be somewhat ditsy. Consider flighty Mrs. Bennet in VSC Season 39’s production of Jane Austen’s masterpiece Pride and Prejudice (orig.1813). In that novel and its adaptation, at least Mr. Bennet has good sense and humor, shared by his maturing daughter Elizabeth and certain of her sisters. In Austen’s earlier 1811 novel Sense and Sensibility, we have another mother with questionable judgment, Mrs. Dashwood, and a father who, even if he did have good sense, has just died, leaving his wife and daughters at the mercy of England’s paternalistic inheritance laws. (Fans of Downton Abbey, you know about property entailments that kept females from inheriting wealth, even into the 20th century!) This leaves the Dashwood women dispossessed of their family manor and shoehorned into a humble cottage.

No, you can’t choose your parents, and you can’t choose the rigged legal system into which you are born. 

But, thank goodness, Austen’s young women can, within parameters, choose their mates. Choose your mate, choose your fate. 

Will Marianne, the ‘heart-driven’ sister, end up with her handsome crush Willoughby or the older, more staid Col. Brandon (who may have fathered a child out of wedlock)? Will Elinor, the ‘head-driven,’ rational sister, end up with Edward Ferrars, a good man who has made a poor youthful decision and is, moreover,  guarded by a bulldog-fierce-and-nasty sister named Fanny, or will Elinor lose out? Austen offers some simple choices. Choose the Head (Sense) over the Heart (Sensibility), and things will go better, right?

Well, nooo, not necessarily. Austen scholars and Austen groupies have always known that this early Mother of Feminism rarely offers simple, low-stake solutions. In fact, things and people are much more complicated in any given Austen work, and the stakes overall could not be higher. Austen teaches us that women’s choices, constrained though they might be, are radically important shapers of the next generation, and indeed social morality itself. Women are society’s culture-and-morality bearers. Critic Ruth ApRoberts, in a classic 1975 essay entitled “Sense and Sensibility or Growing Up Dichotomous” (found in Nineteenth Century Fiction, Vol. 30, No. 3 – Dec. 1975, 351-365) explains the crucial test that Austenian courtships put us through: “The test is a social business and social business is the determination of morality” (357). And it’s not just a matter of simple dichotomies, ‘either-or’ thinking. ApRoberts continues, “Austen would have us beat our dichotomies into pluralities….” (Ibid). As guest director Jessica Holt indicated in her Meet and Greet overview of the play, Elinor and Marianne learn from and change one another in important ways. The audience, likewise, must learn to change, mature, and grow.

How do we see this onstage, two centuries after Austen lived and wrote in a wholly different medium/genre?

Enter a second feminist, the novel’s contemporary adapter Kate Hamill, to transform Austen’s existing text by theatrical means into a work that is new but true to the essence of its source. Every stage adapter proceeds by selecting, distilling, and thereby emphasizing certain aspects and themes drawn from a long work of fiction. Hamill chooses one of world theater’s oldest, yet most timeless, devices—namely, an onstage chorus which she calls “the Gossips”— to represent the Society-Writ- Large which Austen seeks to transform. VSC-playgoers may recall a somewhat analogous use of a chorus in Lydia Diamond’s adaptation of Toni Morrison’s much darker The Bluest Eye in Season 40. Hamill’s chorus is a more raucous bunch of high-society types than their counterparts in The Bluest Eye. In her stage-directions, Hamill even likens her Gossips to sea-gulls or “noisy lapdogs” (p.19). They are having “great fun” as they offer sometimes-overlapping commentaries on the action and even carry characters on and offstage “like so much furniture” (Hamill 18).  Hamill also, of course, includes Austen’s litmus characters; for example, the affable but sometimes crass Mrs. Jennings whom the wise character or audience-member should quickly learn to tolerate and even love for her sociability and warmth. There are female villains such as Edward’s sister Fanny who takes advantage of her society’s injustices to women, and the fortune-hunting “middle-class” (!) Lucy Steele. In these hypocritical women’s actions, we sense Austen (and Hamill’s) progressive disgust at society’s habit of valuing people ‘by the pound/£.’ Lord Morton’s daughter, for instance, “comes with 30,000 pounds”; another lady brings “50,000 pounds” as a potential mate. As in the year 2020, narcissism and bullying often afflict capitalism’s big winners, the wealthy, who lord it over everyone else.

Though critics have speculated about Austen’s overall conservatism or progressivism for 200 years, the most recent consensus—and the interpretation Hamill is following—emphasizes Austen’s desire for social and gender justice.  Austen’s bright women constantly learn and affect everyone around them (including the bright men) with their peripeteias, another ancient Greek concept/term (like the chorus) for a turn of events leading to some realization (cf. ApRoberts 365). In Hamill’s adaptation—true to Austen’s essence—the hands that rock the cradle do indeed rock the nation. You can’t choose your parents, but you can choose your mate and then parent your offspring in a way that morally improves future society, be it 1820 or 2020. 

Rock on, sisters!

Page to Stage is an occasional feature for theater-goers interested in dramaturgy and criticism. The author is Dr. Page Laws, Professor of English and Dean of the R C Nusbaum Honors College, Norfolk State University (Ret.). Dr. Laws also serves on the VSC Board of Trustees.