ADAPTING JANE AUSTEN’S NOVELS FOR THE STAGE: Additions, omissions and essentials

Pamela Whalan

Wellington, Saturday 13 February 2016 / Auckland, Saturday 20 February 2016

I have adapted for the stage five of Austen’s six novels and before long I hope to adapt the sixth, Northanger Abbey.

I am often asked how long it takes to adapt an Austen novel. The actual writing of the script is the quickest part of the activity. It usually takes about three weeks. It follows a planning period of some months and much scribbling of notes on the backs of envelopes, as I decide how to organise the telling of the tale. The writing is followed by a period in which the script is set aside, revised and workshopped before it goes into production and then into print. But none of this would be possible if I did not come to the planning stage with a thorough knowledge of the novel that cannot be gained through one or two readings. If you are going to successfully transfer the spirit of the novel from page to stage you need to have a thorough understanding and love of the work that comes from living with it over a period of many years.

Why do I do it?

Purists might well say if you want to explore the works of Austen then read her novels. And that is fine if we are addressing an audience of hardened readers who have always gained their information through the printed word. But the twenty first century does not operate in this way. More and more we come to the printed word after we are introduced to an idea through a visual medium. As an example of this look at the effect that the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice had on the people who discovered Austen for the first time. Prior to the screening of this television series JASA had a membership of a little over 100. Immediately after the presentation our numbers more than doubled, and some of those new members were reading Pride and Prejudice for the first time. A few of these new members did not stay for long but most of them have remained loyal members for the next twenty years and are now familiar with all of the works of Miss Austen and they have introduced her work to many more people. This all started with a viewing rather than a reading.

Apart from the fact that “Miss Tilney always wears white” (Northanger AbbeyVol. I, Ch. 12 p.90), we know little of the raiment of Austen’s characters, for Austen does not describe clothing in detail and whilst we know that Elizabeth Bennet had a muddy walk to Netherfield Park we are never treated in Pride and Prejudice, or any of the other novels, to purple patches describing the scenery. Film and television adaptations can, therefore, provide a modern audience with information that the novel does not and never meant to provide. Such adaptations are an entry point into a world in which clothing, manners, morals, daily life and language are sufficiently different that a modern reader may need help to understand what is presented to them on a page. A visual presentation can act as an introduction to the enjoyment and understanding of an Austen novel. Film and television adaptations have the freedom to roam about the countryside and show us the grandeur of large social gatherings but sometimes, in bringing us such visual splendour, they stray away from Miss Austen’s focus on human beings. Where a stage adaptation has an advantage over screen adaptations is in its immediacy of presenting real people acting out the excitement and charm of Austen’s stories. Her works are domestic in nature and the stage is able to bring to an audience that essential domesticity and focus on character, more effectively than a screen adaptation.

It has never been my intention to write plays that are a substitute for reading the novel. I hope that by attending a performance of one of them audience members will be encouraged to go to the novel as the next step in their enjoyment of the works of Austen or, if they know her work already, to enjoy it in a new way.

The plays have been written with small theatre companies and school productions in mind. A teacher of English or Drama should be able to promote useful discussion of motivation, manners and language, working with these adaptations. The theatre company with limited means and often limited lighting and staging facilities should find it possible to mount a production of one of these plays without straining the ingenuity of set designers, the patience of stage managers or the technical limitations of basic lighting boards.

Whilst I have kept practicalities in mind my first priority has always been truth to the spirit of the novel. Because a play, as opposed to a film, must conform to the unities of time and place there has to be some modification in the way the story is told. Some omissions have to be made. Sometimes the action has to be moved to a different location. Sometimes it is necessary to contract situations that have developed over a period of time into one scene. Sometimes additional dialogue must be added to explain a character or action so that a situation becomes more immediately understandable to a viewing, rather than a reading audience. What must be kept intact is the spirit of the novel. The characters must be recognisable as those that Austen created. The themes of the novel and the message of the novel must still be evident in the adaptation, otherwise it is not an adaptation but a story developed from an idea by another writer. So I want to tell you how I adapt Austen’s novels for the stage in terms of structure, language, omissions, additions and essentials.

Adapting Austen’s writing for the stage is easy in some ways because she presents carefully structured scenes and her exposition of character is almost exclusively through dialogue. Difficulties arise when the adapter has to deal with the stage unities of time and space and with the realities of cast numbers, set changes, running time and other such practicalities.

Looking at the method of narration Austen used I felt that traditional approaches to staging were appropriate. This creates limitations as well as advantages e.g. information about actions and conversations essential to the plot development have to be presented to the audience within the confines of a single room even if, in the novel, they took place on a country stroll or in a ballroom. Actors have to have a reason to be in that room and have to be given an excuse for leaving when the action requires them to be offstage.

Other practical issues have to be considered when adapting for the stage. Cast numbers have to be fewer than the number of characters in the novel because: audiences become confused by the introduction of too many characters on stage; the cost of costuming characters can be problematical; appropriate casting can be difficult and dressing rooms can accommodate only so many. Selection of which characters appear, which are spoken of and which are ignored is a difficulty that the adapter must approach with delicacy and ruthlessness.

The shape of the play is important. How many acts? How many scenes? Modern audiences prefer to have no more than one interval but sometimes, to preserve the story line, you need two intervals. Austen wrote two, two volume novels Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. In adaptation these fall easily into two acts. Her three volume novels: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice,Mansfield Park and Emma present more difficulties. One can be guided by Austen’s format and devote an act to each volume, thus having two intervals, or one can be guided by Jim Sait’s idea of “shapely turns” (Sensibilities No. 35, December 2007). He propounds the notion that by dividing the number of pages in the novel by two you find the turning point in the novel. If you follow this idea (and I assure you, it works) you have a two act play, therefore one interval.

Within each act there are likely to be several scenes, usually marking the passage of time but sometimes the place has to change as well. When this happens and there has to be a set change it is important that any resetting of the stage is done as quickly as possible so that continuity is not disrupted. Set changes ideally take place during interval or else the set designer, director and stage manager, must work together closely to make the changes appear seamless. It is the playwright’s responsibility to simplify and justify the necessity for set changes.

Then there is running time. A play that greatly exceed 2 ½ hours, including interval, is likely to play to empty houses. It is therefore necessary for the play to tell the story in a much shorter period of time than it takes the novel. When you are reading a novel you can pause when you want to, turn back a page or a chapter to find a relevant point that you may have missed the first time, skip sections or even turn to the last page to find out how it ends. An audience member does not have this luxury of time or choice so the playwright has to present the story with as little ambiguity or confusion as possible within very rigid time and place restrictions.

Modification of language must be considered. Because Austen presents much of her action through dialogue a great deal can be taken verbatim from the novel but cuts must be made. A reader has more leisure to view the written word and comprehend it. A listener can’t absorb as much information from a speech as a reader can. A perfect example of this is in Sense and Sensibility. Mrs Jennings is a talker and it never pays to ignore a talker in Austen’s work because in the midst of their trivial chit-chat we learn so much about people and circumstances and atmosphere. I used the character of Mrs Jennings to supply narrative through her gossip, and comment through her practical view of the world – it was all there in the novel but if I had included everything that Mrs Jennings said the play would have lasted another hour. Cuts had to be made so I exploited the medium in which I was working. The actor playing the role of Mrs Jennings uses facial expression, vocal range and movement to tell the story to a listening audience thus replacing many of the words that Austen used to convey her meaning to a reading audience.

I have rarely changed sentence structures, cadence or vocabulary to make life easier for actors, preferring them to gain mastery over the delivery of 18thcentury rhythms. I also feel that the more formal structures of Austen’s language make the actors more aware of having to convey a sense of period and a formality often missing in 21st century life. There are occasions when I have changed vocabulary so that a modern audience can follow the plot more readily – an example of this is in relationships: Austen uses the term “mother-in-law” or “mama-in-law” where we would use “step-mother”. Keeping the original would confuse, rather than clarify. Sentence structure is maintained except where the original is either too difficult for the actor’s tongue or too complex for ease of understanding by a listening audience.

With these parameters in mind here is something about the necessary additions, omissions and essentials I made for each adaptation to remain true to the spirit of the novel and practical for stage presentation.

The first of the novels I adapted was Mansfield Park. This is a three volume novel so my first decision was to do with shape – two acts or three? I could contain most of the action within range of Lady Bertram’s sofa so set changes did not affect my decision but the story line has three distinct divisions. There is the time up until Sir Thomas’s return from Antigua, the time after Maria’s marriage when Fanny is the centre of attention and then there is Fanny’s banishment to Portsmouth, the horror of Maria’s adultery and its consequences. So Mansfield Park: a play is in three acts set in the morning room at Mansfield Park with, at the beginning of Act 3, two short scenes each requiring only a pool of light and three chairs. The first of these scenes is at Portsmouth when Henry Crawford calls to visit Fanny. It is included to show Fanny’s reduced world in Portsmouth. The second is an addition of mine in which Henry Crawford visits his sister in London. Maria, now married to Rushworth, is also there and the two flirt quite openly. It was included so that the audience could see in two minutes what the novel tells us over a number of chapters. Both scenes require only a short blackout to remove the chairs (three battered ones for Portsmouth and three elegant ones for London).

Omissions were mainly to do with characters. In Mansfield Park: a play it was a very easy matter to keep Mr Yates off stage. His voice is heard rehearsing his role in Lovers Vows but he need never appear. Dr and Mrs Grant are spoken of but never appear. William Price is known through Fanny’s conversation but to have him arrive would have complicated the action and lengthened the playing time considerably. Fanny’s other brothers and sisters and her father never appear although her mother does in the Portsmouth scene.

I hesitate to say that I made additions but in contracting the action I did have to create dialogue and scenes that replaced many chapters of the novel. In Act 1 Scene 2 of the play we meet Henry and Mary Crawford who have come to pay a morning visit. They are ushered in to the Common Drawing Room and the butler has gone to apprise the household of their arrival. I invented conversation for them that lasted approximately three minutes in which the characters of Henry and Mary are established, we learn of the attraction Edmund holds for Mary, the feelings of Henry towards Julia and Maria, the return of Tom Bertram from Antigua, his almost immediate departure for a country race meeting, his return with Mr Yates whose enthusiasm for theatricals is infecting the family. The conversation replaces about eight chapters of the novel.

As to essentials in Mansfield Park, the indolence of Lady Bertram, the greed of Mrs Norris, the relationships between the young people must be visible to all. A scene in which the family prepares for the staging of Lovers’ Vows establishes these things and condenses them to one scene which ends Act 1. In Act 2 the attention turns to Henry’s flirtation, courtship and proposal to Fanny punctuated by the intense attraction between Edmund and Mary and the need for the audience to see the unsuitability of a match between two people with such different sets of values. I did this by including a scene set at the Mansfield Park ball. During the ball the Common Drawing Room Is used as a retiring room so we see no dancing – just various characters withdrawing from the ballroom for various reasons. Henry and Mary find themselves alone there together and this allows Henry to explain to his sister that the attentions he is paying to Fanny are serious and that he proposes to ask Sir Thomas for her hand in marriage. Edmund enters to invite Mary to accompany him to supper but it is Henry who rushes off stage so that he may have the honour of escorting Fanny to supper. Edmund says:

EDMUND:     I think, Miss Crawford, there is no need for such haste as that. We may take a more leisurely pace and still find some cake left on the table.

MARY:           We may even delay our entrance a little and enjoy our own tete-a-tete, since this is to be the very last evening when I may speak to you as one rational human being to another.

EDMUND:     How so? Are you planning to become irrational, Miss Crawford?

MARY:           Not I, sir, but you. I have never yet had a rational conversation with a clergyman and you leave us tomorrow to be ordained.

EDMUND:     You are not being rational now, dear lady. I shall be the same man when I return.

MARY:           No, sir, you will not, for I shall see you differently.

EDMUND:     I hope that when we next meet you will admit your error and we may enjoy the same friendly exchange of views as we have had through all this summer and autumn.

MARY:           But when will this be, Mr Bertram? For I understand you are to be gone for several weeks and I remove to London very soon.

EDMUND:     I had hoped you might stay at Mansfield Parsonage some time yet.

MARY:           Mr Bertram, I have imposed on my sister for nearly six months. She must have some rest from my tiresome company, especially since my dear friend Mrs Fraser insists that she cannot do without me a moment longer than New Year.

EDMUND:     Then may I have the honour of calling on you at Mrs Fraser’s home when I go to London to be present at my sister Rushworth’s ball?

MARY:           Yes, Mr Bertram, you may, though my friends will wonder at my acquaintance with a parson. They are convinced that one in such an occupation is quite without ambition.

EDMUND:     But so I am. My only ambition is to live within my parish and serve it well.

MARY:           For half a year at a time, perhaps. Surely your duty must be tempered with some enjoyment. London society must have some claims upon you.

EDMUND:     My duty and my enjoyment are very much entwined, Miss Crawford. I enjoy an occasional brief visit to London but country life is more to my taste. I thought that it was to your taste, too. Have you not enjoyed these months you have spent at Mansfield?

MARY:           They have been the happiest of my life, Mr Bertram, but I do not belong in such a confined circle.

I included this scene because it was an opportunity to show the audience the very real attraction between these characters whose values are so disparate. The novel has the luxury of continual references to the relationship but within the time frame of a play these references have to be condensed.

Although Sense and Sensibility is a three volume novel I opted to write a two act play. Act 1 takes us to the point where Marianne and Elinor are to leave Barton with Mrs Jennings for a London visit. Scene 1 takes place in a morning room at Norland Park so the contrast between what the Dashwood ladies had been used to and what they were reduced to when the action moved to Barton Cottage in Scenes 2 and 3 would be greater. It does mean that there is a set change mid act but a combination of thoughtful set design and precise stage management allows this to be achieved in 28 seconds (that was the time it took in a recent production). Act 2 takes place in London. I omitted Cleveland as a setting. I reasoned that it was more important that Marianne’s illness should take place far from her mother than that the action should require a set change. Confining the action to London caused some problems in the treatment of Willoughby and his melodramatic encounter with Elinor in Vol. III, Ch. 8 (Sense and Sensibility pp. 359 – 376). Would he have gained admission to Mrs Jennings town house with the ease he entered an almost deserted Cleveland? The answer is “no”. I decided that the play could do without the scene and might even benefit from its omission. The inclusion of such a scene would offer great scope for the actor playing Willoughby to engage the sympathy of the audience, but I did not want this. Willoughby is a villain who lives by his charm. There is every possibility that the audience might be swayed to feel sorry for this handsome cad if they saw him pleading his case. On first reading this scene in the novel you are inclined to feel that the parting of Marianne and Willoughby is a great tragedy. On second reading you notice Willoughby’s overuse of the first person pronoun, his absorption in how the parting has affected him not on how it has affected Marianne. It is not until Vol. III, Ch. 11 that Austen writes:

Had Mrs Dashwood, like her daughter, heard Willoughby’s story from himself – had she witnessed his distress, and been under the influence of his countenance and his manner, it is probable that her compassion would have been greater. (Vol III, Ch. 11 p.395)

I wanted the audience to be in a similar frame of mind to Mrs Dashwood. In Willoughby Austen created a character whose charm worked when he was there in person so I felt that rather than have him charm the audience it was better that Willoughby should desert the stage when he deserts Marianne.

The other omissions when adapting Sense and Sensibility were mainly to do with characters. I reluctantly eliminated the Palmers. I found that Mrs Jennings’s constant references to Charlotte and her friends was a better way to advance the narrative than it would have been had Charlotte appeared on stage. Lady Middleton’s insipidity and laziness can excuse her from being seen. Margaret is more useful offstage, struggling with French irregular verbs. It gives her mother a reason for staying in Barton and gives characters an excuse for entering or leaving the stage. Nancy Steele was omitted because, although providing the reader with some delightful humour, she is a boring person and to have her on stage would run the risk of having her bore the audience just as much as she bores the Dashwood ladies. I could not resist including Robert Ferrars and his reflections upon cottages. His cameo performance provides some comic relief in a mostly serious Act 2 and since the audience has met him and seen him meet Lucy Steele, when the news comes of their marriage the audience can more easily connect the names with the characters they have seen.

One of the essentials in Sense and Sensibility is the scene between John and Fanny Dashwood in which they rationalise their mean actions in depriving the Dashwood ladies of their rightful claims to live in dignity. To me it is just as powerful as the scene in King Lear where Goneril and Regan deprive Lear of his retinue. I used the scene to open the play.

The major addition when adapting Sense and Sensibility was to invent some dialogue for Edward Ferrars so that a 21st century audience would feel more satisfied with the character as hero. I had him explain more fully than he does in the novel, the circumstances surrounding his engagement to Lucy Steele. If you read Vol. III, Ch. 13, (Sense and Sensibility pp. 409 – 422) you will see that, for a novel reader, who can sit and contemplate and imagine his situation the explanation given by Austen can be sufficient, but when a play is rapidly drawing to a conclusion dramatic tension must be sustained so the audience needs to be put in possession of more facts than the novel provides. Given the characters of Edward Ferrars and Lucy Steele I feel the dramatic licence I took in inventing this dialogue for Edward was justified. In Act II, Scene 3 of Sense and Sensibility: a play Edward and Elinor meet shortly after his engagement to Lucy is announced and he feels honour bound to explain his behaviour in the following speech:

EDWARD:     I have never loved Lucy Steele. I was flattered by her smiles and her willingness to seek me out as a companion. When one has always failed to live up to family expectations such interest as she displayed can go to one’s head. I did not propose to her but she spoke as though we had formed an engagement and with my lack of worldly knowledge I believed that my conduct must have been the cause of her assumption that we were to marry. Too shy and insecure in myself to contradict such assumptions I hoped that time and distance might cause her to change her mind. I had an open invitation to visit my old tutor, Mr Pratt, but I was careful to go there no more than once a year and for no more than a fortnight. She was a more regular correspondent than I, but I was in honour bound to reply to at least every fourth letter. I thought I gave her plenty of reason to change her mind. When she did not and the engagement had persisted for several years I could not doubt the sincerity of her attachment and so was more obligated than ever to remain true to her. Then, when I visited my sister at Norland, I came under the spell of your family. Never had I experienced such a warm and loving family environment. I was so charmed by it that I was able to fool myself for some time that my regard for you was no more than part of my admiration for your family. Even when I realised how deeply your beauty and goodness had affected me I thought that it was only myself, my own feelings, that could be hurt by a hopeless love. Oh, Elinor, forgive me – it was not until you were about to leave for Barton that I began to understand that you returned my feelings. I had compromised your happiness by my stupidity.

 (Sense and Sensibility: a play Act II, Scene 3 p. 84)

Pride and Prejudice offers an enormous challenge when adapting because it is so well known! There are absolute essentials such as the scene between Mr and Mrs Bennet and Lizzie immediately after Lizzie refused Mr Collins. Had I cut one word of this scene, which is written as dialogue in the novel, you may be sure that there would have been complaints from members of the audience because so many people know the scene by heart! The actors playing this scene can feel secure in the fact that if they blank during performance there will be loud and eager prompting from the audience. So you see that omissions when adapting this novel were difficult even though necessary.

Pride and Prejudice looks at the life and circumstances of the Bennet family, consisting of a husband and wife and their five daughters. To eliminate any of these characters would diminish the story. Mrs Bennet’s anxiety to have five daughters provided for is much better expressed through seeing them all on stage and Austen has created a distinct character for each of the daughters. Mr Bennet’s oddities add to both Mrs Bennet’s dilemma and to the humour of the story telling. To omit any of these characters would not be viable. I therefore had to think carefully about which other characters to include. Mr Collins, who is to inherit the Longbourn estate, whose proposal to Elizabeth is one of the great comic scenes of English literature and whose pomposity furthers the plot greatly, was an essential inclusion. The three young gentlemen who are possible suitors, Darcy, Bingley and Wickham, need to be seen rather than spoken of and they need to be placed in context. Mr Darcy’s consequence and eligibility are highlighted by the sycophancy of Miss Bingley who can also further the plot by her disclosures about and attitude towards other characters. I did not think it necessary to include Mr and Mrs Hurst as they would add no more to plot development than the inclusion of Miss Bingley could provide. Mrs Bennet needed someone in whom she could confide her hopes and fears. I toyed with the idea of making this her sister, Mrs Phillips, but I rejected this choice in favour of Lady Lucas. Had Mrs Phillips been included there would have been the temptation to set a scene in her drawing room which would mean another set change, otherwise she would have to be continually visiting Longbourn with an excuse for coming out from Merryton. Lady Lucas, who lives out of town, would be more likely to visit Mrs Bennet on her way to somewhere else. As these two women have limited incomes and daughters to dispose of they are both rivals and friends, so conversation between them can be lively, including very politely worded barbs little short of insults. Charlotte Lucas also needs to be seen as, in her character, Austen explores the sad truth of the necessity of marriage for a gently-born but impoverished young woman if she is to live with any dignity. I also found it a useful device to include Mrs Gardiner who could discuss Mr Darcy’s behaviour at Pemberley with Elizabeth and explain his part in bringing about the match between Wickham and Lydia. Miss Darcy need not appear. Mr Gardiner need not appear. The one character who refused to be left out of the play was Lady Catherine. Elizabeth Bennet may be able to withstand such a woman but I would be far too terrified to court her displeasure. This makes for a cast of sixteen, which is large, but to cut out any of these characters would have considerably lessened the ease of disclosing the plot and its dramatic impact.

Pride and Prejudice is a three volume novel. Although I could contain the action of the beginning and the end of the novel within the morning room of Longbourn it is important that Elizabeth move out of her customary environment if she is to find perspective. It is her experiences when she visits Hunsford and Pemberley that allow her to see the world more objectively. The play needs to have three acts. Acts 1 and 3 are set in the morning room at Longbourn. Act 2 Scene 1 is in the parsonage at Hunsford. Act 2 Scene 2 is a discussion between Elizabeth and Jane which can be played in front of a curtain or on an apron while the set is changed to the inn at Lambton for Scene 3. As Act 2 is quite short it is possible to run the play with no interval between Acts 2 and 3.  It does mean that the set designer has to provide a set that can be changed with minimal effort but this is not impossible.

I omitted the Meryton ball, the evening parties at the Phillips’s and the Lucas’s and the Netherfield ball. Any of the essential plot developments that took place on these occasions were included in conversation or action in the morning room at Longbourn. Jane does not become ill at Netherfield. Bingley’s courtship and Darcy’s growing interest in Elizabeth can be shown as they visit at Longbourn and as they are spoken of by Mrs Bennet and her daughters.

On the whole there were very few additions in the adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. It was rather a reorganisation of time and place of events.

My very favourite novel is Persuasion so when I came to adapt this novel I agonised over how to do justice to the bittersweet, autumnal work.

The shape of the play came easily. It was a two volume novel so there was already a natural division into two acts. Act 1 takes place in the Morning Room at Uppercross Manor. Act 2 is in the Drawing Room of Sir Walter’s town house in Bath. That meant one set change that occurred at interval. Scene changes were therefore only needed to indicate passing of time. By confining the action in Act 1 to Uppercross I was omitting Lyme. The characters talked about going to Lyme and Captain Wentworth, Anne and Henrietta came back from Lyme but the theatre audience did not go to Lyme to see Louisa jump from the Cobb. Attempting to make such a scene work would try the willing suspension of disbelief of the audience too greatly and there was as much, if not more, drama to be gained by seeing Mrs Musgrove’s growing anxiety at the lateness of their return, Henrietta’s distress and Anne and Captain Wentworth’s concern when they did arrive.

In Persuasion there are so many characters with the name of “Charles” that a simple solution was to have none of them appear on stage. Mrs Musgrove can hope that her husband Mr Charles Musgrove will solve all problems when he returns from Taunton, Mary can complain at greater length about her husband, Charles, and speak of her son, Charles, more easily if they are not present and Henrietta can pine for Charles Hayter much more easily if we do not see him. As the action never moves to Lyme keeping Benwick and the Harvilles offstage is also simple although this did mean that some of the sensitive comments of Captain Harville had to be uttered by the hearty Admiral Croft. Lady Dalrymple and her anaemic daughter were easily persuaded to stay away even though Sir Walter often allowed their names to drop in conversation. Colonel Wallis remained off stage but he was mentioned in dispatches. I also omitted Mrs Smith and Lady Russell. Both of these ladies are interested in the welfare of Anne Elliot and might possibly be used as confidantes for the benefit of the audience.  Lady Russell had been instrumental in Anne’s initial refusal of Wentworth but that was in the past. Her opinion was important to the adult Anne but she was less influential than she had been when Anne was younger so her friendship and position of importance could as well be spoken of by others as having her appear on stage.

It would have been difficult to justify Mrs Smith’s coming to Camden Place for she was not only held in contempt by Sir Walter but she was a bedridden invalid. I replaced the scene in which she discloses Mr Elliot’s perfidy with a confrontation between Anne and Mr Elliot (Persuasion: a play Act II, Scene 3 pp.73 – 76) which had greater dramatic impact. This confrontation happened during Act 2 Scene 3. Anne had just returned from the visit to Mrs Smith in which she had learned the truth about Mr Elliot’s behaviour as a younger man. Mr Elliot enters and proposes to Anne. His timing could not have been worse. I take up the scene just after Anne confronts him with the knowledge that Mrs Smith has spoken of his behaviour.

MR ELLIOT:  And you took her word against mine!

ANNE:            Mrs Smith showed me letters that had been exchanged between you and her husband. It was clear that you had been involved in his financial ruin and that you had spoken of my father and sister most disrespectfully. Your appreciation of the family name and honour seems to have been of very recent date.

MR ELLIOT:  My dearest Anne, do not allow the indiscretions of my youth be your guide. It is true that when I met your father and sister Elizabeth in London in the days of my bachelorhood I saw them for what they were – silly, vain and self-important. Elizabeth was eager to place me in the role of suitor – a role that I was very sure I did not want. I kept as much distance between us as I could and a young and thoughtless fellow such as I was does not appreciate an hereditary title as he should.

ANNE:            Do you value the title and family now?

MR ELLIOT:  Surely my conduct since we have met must convince you of my sincerity. When I inherit the title, on the passing of your father, I shall do my best to restore Kellynch and the House of Elliot to the respectability they deserve.

ANNE:            But you might not inherit, Mr Elliot.

MR ELLIOT:  What do you mean?

ANNE:            My father finds Mrs Clay a pleasant companion. Were he to remarry he might well father a son.

MR ELLIOT:  I think that eventuality as unlikely as it would be unpleasant. I have taken some pains to discourage such a match. Anne, it is you that I would wish to see as the future Lady Elliot. I want your son and mine to inherit the title. Please consider my offer.

ANNE:            No, Mr Elliot. I have found you a pleasant companion, nothing more. Now that I am aware of your duplicity and your disregard for duty and the bonds of friendship it would be impossible for me to respect you enough to consider marriage. Please excuse me.

Anne then exits with dignity, and in the Newcastle production of 2008, at every performance, the audience cheered her as she did so. Mr Elliot remains on stage where he is joined by Mrs Clay and it is made clear to the audience that the two of them have been having an affair. He invites her to come to London where he will set her up as his mistress and she accepts.

I also found it necessary, in order to create and maintain dramatic tension, to have Captain Wentworth explain his feelings for Anne earlier than they are explained in the novel. In the novel he tells Anne of the reluctant constancy of his feelings in the concluding chapter but because I wanted his position to be made clear to the audience earlier, I had him speak to his sister at the end of Act 1 when he has just brought Henrietta and Anne back to Uppercross after Louisa’s accident. So in Persuasion, as in Pride and Prejudice, most of the changes I made were in the order or the place of the narration.

The absolute essential in Persuasion is the reuniting of Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth. They are constrained by society as they struggle to make clear to one another that their feelings remain the same after all this time. It is essential to include that wonderful scene where they meet in the Octagon Room before the concert in Vol. II, Ch. 8 (pp. 197ff.) I could not place them in the Octagon Room but felt that the social restrictions imposed upon them at this meeting could be achieved through having them meet in Sir Walter’s drawing room surrounded by Sir Walter, Elizabeth, Mary, Mrs Musgrove, Henrietta, Admiral Croft and Mrs Croft. I used a stage device in which, during their conversation, every other character on stage froze, because, in the eyes of lovers, the rest of the world is far distant. They were harshly brought back to reality by a loud question from Elizabeth. Then, as all the visitors were leaving and being escorted by Elizabeth and Sir Walter, Anne and Captain Wentworth remain on stage to come to a complete understanding at the conclusion of the play.

My most recent adaptation is that of Emma and I found this the most difficult of all. It is a long book and it is very closely written so how to present its contents in a production lasting no more than two and a half hours, including interval, was a major challenge. To cut anything would be to diminish the work. Although the action of the novel is largely confined to the village of Highbury, the action takes place in almost every corner of Highbury – main street, Ford’s shop, the vicarage, The Crown Inn, Randalls, the Coles’ home, theBates’ residence, Mrs Goddard’s school, Abbey Mill Farm, Donwell Abbey, Hartfield and it even goes some seven miles distant to Box Hill. It is a three volume novel so three acts might be needed to do the story justice but that would add another interval which would lengthen the time of the production by at least another fifteen minutes. There are many characters, not all of whom can appear on stage. There are three major love stories to be told. There is an element of detective fiction that it would be a pity to miss. Was the task I had set myself impossible? What had to go?

Firstly I decided that I should confine the action to the common sitting room at Hartfield so that I had to find alternate ways of presenting important incidents that happened in other locations. So incidents that occurred at Box Hill or the strawberry picking at Donwell Abbey were transferred to the round game with alphabets that took place in the common sitting room. Then I decided that it would be possible to make one major exception to a single set production. Austen wrote about the ball at the Crown Inn as a series of incidents. Rather than move the ball to Hartfield and to artificially make these incidents seem to happen in a natural sequence I decided to treat the ball as a series of episodes which could be presented either as a series of spotlit grabs or in different places within the theatre – apron, stairs, aisle etc.

A more desirable format was two rather than three acts, so Act 1 took the story to a point where both Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill were established in Highbury and Mr Elton’s engagement to Miss Hawkins had been announced. Act 1 contains three scenes. Act 2 has five because, although it was possible to contract a number of happenings into a more confined time frame in the first half, there needed to be greater separation of events in the second half of the story telling e.g. Mrs Elton needs to be introduced to Highbury and the audience before she is seen in all her glory at the ball and time must elapse between Frank Churchill rescuing Harriet from the gipsies and the announcement of his engagement to Jane Fairfax.

Isabella and John Knightley do not appear on stage, which sadly means that the wonderful conversation between Isabella and her father in which they discuss the merits of their respective doctors does not take place – but what a joy it will be for those who take up the novel for the first time as a result of seeing this play to discover such things for themselves. Mrs Goddard and Mrs Bates do not appear but we know about them through the constant references made by Harriet and by Miss Bates. Since Robert Martin, Mr Perry, Serle, James the Coachman and many others are spoken of in the novel but never actually grace its pages they remain in the background in the play, too.

To do justice to the Frank/Jane subplot was difficult. My solution to this problem was to provide them with very few opportunities for conversation with each other but with many opportunities for them to react to what was happening about them when they were on stage together and when one of them is spoken about in the presence of the other. By doing this I left some element of the detective story for the audience to pick up clues as to their true relationship. Whoever is directing the play will need to bring the non-verbal elements to the attention of the audience. The playwright is only one part of the creative team in the production of a play.

Emma: a play goes into production next month and opens for its premiere season at DAPA Theatre in Newcastle, NSW on 13 May for twelve performances. Act 1 Scene 2 was workshopped, quite successfully, at The Genesian Theatre in Sydney last December and it is being considered there for the 2017 season. I have a very fine cast assembled, my set designer has given me a good set, the lighting and sound plots are in the final stages of planning, costumes are being assembled, publicity has started. With all of these elements proceeding in an orderly fashion and with Jane Austen’s novel as our guide I am hoping that we will have a very successful season.

Then I will be taking out the envelopes on the backs of which I have scribbled the first rough outlines of Northanger Abbey: a play so that I can start on the last chapter of this adventure of adapting all six of Miss Austen’s novels for stage presentation.


Austen, Jane, Emma, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005

Austen, Jane, Mansfield Park, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005

Austen, Jane, Northanger Abbey, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2006

Austen, Jane, Persuasion, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2006

Austen, Jane, Pride and Prejudice, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2006

Austen, Jane, Sense and Sensibility, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2006

Sait, Jim ‘Jane Austen’s Shapely Turns’ Sensibilities 35 December 2007 pp. 26 – 47

Whalan, Pamela, Mansfield Park: a play, JASA Press, Paddington, 2001

Whalan, Pamela, Sense and Sensibility: a play, JASA Press, Paddington, 2005

Whalan, Pamela, Persuasion: a play, JASA Press, Paddington, 2008

Whalan, Pamela, Pride and Prejudice: a play, JASA Press, 2010


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