"Something Pleasing About His Mouth When He Speaks": Bedlam and the Austenian Chimera

I love Jane Austen. I love novels of manners in general, any story that captures the high-stakes (yes) drama of connection and reputation in a society in which they mean everything. Austen’s quippy, dialogue-heavy prose reads almost like stage directions sometimes—there’s often so little interiority on the page, the details so spare and barbed compared to the running list of who’s coming and going and what they’re eating or saying archly to each other over their embroidery. You’re left with the voices and judgments of the characters and, usually snarkiest of all, the narrator.

Plenty of people can’t stand these books, for which I don’t really blame them. I’m not an evangelist. The prose is love-or-hate; the plots are…not simple, exactly, but with enough experience they're predictable in the way some people can tell you who’s going to win a season of The Bachelor based on how the board is set in the first episode. Austen’s novels are old-fashioned—how could they not be—and any feminist reader has to wince through at least parts of each novel. But they’re incredible books—funny as hell; lines, plots, and characters that are iconic for a reason; a great milestone for women authors. And Austen almost seems to have written with adaptation in mind—so much dialogue, most of it begging to be quipped (or sneered) aloud; so little of importance going unremarked on by the characters. And they’re about love, in a way that makes particular sense to young people, at least among modern readers. In Austen’s day, finding the right partner quickly meant more literally “everything” than it does now, but her dramas make complete sense to a modern teen or tween reader being torn apart by a crush—the pining, repression, hope and despair; the crises that someone else might observe could be solved by communication, but which are at the same time absolutely insurmountable.

And if you’re hooked, if Austen gets you young (or not so young), it’s a wonderful experience—because you get to imagine so much. Every detail Austen leaves out is yours to decide. What exactly does it mean that Mr. Darcy has “something pleasing about his mouth when he speaks”? That’s an incredible chimera of a line, a cipher adaptable to any level (or lack) of propriety in the audience. What kind of relationship did the Dashwood sisters have with their father, before he died and started the story on the page in Sense and Sensibility? What are any of the men in these books ever thinking, ever doing when they’re not around women? (Austen seldom hazards a guess.) Among much else, Austen is a master at leaving some things up to her reader, which is why so many of us have such affection for her and feel such ownership—sometimes contentious—of her characters.

This week I saw my first stage adaptation of an Austen novel, Bedlam’s Sense and Sensibility. I thought I’d been prepared for the experience by all the many hours of television and film adaptations I’ve experienced, including the excellent S&S movie starring/written by Emma Thompson—but I wasn’t ready. This play is phenomenal—and newly extended through November 20, if you can get there. It does nearly everything well, but most impressive is how successfully it overcomes the major hurdle of presenting Austen to a modern audience: it pulls the viewer completely into the world of the characters and removes the audience’s dissociating knowledge that society doesn’t work this way anymore, at least not by law. The company forms a surreal gossiping echo chamber, with actors double-, triple, quadruple-cast and hissing rumors about the Dashwood sisters until you can’t help but feel how weaponized gossip is in this world, the truly ruinous—literally, not just existentially—power of a muddied reputation. The story’s emotional climaxes and moments of most dire humiliation or pain—there are three, and if you’ve read the book you know exactly which scenes I’m talking about—are all staged as literal nightmares, the buttoned-up set and characters collapsing away or attacking the Dashwood in question; ballroom chandeliers swinging wildly over the audience or plunging into complete pitch darkness; time and space telescoping wildly as the set pieces careen across the stage on wheels and individual characters are spotlighted frozen in a moment of emotion—whether genuine or feigned, repressed or projected.

The Bedlam production feels almost like a universal translator for people who don’t find Austen relatable. Here, the play seems to say, with its constantly moving set and its eldritch emotional scapes, its whispering carousel of friends and foes played by the same few faces. This is what it feels like to be these characters, even when it looks like they’re just standing in a ballroom or going for a stroll in the garden. Adjusted for the Dashwood sisters’ agency, for the sinister power their world has over them, we’re looking at an action blockbuster, not a rom-com. The stakes couldn’t be higher. Of course Austen doesn’t need the outside help to make this clear, though some of her readers might. But Bedlam’s production is phenomenal as its own work and as an adaptation, not least because it leaves its audience suddenly aware of new depths in its beloved source material. Austen is timeless in part because her books unfold almost in collaboration with her readers and adaptors; she builds a sturdy structure of "universally acknowledged truths" and leaves us room to refinish and rearrange the furniture—sometimes at great speed, in terror.