TV Jane Austen
January 03, 2017
A complete 6 episode dramatised TV serialisation of Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice was shown – as a repeat – on TV yesterday. All afternoon. Dipping into and out of its showing during the course of the day I made some observations on the dramatisation. I thought I’d share them with you?
Some of these observations bear upon how comedies of manners with fairytale endings are presented to TV audiences; the fairly unvarnished ‘tricks’ used by producers and directors etc which are used by them so as to help draw into the storyline and its dénouement the ‘floating’ viewer. By a floating viewer I mean a viewer half –inclined to watch or a newcomer viewer to the novel and its dramatisation; one who beforehand doesn’t really know what to expect.
Considering that the whole art of drama; and wider often, of literature and the arts in general; is to play with our feelings and so with our points of view; leading us here and preventing us going there and so on, in our minds, so as to give the storyline and the actions of the story a smooth and cogent sense of unity in our perceptions; considering this I watched and observed how this intention was being aimed at, and so was bringing to light, at least for myself, some of the tricks and ploys which are in commonplace use with this vein of TV drama.
The method in use by the presenters of the TV Jane Austen was closely reminiscent of the dramatic style which was in vogue in what is termed today in literary circles as Restoration Comedy. In Restoration Comedy, which comprises plays like William Wycherley’s ‘The Country Wife’ and William Congreve’s ‘The Way of The World’, there is most usually a leading man character and a leading woman character who are set apart from the remaining dramatis personae by being figures we do not laugh at; they are not boobies or rakes; rogues or clowns like the remaining personnel are; and these two almost invariably end up wedded at, and as being, the close of the play.
It was a style of comedy which broke out upon the occurrence of The Restoration of the Monarchy of England; in the days after Protectorate of Cromwell had disintegrated and when briefly The House of Stuart reoccupied the throne. This style continued through into the years of the early eighteenth century, and so it survived the second deposition of the House of Stuart at the Glorious Revolution of 1688 when William and Mary of Orange were invited by parliament here to take the throne, and James Stuart II was deposed.
These were years in which the tight fitted and hermetically-sealed lid of The Puritan Ascendancy immediately previously in the mid seventeenth century was blown off completely and the result being a great sudden spree of abandon to revels socially and morally in Britain. The Puritans had closed down the public theatres; but now that the lid was off, and even though theatres were still officially licensed and so their number was severely limited to those who might find enough money and guile to persuade the Royal Court to issue to them a licence; despite this venues which might be termed ‘places of entertainment’ sprang up in lieu of theatres and substituted in large part their social and public roles.
This was the age in which later kinds of shows such as Music-hall, Melodrama; Variety and Musical Theatre first began to evolve into forms recognisable by us today.
Restoration Comedy then is often lewd and outrageous; but yet fresh and vivacious; a winning romp in which comic characters fool around and mess up and get their due comeuppance in the final act. Much of this drama was written by Courtly ‘wits’ of the age; and it was then the vogue to be a leisured and noble dandy who might squander his parts and intellect on such trivia of delight as the authoring and seeing staged their comedies of manners.
After the years of The Civil War and The Interregnum (The Protectorate of Cromwell) came a time in history which begins to be recognisable as modern to us today. Society and urban life began to be the major pastimes in many more people’s lives than ever before. Ballroom dances and familiar visitations to the urban townhouses of the better off became the thing to be seen doing and attending. This sea change in society and urban life became lampooned and parodied, and yet at the same time celebrated in the dramas collectively know nowadays as Restoration Comedy. Jane Austen would have been aware of this state of England which was the fashion a century before she herself was active. How far she consciously modelled her own comedies of manners, her novels, on this knowledge of history is for her readers to decide for themselves.
Typically a Restoration comic drama will have characters like the following ones I am about to suggest.
A Clown or two; not jugglers and slapstick circus knockabouts as we know them; but ‘clown’ was a word used for centuries beforehand to denominate a country bumpkin; one who was uneducated and barely articulate in language; one who kept sheep or herded animals. These Clowns then were the butts of the townie smart set, who think themselves a cut or two above country dwellers; dullards who are by definition backward and ignorant and wholly unfashionable. Corin the herdsman will wed Alice the milkmaid in conjunction with the hero and heroine as the finishing close; but the bumpkins will marry in a mirror image travesty of the main marriage and yet at the same time their marriage will be homage to the simple life and to natural country virtues.
A wiseacre serving man or sometimes woman is ever present; who serves often a dolt of a master whose scrapes and messes form much of the zany idiotic comedy in the plot. The smart serving man or woman will be living on her/his wits; duping his master every time but yet getting his master out of scrapes by way of his capacity for mental acrobatics and scheming. The dolt master may be subdued and chastened in the final act and the servant rewarded for his sentience and loyalty but punished also for his duplicity and for his chicanery.
An overly proud and Puritan nobleman; or an overprotective parent; usually of the heroine; one whose views are old-fashioned and very narrow; and who imposes, tries to impose, all kinds of curfews and moratoria on his wards. There is also a rich, maybe elder-brother, squanderer; and also a poor relation, noble of heart, maybe often a younger brother who has been dispossessed and/or in penury; the younger brother is often the hero who marries the heroine eventually.
All kinds of fools and nuisances born originally in the imagination of the great Ben Jonson a century beforehand; a dramatist who himself modelled his comedies on the Roman models which were extant. These fools and nuisances have ‘humours’ which might be called character traits/flaws which govern uppermost in their temperaments. There were humour traits such as uxoriousness; or venary; or avariciousness; or gullibility; or superstition; one sin to rule them all; and all their thoughts and schemes.
And in great measure this is the kind of schemata the TV production of Jane Austen has resorted to in its choice of adaptation for the screen of her novel Pride and Prejudice.
It is a very simple schema; one which accentuates and thereby signposts to an audience how that audience is to respond to this or that persona presented before them on screen. Possibly in Restoration times such a schema was adapted for comedy in part so as to make very clear to audiences when they might laugh and what to take seriously and what not to. Ever since The Age of Shakespeare, the less refined sections of audiences, known to The Elizabethans as ‘the groundlings’ had to be accommodated and given some lowbrow stuff to enjoy and be satisfied upon. The materials for the elite and educated were considered beyond ‘the groundlings’ and hence were considered reserved for the nobility and upper classes; for The Royal Courtiers and Kings and Queens.
Thus in Restoration Comedy we see entertainment coming one step nearer to the present day ‘comedy routines’ of double act stand-ups; where the fare on offer to audiences is largely foreknown regarding what type and what ilk it will consist; with familiar catchphrases and set pieces etc. The Restoration tableau of characters was deliberately delimited and their formats stereotyped somewhat; so that they provided an oven-ready implicit Bill of Fare to would-be playgoers.
Who were perhaps very like the followings today for TV soap operas.
The TV Jane Austen showed each sister of the heroine of Pride and Prejudice having some visual and/or character imperfection about them; excepting for the heroine herself who was beautiful; intelligent; discrete and showing ever an impeccable integrity. Her sisters were not so good-looking; sometimes a bit fond or deluded; sometimes a bit long in the tooth and without marriage prospects, because of, say, a physical feature like a thickened neck or else a shortened stature.
One sister would be shown to be more vulnerable to idle flatteries and so vulnerable to exposing herself to pubic shame by her being led along into a foolish assignation and mistake. Another would be longsuffering yet knowing in her heart a true estimation of her beauties and talents and so resting contented to wait in vague hopes for a marriage.
The suitors for the daughters also, apart from the hero, are similarly biased as characters; weighted by their individual ‘humours’. The clergyman suitor does not know himself well and pretends all the Christian virtues but is yet seen to be driven by a mercilessly mercenary duplicity. The gallant officer suitor is a duplicitous rake who promises the earth to a girl and betrays her so dastardly. He is a gamester and a debtor also. All is pretty standard stock issue here.
The hero throughout is apparently sullen and coldly distant; with a scowling visage which never cracks a smile; yet his reserve eventually is exonerated and his hidden and deep good-heartedness revealed to all. He marries the beautiful and perfect heroine.
The daughters’ parents are chalk and cheese; the father being wittily resigned to his wife’s urgent earnestness; which too often boils over into indiscretion in conversation; and by which she hopes to marry off all her daughters to eligible visiting young men. The father and the perfect heroine share an affinity of discretion and thoughtfulness and sheer kindly commonsense. The mother is tolerated by them for the sake of her plain and ingenuous character – her heart is in the right place.
The plot is nicely made and revolves well around this assortment and their dispositions as characters; it is finely conceived as such.
The TV actors as per usual liked to overegg their cakes by ‘protesting’ each their character personas a little ‘too much’; and so found themselves turning them into a more Dickensian than necessary assortment of eccentrics. Much of the intricate subtlety of Jane Austen’s prose and characterisation was lost; so that one was not able to assume from a viewing of this show that here behind it originally was the pen of the grandmother in art of a Henry James and a Virginia Woolf.
In the story few conclusions of events occurred or observations were made by the skills of the actors which left an audience’s to infer or to see an implication. Telegraphy was the order of the day. Expressing a fear of the ‘groundlings’ maybe; or else an attempt to be ‘inclusive’ of ‘diversity’ etc etc?
Hence there was never throughout the drama a shadow of doubt about where the plot was heading to and how things might end. Not for any reasonably perceptive sensitive person, even if a newcomer to the story. Thus the thing as presented on TV became a tribute to Jane Austen; but a little in the sense that ‘Elvis has just left the building’. By this I mean that as we see billed to perform The Bootleg Beatles and The Abba Doves and such things; bands whose livings are to retail once again songs long cherished in the popular breast; but being the phenomenon known as Tribute Bands.
You don’t get the ultimate quality but you do get a fond and heart-warming reminiscent impression of the originals.
The TV has to make profits – and as a popular medium more viewers mean more profits for TV stations. So it’s understandable.
And possibly it may whet an appetite somewhere here or there for a newcomer to open the book and ‘taste and see’ for him/herself?
On the whole though it remains that the novel stays a closed book to many if not most; who might have read it through once some years ago; but whose lives have moved on and are too busy or too buoyant and exciting right now for them to retire to a fireside with a substantial item of literature to be digested. It is said popularly that ‘procrastination is the thief of time’ - I might say that in our day and age it is ‘busyness and stir’ and ‘chases after ephemera’ which steal from us space and time, which indeed is available, for us to access the keys to a liberal emancipation for ourselves and for our minds.
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