Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Adapting Austen for the Stage

 Image Credit: British Library

This month the University of Redlands Theatre department presents a stage adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility by the actor and playwright Kate Hamill.

Sense and Sensibility, Austen’s first novel, focuses on two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, seeking to secure their fortunes by marrying well. Austen initially told the story in the form of an exchange of letters between the sisters, a common narrative device of the day, and titled her sketch “Elinor and Marianne”. She had nearly 15 years to rework the structure of her novel and develop its characters before publishing in 1811 (Heath). 

Austen’s novel has inspired a number of adaptations over the years, including the well-known 1995 film directed by Ang Lee and starring Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet, Ben Winters’ 2009 parody Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, and a 2015 chamber musical composed by Paul Gordon. The most recent stage adaptation is by the New York based playwright and actor Kate Hamill, who has made her name adapting nineteenth century novels for the twenty-first century stage and plans to adapt each of Austen’s novels (Sense and Sensibility was her first).

Hamill was drawn to adapting Austen novels for the opportunity to give voice to strong, complex female characters. She described feeling frustrated with a lack of roles for female leads, noting that three out of four plays are written by men (Murphy C1). Writing stage versions of renowned novels allowed her to create “instant classics” for the theatre while also providing her with meaty leading roles; she has starred in many of her own adaptations, including the New York premiere of Sense and Sensibility with the Bedlam Theatre Company (acting opposite her real-life partner, Jason O’Connell).  

Hamill sees the roles of actor and writer as mutually compatible, observing, “Actors generally tend to make great playwrights because if you’re interested enough in acting, you have an ear for dialogue. You have a brain for how different characters react to different situations … you can look at stories from all sides. I definitely think it’s made me a better actor to be a writer" (Smart 12).

Hamill approaches each adaptation project by seeking the story’s central theme and striving to say something new about a familiar work. She distilled Sense and Sensibility to the question, “Do you break the rules or follow them?” and updated Austen’s English milieu for the faster pace of modern-day America by playing up Austen’s cutting sense of humor and by mounting set pieces on wheels, setting them in perpetual motion (Marks C3).

In writing Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen explored “the gaps that occur between language and behavior, feeling and action: gaps that the unscrupulous exploit, the naïve are trapped by, and the wise must use every resource of imagination to repair, or at least understand" (Heath). Adaptations like Hamill’s suggest that Austen’s insights are still fresh and urgent today, in a time when social pressure seems equally intense and the stakes for self-definition equally great.

Works Cited
Heath, William W. "Sense and Sensibility: Overview." Reference Guide to English Literature, edited by D. L. Kirkpatrick, 2nd ed., St. James Press, 1991. Literature Resource Center, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/H1420000400/LitRC?u=redl79824&sid=LitRC&xid=9ec66129. Accessed 19 Mar. 2019.

Murphy, Mary Jo. “A Madcap Austen, Alfresco.” New York Times, 30 June 2017, p. C1. Nexis Uni, https://advance-lexis-com.ezproxy.redlands.edu/api/permalink/440b8679-fd8d-4509-a1c6-11322ee46a86/?context=1516831

Smart, Jack. “Kate Hamill, ‘Sense and Sensibility’.” Back Stage, vol. 57, no. 25, 23 June 2016, p. 12. ProQuest, http://ezproxy.redlands.edu/docview/1803827321?accountid=14729.  
Marks, Peter. “’Sense and Sensibility’ Challenges its Stars with Moving Parts.” Washington Post, 2 November 2016, p. C3. Nexis Uni, https://advance-lexis-com.ezproxy.redlands.edu/api/permalink/440b8679-fd8d-4509-a1c6-11322ee46a86/?context=1516831

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