It isn’t always easy to bring a 200-year-old love story to life. But that is exactly what Elon University’s Department of Performing Arts has been working to achieve for the last several months.
The department will present Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” written in 1813, as this year’s spring play April 19-22. But bringing such a well-known piece to the stage has presented unique challenges for the rehearsal process.
“My experience in directing well-known stories is that you have to accept what a knowing audience is going to bring in, but then you also have to engage with the story in a way that you find new things that haven’t been brought out,” said Kevin Otos, director of “Pride and Prejudice” and associate professor of theater. “You find something that’s like, ‘OK, our production is going to be unique because we emphasize more of this.’”
And finding those unique elements in one of Jane Austen’s most famous works has given the cast and crew chances to find creative approaches to a frequently-adapted piece.
Otos encouraged the entire cast to watch previous adaptations of “Pride and Prejudice,” including the five-hour long 1995 BBC version, as well as the 2005 film adaptation starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen. Watching these versions can not only inspire the actors, but act as a learning tool in figuring out the time period and how the characters can be portrayed in a theatrical setting, Otos said.
“(The play is) not a stagey version of the movie and it’s not a stagey version of the book,” Otos said. “It’s its own unique thing, and I think the person who is familiar with both the novel and also some of the films is going to be able to appreciate that. They’re going to be able to see how it’s similar and different, how it’s alike and how it’s unique.”
When staging the show and reading the adaptations prior to rehearsals, Otos looked for something specific in “Pride and Prejudice” that could be uniquely brought to life in a theatrical setting.
“One of the things that struck me is how important it is in this world to make connections,” he said. “In the world of ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ (it’s) to make connections in a way that is going to increase your family fortune.”
In the novel, Otos said there was immense pressure for young females to marry well, especially for a family such as the Bennets.
“I think they feel family pressure and, when I was working on the play, that appealed to me,” Otos said. “That’s something that the book touches on, but it doesn’t dwell on, because it was very much (a part of the) time. It didn’t need to be dwelled upon. It was part of the condition of living in 18th century England.”
A timeless classic
Although Austen’s literature has been widely read for more than a century, there has been a notable resurgence of her work in the last several decades.
“I think everything in popular culture tells us that we’re still interested in courtship stories and love stories, and that’s what Jane Austen has,” said Rosemary Haskell, professor of English teaching a Jane Austen literature course this semester. “I think it is the love story, and I suppose we’re always interested in finding out how individuals manage to survive and thrive in their own particular culture.”
“Pride and Prejudice” offers readers not only a classic romance, but a compelling story laced with wit and satire, not to mention colorful characters, according to Haskell.
“I think Elizabeth Bennet is such an attractive character to men and women,” she said. “She’s witty, she’s charming and she’s funny. She’s slightly rebellious, but her rebellion doesn’t cause her life to spin away into disaster.”
Senior Stephanie Lloyd, who will play Elizabeth in Elon’s production, said she believes her character connects well with readers and audiences, both in the early 1800s and in modern times.
“She does have a wit, she likes to read,” Lloyd said. “She uses her mind and she has a way of communicating with people that I think is unexpected and why women have constantly looked up to her and her vivacity.”
Haskell said she also believes the story has resonated well with readers through time because of the cultural questions the story raises.
“For any of the Austen heroines, there were certain kinds of constraints that they had to live with and manage and survive and thrive within and that’s true for any culture,” Haskell said. “How do you find a kind of personal space for your own spirit, your own intellect and your own emotions in any kind of culture? I don’t know if we’re any less or more constrained than we were then, on the whole.”
Additionally, many parallels can be found between the issues faced by the characters in the novel and individuals in modern society.
“I think her books remain popular because they discuss issues that we still face today,” said junior Rachel Jones, a student in Haskell’s Jane Austen class. “Money issues, family issues, finding and losing love, misunderstanding other people and feeling out of place are all still relevant today as they were in her life, though perhaps not for the same reasons. In many ways, her novels seem more like realistic fairy tales — an idea that is currently very fascinating to our culture.”
Bringing classic literature to modern theater
The cast of “Pride and Prejudice” has been using a play adaptation written by Jon Jory. According to Otos and many of the cast members, Jory’s dialogue and narrative are very similar to Austen’s dialogue in the novel.
“There are a lot of challenges in taking this novel and making it into a piece of theater,” Otos said. “But I think Jon Jory has succeeded in that the narrative of the story keeps moving right along. The scenery is flexible enough that it can be a variety of spaces.”
Jory’s dialogue is not only almost identical to Austen’s, but it annotates the novel and keeps the play moving at a reasonable pace.
“While the nuances of the novel and most of Austen’s wry narration are inevitably lost in translation, Jon Jory’s script does perform a considerable feat by telling the entire story in just two hours,” said sophomore Colin Gardner, a member of the ensemble in “Pride and Prejudice” and a student in Haskell’s class. “The novel has more humorous social critique while the play focuses more on the romance angle, but both the novel and the play will appeal to love story enthusiasts, people with a good sense of humor and Anglophiles — three categories which cover a broad range of people.”
Bringing famous characters such as Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy to the stage presents challenges as well. But according to Lloyd and junior Logan Sutton, who are playing the respective roles, they welcome the acting challenges.
“I felt the history of the role only makes me prepare more,” Sutton said. “It was important to me that I delved as much into what other people have done and what the author herself said.”
Both Sutton and Lloyd have had theatrical experience with recreating famous characters, such as Romeo in “Romeo and Juliet” and Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” respectively. Making these famous characters their own, while still retaining truth from the original performances, is a balance that is hard to maintain, yet part of the job of an actor, according to Sutton.
“In a truthful way, it comes from tracing the basis of what Jane Austen says in her own novel and what details I’m given in the script,” Sutton said. “It really comes from finding a character who has been given a good moral compass, but not a good social barometer, and balancing the two.”
Other challenges in bringing classic literature to life include the technical aspects of the show. As the novel has many locations and scene changes, Otos, along with the cast and crew, had to work together to make easy set transitions while still accurately portraying the time period and setting.
“In movies, you have all kinds of advantages,” Lloyd said. “You can recreate the set exactly and all of the tiny props and tiny details. In a stage setting, it’s a lot more difficult to keep track of all those things. Our director affectionately referred the blocking we did for this show as ‘algebra,’ because the scene transitions move so fast and it’s so precise.”
Not just ‘chick flicks’
Jane Austen’s novels are frequently associated with a female audience. But one of the goals of Elon’s “Pride and Prejudice” is to stray away from the female-driven stereotype and show the story can appeal to a wider demographic.
"Though she is associated with ‘chick flicks’ and romance novels, her writing is very entertaining to read,” Jones said. “She can be so sarcastic and funny, which is something that college audiences will appreciate. The issues discussed also explore things that we — both female and male — find ourselves dealing with today.”
Otos said he and the cast hope the social themes and messages found in “Pride and Prejudice” will resonate with all who come to see the play, no matter the gender or age of the audience member.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if the men in general are more skeptical or reluctant at the beginning,” Otos said. “But there’s a lot to be learned from engaging with the story and I think they’ll find that interesting.”
Gardner agreed “Pride and Prejudice” is a story from which all genders and ages can learn.
“Studying Jane Austen's work in Dr. Haskell's class has given me further knowledge about Austen and her time that has helped me find my place in the world of ‘Pride and Prejudice,’” he said. “Ultimately, though, there's no substitute for reading the novel — everything you really need to know about the characters is in there. And it's hilarious.”
Appreciating “Pride and Prejudice” as not only a work of literature, but also as a piece of history, is important in tearing down the gender divide of Austen’s writing, according to Haskell.
“I have found that when you say literature is actually a historical artifact, it is a product of its time, and you can study it as you would study a nonfictional historical document or even study it as you would find an ancient artifact in a museum, like a vase or an ancient battle ax,” Haskell said. “If you take those historical perspectives, that seems to open it up, not just to men, but also to women.”
But in the face of these obstacles, the cast and crew of “Pride and Prejudice” said they hope to perform in a way that is as enjoyable as the novel.
“The theater is a medium for telling stories,” Gardner said. “Classic literature becomes classic because it says something truthful about the world in which we live and the people with which we share it. These are the same elements that make for compelling theater.”