Friday, October 11, 2019

Home Theatricals: A Tarnished Image

by Maria Grace

Jane Austen and home theatricals

While play acting was decidedly a diversion of the wealthy, less affluent members of the gentry participated as well, including Jane Austen and her family. From 1782-1789, while living at the Steventon Rectory, Austen and her family performed modern and classic plays in the family dining parlor and barn. She would have been very familiar with the challenges of putting on such an entertainment: choosing an appropriate play which suited the space available for the performance, the actors available and their relative abilities; setting up the space, crafting the scenery, costumes and props; inviting guests and handling the publicity.

Often participants in amateur theatricals such as these learned the basics of stagecraft at boarding school. There, acting was considered a tool in training elocution and grace of movement. (Performing plays had been part of the public-school curriculum in England since the sixteenth century. (Haugen, 2014))

Scenery for the theatricals offered young people an opportunity to show off their skills in painting the backdrops—flat boards that would be brought in from the side of the stage or dropped down from above. If there was no one artistic in the party, a scene painter might be hired. Costumes and props might be especially made for the event, or repurposed from what was already on hand, depending in no small part, upon the pocketbook of the family hosting the event.

All it all, especially done on a small and modest scale, home theatricals was considered an acceptable activity for young people in search of something to alleviate their boredom. Minimal publicity, a small audience, a suitable play and senior family members en constume put the stamp of innocent diversions on family play-acting. (Vickery, 1998)

On Shaky Moral Grounds

Even so, there many possibly pitfalls for the participants, including issues that the modern observer would not readily recognize.

Jane Austen’s bother James (who along with Henry appeared to be the primary instigators of the theatricals) wrote prologues and epilogues for the plays they performed. In both professional and private theater, these additions, performed before and after the play, creating transitional spaces for the audience to shift into the world of the play and back out into the afterpiece or the real world if there was not afterpiece. (Oftentimes these also contained political and philosophic elements that could make them contentious.) Newspapers and magazines often printed these pieces, both from the public and private stage.

“On the public stage, one of the lead actresses customarily spoke the epilogue, and cultural stereotypes regarding the “loose morals” of women who acted professionally certainly colored the audience’s experience of the epilogue with sexual innuendo. … The private stages did attempt to differentiate themselves from the public stages in one notable way: their prologues and epilogues were spoken by either women or men. Uncoupling both prologue and epilogue from their conventional gendered connotations may have been one way to make them better suited for domestic entertainment, particularly with respectable women’s reputations at stake.” (Haugen, 2014) So simply utilizing the convention of the epilogue already put a home theatrical on shaky moral ground.

Home Theatricals in Novels

Maria Edgeworth

With something so fraught with ambiguity and danger, it is not surprising that Austen and other authors used the home theatrical as a literary means to expose less savory aspects of their characters and their worlds. Three 1814 novels by Jane Austen, Maria Edgeworth and Francis Burney portray theatricals as not only as threats to female virtue, conducive to dangerous entanglements, but having the potential to unleash unacceptable desires and unveil unwelcome personal and social truths. (Just a side note, all three authors had participated in family and home theatricals themselves.)
Francis Burney

All three authors use theatricals to reveal underlying truths about their characters. In Austen’s Mansfield Park, Fanny’s virtue is revealed in her opposition to the entire affair which also reveals the character weakness in Henry Crawford and Maria Bertram. Maria is later ruined by what was begun under the guise of the theatrical.

In Edgeworth’s Patronage the focus in on what a talent for acting might indicate about sincerity and integrity, especially if the actor is female. Being on stage ultimately exhibits the true character of her Georgiana, whose acting prowess reveals her to be essentially vain and insincere, someone for whom all of life is a performance.

Burney’s The Wanderer uses the private theatrical to question and disrupt the established hierarchies of class and gender. As the characters participate in the play, they, along with the readers question identities and categories that are usually clear and well understood. Although by the end of the novel all necessary proprieties have been reestablished, the theatrical provides a space for disorder and uncertainty essentially uncomfortable to the established social status quo.

The treatment of the home theatrical in these novels is different than that found in earlier work, which portrayed the events in a more positive light. This shift reflects an increased concern and discomfort with these performances.

Raising a Little Theater

In the 1790’s attitudes toward home theatricals began to change.

“In large part, this can be attributed to the profound changes taking place in the political and cultural milieu due to the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror, and its aftermath. In such a climate of fear and hostility, extravagant private theatres with lavish displays of opulence became easy targets. While, to a great extent, the press continued to follow the developments at such theatres with avid interest and publish flattering—often to the point of being sycophantic—reviews, the circulation of several pernicious polemical publications and a series of exceptionally scathing caricatures by James Gilray started to have a detrimental effect on public perception.” (Haugen, 2014)

The Pic-Nic Society, principally organized by the Countess of Buckinghamshire, began holding plays in 1802. The society, who utilized a private theatre on Tottenham Street did nothing to improve the public opinion of amateur theater. The group not only performed plays, but hosted an entire evening of entertainments: dancing, singing, card playing and a pic-nic supper—rather like a modern potluck, where all attendees contributed to the meal. With the Countess’ reputation as an inveterate faro player and compulsive gambler, her reputation for aristocratic excess tainted the Pic-Nic Society. With accusations of decadence and debauchery abounding and pointed derogatory caricatures by Gilray (Dilettanti theatricals and blowing up the pic nic society) circulating widely, the Pic-Nic Society folded under the weight of public censure.

“Raising a Little Theater”

Aristocratic excess was hardly the only concern regarding the ‘safety’ and propriety of home theatricals. In Austen’s Mansfield Park, Tom talks about ‘raising a little theater’ paralleling it to the idea of raising a little hell; for him a theatrical provided an opportunity to say and do things that were normally off limits in polite society.

“Acting, by its very nature, involves putting on different gestures, behaviors, manners, and emotions, fashioning and re-fashioning characters and identities in a process that, to the spectator, appears almost as quick and easy as changing costumes. But when this role playing takes place on a private stage, the mutability of the boundaries that defined and identified 250 categories of everyday life in the eighteenth century—gender, class, social status, rank, race, national allegiance—is laid bare, for the distinction between actor and role is blurred in such a setting where the close connections of family and friendship between actors and audience delimit any objectivity or distance.” (Haugen, 2014) The blurring of these all-important lines posed a danger to the vulnerable in society—particularly the children and young women—who needed to be protected from these disquieting and potentially ruinous effects.

Home Theatricals: A Tarnished Image

Casting off Proper Restraint

Moreover, acting often demanded the players suspend polite behavior for the sake of the play. At the end of the Georgian era, the demonstration of ‘polite behavior’ had reached almost cultish proportions. Deviating from it could spell social ruin, particularly for young unmarried ladies. Proper, polite behavior required definite emotional restraint for both men and women. One was not to display emotion openly in front of others. (The one exception for ladies: they could swoon when faced with an extremely distressing or vulgar situation.) Stage conventions of the time encouraged actresses to swoon excessively and male actors to rant and rail expressively. (Can we say overacting? But I digress.)

Moreover, audiences were expected to respond to these displays with sighs, weeping and groaning. So much emotion! What is a proper household to do?

If this were not enough, theatricals also were likely to involve active physical contact between the actors and actresses during the performance. While acceptable for the professional actress (who was not considered a proper gentlewoman by any stretch), that kind of behavior was most improper for a gentleman's daughter with a reputation and marriage prospects to consider. Doing it under the guise of a theatrical performance offered only a thin veneer of protection.

Reverend Thomas Gisbourne (1797) summed up the situation:

For some years past the custom of acting in plays in private theatres, fitted up by individuals of fortune, had occasionally prevailed…. Take the benefit of all these favourable circumstances; yet what is even then the tendency of such an amusement? To encourage vanity; to excite a thirst of applause and admiration of attainments which, if they are to be thus exhibited, it would commonly have been far better for the individual not to possess; to destroy diffidence, by the unrestrained familiarity with the persons of the other sex, which inevitably results from being joined with them in the drama; to create a general fondness for the perusal of plays, of which so many are unfit to be read; and for attending dramatic representations, of which so many are unfit to be witnessed”

Austen’s Personal Observations

On the recommendation of her sister Cassandra, Jane Austen read Gisbourne’s work in 1805. Apparently, Austen surprised herself by approving with the reverend’s writing. While there is no way to know Austen approved, it is not a far stretch to imagine that her own experiences with home theatricals might have contributed to her response.

In 1787, her cousin Eliza Hancock stayed with the Austens, and the young people performed The Wonder. Austen family tradition suggests Eliza flirted openly with both James and Henry (who were the instigators of the family theatricals.) She played the heroine of that play while Henry played the hero. The play offered many opportunities for ‘stage business’ between the two players. (Austen Only, 2010)

Some suggest Eliza Hancock was Austen’s inspiration in several pieces of Austen’s juvenilia, particularly Henry and Eliza and Lady Susan. She is also thought to be the model for Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park. Eventually Eliza and Henry married, in 1797 the two married, after her first husband was guillotined in 1794.

One cannot help but wonder if Austen was putting a bit of herself into the character of Fanny Price who saw quickly how the young lovers of the party could turn the circumstance of the theatrical to their momentary advantage—and eventual ruin.


Baer, Marc. Theatre and Disorder in Late Georgian London. Clarendon Press. 1992

Byrne, Paula. Jane Austen and the Theatre. Bloomsbury Academic. 2007

Collins, Irene. Jane Austen, the Parson's Daughter. London: Hambledon Press, 1998.

Fullerton, Susannah. Jane Austen and Crime. Sydney: Jane Austen Society of Australia, 2004.

Gisborne, Thomas. An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex. London: Cadell and Davies, 1797.

Haugen, Janine Marie, “The Mimic Stage: Private Theatricals in Georgian Britain.” (2014). English Graduate Theses & Dissertations. 68.

Hudson, Chuck. “Theater in Georgian England.” The Historic Interpreter. March, 16, 2015. Accessed July, 2, 2019.

Laudermilk, Sharon H., and Teresa L. Hamlin. The Regency Companion. New York: Garland, 1989.

Selwyn, David. Jane Austen and Leisure. London: Hambledon Press, 1999.

Vickery, Amanda. The Gentleman's Daughter: Women's Lives in Georgian England. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998.

Wakefield, J. F., “Jane Austen: Fanny Price and Private Theatricals.” Austen Only. June 6, 2010. Accessed June, 2, 2019.

Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful. 

After penning five file-drawer novels in high school, she took a break from writing to pursue college and earn her doctorate. After 16 years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.

Click here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, or follow on Twitter.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating. I can't help but feel the experience of these home brewed plays aided the young Jane Austen in becoming an author. Somewhat off topic, but not entirely, while in captivity in Siberia and at the suggestion of the children's English tutor, Gibbs, the Romanovs put on home theatrics. One of the plays was Chekhov's "The Bear"


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