by Lily Janiak, published on August 7, 2019
I know, I know. Another normie straight white girl who loves Jane Austen — I might as well breathlessly confess a love of pumpkin-spice lattes.
But seriously, my Janeite-ism has been interfering with my sleep and my home life (sorry, husband). Recently, watching the six-hour BBC “Pride and Prejudice” once again while curled up on the couch late at night, I realized with horror that I was predicting too many shots, entrances and lines before a previous scene had even finished. (“Colonel Fitzwilliam is about to happen upon Lizzy on the Rosings grounds and unknowingly drop a gossip bomb!”) There were no surprises left. I had to impose a ban on myself.
Once I read all of Austen’s works, I branched out to George Eliot, Fanny Burney and Charlotte Brontë — but still, Jane keeps calling me back.
It was thus with some trepidation that I signed on to review Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s “Pride and Prejudice,” adapted by Kate Hamill. I wondered if I knew the story too well, if I’d burden the production with too much of my own emotional baggage, if I loved it too much to tolerate any adaptation, any deviation from the ideal in my head.
Thankfully, Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s frisky production made those concerns moot. It’s so silly, so laden with sexual innuendo, so lavish in its physical comedy that it almost didn’t seem like “Pride and Prejudice” anymore, but an entirely new and wonderful work.
But still I wondered: Why am I so obsessed with Austen in the first place?
Part of the appeal is escapism. For Austen’s heroines, there is such a thing as free lunch. Banquets and gowns and balls just appear, seemingly sans cost to anyone. All these ladies have to do is master social graces and do some embroidery. If they read books or learn foreign languages or a musical instrument, it’s a bonus!
But plenty of authors and artists make rich people their subject. And plenty write witty dialogue, though not with Austen’s particular sparkle.
What elevates “Pride and Prejudice” above even other excellent romantic comedies is how much better Elizabeth Bennet is than the rest of us — and not just because of her eloquence in argument, her joie de vivre. She combines an ability to not take herself so seriously while also never compromising her self-respect, her principles. I worry I’m not terribly good at either of those things, and she inspires me to improve. Maybe one day I could tell off the Lady Catherine de Bourghs in my life with Elizabeth’s unassailable logic or shrug off my own Mr. Wickhams, knowing that it’s not worth the mental energy to resent them.
Still, Elizabeth Bennet has no real power in the novel; the only way she can change her circumstance is by making an advantageous match. Yet in this oppressive world, her merit still gets rewarded. As spunky and self-possessed as Elizabeth is, her success is passive; it doesn’t challenge, let alone change the system. She sits around and acts morally and intelligently long enough for someone else to notice and rescue her. For all of Austen’s satire of the manners of Regency gentry, is Lizzy’s story really that different from that of a fairy tale?
Big deal, Janiak. Of course romances aren’t supposed to be realistic. Would anyone besides your mother-in-law want to read about you and your husband bargaining over who has to put the vacuum away? (Hi, Laura!)
I suppose I’m wrestling with this well-trod notion because I know I have a tendency in my private life to toil happily within the confines of a system and hope someone with power pays attention, rather than look critically at that power from the outside.
Yet that’s exactly what I’m supposed to do as theater critic: look critically, seek the vanguard. Thankfully, the theater world right now is full of revolutionaries — Young Jean Lee and Jeremy O. Harris and Jackie Sibblies Drury, Sean San José and Eric Ting and Nataki Garrett, Courtney Walsh and Margo Hall and Lisa Ramirez, Michael Moran and Ariel Craft and Jon Tracy. It’s my job to chronicle these artists’ revolutions, to try to see what they see as they interrogate artistic norms and industry power structures.
I might need to keep escaping to “Pride and Prejudice” on my off time, though. I don’t know if I have the vision and the bravery to live my life the way these and my many other theater heroes pursue their work. But as a critic, I vow to not only seek escapist art but to follow those on the front lines, notebook in hand.
“Pride and Prejudice”: Written by Kate Hamill. Adapted from Jane Austen. Directed by Paul Mullins. Through Aug. 31. Two hours, 15 minutes. $15-$60. Audrey Stanley Grove, 501 Upper Park Road, DeLaveaga Park, Santa Cruz. 831-460-6399. www.santacruzshakespeare.org