On Saturday 12th July, Elizabeth Inchbald’s Lovers’ Vows lit up the lawn outside Chawton House Library. In a marquee kindly lent by the Jane Austen Society, the theatre company Artifice (an aspect of LinchPin Productions) put on a performance both riveting and hilarious. The performance was richer still in this setting for its resonance with the themes of Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814): courtship, love, betrayal, education, parenting and female desire, among others. Austen wrote Mansfield Park while living nearby in a cottage that her brother Edward Knight (1767-1852) provided for his sisters and mother (now Jane Austen’s House Museum). Although Lovers’ Vows has fallen into obscurity – now recognised primarily as the play chosen by the Bertrams and Crawfords to put on at Mansfield Park – this lively performance made clear Inchbald’s extraordinary comic playwriting talent.
First produced in 1798 at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, Inchbald’s adaptation of German playwright Augustus von Kotzebue’s Das Kind der Liebe (1791) was hugely successful on the London stage, if not, as both Edmund and Fanny maintain, appropriate for private performance at Mansfield Park. Indeed, Kotzebue’s plays dominated the English stage in 1798-9: ‘Out of 301 references to dramas in the periodicals in 1798, 181 were to Kotzebue’s’ (Conger, ‘Reading Lovers’ Vows’ (2000), p.13). Austen, then, could count on her readers’ knowledge of the play; some readers, like Edmund Bertram and Mr. Rushworth, would have seen it, but given its popularity, nearly all would have heard about the racy plot. Although not necessary for understanding Austen’s novel, knowledge of the play would enormously enhance the experience of reading the novel, as Austen quotes no more than a line of the play in Mansfield Park: ‘When two sympathetic hearts meet in the marriage state, matrimony may be called a happy life’ (Vol. III, Ch. 5).
As the play opens, a landlord throws a distressed, poverty-stricken Agatha Friberg out of his inn. She has returned to her home village, where years before she had a ‘natural child’ with Baron Wildenhaim. Her son Frederick, now a soldier, happens upon her in the road and learns for the first time of his illegitimate birth. Frederick unknowingly approaches his father to beg for money to provide shelter and food for his mother. This passionate young man attacks the Baron when he refuses Frederick the amount he needs. The Baron imprisons Frederick in the Castle, while an elderly cottager takes in his mother. Meanwhile, the Baron’s daughter Amelia evaluates the desirability of the foppish Count Cassel, and finds him severely wanting in intelligence and heart. She prefers her tutor-turned-priest, Mr. Anhalt, essentially proposing to him. Amelia entreats her father both to forgive Frederick and allow her to marry Anhalt. Once the Baron learns that Frederick is his son, he releases him, declares him his heir, marries Agatha, and gives permission for Amelia to marry Anhalt. It’s a delightful embarrassment of comedy.
Artifice is the ideal company to put on Lovers’ Vows in the grounds of Chawton House, inherited by Austen’s brother Edward Knight. Their mission is to perform ‘classical plays in beautiful places,’ and unlike the players at Mansfield Park, they adjust to their location rather than employ a carpenter to build a set. In the words of Maria Bertram, Artifice make ‘the performance, not the theatre’ their object (Vol. I, Ch. 13). They use furniture from their location (in this case four chairs and a table from Chawton House), and eschew set and lighting. The company aims to ‘use the location…as though it were the location in which the play takes place,’ evidenced by Agatha gesturing toward Chawton House as the Baron’s Castle, and in the actors directly addressing audience members as villagers. The actors begin centre stage, casually chatting, changing, and dressing one another. This unconventional start raises awareness of the performance as a performance – a generative strategy that invites thought about the tensions involved in producing the play in Mansfield Park.
Matthew Curnier’s flamboyant performance of the coxcomb Count Cassell is a stand out, as he saunters across the stage like a Regency Lord Flashheart. The Count invites audience members to smell his perfume, announcing that in a man so flimsy, any sign of honesty would be a deceit. The character resembles his mother-of-pearl gun, which although aesthetically pleasing, has never been fired. Watching this worldly, foppish Count, one realises just how ill cast the flat-footed, earnest Mr Rushworth was for the role – a classic example of Austen’s wicked sense of humour. Thomas Wright keeps Frederick’s enormously fluctuating passions – filial love and righteous anger – this side of farce, giving the character real depth and inviting the audience to compare his volatility with Austen’s endorsement of more measured emotional expression.
Rowan Suart, in the role of the Villager (Cottager’s Wife in the original) seems to take seriously Tom Bertram’s challenge to Julia to make the small part her own: ‘If the part is trifling she will have more credit in making something of it’ (Vol. I, Ch. 14). She earned hearty laughs from the audience for her excellent comic timing. Gately Freeman also excelled in his small role as the Baron’s old Butler Verdun. He insists on recounting Frederick’s attack on the Baron in a long and frustrating verse. His animated re-enactment of the event and insistence on reading his prose ad infinitum earned Freeman a round of applause from the audience.
The play centres on the concealment, discussion and declaration of love. The audience roared with laughter as the Baron quizzed his daughter Amelia for signs she might love the vain Count (Act II, Scene ii):
Baron W: But do not you feel a little fluttered when he is talked of?
Amelia: No. (Shaking her head.)
Baron W: Are not you a little embarrassed?
Baron W: Don’t you wish sometimes to speak to him, and have not the courage to begin?
Baron W: Do not you wish to take his part, when his companions laugh at him?
Amelia: No: I love to laugh at him myself.
There is great chemistry between Ray Murphy’s Anhalt and Mairi-Clare Murphy’s Amelia as he teaches her ‘the good and the bad’ of matrimony. Anhalt’s initial tale of a blissful union convinces Amelia that she should marry, as the wedded couple are accompanied through life by ‘patience and love,’ to meet each other again in heaven. Anhalt’s account of a second disastrous union characterised by jealousy, anger and hatred prompted a great laugh from the audience; after the death of one spouse, the other cries, ‘liberty, dear liberty!’ (Act III, Scene ii)
Artifice skilfully demonstrate how funny Inchbald can be when translated from page to stage. Audience members commented that they will undoubtedly return to Mansfield Park with renewed enthusiasm.
Inchbald’s Lovers’ Vows will next be performed at the Jane Austen Festival in Bath on 18th September 2014 at 2pm and 8pm (tickets £12), and at the Groundlings Theatre in Portsea, Hampshire on 18th November 2014.
Image of text of Lovers’ Vows used with permission of Chawton House Library.