It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a classic book in possession of an interesting plot must be in want of an adaptation. “Pride and Prejudice,” directed by Avital Rutenberg Schoenberg ’09, proves this truth once again in a delightful mixture of wit, irony, British accents and 19th century dances.
Playwright Marcus Goodwin’s 2000 adaptation is loyal to Austen’s popular classic. The plot is virtually unchanged: It is a romance set in the 19th-century English countryside between the strong-willed and witty Elizabeth Bennett and the attractive yet haughty Mr. Darcy. They must overcome their pride and — yes, you guessed it — their prejudices in order to attain happiness.
Although “Pride and Prejudice” is undeniably about love and marriage, it is also an acute social criticism of an overtly class-obsessed and strictly stratified society. Austen’s novel achieves this through a masterful combination of humor and irony, which is not inherent in the plot but in the language. Consequently, any adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice” runs the risk of overlooking Austen’s subtle wit in order to replicate what can easily become another sappy romantic plot.
Rutenberg Shoenberg’s production of “Pride and Prejudice” avoids this pitfall through a dramatic technique developed by the Book-It Theater in Seattle, a company dedicated solely to the stage performance of books. The technique involves retaining the authorial voice in the play by making various characters read the lines of the book’s third-person narrator. This makes the play more dynamic and fast-paced than it would be with a narrator interrupting the action with tedious passages. Through this technique, not only is Austen’s authorial voice preserved in the play, but it is also distributed to the characters in a way that gives them a deeper level of transparency. They are not limited to their dialogues, which are highly prescribed by the rules of conduct in society, but are instead allowed a share of the author’s omniscience regarding their feelings, thoughts, household and society.
Still, producing an adaptation of one of the greatest books in literature is a daunting task. It is even more difficult if that great book has over 50 scenes and 35 characters. To take on such a bold undertaking, one must have a good reason. Rutenberg Schoenberg’s reason was simple enough: “I love it,” she said.
She added that she was disappointed by the 2005 Keira Knightley movie, which was pretty but not funny or witty. “It was somewhat emo — with the rain pouring and everything. It did not capture Austen’s sense of irony.”
Although Rutenberg Schoenberg was worried about finding the right actors — “Girls spend their entire lives looking for Mr. Darcy, how would I find him in four days?” — she is very happy with her cast. Indeed, Adam Stemple ’11 conveys the pride and charm of Mr. Darcy even when he does not speak.
Several 19th century country dances — such as the childgrove and Mr. Beverage — are, though unskillfully executed, pleasant additions to the play’s atmosphere. They are complemented by British accents, satin sashes, gaiters and a good deal of bowing and curtsying. The play succeeds at replicating the setting and mood of the book.
Still, “Pride and Prejudice” does not vanquish the ghost of its better original. How could it? The difficulty of containing so many places and people in a limited amount of time is evident in the rushed speed of some scenes and the subsequent lack of development, and although the wit and irony of Austen shines through, one can’t help wondering whether this particular production has anything new to add.
The answer might be no, but you can still be delighted with the play. The director’s reason for undertaking this project is possibly the key for the viewer: If you love Austen, you will enjoy this production. The play might be a replica of the book, but it is certainly a good replica.