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Monday, June 2, 2014

Pride And Prejudice And Plays

Early 19th Century Male & Female apparel,
courtesy of London's Victoria & Albert Museum

In Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park, the Bertram family decides to stage a play for their own amusement. In the absence of Lord Bertram, eldest son Tom takes charge of the production. Using his position and charisma, he navigates a stormy sea of negotiations and choices. Not only must they settle on a play that everyone likes, and not only must each person find a role agreeable to them, but also the play must be rewritten so that no one’s part is too large or too small. Then their labors and expenses really begin. A stage must be built, backgrounds painted, curtains and costumes made, and of course, everyone must practice long and hard to learn their lines. And hanging over all this activity and expense is the question of whether Lord Bertram would approve of this production, and members of their social class acting, if he were present.

In Mapp And Lucia by E. F. Benson, Mr. and Mrs. Wyse ask Lucia to hold a garden fete in her backyard as a fundraiser for Tilling’s hospital. While this is nothing in comparison with the elaborate Fetes she threw in her former town of Risholme, a stage must be constructed, acts planned, and costumes constructed. Lucia plans a series of tableaux vivants, in addition to other types of entertainment. She and her friends dress up as historical characters such as Queen Elizabeth, King Cophetua, and Sir Francis Drake, and appear holding props and adopting specific poses. Between each tableau, while the stage is being redressed, a choir sings to hold the audience’s attention. It’s a large effort for Lucia and her friends, but everyone who attends has a marvelous time, and they raise needed funds for the hospital.

In her novel Shades of Milk and Honey, Mary Robinette Kowal introduces magic to the world through her characters’ use of glamour. Jane Ellsworth decorates the family room with swaying trees, warm sunsets, birds and animals that prowl the walls or drink from ponds, and the scents of exotic places. When she plays the piano, she can summon a length of glamour from the ether, and tie it off when the piece reaches its conclusion. Having recorded the music with a strand of glamour, she can then replay the music on an infinite loop, or until she banishes it. And then there are Mr. Vincent's shadow plays, and the tableaux vivants performed with the aid of glamour.

One day, while enjoying an outing in the country, Lady FitzCameron declares that she wants a tableau vivant. So Jane and Mr. Vincent take a moment to discuss what scene to portray, and summon the energy and mental focus necessary to perform such an illusion. The others sit waiting for their entertainment to commence.

Jane tugged folds over her to create a mask of Daphne, and the delicate garments such an ephemeral nymph would wear as she fled the sun god.

Appearing taller than he was, and glowing with the light of the sun, Mr. Vincent embodied Apollo, his hands outstretched to reach for the frightened nymph. As their guests studied the tableau vivant with exquisite fascination, Jane released the slipknot she held, and hidden folds slid around her into a laurel tree. She was gratified by the gasps of surprize and pleasure from their viewers. It was no small thing to change a detailed glamour so smoothly.

While Jane and Mr. Vincent pull off this tableau successfully, a later attempt ends differently. After putting the finishing touches on Lady FitzCameron’s impressive glamural, Mr. Vincent exhibits signs of exhaustion at its unveiling. Yet Lady FitzCameron takes no notice, and commands Mr. Vincent and Jane to perform another tableau for her visitors. Jane performs her role as expected, but Mr. Vincent collapses. So drained is he that he nearly dies. Thus Mary Robinette Kowal reminds us that, regardless of the era they live in, some people will always undervalue the entertainment they enjoy, and that nothing worthwhile—no matter how easily accessible—is created without great skill, effort and cost.

Dragon Dave

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