Last weekend, a Janeite friend treated me to a ticket for the play Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, Massachusetts. It was part of my holiday/Christmas present, and I had treated her to the JASNA December/Austen birthday tea a few weeks earlier. The cast was wonderful and it was a nice break to get away from the stress of work and holiday preparations. Some spoilers follow.
The play was a lot of fun and enjoyable if you love Jane Austen and take it for what it is — being a light derivation. The playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon — I think did something interesting taking minor character and socially awkward Mary here and giving her some growth and character development.
The play focuses on Lizzy hosting her family for Christmas. She in Darcy are quite in the bloom of love and the biggest glitch seems to be Elizabeth’s adopting a German custom of having a Christmas tree in their drawing room. Which is a bit of a recurring gag. I will leave the authenticity to the Regency history experts of which there are many, I’m not sure how common, or uncommon Christmas trees were in the upper class British society at that time. To note, Austen often includes in her letters from her brother’s estate that they are dining fashionably late and/or at Steventon how they dine unfashionably early with my point being if having a tree was “trendy” the Darcys being affluent would not be so uncommon but then again this is all in the imaginary world extended by Austen and adopted by these two talented playwrights.
Jane is pregnant and Bigley is over the moon, both sisters discuss Mary’s growth — noting even though she sometimes says awkward things she is much more witty and appropriate — Elizabeth noting that Mary is a lot like her with her quips. Darcy also notes to Mary enjoying conversations with her now — which Mary is pleased to hear since it’s sort of well known tie in here how Darcy puts up with a lot from the Bennets for his love of Lizzy.
The action also involved the estate of Lady Catherine de Bourgh who as passed away. Apparently her efforts to see everything passed along to her daughter Anne is not legal, Anne will inherit her finances but not Rosings Park. That manor, and stately estate will be passed along to an obscure male heir Arthur de Bourgh. Arthur has a bit of that social awkwardness taking words too literally not understanding irony and he and Mary click right away on several levels.
Mixups ensure and I will note the playwrights include the idea of letters as Austen often did although there is some mischief tied in. In our program, there was a short interview with Margot Melcom, one of the playwrights and dramaturg. In this interview, Melcom admits the two came up with the idea of this play because and I’m quoting here now: “The impulse came from both a practical place — all theater companies need good holiday shows to produce, and there just aren’t that many to choose from — and a place of desire to see a different kind of holiday story.”
Now, many take issue with trying to pull Jane Austen into the overwhelming glare of the holiday/winter/Christmas season. I recently read an article by academic/scholar/roller derby specialist Devoney Looser who had her own opinions about Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley. While I think Looser made some valid points about co-opting Pride and Prejudice, I think it’s unfair to roll the play in with a lot of other fare out there including as she noted, the latest batch of Christmas/made for TV movies most notably airing on the Hallmark channel.
Many of these original TV movies were made from books for the Hallmark Channel, now not so much. The two this year (2018) that I’ve seen were very watered down and while I think mash-ups can be a good idea — in that they can get folks interested and hooked into eventually read the source material, i.e. Austen’s books. I’m saying this year not so much — it feels like someone banged them out on a laptop at Starbuck’s making sure there were a few Austen references to provide some sort of a carrot/hook.
But again, I would not include this play with this other holiday/pop culture fare, but that is my opinion. And for some reason, this is just me. I do tend to think of Pride and Prejudice as a Christmas book for some reason, I guess because of it’s tone and their discussion of balls and parties. Yes Austen has ball and parties in her other novels but it’s just the way Pride and Prejudice hits me I guess and I do tend to re-read it around this time of year.
Cheers to all and Happy Holidays!