Maybe you have to be an English literature geek. It probably also helps if you’re female, and you fell in love with Jane Austen at a tender age.
I hate to say this (as both the English lit geek and a former girl), but I did not love Jane Austen the first time I set eyes on “Pride & Prejudice.” I think I took my first dive into P&P when I was somewhere between the sixth and eighth grade. And though I was an advanced reader for my age, (I shudder to admit this) I was not impressed by Elizabeth Bennet, the protagonist. I know why, too: the language. It was ponderous and so, so… antiquated, which makes sense for being written in the early 1800s. But to me it made this much-praised book nearly impossible to understand. I completely missed the irony and playfulness of that wonderful first line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
I was most definitely not impressed with (it seemed to me) the pompous Mr. Darcy, who refused to dance with Elizabeth Bennet because she wasn’t pretty enough, though Elizabeth herself jokes with her friends about this. Poo on Mr. Darcy! I thought.
Then Elizabeth meets George Wickham, who tells her that Mr. Darcy has deprived Mr. Wickham of the chance to be a clergyman and earn a living. Again, poo on Mr. Darcy! (Ah, don’t be so quick to judge, young reader. It turns out that Mr. Wickham is not what he seems at first to Miss Bennet, who revises her opinion of both men.)
I’m pretty sure after that I got lost in the language and the characters, and I gave up, resting comfortably in my anti-Darcy position. Where, I’m embarrassed to admit, I stayed well into my 20s, vowing to never again pick up what I thought of as “that miserable book.” Had I kept reading and perhaps asked an older person to help me with some of the challenging concepts in the book, I might have learned much sooner that through future interactions, Darcy and Elizabeth eventually recognize their faults and work to correct them (spoiler alert!), even falling in love and marrying.
In my 30s, I met my BFF Georgann (Taylor) Turner who proudly declared that she reread all of Jane Austen’s novels every summer and as much of Charles Dickens as possible in winter. I never told her this, but her influence meant the beginning of my real affection for Miss Austen (though, I’m sorry to say, I never developed a similar taste for Mr. Dickens’ novels). I’m not a full-fledged Jane-ite, as her biggest fans call themselves, but I’m a devoted reader who happily read Deborah Yaffe’s wonderful book of nonfiction, “Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom,” which I highly recommend if you’re any kind of Austen fan.
All that is to say that when my buddy Nikki Cardoza and I heard about two delightful Jane Austen-based plays by the wonderful young San Francisco playwright Lauren Gunderson, we had to see them. Nikki and I discovered Gunderson when we each trekked up to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon, this year. They were putting on Gunderson’s stunning play, “The Book of Will,” a fictional imagining of Shakespeare’s friends publishing the First Folio of his plays after his death. Since I, too, have been diving into a small publishing enterprise over the past year or so, I was an instant fan of “The Book of Will,” which had me in tears at the ending.
Nikki and I talked after her visit to Ashland, and we agreed: We had to see more Lauren Gunderson plays. It turns out that she is the playwright in residence at the Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley. And best of luck! MTC was playing Gunderson’s newest Christmas play written with Margot Melcon, “The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley,” a story of what happens after “Pride and Prejudice.” (Pemberley, by the way, is the name of Mr. Darcy’s estate.)
Well. You may recall that Nikki is the mother of Annie, who has cerebral palsy. You may also recall that I accompanied Nikki when she went to China in the summer of 2016 to adopt Annie and bring her home. (There’s a whole series of blog posts and photos from that trip in reverse chronological order here.) Annie, who is now 9, had never been to live theater before, but since she comes with her own chair and doesn’t speak, we figured she’d be an ideal theatre-goer. Plus she loves movies and music, and though this play wasn’t a musical, we knew there might be music. (There was, it turned out.)
So the three of us made for Mill Valley a couple of days after Thanksgiving to see “The Wickhams,” and we had a terrific time. Nikki had to remind me of a few important plot and character points (gonna have to brush up on my Austen). But there we were: front row seats, looking up into the stage lights, mere feet away from the actors. Annie sat in her chair, rapt, smiling her big smile. We all loved it.
In fact, we loved it so much that when we learned that Gunderson and Melcon’s other Pemberley play (“Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley”) was in Sacramento at Capital Stage, we had to see that, too. If “The Wickhams” portrays life at Pemberley downstairs, “Miss Bennet” gives us a glimpse of upstairs Pemberley life. Mr. Darcy and his beloved Lizzie are married and deeply in love. It’s the people and family members around them in turmoil. So Annie got to see two plays using P&P characters a couple of weeks apart, and if that doesn’t constitute a fine introduction to both live theater and Jane Austen, I am not Aunt Jan. (And I am.)
And bonus: Nikki and I are thrilled to make the (theatrical) acquaintance of the amazing Lauren Gunderson. She’s only 36 years old, and in 2017 hers were the most produced plays in the United States. We can’t wait to see more of her work… along with Annie, now a bonafide fan of live theater and Jane Austen’s characters… even (or maybe especially) Mr. Darcy.