Austen’s Women is Rebecca Vaughan’s debut solo production, first performed in Edinburgh in 2009. The performance uses text taken solely from the works of Jane Austen. It is a succession of monologues by the writer’s female protagonists.
What attracted you to look at Jane Austen’s female characters?
Even though Jane Austen’s first novel was published 200 years ago, her characters still speak to us through the ages. I have always adored her writing and have loved so many of the television adaptations over the years, but was really aware that we have become so involved in the romances within these novels – the relationships between Lizzy and Darcy, Emma and Mr Knightley etc, that we often overlook the voices of the women themselves. Not just the heroines, but many of the other, lesser known characters.
Was your first step then to remove them from their context and away from any male influences?
The first step was to take a piece of the text aside, see if the voices of these women could stand alone, and tell a story in its own right. I wanted to keep the monologues firmly rooted in the contexts of the stories from which they come, but allow them to breathe and speak for themselves.
What was the process of working with such strong literary characters?
Exciting! Obviously fans of Austen will always have notions of how Lizzy, or Emma, or Marianne, or Catherine should be – but I have certainly found that many members of the audience may know some Austen novels but not others (or have been brought to the theatre by their partner, without knowing any Austen at all). In these cases, it is wonderful for the uninitiated to discover Austen’s work in a new light; I have made sure that I have included some lesser known, but equally wonderful, characters (Mary Stanhope from The Three Sisters, Diana Parker from Sanditon and Elizabeth Watson from The Watsons, for example). For those that know much of Austen’s work, this should hopefully be a treat, and for those who know none of her writings, then these characters can equally stand alone and tell their stories within the play.
Why the choice to present them as monologues?
The vast majority of the pieces were already closer in form to monologues – Lizzy ranting about Darcy, Mary Stanhope deciding whether to marry, Harriet Smith confessing a secret etc. The only real difference is that the audience become the recipient of the information – the person that the character is talking to, and this brings the audience into the stories of these women.
Did you wish to maintain historical specificity? And how about the age of the different characters?
Absolutely. These women are a product of their time, and yet, human nature is such that we can still feel an affinity with them. I wanted to keep the piece firmly within in the Regency/Georgian period, and thus the set and costumes reflect this. The ages of these women range from about 17 to 40, but it is more their social situation that reveals so much about them, than their precise age. Miss Bates is probably in her late 30s, but by Regency standards, she was middle-aged and past her prime. It is therefore interesting to see someone who we would not consider to be old behaving as a middle-aged woman and seeming so much older because of it.
What also leapt out at me was actually how modern these women really are – whether it’s Mary Musgrove moaning about having to stay at home and look after the kids while her husband goes out to have a good time, or Marianne Dashwood feeling the pain of a broken heart, these are all modern tales, it’s just that the characters are 200 years old and wearing different frocks!
How did you approach weaving in text from Austen herself?
Reading, reading and re-reading! I wanted to retain the narrator in the piece and so every time I came across a wonderful piece of Austen’s narration, I made sure I would use it somewhere, to act as the glue to the story and offer a through-line in the play.
What is your personal relationship with the novelist, and ultimately, the characters?
I first came to Austen when I was fifteen, reading Emma, which I loved. I was fascinated that Austen had created a heroine who was so completely flawed, something I am still interested in, and which certainly runs through Austen’s Women.
As a performer, what was your character building process? How did you maintain fourteen separate identities? Did you feel constrained by their literary origin, or free to experiment with them theatrically?
I have been very fortunate to work with Guy Masterson, the director of the piece. As a fan of Austen and being very close to the characters, it would have been easy for me to immediately lock the characters down to what I know of them. But through his experience with solo shows and multi-character work, and his distance from Austen, he was able to help me find all of these characters within me. We have certainly made a few experimental choices, but these I think really cracked some of the characters open. All these women are women that we know in some way or another, and so finding how I blended with them was the fun part!
Do you consider your work an adaptation?
Yes, I think it is an adaptation. After an extensive period of research and reading everything Jane Austen had to offer about 4 times, I was left with about 80 pieces I could have used! So it became a process of finding the through-line, the story between these women, and discovering what other stories emerged on the way. Austen’s Women is certainly an homage to Austen, but it also tells a story in its own right about the Regency woman, and all her trials, tribulations and experiences.
Having explored Austen’s work so thoroughly, what do you feel her relationship with feminism is, and does it translate within the current feminist crisis?
Although I’m sure some would disagree, I certainly see Austen as a proto-feminist. Here was a woman who wanted to write for a living, when not only was it seriously frowned upon for a woman to write professionally, but her family were fairly ashamed of her doing so as well. In fact, her first two novels were published anonymously! And the romantic message that is prevalent in her novels – that you should really only marry for love, if you can – was a very modern way of thinking, and one that she really lived by. She, herself, made the choice not to marry someone she didn’t love, and she knew that by doing so, she was consigning herself to a life of disparaged spinsterhood. But it was a decision she was prepared to take, although she often wished that the choices available to women were greater. I think this is one of the main reasons she still resonates with current readers – I think she really was a woman ahead of her time.
Where do you think female identity lies in our current society, and what is it shaped by?
I think we are in a difficult time. Many women do not feel an affinity with previous incarnations of feminism, yet many do not want to have to retreat back into a post war idea of femininity. Women are trying to carve a way out for themselves where they can choose – where they can have successful careers, be mothers and find a level of fulfilment maybe not achieved before. But this is difficult, as I think we are still living in a very male-centric world – and may well do for many generations to come. I think the media is the real motor behind the shaping of our current society, as well as technology moving at such a pace, that we are always on the go – we have lost the art of peace. But maybe with this, and with feminism, it is being on the journey that counts – not being content with the present state of affairs, but always striving for something better.