January 28

March 15, 2020

CST’s Courtyard Theater

book, music & lyrics by Paul Gordon
adapted from the novel by Jane Austen
directed by Barbara Gaines

A Scholar’s Perspective

By Stuart Sherman, Professor of English at Fordham University

“I am going to take a heroine,” Jane Austen remarked as she commenced work on Emma, “whom no one but myself will much like.” She may well have said this with an elusive smile; slyest irony was her stock in trade. Still, as prophet, she’s been proven wrong. In the two centuries since the book took its first bow, legions of readers have liked Emma, and loved Emma, very, very much.

Why then this apparent wobble between the author’s prediction and her accomplishment? The answer may arise from the exuberant intricacies of Austen’s portraiture—with the ways in which, throughout her novels, she enables us to see her heroines steady and to see them double (as both smart and self-deluding) at the same time.

Take for instance Emma’s opening sentence (lightly tweaked, it’s also the first line of Paul Gordon’s new play):

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

There are plenty of double-takes on offer here. We see Emma Woodhouse as her social circle must see her, possessed of all the traits and circumstances her world deems valuable. And we see Emma as she must see herself, confident in these “blessings” as a kind of birthright. Those initial adjectives, “handsome, clever, rich,” cast these qualities as “givens”: established, sturdy, and certain to abide.

And yet the sentence enables us to see our heroine from a little distance too. Such luck as Emma’s is not something that others always (to echo Austen) “much like.” It can smack of smugness; it can produce envy as readily as approbation. By strategic rifts in the gorgeous fabric of the prose, Austen hints at problems inherent in Emma’s self-perception. Why, for example, do the heroine’s gifts only “seem” to constitute the “best blessings” of existence? (Might there be better ones?) Since this is only the book’s first sentence, we can subliminally surmise that Emma will not continue long “with very little to distress or vex her.” Vexation, we intuit, may prove to be the plot’s whole point. In a few swift brushstrokes, Austen shows us her heroine from the inside and the outside; she sketches Emma’s confidence, and calls it into question.

That question crops up throughout the story as Emma, working again and again from an unruffled confidence in her own prerogatives, powers, and perceptions, strives to bring about changes in the lives of others which she is all too certain will redound to their benefit. Steadily convinced of her own rightness, she nonetheless gets things wrong. In Emma, Austen embodies some of the dangers we have recently come to classify under the term “privilege”: the ways in which a plethora of good luck can render its possessor clueless as to the needs, desires, and vulnerabilities of the people s/he moves among.

Shakespeare, whose plays Austen knew deeply, often chooses to track this cluelessness to its cruel conclusions. In King Lear, Coriolanus, The Winter’s Tale, and elsewhere, his lead characters, self-enamored in their self-delusion, ruin lives and deal out death. In Measure for Measure, the playwright manages to map the problem in a single line, when his heroine Isabella, freshly appalled at the hypocrisy of the powerful, muses on the toxic propensity of human beings to misgauge their own wisdom. We are, she says, “Most ignorant of what [we’re] most assured”: most certain about those things we least understand. And in our obliviousness, she contends, we do each other harm so drastic that it might “make the angels weep.”

In Emma, by contrast, Austen (and Gordon) opt to make us humans laugh, to swerve from potential Shakespearean tragedy toward something much sweeter. How does this shift come about? After all, Emma’s preposterously self-assured interventions cause real pain, and part of Emma’s power consists in making us see that pain, and feel it, even when our heroine does not.

Still (spoiler alert!), in Austen’s comedy of unforced errors, Emma’s energetic cluelessness does no lasting harm. “This time” (to borrow Stephen Sondheim’s deathlessly straightforward definition of comedy) “it all comes out all right.”

En route to that cheering outcome, Austen cultivates a striking three-way resonance among the author, her heroine, and her audience—an echo chamber of identifications entirely appropriate to Shakespeare’s theater, and to Chicago’s. When Austen predicted that no one but herself would much like her heroine, she was both confident and incorrect. In that respect she actually resembled that heroine, who repeatedly travels the same trajectory of certainty and error throughout the book. And both of them, it’s no great stretch to suggest, resemble us. As we snuggle into our reading chair or slide into our theater seat, we are most likely caught somewhere in the same crossplay. Which of our most currently most assured opinions and choices may soon unravel? By definition we cannot guess.

In Emma then, on page or stage, like calls to like. We identify with Austen’s heroine because, willy-nilly and error-prone, we resemble her. At the same time (a bonus) Austen gives us a chance to see her more clearly than perhaps, at any given moment, we see ourselves. And besides, Emma in the end manages to make self-recognition seem at once painful, worthwhile, comic, luminous, and prosperous.

What’s not to like?

Back to Emma

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