Sense and Sensibility

April 8

June 7, 2015

in CST's Courtyard Theater

based on the novel by Jane Austen
book, music and lyrics by Paul Gordon
directed by Barbara Gaines

A Scholar's Perspective

by Stuart Sherman

Jane Austen loved music and loved theater. She might well have been spellbound to see Sense and Sensibility, her first published novel, become musical theater.

She found in both arts what she developed spectacularly in her own: an open access to subtext—to what mortals might often feel, but never fully express. For Austen, as for writers and readers before and since, music and theater serve as twined conveyances of the unspoken, even the unspeakable. They counteract the pervasive pressures toward silence that governed the lives of young women in Georgian England: the imperative toward self-containment that makes her heroines’ predicaments problematic and her novels beautiful, as the flow of her own prose gradually merges in the later chapters with the sudden spate of spoken words that her brilliant, beleaguered protagonists have hitherto left unsaid.

Music, of course, can perform subtext without recourse to words at all: the interactions of rhythm, melody, and harmony enact complex emotional layerings of their own. In song, the effect can be even more intricate, as words and music converge with--or tug against--each other.

Theater, mysteriously enough, can accomplish something similar by means of spoken words alone, with the subtext somehow accessible inside the circumambient silences. In Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, for example, we see Beatrice and Benedick quarreling furiously and know at once that they’re in love; we watch Claudio and Hero treading a more direct path to marriage, and learn quite soon that something’s wrong. This counterpointing of couples, drawing on elements from both music and theater, became for Austen an indispensable prototype in nearly all her novels.

In Sense and Sensibility the Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne, appear at first to divide the title terms between them. Elinor, with culturally approved good sense, keeps most of her feelings to herself, while navigating, and often soothing, the chaotically manifest feelings of others. Her younger sister Marianne, by contrast, ardently embraces “sensibility,” which despite that first shared syllable had come to mean the very opposite of “sense”: the audacious, uninhibited expression, nurtured by the burgeoning Romantic movement, of authentic feeling.

For Marianne, Austen makes clear, music is the food of love. Her singing and piano-playing trigger passion, both in herself and in her rival admirers: the melancholic Colonel Brandon, who will not voice his feelings, and the impulsive John Willoughby, who learns quickly enough to turn Marianne’s sensibilities to his own advantage. At the inception of their romance, his own “considerable” musical talents do much to draw her to him; during a later moment of separation, she sits for hours at the piano, “play[ing] over every favorite song that she had been used to play to Willoughby, every air in which their voices had been oftenest joined, and sat at the instrument gazing on every line of music that he had written out for her, till her heart was so heavy that no farther sadness could be gained.” Her “sensibility,” Austen wryly remarks, “was potent enough.”

For Elinor, on the other hand, love moves slowly and more cautiously, through mazy corridors of silence. “Thou and I are too wise to woo peaceably,” remarks Shakespeare’s chary Benedick to his (ultimately) beloved Beatrice. The same holds true, though with a different emotional infrastructure (self-constraint, not barbed banter) for Austen’s very wise Elinor and her almost preposterously inhibited admirer Edward Ferrars.

Apparently, then, Elinor=Sense and Marianne=Sensibility. Are we supposed to choose between them? Austen gives us plenty of cues for doing so. Marianne’s mistakes are as self-evident and self-destructive as those of a horror-movie ingénue; you want to shout her out of danger as quickly as possible. Elinor’s self-possession, by contrast, is hard-won and heroic under excruciating assault. Better still, if you opt to side with Sense you get to laugh a lot, and not always kindly, at those who lack it—easily the majority in any Austen novel.

But not so fast.

Austen does much to make the sisters mirror rather than rival each other. Elinor is agonized by the passions she can’t express. Marianne, passionately devoted to music and theatrics, is hypnotic in herself, and turns out to possess sense aplenty. In the sisters’ bond with one another, Austen draws a beautiful map of the bicameral human psyche, then invites us to wind our way, back and forth, throughout the whole terrain.

Music and theater can each move on their own through that wide landscape too; in combination, they can suffuse it with extraordinary life. If you believe that sense and sensibility, taken in tandem, are what make us tick, you’ve come to the right place. That mix is one of the things that musicals do best.

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