Sunday, April 03, 2011

Jane Eyre throwdown

As long-time readers of this blog may know, I wrote a play script adaptation of the novel "Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Bronte and did a production in 2008.

Overall the production was a success - one of the cast members whose opinion I respect said he thought I had taken my work to a higher level. Many audience members were very enthusiastic about the show, including my family - and my family members are not generally circumspect in their opinions. If they don't like something they don't bother to pretend otherwise. They were also very excited to meet Bruce Barton, who played the Reverend Brocklehurst, at my birthday party recently.

The reviews were decent, especially when you consider that it was a very girly show - original work by a woman, a story about a woman, adapted and directed by a woman. These were all strikes against the production in a theatre environment which worships manliness, as I have blogged about pertaining to the career of Adam Rapp.

I should mention that in spite of the fact that "Jane Eyre" is now considered an early example of "chick lit", when it was published many reviewers suggested that only a man could have written such strong and passionate prose, and young ladies were often told not to read the novel on the grounds that it was too intense.

And the theatre world's anti-female prejudice is no paranoia on my part. The author of the study Opening the Curtain on Playwright Gender: An Integrated Economic Analysis of Discrimination in American Theater...
Ms. Sands also found plays that feature women — which are more commonly written by women — are also less likely to be produced. Kathryn Walat, a playwright who attended, said, “Most startling was the reaction to women writing — and I think of my own work — about female protagonists and the unlikability of those characters.”
And the innate anti-female prejudice is reflected in theatre criticism as much as anywhere else in the theater. The fact that so many top-level professional theatre critics are male, for one thing. I don't know what the gender breakdown is for off-off Broadway shows, but I do think it's more than a coincidence that all three of the reviewers of my JANE EYRE are women. And I don't doubt that these women critics resented the fact that they were given a girly show - and therefore an automatically less prestigious show - to review, because they are girls.

So the production was overall a success, but that doesn't mean there were no problems with the production. Some of the problems were my mistakes, some were deliberate ill-will on the part of some people associated with the production, and some was just standard diva bullshit. And I won't even go into the astronomical cost of the show. There are many things that I wish I would have done differently.

But the script still holds up very well I think. There's very little there that I would do differently. And I like my version of the story better than any other adaptation I've seen, including the currently playing version, directed by Cary Fukunaga.

But my version and the Fukanaga version do have something in common - neither starts the story with Jane's childhood. And as far as I am aware, every other adaption does start there.

Obviously I can't be objective, but I think my version succeeds better than any other version I have seen for three reasons:

  1. The telepathy framing device - I open the play with Rochester believing he is hearing a response when he calls Jane's name. And near the end of the play, Jane does hear Rochester calling and responds. And as in the novel, Rochester confirms that he thought he heard words in response to his call that in fact Jane does say.

  2. The inheritance story line - unlike every other version I have seen, I hit on that several times in the script - not only when Aunt Reed reveals to Jane that she has an uncle; and when Jane finally learns of her inheritance; but also when Jane tries to write to her uncle. This is important - it makes the inheritance less abrupt and sudden - in every other version, Jane is told about her uncle, and then she completely forgets about him until his money shows up. In spite of all her talk about being alone in the world and wishing for family, she just drops him.

    And the Polly Teal stage play even denies her an inheritance entirely, so obsessed is that interpretation with this whole Jane/Bertha psycho-drama bullshit that I loathe so much.

  3. My Rochester - in every version that I've seen besides mine, Rochester is a self-serious drag. To be sure, Rochester is supposed to be moody and can be short-tempered and insolent - but that isn't ALL he is about. Rochester is sardonic and witty and can tease Jane as well as respond in a variety of ways to being teased by Jane. But you'd never know that by other adaptations of the story - it's always so deadly earnest and serious. That's why, I believe, one critic of my 2008 production said that my Rochester was behaving in a "post-modern" way - because like all critics she couldn't be bothered to read or remember the original source material and instead her understanding of the story came from other adaptations. Which is why she thought Rochester should be a boring, portentous wet blanket.

    In every other version, they're in such a hurry to jump from the proposal to the wedding that they leave out a very important and interesting development in the Jane Rochester relationship. Here's what Bronte wrote:

    He rose and came towards me, and I saw his face all kindled, and his full falcon-eye flashing, and tenderness and passion in every lineament. I quailed momentarily—then I rallied. Soft scene, daring demonstration, I would not have; and I stood in peril of both: a weapon of defence must be prepared—I whetted my tongue: as he reached me, I asked with asperity, “whom he was going to marry now?”

    “That was a strange question to be put by his darling Jane.”

    “Indeed! I considered it a very natural and necessary one: he had talked of his future wife dying with him. What did he mean by such a pagan idea? I had no intention of dying with him—he might depend on that.”

    “Oh, all he longed, all he prayed for, was that I might live with him! Death was not for such as I.”

    “Indeed it was: I had as good a right to die when my time came as he had: but I should bide that time, and not be hurried away in a suttee.”

    “Would I forgive him for the selfish idea, and prove my pardon by a reconciling kiss?”

    “No: I would rather be excused.”

    Here I heard myself apostrophised as a “hard little thing;” and it was added, “any other woman would have been melted to marrow at hearing such stanzas crooned in her praise.”

    I assured him I was naturally hard—very flinty, and that he would often find me so; and that, moreover, I was determined to show him divers rugged points in my character before the ensuing four weeks elapsed: he should know fully what sort of a bargain he had made, while there was yet time to rescind it.

    “Would I be quiet and talk rationally?”

    “I would be quiet if he liked, and as to talking rationally, I flattered myself I was doing that now.”

    He fretted, pished, and pshawed. “Very good,” I thought; “you may fume and fidget as you please: but this is the best plan to pursue with you, I am certain. I like you more than I can say; but I’ll not sink into a bathos of sentiment: and with this needle of repartee I’ll keep you from the edge of the gulf too; and, moreover, maintain by its pungent aid that distance between you and myself most conducive to our real mutual advantage.”

    From less to more, I worked him up to considerable irritation; then, after he had retired, in dudgeon, quite to the other end of the room, I got up, and saying, “I wish you good-night, sir,” in my natural and wonted respectful manner, I slipped out by the side-door and got away.

    The system thus entered on, I pursued during the whole season of probation; and with the best success. He was kept, to be sure, rather cross and crusty; but on the whole I could see he was excellently entertained, and that a lamb-like submission and turtle-dove sensibility, while fostering his despotism more, would have pleased his judgment, satisfied his common-sense, and even suited his taste less.

    In other people’s presence I was, as formerly, deferential and quiet; any other line of conduct being uncalled for: it was only in the evening conferences I thus thwarted and afflicted him. He continued to send for me punctually the moment the clock struck seven; though when I appeared before him now, he had no such honeyed terms as “love” and “darling” on his lips: the best words at my service were “provoking puppet,” “malicious elf,” “sprite,” “changeling,” &c. For caresses, too, I now got grimaces; for a pressure of the hand, a pinch on the arm; for a kiss on the cheek, a severe tweak of the ear. It was all right: at present I decidedly preferred these fierce favours to anything more tender. Mrs. Fairfax, I saw, approved me: her anxiety on my account vanished; therefore I was certain I did well. Meantime, Mr. Rochester affirmed I was wearing him to skin and bone, and threatened awful vengeance for my present conduct at some period fast coming. I laughed in my sleeve at his menaces. “I can keep you in reasonable check now,” I reflected; “and I don’t doubt to be able to do it hereafter: if one expedient loses its virtue, another must be devised.”

    This self-possession on Jane's part, which is so much a part of the charm of the story, is always left out. But I did not leave it out. Here is from my script:


    Your station? Your station is in my heart. Don’t let Fairfax upset you Jane. You and I are beyond the power of the Fairfaxes. And today I will take you into town and we will have you fitted for the wardrobe of a fairy queen. You will quit your governessing slavery in order to spend every moment with me.


    I beg your pardon sir, I will continue to act as Adele’s governess. I will continue to earn my salary. I will not be your English Celine Varens, content to be dressed and coddled like a helpless doll.


    Well for cool native impudence and innate pride you haven’t your equal.


    We will continue on as we have – I will stay out of your way during the day, and you may call for me in the evening for quiet conversation.


    You hard little thing!


    I’d rather be a thing than a fairy princess.


    But you are a fairy princess – you are my angel.


    I am hardly an angel – you must not expect anything celestial from me – I don’t
    expect it of you.


    And what do you expect of me?


    For a little while you will be as you are now. And then you will turn cool, and then capricious, and then stern, and I will have much to do to please you. But when you get used to me you will perhaps like me again – I said like, not love. I have read, in books written by men, that the period of a husband’s ardor lasts six months at most. But I hope that at least as a friend and companion, I will never become distasteful to you.


    Distasteful! I think I shall like you again and again. And I will make you admit that I do in fact love you, constantly. Deeply. Incessantly.


    And yet – are you not capricious?


    To women who only charm by their appearance, I am the very devil when I discover they are shallow, and silly and vain. But you – I have never met your like Jane. You seem to submit, and yet while I am winding you around my finger, you conquer me – and the sensation is inexpressibly sweet. Oh my darling.

    (He holds her and caresses her – she responds for a moment, but then rallies and wriggles away.)


    It is still the day, sir. Call for me tonight.


    You are made of stone, woman!


    I am flinty indeed. You may as well get used to it if I am going to be your wife.


    My wife. My darling little angel wife.

    (He tries to hold her again, but she puts him off again.)


    You teasing, vexatious creature! Very well, have it your way. When I am your
    husband I will have my revenge for this mistreatment, you witch. Will you be dining with me this evening, Miss Eyre?


    I have never dined with you before sir. I see no reason now why I should until –


    Until what? Until I can’t help it. Do you think I’m an slobbering animal at the table?


    I said no such thing. I merely wish to keep things as they are until the wedding.


    But Jane – my carriage is ready to take you to town.


    That will do very well, I want to borrow it. I wish to post a letter.


    To whom, you exasperating minx?


    My uncle. Perhaps he has returned from his travels, and will be able to attend
    the wedding. I want to tell him my happy news.


    There now! The happy news! You malicious creature you truly can’t live without me, can you?


    Good day sir. I will see you when I return.


    You are beside yourself with love for me, admit it!

    (They exit. End of scene.)
    Even though the scene is primarily about Jane's head games with Rochester, I did get in the bit about Jane trying to contact her uncle too. But the interplay between the two characters is essential - this isn't "just" a gothic story of crazies in the attic and telepathy - it's about two people with distinct personalities. That's why the story itself works so well, these very clearly-drawn and likeable characters.

    This scene worked like a charm in my production. Of course I need to give the actors credit - you have to have a certain amount of charisma to pull this off. And the actor playing Rochester brought something quite surprising and wonderful to the scene: when Jane says "I have read, in books written by men, that the period of a husband's ardor lasts six months at most. But I hope that at least as a friend and companion, I will never become distasteful to you." The Rochester actor had this look of affection and amusement on his face that was absolutely adorable, and he did it, the same way, each performance. It was a supreme example of talent and professionalism, and I was quite impressed. I knew he would be good in the role, and to be honest I wrote the role with him in mind, but this was something I really did not expect.

And then there are the many ways that St. John Rivers character is done wrong - but I will save that for another post...

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