Pride and Prejudice, Part II, at Butterfield 8

Dave and I BARTed out to Concord Saturday night to see Pride and Prejudice, Part II, at the Butterfield 8 Theater Company. We didn’t wait to see Part I first, because our schedules make it uncertain whether we would then be able to get to Part II still later in the run. Rather than risk not seeing both halves, we decided to see them in the wrong order and trust that we’d be able to figure it out. For me, at any rate, it’s not like I haven’t read the novel a half dozen times or so.

The adaptation is by Donald L. Hardy, who is an old friend of ours. Don’s goal with this adaptation has been to use Austen’s own words as much as possible, revising and rewriting as little as possible in the process of adapting for the stage. The play is in two parts.

I fooled around some years ago with the idea of adapting P&P for the stage, in my case as a musical — that has already tried once, as First Impressions, but it’s a terrible score that trivializes the characters and situations and doesn’t catch any of the flavor of the novel, and I had wondered whether it would be possible to do a better job of it. I even went as far as working out a rough outline of how such a work might be structured. It didn’t take long to figure out that — assuming a more or less normal length for a musical — I’d be faced with an impossible choice: either cut so many incidents and characters that those who love the novel would immediately bristle at the omissions, or keep the whole story but race through it so quickly that there’d be no time to develop characters, no time to linger over the most important situations and let them develop their proper emotional weight. (I suspect that that’s part of what’s wrong with First Impressions, though I’d still like to get hold of the book sometime and take a look.)

The issue of stage time is more critical for a musical than for a spoken play (and even more critical for an opera — as a rough rule of thumb, when you’re writing the words for a musical, you have to tell your story in half as many words as you would for a spoken play; when you’re writing the words for a fully sung opera, you have to tell your story in half as many words as you would for a musical), but even for a spoken play it’s still very important. A novel will generally have too much story to squeeze comfortably into a two-and-a-half-hour spoken play (let alone a musical or opera); a novella will more often have about the right amount.

Although it isn’t the way I would have done it myself, given that it was Don’s goal to use Austen’s own words as much as possible, his decision to write the play in two parts was a good one. I can only judge from Part II so far, but it worked for me. The pace of the story is more leisurely than is usual for a play, but after ten minutes or so I got accustomed to it and enjoyed it. The performance really does capture the feel of the novel, and it reminded me in a very good way of a “literary cabaret” I used to go to regularly when I lived in Los Angeles, in which the performances consisted of nothing more than actors sitting and reading, but reading really, really well. This production is staged, but in a small and informal setting (the audience sits along three sides of the playing area, at tables set for tea — indeed, you can buy a pot of tea and sip it during the show if you like), and the overall effect is charming and engaging, like sitting in a living room and being told a story by a group of really good storytellers.

As I said, it isn’t the way I would have done it myself, and there were places I felt there wouldn’t have been anything wrong at all if Don had rewritten Austen’s words to make things less literary and more theatrical. But it’s a charmer and a lot of fun, and the acting is good — I thought several of the actors were very good indeed. We’re definitely looking forward to Part I this week.

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