“What makes Jane and Rochester so different from lovers in run-of-the-mill romances . . . is their intellectual communion,” said playwright Christina Calvit, who adapted Jane Eyre to the stage for Lifeline Theatre, in a recent interview with Hedy Weiss. “You rarely find a male-female relationship in literature that is filled with that vivacity of conversation, with such a sense of the intellectual spark and equality among the partners.”
With all due respect to Calvit, she errs. In focusing on the love story in Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel, she ignores the book’s other important elements. In fact, what most distinguishes Bronte’s late-Romantic narrative from the hoards of modern “bodice rippers” that clutter drugstore book racks is not the lovers’ “intellectual communion” but their motivation. Romantics acted out of pure emotion. These days, a man or woman who behaved in the manner of a true Romantic would be–and usually is–labeled immoral, unscrupulous, or deranged.
It is primarily this factor that makes a modern stage adaptation of Jane Eyre so difficult. Whether inadvertently or not, Calvit’s script glides over the uneasy ramifications of acting upon feelings rather than reason–the cornerstone of Romanticism, open nowadays only to the very rich, the very poor, and the very young–and concentrates on the most durable aspect of Bronte’s novel: the love story between Jane Eyre, an orphan girl and later a governess trapped in a life of genteel poverty and powerlessness, and Edward Rochester, a dissolute second-born son saddled with an insane wife and the bastard child of a youthful indiscretion. Calvit’s mistake is in thinking that the relationship between these two is analogous to, say, a secretary marrying her boss. The societal barriers that separate Jane and Edward, and the willfulness required to surmount these boundaries, have no equivalent in our culture (which is what democracy is all about).
The allegory inherent in Bronte’s novel is also underemphasized in Calvit’s adaptation. Edward denies his feelings for Jane by drowning them in sensual pleasures (one of which is the indifferent courtship of a beautiful but shallow belle), while Jane denies hers for him by stifling them in unbending principle and asceticism. The excitement of seeing these two engage one another comes from watching their mutual spiritual awakenings and the abandonment of their defensive restrictions. Their synthesis can’t be completed, however, until both have suffered. Upon learning, on the eve of her wedding day, that Edward plans to marry while his legal spouse still lives, Jane runs away, braving storm, starvation, and humiliation; Edward’s house and his wife are destroyed in a fire, but he is left crippled and blind. Their close brushes with death are what make them realize what is valuable in life and give them the strength to act.
Taking all this into consideration–along with Bronte’s complicated, tightly constructed plot, and the indispensable convention in Romanticism that the natural cosmos reflects the emotions of the protagonists–it should be clear that any attempt to fit this huge tale into a modern American theatrical format is prey to inevitable flaws. The condensation of Bronte’s intricate story line into a two-hour script whisks us from one environment to another with few signposts, eliminating most of the silences that indicate subtextual activity and accelerating the pace almost to that of comedy. Struggling with the slow-moving formality of Bronte’s language, Jenifer Tyler as Jane and Paul Dillon as Edward are frequently reduced to playing attitude instead of text, wearing their passions so openly that no room is left for discovery and exchanging their lines with an archness of tone better suited to Jane Austen’s intellectual sparring than to Bronte’s dark and brooding harmonies. Jane and Edward speak to one another as peers from their first meeting, with no trace of the differences in their ages and social positions; when Jane, after extinguishing a small, prophetic fire in Edward’s bedchamber, modestly averts her face from the sight of him in his nightclothes, we are amused because it is the first sign of 19th-century decorum they have displayed. The seven actors who play the 25 remaining characters are forced to play the broadest of characterizations to differentiate between rapidly shifting roles. Finally, great and terrible nature, that most mandatory of Romantic accoutrements, is represented by only a few lighting and sound effects (including irritating snippets of Wagner, which gallop through the tiny Lifeline auditorium like an elephant stampede).
However gamely the Lifeline company may try–and the hard work put into this production is evident–the result of cramming Bronte’s rich novel into an evening of theater can only be melodrama–that emasculated Victorian distillation of Romanticism. It is true that there are numerous things to distinguish Jane Eyre from run-of-the-mill romances, but Lifeline’s production, brave and clever as it strives to be, fails to demonstrate what they are.