Lifeline Theatre

For the purpose of analysis, let me divide the Friday-night audience at Lifeline’s new version of Pride and Prejudice into two camps: the optimists and the cynics. The optimists were enamored of this staging of Jane Austen’s charming love story. The cynics were not. The optimists seemed to share Austen’s belief that true love triumphs over all. The cynics didn’t buy it.

Let me say right now that I’m a cynic. In that final moment, when true love is revealed in one perfect kiss, I rolled my eyes. The optimists in the theater (and there were a lot of them) were elated. One 12-year-old girl was so excited she almost jumped out of her seat. But by that time I was so dissatisfied with the way our heroine, Miss Elizabeth Bennet, fell in love with our hero, Mr. Darcy, I just couldn’t be moved.

The novel Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813, a time when the British aristocracy was being shaken by the rising power of the bourgeoisie. Social conventions were loosening, and a huge transformation of attitudes toward marriage was under way. Austen was one of the first writers to incorporate these new attitudes into her work. The result was what we now know as the modern romance novel, and her strong-willed heroes and heroines are still being recycled today.

To us, it’s a given that love and marriage can go together, but Austen had to convince her pragmatic readers that a happy marriage was more than a good financial deal. The power of her work lies in the way she does this.

From a 20th-century perspective Pride and Prejudice can seem like a whimsical drawing-room romance. In her second staging of Christina Calvit’s adaptation, director Meryl Friedman lifts the story from its detailed, realistic world and emphasizes the fairy-tale aspect of it. Elizabeth Bennet is a typical Austen character, strong willed and morally upright, the second of five girls in a bourgeois family. None of the girls is married, though, as for most young women at that time, getting married–preferably to a man of financial means–was the most important thing in their lives. Elizabeth meets a potential excellent catch in Mr. Darcy. But despite his good looks, tremendous wealth, and prestigious family, she takes no interest in him because his pride is unbearable. And Darcy rejects her because she’s from a lower social class. It seems that Elizabeth’s marriage prospects are nil.

As the plot unfolds, however, both people learn that they have misperceived each other’s character. Darcy realizes the folly of his aristocratic pride, and Elizabeth realizes that her prejudice against him was unfounded. Ultimately they admit that theirs is a match made in heaven.

Most audiences are conditioned to expect a happy ending, and Austen’s novels always deliver one. The problem with Friedman’s staging is that she buys into the happy ending too easily and doesn’t pay enough attention to how the characters arrive there. Austen knew her readers were pragmatists about marriage. (The narrator at one point even states that “happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance.”) Modern audiences are more romantic. They don’t need to be convinced that romantic marriages are possible. But to not try to convince them undermines the force of the play.

That’s not to say that this production isn’t entertaining. It is. Actually it’s quite charming, with some very funny moments by Steve Totland as Mr. Collins and Maggie Carney as Mrs. Bennet. But Letitia Hicks as Elizabeth glosses over the transformations in her perception of Mr. Darcy. She speaks no differently to him when she hates him than when she loves him. Frank Nall as Mr. Darcy shows us nothing in his behavior toward Elizabeth that would indicate he’s agonizing over his love for her.

Lifeline’s new Pride and Prejudice is a happy ending from the very beginning. For the optimists in the audience that’s OK. But I wanted to be convinced that love triumphs over all. And when no one onstage makes an effort to persuade, it’s a pretty unsatisfying affair.