Review of Laura Wade’s ‘The Watsons’Trustee Professor Kathryn Sutherland reviews Laura Wade's adaptation of 'The Watsons' at Chichester Festival Theatre
Jane Austen loved the theatre; it was a lifelong passion. She honed her appreciation of drama and stage practice in family theatricals, in the experimental playlets preserved in her teenage notebooks, and in her crisp comments on West End productions, enjoyed on her jaunts to London.
Readers have long recognized that Austen has a playwright’s (or perhaps it’s a director’s) consciousness of audience and sense of pace; she knows how to bring a character in to best effect and how to end a scene. As a teenager, she was adept at what she called the ‘unfinished performance’, absurdly truncated skits based on the books she read and admired. Written with relish, these spoof mini-novels suggest someone training herself in the parts and rules of fiction—testing out what works (or doesn’t). What she learnt through laughter, fed into the serious business of her adult fiction.
The unfinished story The Watsons is about as far removed from this world of teenage experiment and fun as can be imagined; but, bear with me, because what seems like an opening digression is not. Written in Bath, probably in 1804-5, when Austen was in her late twenties, The Watsons is a tale of riches to rags. Nineteen-year-old Emma Watson, adopted in childhood by a prosperous aunt and uncle, has returned penniless after ‘an absence of fourteen years’ to a family to whom she is a virtual stranger: an invalid clergyman father and three unmarried older sisters, living in genteel poverty in their country rectory. It’s a tale of dispossession that encompasses the fading charms of her aging sisters as well as Emma’s lost prospects; all will be cast into deeper economic distress once their father dies.
The Watsons marks a turning point in Austen’s way of writing, a darker engagement with the harsh circumstances of dependent women’s lives than the three novels already in draft form (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey). Why did she abandon it? Was the material too bleak? Did it come too close to the real circumstances of her own life?
Emma Watson is very much the focus for others’ reactions in the text as Austen left it: she is endlessly questioned and commented on. There’s a ball (of course, there’s a ball!). In the ballroom everyone looking at her sees a pretty girl who has lost half her attractions by losing her fortune. She is variously humiliated: by the local grand gentleman, Lord Osborne, by her brother and his snobbish wife. Emma’s situation is painful; she needs rescuing.
Enter twenty-first-century playwright Laura Wade. Yes, really, ‘enter Laura, playwright’, who, halfway through this dramatization of The Watsons, steps onto the stage to carry on where Austen left off. Laura’s task is to dig Austen out of the hole she got herself into and to try to persuade the characters that their dependence is more than economic; without Laura they literally have no future. Will they work with her to finish the story or rebel and try to resolve things for themselves?
Laura Wade is a critically acclaimed playwright; she is also a smart reader of Jane Austen. Her play is a loving homage and a reimagining in the style of the teenage Austen. The spirit of political and sexual revolution, of Austen’s youth, is in the air: the characters riff on Rousseau and Wollstonecraft. They start to map their own futures when Laura, too, loses the plot. This is thoughtful comedy in what it has to say about art and endings, as well as a joyful celebration of things Austen.
The cast, playwright, and director, Samuel West, all visited Jane Austen’s House Museum as preparation for staging and performance. We were invited to read and advise on aspects of the play. Jane Austen’s House Museum already has a special relationship to The Watsons: in July 2011 we successfully supported the Bodleian Library’s purchase of the larger portion of the manuscript from its private owner (12 pages are in the Morgan Library, New York). In 2014, an exhibition of the manuscript at the Museum offered a rare opportunity to glimpse Austen at work on an evolving fiction.
The Watsons by Laura Wade opened at Chichester Festival Theatre on 3 November and runs until 1 December.