It took me a while to figure out how to approach this play. Like everyone I had to read Jane Austen in high school, but I hated it. I was a country boy with four brothers and a built in disgust of status and class dynamics. No one in my family had as much as been to college, never mind any aspirations of climbing any social ladders. In the dusty ranch town I was raised in, and especially in my family, a person was judged on what they did, not who they were. This world Austin presents, therefore, of privileged people carefully navigating and manipulating their status amongst their peers was both foreign and anathema to me. So when reading Pride and Prejudice senior year of high school I of course made a big deal of how terrible, schmaltzy and meaningless it all was. How could anyone actually care about these characters!? Despite this bias I clearly remember exclaiming at the happy ending, “It’s about time those two sucked face!”
Without being fully aware of it the story telling had drawn me in and made me care about the outcome.
Many, many, years later I was cast in this production of Emma. I told an old friend who was in that high school class with me and I think he is still laughing. He thought it a beautiful comeuppance. He thought it wonderful that I couldn’t be an obstinate jackass and actually had to give it a fair chance. I think he then proceeded to text everyone he still knew from high school. Apparently I left an impression during that Jane Austen segment in AP English.
Much older and maybe a little wiser I agreed with him. I was excited to set my biases aside and delve into this story. I have never read Emma, or seen a movie version of it. This show is my first exposure to this story and I wanted to keep it that way. I wanted to find the story and the character of Mr. Knightly entirely on my own. I am so glad. Like that idiot boy in AP English I have once again been pulled into the vast richness that is Jane Austen’s story telling, but this time around I am a willing passenger on the ride. It helps that I think Emma is a better story too.
On the surface it is hard to care about these characters that dance so much above the fray of normal human troubles. The magic of the writing is in what lies beneath though. Underneath the proprieties, manners and airs they are as deeply flawed, profoundly unsure and as quietly terrified as the rest of us. This is the genius of Austen. She strips away the veneer of status, the authority of proclaimed superiority and leaves us with people. Just people. Like me and you and maybe a little worse for their belief that they are not me and you.
Emma herself is an unusual person for this world. A strong minded, independent young woman flexing her muscles and pushing the boundaries of what a woman was allowed to be in her time. She moves through her little privileged world like a hurricane. Mr. Knightley may be the only character who sees who and what she really is and he loves her more and more for it. Though he does feel the need to temper her enthusiasm with a little moral honesty from time to time.
I could go on and on with my thoughts on this story, and therein lies the point.
A good story can make one step outside the comfortable reach of one’s preconceptions and conceive anew one’s world.
This is one of those stories, and it doesn’t hurt that it is being performed and staged by a group of actors and a staff of artists whom I admire immensely and feel honored to be working with and learning from. It’s gonna be one hell of a show.
I just wish I could go back and tell my 12th grade self all about it.