2/2/2024 MR. BENNET’S BRIDE Pumphouse Players
TRUTHS UNIVERSALLY RECOGNIZED
It is a truth universally recognized that Jane Austen fans, having completely devoured (usually multiple times) her collected works as well as countless adaptations on stage and screen and television, will be open to conjecture about their favorite characters and their lives both before and after the events of the well-loved novels. As such, there has developed a “cottage industry” of sequels and homages and parodies (oh, my!).
Emma Wood (and how is that NOT a pseudonym of an Austen fangirl?) has written, so far as my research can discover, the first (and perhaps ONLY) prequel, Mr. Bennet’s Bride. Ms. Wood hails from New Zealand, and her play has received numerous International productions, but none yet in the United States. So, “Cartersville’s Oldest Community Theatre,” Pumphouse Players, has the distinction of producing the play’s American Premiere. To declare my biases up front, I have often worked with Pumphouse Players and have been honored to do so, both by their continuing friendship and regard and even by their annual “Pumpie” awards (voted on by their subscribers). Which is to say, I may choose to celebrate their work when a more judgmental writer would choose to nitpick at the “Community Theatre Shortcomings” of their productions.
So, as background to Mr. Bennet’s Bride, let me quote Jane Austen’s own commentary on the state of the union of the elder Mr. and Mrs. Bennet:
“Had Elizabeth’s opinion been all drawn from her own family, she could not have formed a very pleasing opinion of conjugal felicity or domestic comfort. Her father, captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour which youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind had very early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her. Respect, esteem, and confidence had vanished for ever; and all his views of domestic happiness were overthrown. But Mr. Bennet was not of a disposition to seek comfort for the disappointment which his own imprudence had brought on, in any of those pleasures which too often console the unfortunate for their folly of their vice.
He was fond of the country and of books; and from these tastes had arisen his principal enjoyments. To his wife he was very little otherwise indebted, than as her ignorance and folly had contributed to his amusement. This is not the sort of happiness which a man would in general wish to owe to his wife; but where other powers of entertainment are wanting, the true philosopher will derive benefit from such as are given.
Elizabeth, however, had never been blind to the impropriety of her father’s behaviour as a husband. She had always seen it with pain; but respecting his abilities, and grateful for his affectionate treatment of herself, she endeavoured to forget what she could not overlook, and to banish from her thoughts that continual breach of conjugal obligation and decorum which, in exposing his wife to the contempt of her own children, was so highly reprehensible. “
What Ms. Wood has done is turn her speculator back 25 years to examine the courtship of the elder Bennets, to surmise why such a mismatched pair in fact chose to be matched, and to lay the groundwork for Ms. Austen’s portrait of the family 25 years hence. Robert Bennet, a widower who lost his wife in childbirth, is the patriarch of Longbourne Estate, and bridles at the thought of his foppish cousin Benedict Collins inheriting the homestead, a real possibility because of the stringent and labyrinthine dictates of England’s entailment laws (which I daresay we are all familiar with from the conflicts in Pride and Prejudice itself). Mr. Bennet’s sister, Mary Ellingworth, also widowed young, shares the household and plays the role of mother to her nephew, James Bennet.
Mr. Bennet has grown sour and glum at the resistance of his son to marriage, even to any interest in Longbourne itself. Preferring the company of books (and indeed, himself), James delights in gulling his father and tweaking the elder Bennet’s expectations and plans, believing his father hates him because of his very birth being the cause of the demise of the elder Bennet’s beloved wife. So James is approaching 30 and remains adamant in his resistance to marriage, even while cousin Benedict has recently had a son, named Will. And we all remember how the estimable William Collins behaves as an adult.
With his patience completely exhausted, the elder Bennet gives James an ultimatum – marry in six months or be disowned, dispossessed, and displaced. He even goes so far as to have his lawyer, George Gardiner, draw up a binding contract. Mr. Gardiner (and we should all recognize that name) has a winsome and plain-speaking daughter, Emily, who quickly catches the eye of James. But she is the daughter of an employee so not worthy of consideration as Mistress of Longbourne.
And it is at this point that this writer’s recounting of the major plot points must be forestalled, in the name of banishing any spoilers from the lines of this appreciation.
Needless to say, both James and Emily, while not carbon copies of the characters we know as Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, are nevertheless recognizable as the nascent parents of five daughters-to-be. Emily is indeed extraordinarily attractive and honest and good company (at first). James is indeed witty and clever and more interested in beauty than in compatibility. Emily is so much in Lydia Bennet’s image we can imagine her influence – she is even enamored (at first) of an attractive soldier. And James is so much the reluctant estate heir we can imagine his influence on the eventual decay of Longbourne.
It is also a truth universally recognized that mis-attention to detail can sully one’s unqualified enjoyment of a theatrical display. Here, the period (1780’s) is nicely evoked through Stacey Bern’s costumes – low cut gowns, men’s breeches, powdered wigs, and so forth. BUT there were also a few slips – having night clothes indistinguishable from day clothes, having James not improve his “look” while courting Emily, having the elder Mr. Bennet in the same costume throughout all the months of the plot.
And the music chosen as incidental underscoring was so out of period as to call attention to itself – contemporary pop songs in “Classical-esque” cover versions for pre-show and intermission, Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” as transition, too much Chopin throughout. This was the era of Mozart, and keeping the choices to that period would have gone a long way to evoking the correct era. (In fact, IMHO, the Amadeus soundtrack itself could have provided plenty of music for preshow, transitions, and underscoring.)
I could also carp about mid-act scene changes (in both acts) that were long and (perhaps) ill-conceived, but, that is an issue I have with many low-budget productions, so it’ll be just mentioned here without judgment or insertion of my own suggestions for smoother segues.
In the final analysis, this script is a true delight to fans of Pride and Prejudice, and I really enjoyed it despite the nits I so cruelly picked. The characters met all the expectations I had of the prior generations that were mere subtexts in Austen’s original, and the themes and style of the original novel were very much in evidence.
The performances by leading actors (Michael Verner as James, Hollie Huddleston as Emily) were very good indeed, and the remaining performances (Daniel Fowler as Robert Bennet, Raine Adams as Mary Ellingworth, Jesse Jordan as Benedict Collins, Bob Whaley as George Gardiner, Jasmyn Johnson as Sarah Gardiner, Alexis Zoumberis as Mrs. Graves (the maid), Bailey King as Clara Bowman, and Kandy Arnold as Mrs. Bowman), while displaying a plethora of inconsistent accents and attitudes, were nevertheless not distractingly sub-standard, and, in fact, had moments of excellence.
Mr. Benner’s Bride is that rarest of treats -- a story of characters we thought we knew delivered alongside characters that are new to us, yet surprisingly recognizable. It is a treat to fans of Pride and Prejudice, and, though I am singularly unqualified to judge, a probable treat to those (few) who are not familiar with Austen or her work or her vivid portraits of the England that is quickly galloping towards these characters.
It is a delightfully Austentatious – that is to say rapturously elegant – experience.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com #PumphousePlayers #MrfBennetsBride https://www.eventbrite.com/e/mr-bennets-bride-tickets-631919437047/)