Gossip and the World of Jane Austen

“Sense and Sensibility” hits the stage at Tufts, a reminder of the timelessness of social pressures—and the importance of a moral compass
Actors in period costumes on stage of Sense and Sensibility production, some acting like they are gossiping with others. The play is a reminder of the timelessness of social pressures—and the importance of a moral compass.
“Whether or not it is delineated in the script, the Gossips are always watching or whispering or contributing to the action,” said director Barbara Wallace Grossman, here with a cast of Sense and Sensibility. Photo: Alonso Nichols
March 3, 2020

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From the beginning of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, the odds are heavily stacked against the two heroines, teenage sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood.

They and their mother, who is widowed and left with a pittance, are utterly dependent on charity of a cousin for a cottage roof over their heads. In Austen’s 1811 classic satire, genteel poverty is the backdrop for the foibles and follies of English society; insecurity is an open invitation for hurtful gossip.

And just as gossip gave shape to the swirl of heartache, chaos, and romance of Austen’s beloved novels, so too does it infuse Kate Hamill’s rollicking stage adaptation at Tufts’ Balch Arena Theater through March 7.  

The play gives fresh voice to gossip in the form of a “chorus of high-society creatures” who come to resemble malicious birds of prey, creatures that show humans at their worst and, ultimately, through the better-angel choices of the sisters, at their best.

“Whether or not it is delineated in the script, the Gossips are always watching or whispering or contributing to the action,” said director Barbara Wallace Grossman, a professor in the Department of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies.

“The intent is to create an atmosphere in which someone is always observing and judging; it’s oppressive and constricting,” she said. “Thankfully the sisters have wit, grace, and courage, so while vulnerable, their story shows how love, joy, faith, family, friendship, loyalty, civility, and kindness can triumph over cruelty.”

It’s a message relevant as ever today, she said. Theater audiences today can draw parallels to platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat, and Instagram—social media tools that can similarly batter self-esteem and lead to—as research has shown—depression and anxiety.

“Hamill has said she felt strongly that gossip in this play has the same kind of potential to destroy people’s lives as social media does today,” said Grossman. “They are equivalent pressures. In my voice course recently, a student introduced the speech he was about to give by telling the class, ‘I’ve chosen a topic that I am passionately against.’ And he talked about how he hates social media. He doesn’t do it. He feels it’s so destructive, nasty, and distracting.”

Charlotte Magee, A23, who plays Elinor, agrees there’s a throughline connecting Austen’s drawing rooms and dance parties to dangers wrought by the internet. “There’s one conversation after which the Gossips run backstage laughing about how they’re going to spread the rumor,” she said, “and to me, that’s a lot like Twitter. You could connect that to how everything in social media gets blown out of proportion and so fast.”

Jane Austen “holds out the hope to us that there is kindness and goodness in the world, and that’s what we see in the ascendant at the end,” said Barbara Wallace Grossman, on set with movement director Danny McCusker. Photo: Alonso NicholsThe whirlwind speed which rumors fly at and wreak chaos is conveyed in the production in warp-speed transitions, which include songs—mashups include hits of eighteenth-century Britain with contemporary songs like “Good Thing” by Zedd and Kehlani, about being fine with being single. The nimble cast of ten includes two actors playing the sisters (Magee as Elinor and Alexandra Everbach, A23, as Marianne) and eight other talented students who assume multiple roles.

“This production has rapid transitions,” said Grossman, crediting movement director Danny McCusker, senior lecturer and head of performance in the department. “Costume changes are very fast—a piano is rolling in and out. So there’s quite a lot involved with the scene changes; Danny makes it all appear effortless.”

The Power of Love

As Grossman describes it, Hamill’s spirited adaptation puts a kinetic, contemporary spin on Austen’s beloved novel. Yet it manages to deftly balance the comic with the tragic. Praised at its 2014 premiere as “inventive, faithful, clever and hilarious” by Theatre Scene, the play darkly touches on themes of selfishness, corruption, vanity, and abuse of power. Beneath its glittering surface are social issues we grapple with today, including economic inequality, homelessness, and injustice in all its varied forms.

As single women without money of their own, Elinor and Marianne have no recourse other than to secure their future by marrying men of means, noted Grossman.

“We get a sense in the play of the positive choices that are possible, even in a circumscribed world,” said Barbara Wallace Grossman. Photo: Alonso Nichols“An unmarried woman living on the edge of the gentry in the early nineteenth century could be a governess, a companion, a nurse, or a schoolmistress, which for Jane Austen was the most undesirable position,” she said. “But she holds out the hope to us that there is kindness and goodness in the world, and that’s what we see in the ascendant at the end.”

Indeed, what attracted Grossman to the play was its inherent hopefulness, and her belief that Sense and Sensibility is about “the power of love, the power of family, hope, dedication, devotion, commitment, and loyalty.”

The strong bond between Eleanor and Marianne, as she writes in her program essay, “provides Sense and Sensibility with its deepest and most meaningful relationship. Their love for one another remains Sense and Sensibility’s luminous center and, quite possibly, the inspiration for Elsa and Anna [of Frozen] more than two centuries later.”

As such, the two sisters’ ability to withstand the pressure that gossip exerts on their vulnerable lives sends a transcendent message about the “importance of having a moral compass, of being true to oneself, of being kind and having core values of family, and we can all pay attention to that message,” she said. “We get a sense in the play of the positive choices that are possible, even in a circumscribed world.”

Put another way: “It’s the good characters who end up happy,” said Grossman. “It’s very much about positive values that I think are important to reinforce at this time. I love to believe that it’s possible to find happiness in this world, however people choose to define it.”

Sense and Sensibility is now playing at Balch Arena Theater at Tufts’ Aidekman Arts Center, 40 Talbot Avenue, Medford, on March 5 and March 6 at 8 p.m., with two performance on March 7 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. To order tickets, contact the box office at 617-627-3493 or order tickets online. A portion of the proceeds from the production are being donated to Swipe It Forward, a program at Tufts that alleviates food insecurity on campus.

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.

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