theatrical adaptations

Austen’s ‘Emma’: a wit and a way

Bag&Baggage's adaptation of Jane Austen's classic comedy of manners plugs into a great literary tradition of wit

I’ve been thinking about wit lately, partly because Bag&Baggage Theatre is about to open the Oregon premiere of Michael Frye’s stage adaptation of Emma, two hundred years after Jane Austen’s comedy of manners first met the printing press. Using just five actors, Frye’s adaptation presents the story as if it were a “private theatrical” in the Austen family home, an approach that in itself seems at least a sly conceit. The production opens Friday and continues through May 29 at the Venetian Theatre in Hillsboro.

Like Rossini‘s splendidly whimsical opera buffa The Barber of Seville, which also made its debut in 1816Austen’s novel was technically part of the 19th century. But both feel more like products of the 18th century (as the Edwardian years seem an extension of the 19th century, which could be said to have ended in 1914).

Clara Hillier as Emma, Joey Copsey as Knightly for Bag&Baggage. Casey Campbell Photography.

Clara Hillier as Emma, Joey Copsey as Knightly for Bag&Baggage. Casey Campbell Photography.

Certainly Rossini’s opera, with its libretto by Cesare Sterbini adapted from a 1775 comedy by Pierre Beaumarchais, is fully in the spirit of the Age of Reason, embellished by a happy nod back to the 17th century theatrical glories of English Restoration comedy and the French satires of Moliere. And Austen’s class comedies seem slung somewhere between classic Enlightenment intellectual balance (Haydn, Swift, Mozart, Gibbon, Pope) and the surge of Romanticism that would engulf the 19th century (Beethoven, Byron, Mary Shelley, Harriet Beecher Stowe, on down to Wagner).

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