Risibly dressed stereotypes

What is a person, and how are they manifest in their biography? Jane Austen had an answer to this question, which she presumably thought too obvious to proffer explicitly, but which is evident in the kinds of novels that she wrote, and the ways in which her characters inhabit them. Her assumptions inform her own work, and also that of the vast majority of novelists that have come after her, in many languages, through many forms of creative practice, down to the present day. This view of personhood, implicit in any claim to mimetic accuracy for Realist fiction, is not something I necessarily share, although it is not without its merits, but it is something I engage with on a daily basis. It’s the commonsense view, of a person as something that is found inside a human body, and which may be understood more or less accurately through speech attributed to that body. A whole set of assumptions about the shapes of human lives, and what is to be valued in human behaviour come as part of the package, and although Austen clearly did not invent these notions, her novels have been important instruments in conveying them to successive generations of the middle classes. This is not to suggest that I do not see any value or merit in such ideas, simply that I approach them critically, and that I do not take them as given. The question of what makes a human subject is one on which much remains to be said, but the power and cultural persistence of these assumptions makes them ideal targets for satire.

I didn’t start going to live comedy until Spawn was old enough to announce that comedy was her thing, and that she’d like to see some. Around this time we began taking a regular summer trip to Glasgow, where we have friends who were kind enough to provide us with holiday accommodation when we were close to penniless. I think it was on our second or third trip to Glasgow that we realised that a) Edinburgh is quite close, and b) it hosts a moderately well-known comedy festival in August. Thus began my exposure to stand-up, impro, and all the other delightful forms that comedy takes, and with it a family tradition that continues nearly uninterrupted to this day. On our second year as Fringe-goers we saw a rather entertaining show, in a pub on West Nicolson Street, in which the performers extemporised a play in the manner of Jane Austen, based on titles suggested by the audience. It was funny, and six years later we decided to see it again.

The cast of Austentatious no longer perform their show in The Counting House, an upstairs venue at the Pear Tree; now they are at McEwan Hall, the graduation hall of Edinburgh University, and one of its grandest spaces (in which Spawn sometimes sits exams). I had thought for some time that it would be worth returning to this show (perhaps several times) to see what the performers could do with the different suggestions that came their way, but by the time we got round to it the show’s reputation had obviously blossomed. The mock-Italian-baroque surroundings in which the much-increased audience are entertained could hardly be a better fit for the show, although they are significantly obscured by black cloths, presumably hoisted to tame the acoustics of a space designed to carry an untrained voice to its furthest recesses. The show still seems to work in much the same way, and it’s to the cast’s credit that their performance retains the intimacy and domesticity that it had in its humbler venue.

After requesting suggested titles from the audience and rejecting two, the ensemble begins to improvise on the basis of the third. This is something of a ruse, however, and both of the rejected titles are incorporated into the themes of the narrative. This may sound clever enough, but the performers also somehow manage to intertwine the various themes into something resembling a plot, with a deliberate and logical denouement. Clearly Jane Austen novels have plots which can be treated as formulae, into which any selected material can be slotted, and there are easily lampooned character types which are re-used in her narratives, but it would be interesting to watch a few consecutive shows, and see how much material is retained from performance to performance.

Clearly what emerges from the dramaturgical scenario is predominantly very silly. However, it’s far from pure whimsy, and although there are plentiful references to contemporary culture, the period atmosphere and Regency social tensions are maintained. The most compelling humour comes from the tension between notions of ’then’ and ‘now’, and in the improvisation we saw there was quite a sophisticated exploration of the parallels between social status in Regency England and contemporary social media – a garden full of followers all giving you the thumbs-up through your bay window could be pretty inconvenient! Of course the characters in such an improvised drama are stereotypical, but given the relatively narrow range of social behaviours to which individuals were expected to conform in Austen’s time, it might be suggested not only that Austen’s own characters are stereotypes decorated with distinctions, but that it was probably necessary for members of the gentry to act out those stereotypes, even when they were not confined to the pages of a book. In fact, I would argue that people have been required to perform one of a few clear generic types in most social contexts historically. The satirical insight that Austentatious offers, and which arguably makes it so funny, is that you can dress these stereotypes up with any kind of ridiculous surface features, and they remain recognisably the characters from a Jane Austen novel.

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