The sense of sexual sensibilities: Jane Austen's political economy in regency-era England

By Michael Monasky | December 12, 2017 | 

In the shadows of a parallel universe, with a congressional backlash against a resigning member/former entertainer, a pending Alabama US Senate race involving a candidate accused of pederasty, and a promiscuous president who has proudly and publicly announced his assaultive sexual exploits, the students at Franklin High School in Elk Grove executed a dramatic production of Jane Austen's early 19th century novel, Sense and Sensibility

Set in what was the regency period of the madness of King George III, the Prince of Wales became regent, standing in for his father who suffered from porphyria. George IV was to become discredited due to his lavish and dissolute lifestyle, only to die ten years after his father.

The nouveau riche of the late 18th and early 19th century, enriched by the steam-powered manufacture and marketing of goods, became the new middle class. Landed and titled aristocracy, meanwhile, had, like the Welsh prince, squandered their wealth; only their land and title remained in barter for capital. Daughters and sons were exchanged between these two classes popularly documented in Austen's novels.

Jane Austen not only wrote upon the conflicts between these groups, but also their philosophical and psychological struggle over rationality and human empathy. In this production, the two sisters were cleverly cast, one black, one white; Elinor is the cool-headed planner, and Marianne is her emotional counterpart. They are more parts than characters; parts inherent in every human being, competing for attention, ensuring the survival of the organism.

Austen is nothing if not a pragmatist. She writes about these people as players in a larger political world. Women are the dependents of men, enriched only by their inheritance. The main female characters in this Austen novel do not work, do not hold jobs, have no careers, and are chattel legally beholden to their men. Their concept of freedom is access to a fiscal annuity based upon productive capital. Without the existence of the expropriative nature of the political economy, they have nothing. It is a zero sum game, of which they are the few, intermediate winners at the expense of many, impoverished working losers.

Back to this magnificent production; it was over two hours of fall-out-of-your-seat slapstick comedy. The high energy cast began the show with a toe-tapping jazz routine, an ensemble of about 15 choreographed to set the stage for the many scene-changing antics based upon chairs, beds, tables, walls, and doorways on wheels. Caitlin Knapp's direction engaged the students in impressive use of satire, comedy, slapstick, and modifications in perspective; even a simple conversation became subject to the evolving eye of the camera. Cast members propelled actors while in their seats; never a dull moment, indeed.

Austen's gossipy style imitates modern social media, and that's why it works as a current morality tale. Revolving full circle to the matter of sexual panic in political parties and the media today, the story of the impoverished yet unemployable Dashwood women is a parallel but unequal allegory of low pay and high ceilings for working women today. Although driven by different entrapment mechanisms, women, as Janis Joplin once sang, is losers.

As they age, adults eventually surrender control to a younger generation. Sometimes that exchange takes place as parents and leaders seek the confidence and advice of older children and young adults, from which can come wisdom collectively forgotten by elders.

Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility is a timeless restatement of discrimination by gender and class. With a satirical wink and a nod, Franklin High School's production included race in the mix. (At intermission, artistic director Lisa Sandoval said she's thrilled to add Godspell to the spring repertoire; can't wait for that interpretation.)


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