Directing Jane Austen's The Visit

by Lesley Peterson
former faculty member of Branksome Hall, Toronto, ON
present faculty member of the University of North Alabama, Florence, AL


The first performance on record of Jane Austen's The Visit, a short play Austen wrote in about 1789, when she was thirteen years old, took place on Wednesday, November, 2, 2005, at Branksome Hall, an independent girls' school in Toronto, Ontario. The Branksome Janeites gave two performances on that memorable day: one during the lunch hour for students and faculty, and one in the evening for family and friends. Some of the cast members had never acted before, but considered Austen's novels old friends; some had never read Austen before, but had considerable theatrical training and experience. All were very close to the same age Austen had been when she first wrote the play, and were deeply interested in the possibility of connecting with Austen's characters and her themes. I initiated the project and took final responsibility as director, and we were also supported in innumerable ways by the expertise and hard work of Ms Judith Friend, Head of the Drama Department at Branksome, but rehearsals were exploratory and collaborative in nature, for which process I credit much of our success. And success I will call it, despite the occasional flub or falter, for by all accounts (and some of the cast and crew's comments are recorded at the end of this article), we ended up with a show that more than met our objectives: the actors enjoyed performing in it, their teachers and classmates found it both entertaining and relevant, and their parents and friends found it worth taking an evening to see-despite its total run time of a mere fifteen minutes. Furthermore, even though this production was designed specifically for a particular performance space and audience, its portability was proven the following year, when (this time under the Judith Friend's direction), the Branksome Janeites brought a remount of their production to the Toronto JASNA Chapter's October, 2006 AGM.

With no recorded production history of this specific play to draw on, our decisions had to be guided by the requirements of the script, of course, but were influenced as well by our available resources, by our knowledge of the fact that we would be producing the show for classmates, teachers, friends and family, not some abstract and faceless public, and by my sense that Austen's juvenilia is in general characterized not only by an exuberant playfulness but also by an undisguised delight in poiesis, the act of making. It seemed to me that we could best convey both these qualities by reproducing as much as possible the sense of improvisation and intimacy that amateur home theatre typically conveys to its audience, while bearing in mind as well that in the professional theatre of the eighteenth century, illusion was not the goal it was later to become; for instance, the lights remained on throughout the performance, so that sets were changed in full view of the audience. Consequently, the curtained proscenium was not for us, and neither were high production values. Although we would indulge our pleasure in dressing up, we would let no considerations of age or gender influence casting; the fourth wall existed only to be broken. Furthermore, our show's design would reflect the Branksome Hall community by which and for which it was produced. Both despite and because of the script's remarkable brevity, many difficult decisions had to be made, but these were the principles that guided all discussions and decisions, from initial casting through rehearsal and set design. Here, then, is a record of what we chose to do, and why; it is our hope that our discoveries and experiences will challenge and inspire others to prove for themselves how very stage-worthy The Visit is, and to explore its dramatic potential yet further by making decisions perhaps very different from our own.

Jane Austen, Performer

The first challenge we set for ourselves was this: how to make the most of this very short script? I wanted to use every single word that we possibly could, so we made dialogue out of Austen's paratext and scene headings. This was accomplished by adding three actors to our cast, whom we dressed in black suit jackets, black pants, and white shirts. In the programme they were identified as "hostesses [and] servants," but this brief description hardly does justice to their many functions, as the role each actor played included servant, stagehand, master/mistress of ceremony, and authorial representative. At the beginning of the performance, one of them announced Austen's title: "The Visit: a comedy in 2 acts." Likewise, one announced each new scene just as Austen described it: "Act the First Scene the first a Parlour," for instance. Between the title and the first scene, however, two of these essential cast members also spoke Austen's dedication, sharing the following lines between them:


To the Rev:d James Austen


The following Drama, which I humbly recommend to your Protection & Patronage, tho' inferior to those celebrated Comedies called "The School for Jealousy" & "The travelled Man," will I hope afford some amusement to so respectable a Curate as yourself; which was the end in veiw when it was first composed by your Humble Servant the Author.

Just before each performance, one of these actors invited a school administrator in the audience to move into a special chair which we had marked "Reserved"; then, the two Austens spoke these lines to this administrator, who found herself performing (without rehearsal) the role of the Reverend James Austen. The dedication concluded with the two actors bowing together, saying the final words, "the Author," in chorus. Then, Austen disappeared into her characters; the first actor, who had held a teacup during the dedication, moved to meet the second, who had held a saucer; teacup joined saucer in the hands of one, who transformed into a participant in the first scene by playing the role of a servant handing that same cup of tea to the sleepy Mr. Stanly, who entered, yawning and rubbing his eyes in our production, having awoken from a difficult night's sleep in "a Bed too short."

The other Austen, meanwhile, had quietly stepped back towards the playing area for act one, scene two, where she waited unobtrusively until it was time to transform into a stagehand and change the scene. Contrived? Yes, certainly. Fun? Well, we thought so. Appropriate? Given our vision for this production, it seemed fit. We were both exposing and celebrating the playwright's magic, whereby words delivered by flesh and blood bodies have the power to transform an ordinary piece of floor into a stage, writing into dialogue, objects into props, and people into performers. And we were making clear to our particular audience that this show was especially for them.

Stage Design and Scene Changes

There was no point, after all, in trying to hide the machinery that produces theatrical magic; we had no painted backdrops, no wings, no trapdoor, and no curtain. Indeed, the playing space we chose for our performance, and the way we chose to use it, meant no curtain could be possible. Scene changes had to take place, therefore, in full view of the audience, and we happily embraced this necessity; although lighting helped to distinguish our various playing spaces and guide the audience's attention to the proper area of the room, we used no blackouts. This was an easy decision to make, given what we knew of the theatre of Austen's day, but exactly how to manage the scene changes was much less easy to decide. Austen's play has four scenes in total, and calls for a change of location for every scene; although it was possible, we felt, to conflate the parlour (act one, scene one) and the drawing room (act two, scene one) without artistic injury, furnishing is so important in this play that it is simply not possible to perform the entire thing in one spot unless the production company can either find a cast of eight skilled pantomimes able to do without props entirely, or muster a small army of stage hands with the speed of a NASCAR pit crew, able to swarm the stage area and instantly transform a sitting room with exactly six chairs (act two, scene one) into a formal dining room (act two, scene two), featuring a a "closet" full of liquor as well as a table large enough to hold eight place settings, myriad bottles of wine, and innumerable dishes of food-not to mention enough chairs for all eight actors. The script is so short that, given our limited girlpower, we were worried that, if we tried to stage the entire play in the same physical space, we'd spend as much time changing the scenes as we spent performing them!

As if this weren't enough, Austen poses yet another staging difficulty with act one, scene two, where she calls for technology that in Austen's day as now was out of reach of most amateur theatre companies. This scene is to feature "Stanly & Miss Fitzgerald, discovered," which means that the actors do not "Enter"; the scene must open to the audience's view with the actors already in place. Such moments were standard in the professional theatre of the Restoration and eighteenth century, and were readily achieved through the use of scenic backdrops painted on pairs of shutters which slid on and off the stage in grooves. On the relatively narrow but deep stages of the eighteenth century, there was room for actors to take their places between two different sets of shutters, so that they could be "discovered" in a new scene when the shutters concealing them from the audience were slid apart. Although this technique was beyond our means, we didn't want to ignore Austen's directions entirely, for the effect she calls for here is highly appropriate to the scene: Miss Fitzgerald and her houseguest, Mr. Stanly, are in the middle of a discussion about their friends and relations in which little is said but much is revealed. We understood that staging this exchange as a "discovery" scene would help to communicate to the audience that they were eavesdropping on a private conversation fraught with significance.

What, then, were we to do? And what, we often wondered, could Austen have expected her brothers, sisters, and neighbours to do with a script that calls for so many and so elaborate scene changes in such a short space of time? Even the manor of Mansfield Park offers its residents resources of space, time, and money that were probably not available at Steventon. Do these formidable technical challenges explain why there is no record of The Visit's having ever been performed by Jane and her family?

Well, perhaps. Yet given the Austen family's enthusiasm for theatricals, it was hard to dismiss completely the notion that Austen may at least have expected her fellow actors to consider The Visit as a possibility. We decided, therefore, to trust that this play could be performed with limited resources, "discovery scene" and all, and we were determined to find a way. Our own solution, accordingly, was to take advantage of the fact that amateur theatricals can and must be performed in unconventional spaces, so we used the same Drama classroom in which we rehearsed. This is a large rectangular space with masks and mementoes of previous Branksome productions adorning the walls: a space of exploration, of development, of shifting and permeable boundaries between actor and audience. There is a sound and lighting booth at one end, but no stage per se, no wings, no curtains, no levels, and only two doors. It was perfect.

We divided the room into two roughly triangular areas; one was for the audience, and for our performances we set up folding chairs in that space, enough to accommodate approximately 50 people. Stage Right, closest to the door our actors used for entrances and exits, was set with the famously inadequate six chairs in an L-shaped arrangement; this was our parlour and our drawing room. Upstage Centre was a settee with a wicker folding screen in front of it; the actor playing Miss Fitzgerald was seated there before the play began, and the actor playing Stanly simply slipped behind the screen when he exited the parlour at the close of act one, scene one. One servant joined the other who had been waiting there; and as they announced the scene, they ceremonially folded up the screen and moved it behind the playing area out of the way. We were interested to discover, in rehearsal, that by foregrounding the artifice of the scene change in this way we created a surprisingly modern effect, reminiscent of TV game shows: in moving the screen to reveal the scene hidden behind, our two actors enjoyed their very own "Vanna White moment."

The most elaborate transition, however, was between the final two scenes of the play. Austen tantalizingly ends act 1, scene 2, with everyone lining up in pairs and heading towards the dining parlour; "Stanly," we are told, "hands Cloe," and so forth. We knew that the procession from drawing room to dining room on formal dinner occasions was an important performance of status in the eighteenth century. We decided, accordingly, to perform that procession, from Upstage Right to Downstage Left, where the sideboard, table (and chairs) had been sitting waiting throughout the play, pre-set. Once again the servants initiated this transition; they ceremonially picked up the portrait of the Fitzgerald's Grandmother and the easel upon which it was resting, which had been presiding over events in the parlour/drawing room, and they carried it at the head of the procession like a religious icon. Upon arrival in the dining room, Grandmother was placed where she could again preside over events, and the servants turned to the important business of filling glasses and serving dishes of food. This procession also made our play just a little bit longer; in particular, it allowed the actor playing Lord Hampton greater opportunity for the wonderful physical comedy with which she transformed this nearly-silent character into one of the comic stars of the show: leaning over his cane, Lord Hampton thumped and harrumphed glumly from one room to the next, from one scene of communal neglect and spousal bullying to another.

It was act two, scene one, however, that provided the greatest opportunity for physical comedy. The scene opens with "Lord Fitzgerald Miss Fitzgerald and Stanly seated," waiting for their guests. Taking our inspiration in this instance partly from the Marx Brothers, we played the arrivals as a flurry of bows, handshakes, and salutations, in which everyone greeted everyone else. We also found that the order in which Austen had the guests arrived provided maximum opportunity for physical comedy: "Sir Arthur & Lady Hampton. Miss Hampton, Mr. & Miss Willoughby." Although Miss Fitzgerald remained seated until the end of the scene, her male companions both rose to greet the three Hamptons, and then when all the greetings had finally been accomplished, all six characters took seats. However, all three of the seated men had immediately to jump to their feet once again when the Willoughby siblings walked in. After the second round of greetings, poor Sir Arthur looked around and found himself without a chair. The audience had already been giggling for some time at this point, so they were well primed for Miss Fitzgerald's famous solution to the seating problem: "Bless me! There ought to be 8 Chairs & there are but 6. However if your Ladyship will but take Sir Arthur in your lap & Sophy my Brother in hers, I beleive we shall do pretty well."

The servants took charge once again as the scene closed. Both Stanly and Cloe are supposed to speak asides; however, the actors were all seated so close to one another that we felt the asides could only be treated as meta-theatrical jokes. So our Stanly snapped his fingers and froze the other actors into a tableau, while he exclaimed, "What a cherub is Cloe!" He then snapped the actors back into life; a second later, Miss Willoughby snapped her fingers and again froze the other actors into a tableau, while she gloated, "What a seraph is Stanly!" However, she "forgot" to snap a second time, so that the actors held the tableau until the servant, entering to announce dinner, saw the frozen characters, shook her head, "snapped" them back into life again, and then announced, "Dinner is on table," setting everyone into motion.

Character Motivation and Plot

Before we began rehearsals, I thought as other readers of "The Visit" have thought: the play has a beginning and an end, but no middle. The multiple marriages that the conventions of comedy require, and with which Austen so generously provides us in her closing scene, are hilariously unmotivated. But although familiar with Brechtian and absurdist conventions, we were primarily a group of actors trained to look for motivation and subtext; in rehearsal, consequently, we discovered plenty of both. In exploring act one, we were reminded of the crucial role played by social gatherings in the lives of the eighteenth-century gentry class. A dinner party, as Austen well knew, was to polite society what a singles bar is to the young people of today: an opportunity to meet and mingle with eligible mates. Miss Fitzgerald's guest list is carefully composed of just the right number of single young men and equally single young women, along with an older couple to lend the gathering status and propriety. Miss Fitzgerald knows what she's doing, and probably hopes for results. The interest shown in her guest list by Stanly is also, we decided, far from casual. After all, although he begins their tete-a-tete by asking about the entire guest list, his next question zeroes in on the eligible young women: "Miss Hampton & her Cousin are both Handsome, are they not?" Our Stanly asked his first question with barely restrained impatience, waited in suspense while Miss Fitzgerald listed off the guests, and reacted with a triumphant gesture when he learned at last that the Hamptons' "neice" would be there-a gesture that was highly visible to the audience but invisible to Miss Fitzgerald, since Stanly was standing behind her settee. Perhaps, we thought, it was his interest in the fair Cloe that motivated Stanly to endure the Fitzgeralds' uncomfortable furniture in the first place! We also noted that Stanly seems as interested in Fitzgerald's romance as in his own, and it seemed possible to us that Stanly is motivated to consider matrimony by the desire to imitate his respectable friend that he expresses at the close of act one, scene one: "Your virtues could he imitate, / How happy would be Stanly's fate!" Could Stanly be planning to grow up-by settling down? Other young men have taken that route to maturity. Is there actually room for significant character development in this very short play? We thought there might be! And that was how we decided to play it.

Having once made that decision, we found an astonishing number of opportunities for character development inscribed in this dramatic text. The arrival of the guests in act two, scene one, was not only great physical comedy, but also an ideal opportunity to develop our actors' characters and relationships through non-verbal action and gesture. For instance, each time one of the young men took the hand of the woman of his dreams he held it-just a little bit too long. Similarly, the ways in which the women greeted one another were calculated to convey friendliness, snobbery, or polite disdain, according to our reading of their characters. Our actor chose to play a Miss Fitzgerald who cordially disliked Miss Hampton; this subtext allowed us to make some kind of psychological sense of Miss Fitzgerald's otherwise nonsensical comments to Stanly, in which she reports with one breath that her brother "would prefer" Miss Hampton "for his Wife," while dismissing his interest in her with the next. We even found justification for Miss Fitzgerald's dislike of Sophia Hampton in the latter's excessive interest in alcohol. Her interests are quite different from those of the other dinner guests, we noted: whereas Stanly expresses "a secret pleasure in helping" his Cloe to "fried Cow heel & Onion" during dinner, Miss Hampton asks Lord Fitzgerald for "warmed ale." She also worries that Stanly isn't drinking enough. When Stanly protests that he is "drinking draughts of Love from Cloe's eyes," Miss Hampton disapproves, and our actor enjoyed pronouncing her rebuke, "That's poor nourishment truly," with decidedly slurred speech. By contrast, we decided that Willoughby is a young man too shy to say or do anything either shocking or romantic. To Miss Fitzgerald's loaded comment at dinner, "I fear you don't meet with any thing to your liking," our Willoughby tried to make her a compliment but chickened out mid-sentence: "Oh! Madam, I can want for nothing while [long pause inserted here] there are red herrings on Table." Once again, this reading gave us recognizable motivation for Miss Fitzgerald's final, "Since you Willoughby are the only one left, I cannot refuse your earnest Solicitation-here is my hand." Although few words of courtship are spoken by the lovers during dinner, we recalled that Austen was familiar with Tom Jones, in which Henry Fielding so memorably demonstrates just how much can be decided between a couple over food. And we found that the few words Austen does provide to her actors are just enough-and just right.

Austen gives the last word in the play to Lady Hampton, who exclaims to the three newly engaged couples, "And may you all be Happy!" In our production, however, we gave the final comment to her spouse, who expressed his lack of confidence in their future happiness by dropping his head onto the dinner table-or rather, into the plate which his wife has vigilantly kept empty throughout the meal-with a despairing thud.

The Role of the Grandmother

Despite the commonalities between twenty-first century and eighteenth-century dating practices, we understood that the courtship and dining rituals of eighteenth century England may still seem a little foreign to Branksome students. However, we found in Austen's text another element that the members of our audience of all ages could relate to, thanks to Branksome's particular traditions, some of which date back to the school's founding more than a century ago. Like young Lord Fitzgerald and his sister, who live in the stately home they inherited from their grandmother and who deal on a daily basis with the consequences of some of her more eccentric decisions, we too spent our days in a building in which we were constantly reminded of the legacy left to us, in this case by Branksome's early principals: strong, determined, and somewhat eccentric women. We believed, accordingly, that every member of the Branksome community has a good idea of how the Fitzgeralds may feel about that redoubtable (spiritual) grandmother who, though absent, nevertheless continues to exert a powerful influence on everyone's lives. Since the portraits of past and present principals gaze from the walls of Branksome at students, faculty, and visitors, and since Austen makes portraits significant features of both Pemberley and Sanditon House, it seemed appropriate to us to use a copy of Branksome's portrait of Miss Read, one of the school's most legendary principals, in our play. As I have mentioned, she presided over three of the four scenes. And every time Lord Fitzgerald or his sister mentioned their grandmother, the actor gestured reverently towards her portrait.

Jane Austen, Dramatist

Although realism was not our goal, the Branksome Janeites did decide to look for clues in the script that would allow us develop characters whose actions were motivated and consistent (if not always rational), and I would like to acknowledge that this was not a choice that every director may wish to imitate. Certainly what we lost in trade was the opportunity to fully revel in the absurdity with which the play is so full, from the Fitzgeralds' outrageous treatment of their guests (beds too short, chairs too few, food too unappetizing), to the lack of clear logic in any conversation, to the extreme compression of the plot. In my view a production that treated "The Visit" as a proto-absurdist text would be completely justifiable, highly entertaining, and a valuable opportunity to further explore Austen's text, and I hope I get to see one some day. However, we did find that our particular interpretive decisions led to a richly rewarding experience; in fact, we were astonished to discover, once we put the play on its feet, just how well Austen understood that actions can say far more than words, and just how keen an observer she was of the complex messages that can be conveyed through trivial or innocuous words. In fact, I was struck by the similarities between the dialogue in "The Visit" and that famous scene towards the end of Sense and Sensibility in which Elinor learns that Edward is not, after all, married: a scene in which very little is said, yet a great deal is expressed. Austen does not describe her actors' gestures and expression in "The Visit" as she does in her novels, but neither does Shakespeare. And only through the rehearsal process did we come to appreciate just how rich with detail and significance is the performance that Austen has inscribed in this dramatic text. The author of "The Visit" not only understands how much can be said without words; she also understands to a remarkable extent the craft by which a playwright can use words to guide actors in establishing action, character, mood, tone, and conflict. "The Visit" is a very good play.

Cast and Crew of the November 2, 2005 performance

Hostesses, Servants Claire Steep
  Anna Moore
  Katie O'Connor
Lord Fitzgerald Ella Rowan
Stanly Chloe Sullivan
Miss Fitzgerald Rachel Penny
Lord Hampton Priya Jain
Lady Hampton Emma Alter
Sophia Hampton Sadia Ahmed
Mr. Willoughby Katie Dorian
Cloe Willoughby Emily Herczeg

Director: Lesley Peterson
Producer, Assistant Director: Judith Friend
Stage Manager: Meredith Li
Publicity: Meredith Li, Emily Herczeg
Cover and Poster Art: Juliet McMaster


The Branksome Janeites gratefully acknowledge the generosity of the following people and organizations whose assistance has been indispensable to the success of this production: Karen Murton, Rosemary Evans, Karrie Weinstock, Hilkka Luus, Sharon Lawrence, Paul Sullivan, Theatrix Costume House, Juliet McMaster, Peter Sabor, Christine Alexander, Eric Homich, Karen Fabian.

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