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Jane Austen and the Theatre
April 16 @ 2:00 pm - 4:00 pm EDT
Presented by Deborah C. Payne, American University
As 15 years of scholarship has chronicled, Jane Austen very much liked the theatre. Letters to her sister, Cassandra, reveal trips to London playhouses and occasional outings in Bath. Austen’s enjoyment, however, was perhaps more that of an eager fan hoping to glimpse her favorite star than a novelist looking to imbibe literary inspiration. She was keen to see Kean (Edmund, that is) but was not especially interested in his role as Shylock or in The Merchant of Venice. In that regard, Austen was a product of her time. Regency Theatre was very much an “actor’s theatre,” and plays were tailored for the stars everyone hankered to see. This talk thus pushes (gently) against the notion that highbrow dramatic literature influenced Austen’s writing; rather, it reconstructs the many delights of the Regency stage to suggest that she was more captivated by celebrity and spectacle than Shakespeare.
Deborah C. Payne is a professor in the Department of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C., who specializes in the history of performance and the theatre. In addition to providing dramaturgical expertise to theatre companies in Washington, Professor Payne has published extensively on topics ranging from Restoration actresses, Shakespeare authorship, Samuel Pepys, and Jane Austen’s theatrical spectatorship. Among her publications are The Cambridge Companion to English Restoration Theatre (Cambridge University Press); Four Libertine Plays from the Restoration (Oxford University Press); and Revisiting Shakespeare’s Lost Play: Cardenio/Double Falsehood in the Eighteenth Century (Palgrave Macmillan). Professor Payne has forthcoming two books: The Business of Restoration Theatre, 1660 – 1700 (Cambridge University Press, 2023) and The Shakespeare Theatre Company, 1986 – 2021 (Bloomsbury, 2024), which she is co-authoring with Drew Lichtenburg, Literary Manager for the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. Her next project will attempt to reconstruct English acting styles across the seventeenth century, looking especially at the demise of the old “Blackfriars” style by the 1690s.