Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 6 2019 01:00PM

The family-friendly Christmas show is a staple of local arts companies. Every December, the main stage in the regional theater near me is given over to performances of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, perfectly calculated to sell a boatload of tickets to nostalgic grandparents and fresh-faced young ‘uns. At about the same time, every ballet company in the land is hauling out its version of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, with much the same goal.


And now, it seems, Jane Austen has joined this august company.


Three years ago, playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon authored Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, a Pride and Prejudice sequel that gives the neglected Mary Bennet a Yuletide romance. The play has now been produced everywhere from Northern California to Washington D.C., and at least one company—the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis—will be back for seconds next Christmas.


Miss Bennet’s popularity helped the prolific Gunderson earn the title of America’s “most-produced playwright” in 2017-18. (Further down the list was another Austen-inspired playwright, Kate Hamill.) And last year, Gunderson and Melcon followed up their Austenesque hit with The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley, which takes place downstairs in the servants’ hall during the events of the earlier play.


Much to my chagrin, no company near me has yet staged either play—presumably, my local regional theater is too busy with the aforementioned A Christmas Carol—so I can’t comment on their quality or their fidelity to Austen’s characters.


Giving Austen the Certified Holiday Fun treatment, however, is a little odd. The "traditional" Christmas season, with its decorated trees, well-stuffed stockings, and gifts for the kiddies, is a Victorian invention, and Austen’s books, set in an earlier era, feature only three Christmas scenes, two of which are far from featuring unambivalent festive cheer. (See my discussion of the Christmas scenes in Persuasion, Emma, and Mansfield Park.) We love Our Jane, and we love Our Christmas, but, really, it’s only the Gunderson-Melcon imagination, plus the financial exigencies of cultural programming, that unites the two.


Still, far be it from me to object to any injection of Austen into our national cultural life. I’ll be first in line for tickets if Miss Bennet and The Wickhams join the holiday rotation anywhere near me.


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