2013 was an anniversary year for Jane Austen, celebrating 200 years since the publication of 'Pride and Prejudice.' While recently re-visiting 'Northanger Abbey,' her first published work, I came across the much celebrated passage in which Miss Austen reminds us of the values and virtues of her own art by having her heroine, the impressionable but likeable Catherine, take up the pastime of reading novels:
Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding—joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronised by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it.
Theatre-makers take note: we do ourselves just such a disservice whenever we show disregard, disrespect or disdain for our own timeless medium. The oft-repeated cant, 'whither theatre in the digital age?' has sounded loud in recent years. Swingeing cuts in public subsidy for the arts have led the great and the good to ponder aloud, “what is the social benefit of what you do?” They might well ask the same of Jane Austen.
Her admirers would be justified in defending Austen from the charge of self-indulgence by pointing to the huge revenue her creations have generated from tourists, from movie adaptations, from well-intentioned imitators (first the lucratively successful 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,' now Joanna Trollope's liberal re-write of 'Sense and Sensibility'). But the real value of her work is surely in its heart, spirit and soul; in the way it speaks to us across the divide which now spans two centuries. Through humour, through heartache, through hope, Austen's novels tell stories which satisfy us on a transcendental level. And that, of course, is the whole point.
I was recently drawn into a conversation by the provocative premise that “it is not enough for theatre merely to entertain.” To which I here posit the rejoinder, “why not?”
That pejorative “merely” aside, the charge sounds paradoxical. As the playwright Aaron Sorkin puts it, our business is “to captivate for as long as we have asked for your attention.” And what better way to captivate than to entertain? Put it another way: what captivates us more, a dull read – however factual; however worthy – or Jane Austen? Why do we keep coming back to watch yet another staging of 'Hedda Gabler'? – precisely because “people don't do such things” as Ibsen shows us, and when they do break the bounds of convention they captivate us: we are entertained.
To entertain is our business; it is our craft; it is our imperative. To do it down – to call it “mere” or term it “insufficient” is to miss the very point. It's not our business to tell people what to think, or how to think; merely to stimulate and engage them. Our business may be laughter; our business may be lamentation, but if it fails to entertain then it has failed in every respect.
Entertainment is not always about provoking humour. It is about appealing to the deepest sensibilities of a reader, audience or interlocutor and challenging the status quo. Let's rally in defence of entertainment – at least once in a while. After all, if the hero or heroine of one theatrical endeavour be not patronised by his or her peers, from whom can we expect protection and regard? I simply cannot approve of it.