How two playwrights brought Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’ to life

Tara Raczenski
Tara Raczenski (Courtesy of the playwright)

Sarah Rose Kearns (Courtesy of the playwright)
Sarah Rose Kearns (Courtesy of the playwright)

It’s one thing to read “Persuasion” and take in its themes and characters. It’s another to take those themes and characters and bring them to life on stage. Tara Raczenski and Sarah Rose Kearns have both done just that. The two are scheduled to talk about their “Persuasion” adaptations at the Jane Austen Summer Program in June.

Raczenski says she grew up in central Kentucky entertaining herself from an early age by creating her own world. That became a desire to create those worlds to entertain others. She got a degree in theater and began teaching and directing for children. She eventually became interested in writing plays. “Besides writing,” she says, “I continue to freelance as a teacher and director in order to feed my new and growing addiction to historical costuming.”

Kearns grew up in Champaign, Ill., then moved to New York City after high school to study acting. Eventually, she got her undergraduate degree in creative writing at Columbia University.

We talked with them about their respective adaptations of “Persuasion”:

Tell me about your interest in Austen and about your adaptation specifically? Raczenski: I had been a fan of Austen’s books and film adaptations for some time when I “discovered” Persuasion in 2013. The impulse to adapt it grew from a desire to stay in that world a little longer. … Anne’s world is largely internalized, which is not so conducive to the action and dialogue required by the stage. [In my adaptation,] I addressed the challenge by giving Anne someone to talk to. This confidant became “Anne of Eighteen,” younger and still hopeful, the embodiment of all her past regrets, present mortifications and undiminished desires. I treated the character of Frederick in a similar manner with “Frederick of Twenty-Five, a spirited and confident young man still deeply hurt from Anne’s rejection of him. This was a departure from Austen, who does not generally write from the man’s perspective, but I found interest and justification in Frederick’s actions and especially in his own eventual admission to Anne of being his own worst enemy.

Following several sessions with a wonderful group of local actors who helped me flesh out the text, David Briggs, Daniel Seaman and many of the actors from the table work generously assisted me in a theatrical staging at High Point Theatre in October 2014. This production was of tremendous value to me and to the process. Like Frederick, “I cannot think of it (or them) without gratitude and admiration. “

Kearns: This is my first full-length play, and I have immensely enjoyed the process of writing it. Playwriting seems a natural way of marrying my interests in literature and theater. It is certainly something I plan to continue doing. “Persuasion” is, perhaps, my very favorite novel. I remember reading it for the first time when I was about 13. I had read “Sense and Sensibility” and “Pride and Prejudice” a year or two before, but the language was just a little too difficult for me, at that time, to appreciate them truly. It was “Persuasion” that made me a thorough Janeite. I adored Anne Elliot (and I still do).

Kearns’s adaptation will be staged in New York on April 23. (Courtesy of the playwright)

My play has not yet been performed, but it’s scheduled to receive a staged reading at a JASNA regional conference in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., on April 23.

How closely do you feel adaptations have to hew to the original material? Where there aspects of the book you felt strongly about including or excluding? Raczenski: It’s a predicament. Some moments are clearly “too good, too excellent” to exclude, but departures which condense the action while expanding the meaning are essential. Even if only for practical purposes. There is a great deal of meaningful action and dialogue, for example, in the walk to Winthrop and Frederick’s assisting Anne into the carriage. A carriage on stage however, while impressive, is expensive, cumbersome and difficult to house when not in use. As are horses. So, I depart and look for opportunities to infuse the meaning of that action into other scenes and other moments. I struggled along these same lines with the scene featuring the Musgrove boys. Having children in a cast, especially knaves so young as Little Charles and Walter, is a real and practical difficulty. However, the moment when Frederick releases Anne from Walter’s clutches is so fraught with delicious conflict, and frankly so deeply and subtly romantic that I hated to leave it out. Eventually the card-carrying romantic in me won out over practicality, and I am hopeful I have found an interesting way around that predicament.

Kearns: Theoretically, I think it’s much more important that an adaptation be strong and satisfying on its own, than that it preserve any kind of “faithfulness” to its source material. Whenever I view an adaptation, I do try hard to take it at face value — to feel my way through the story as presented, rather than getting hung up on comparisons.

Good work is good work, whatever its likeness to the thing that inspired it.

In my own case, however, I find that I am particularly interested in exploring Austen’s characters and themes. I wanted to ask some of the same questions she asks in the novel — questions about love, family, gender identity, and how one adapts to cultural change.

It was also important to me (perhaps excessively so; it’s the method actor in me) to make the world of the story very detailed and coherent. I wanted the dialogue I wrote to feel consistent with Austen’s prose, so I did not include any syntax or vocabulary that could not have been used by English-speakers in 1806/1814-15.

I also strove for historical accuracy regarding social customs: to the best of my knowledge, any impropriety committed by the characters in my play is coded as such, within their world.