In The Genius of Jane Austen (Harper Perennial, June), Byrne explores how theatrical traditions influenced Jane Austen.
How do you see Jane Austen’s relationship to the theater?
For a very long time, readers assumed that Austen was antitheater, mainly because of what the American critic Lionel Trilling wrote about her, but it seems to me that she loved theater. She wrote about going to see plays in her letters and novels and she performed in home theatricals when she was a girl. I see Austen as primarily a comic writer, and her witty, razor-sharp dialogue and strong characters are influenced by the theater.
This is an expanded edition of your first book, Jane Austen and the Theatre, from 2002. What can readers expect from this version?
My first book went out of print and was never published in America. Lots of readers wrote to me asking me to republish, but I wanted to add something fresh and new. I added a long chapter on Austen adaptations, from A.A. Milne’s play of Pride and Prejudice in the 1930s, Miss Elizabeth Bennet, up to Whit Stillman’s film Love and Friendship. I wanted to explore the many, varied ways in which the novels have been adapted.
Were any of Austen’s opinions about theater surprising to you?
I was surprised that Austen liked “low” comedy as well as Shakespeare. She had very eclectic taste and would delight in the farce that often followed the main play. I was surprised that her favorite actor was a relatively little-known man called Robert Elliston, whom she first saw in Bath but who then came to London. He had a propensity for drink and Austen was saddened and shocked when she saw him in later life on the London stage, finding him much altered.
When did you first encounter Austen’s work, and how long have you been writing about her?
I first encountered Austen when I was 14. I attended night school and had an inspiring teacher. We read Mansfield Park and it was love at first sight. I have now been writing about her for more than 20 years and I’m not sure that I will ever stop writing about her. She continues to delight and surprise.
Your final chapter focuses on Austen adaptations for the stage and screen. Which one is your favorite?
My favorite adaptation is Amy Heckerling’s 1995 film Clueless, because it’s the closest to Austen’s spirit and wit. It understands class and hierarchy and manners in a way that she would have loved. I like how it refuses to show Austen as a romantic sentimentalist. The dialogue is first-rate and it stands up to the test of time and is still as funny as when it first came out.