Playwright Janet Munsil says when Theatre Calgary artistic director Dennis Garnhum asked her to adapt Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, she felt she had been offered “the dreamiest assignment in Canadian theatre.”
“It was quite a thrill to be able to write something on such a scale,” Munsil says. “It’s really interesting to take this epic domestic comedy and romance and try to condense it into a stage play while maintaining all the characters and storylines and all the things fans of the book would want to see.”
And fans there are — there’s even a Jane Austen Society of North America, an organization dedicated to “the enjoyment and appreciation of Jane Austen.” Calgary is home to a chapter.
“I didn’t come to this from the perspective of being one of the fanatical Jane fans, but I’ve read all the books and I love them,” Munsil says.
As chance would have it, when she received Garnhum’s call last January, Munsil had just completed Influence, a play set during the same period as Pride and Prejudice — the Regency Era (approximately 1795 – 1830).
“When I finished that play, I thought, ‘I’m never going to get to go back to this period again,’” Munsil recalls. She did indeed return, although she was able to use much of her existing research.
Munsil began her journey of adaptation by reading the novel once every few days for three weeks.
“My approach was to become as familiar as possible with the novel,” she says. “When I sat down to write, I tried to write the story. I let my brain pick out the moments of the story I wanted to focus on. By working on it that way, I gave myself permission to add scenes that aren’t in the novel but that would allow information to be conveyed.”
Munsil says not being a “Jane fanatic” gave her an advantage, in that she was not “insistent” everything from the novel be included in her theatrical adaptation, an approach that would have resulted in a 12-hour piece of theatre.
While she says she preserved many direct quotes from the novel, she also invented her own text to convert lengthy narration in the novel about various characters’ feelings into useable dialogue for the stage. She also edited Austen’s words here and there to make them better fitted for verbalization.
“Dennis was always asking, ‘Is this Jane, or is this you?’ It always felt good when he asked that,” she recalls.
Munsil says she gained “an appreciation for the greatness of this novel” in writing her adaptation, noting that, while the characters are fun and lively, readers get to know them on a deeper psychological level, one of the things she thinks contributes to Pride and Prejudice’s enduring popularity.
Since taking on the project, Munsil has checked out some of the many other adaptations, and she says she is confident hers is markedly different.
“There have been a couple of very serious dramatic adaptations of this recently,” she says, noting that her version captures the romance and the comedy of the Austen original.
As the curtains rise on the Theatre Calgary production, Munsil is busy working on a new play that does, alas, take her out of the Regency Era. Instead, she is writing about an educated horse in the early 20th century.
But she hopes that her contribution will “inspire audience members who haven’t read Pride and Prejudice to read it.”