Emma takes to the West End stage

An exploration of the first London stage production of Jane Austen’s Emma

The novels of Jane Austen have been the basis of many dramatic performances from the first home theatrical extracts arranged by Rosina Filippi and published by J M Dent in 1895, to the modern adaptations of the novels for the movie and television industries. The first full play to appear as a dramatic adaptation was a version of Pride and Prejudice published in 1906, and several more adaptations of this novel have continued to appear over the subsequent 100 years, including, in 1936, Miss Elizabeth Bennet by A.A. Milne, the author of Winnie-the-pooh.

Dramatic versions of Emma

The first full dramatic version of Emma to be published was Romances by Emma by DeWitt Bodeen in 1938, which was first performed in Pasadena, California. This was followed by Emma by Marion Morse MacKaye; the play was written in 1937 but the author died before its first publication by Macmillan and first performance at the North Dakota Agricultural College, both occurring in 1941. The first English dramatisation of Emma was a three act play called Emma, written by John Lindsey and Ronald Russell, which was published by the theatrical script publisher Samuel French in 1943 and first produced at The Little Theatre in Bristol in March of the same year.

The first London production of Emma

The first production of Emma to appear in a theatre in London was a three act play, Emma, written by Gordon Glennon and published by Macmillan in 1945. Before coming to St James’s Theatre in London, the play had a successful regional tour, opening with performances in Rugby in August 1943 and including a popular and critically acclaimed season in Manchester before the first London performance on 7th February 1945. The play was produced by the popular film star Robert Donat, who worked as a theatrical promotor during the Second World War. The play had a cast of 12 actors, led by Anna Neagle, (1904-1986), a popular starlet who had started as a stage dancer but who had achieved recent film successes in the title roles of films about Nell Gwyn (1935), Queen Victoria (1937 and 1938) and Edith Cavell (1939). As well as a very good copy of the first Macmillan edition of Emma (1945) in dust jacket, I also have a copy of the program for the London season of the play, which was only moderately successful at around 60 performances.

The play, which ran in London from February to April 1945 was in competition with air raids from Hitler’s Vengeance weapons, the V1 “Doodlebug” and the V2 rocket designed by Wernher von Braun. A V2 exploded very close to the theatre during one evening performance. There is interesting advice in the program to the theatre patrons on how to react to an air raid, which I have reproduced below.

Emma the play

The play is structured into three acts, with Act 1 consisting of a single scene and Acts 2 and 3 both arranged as two scenes each. The program tells us that the events take place in 1815. All of the action of the play occurs on the same set, which represents the Woodhouse’s drawing room at Hartfield. This means that we hear about events that occur elsewhere, such as Harriet’s encounter with the gypsies, and the Weston’s ball, all during conversations in the drawing room, and that Mr. Elton’s attempted proposal to Emma, Frank Churchill’s misapprehended conversation to Emma about Jane Fairfax and Emma’s insulting remark to Miss Bates all are arranged to occur within the Woodhouse’s drawing room.

The dialogue of the play is sometimes close to the original words of the novel and at other times diverges quite considerably. For instance, here from Act 2 Scene 2 of the play is Glennon’s version of the remark by Miss Bates which provokes Emma’s insult, followed by Emma’s unfortunate response:

Miss Bates: Oh, that will not be difficult. I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as I open my mouth.

Emma: (unable to resist) Ah, madam, but you will be limited as to the number – only three at once.

Emma Act 2 Scene 2.

This is a considerable contraction of the original dialogue from Chapter 43 of Emma, which takes place during the outing to Box Hill. It diminishes the prolix nature of Miss Bates’ conversation. Here is the original as written by Jane Austen:

“Oh! very well,” exclaimed Miss Bates; “then I need not be uneasy. ‘Three things very dull indeed.’ That will just do for me, you know. I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth, shan’t I?” looking round with the most good-humoured dependence on everyone’s assent. “Do you not all think I shall ?”

Emma could not resist.

Ah, ma’am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me, but you will be limited as to the number – only three at once.

Emma, Chapter XLIII

I leave the reader to judge how well or otherwise Mr. Glennon has done with this famous passage.

Images from the play

Both the program and the book of the play give the original cast list. I have reproduced the version from the program below. I am not aware of any changes to the cast during the play’s short London run. I assume that this program, which cost 6d, was held by a woman, as the red smudge, seen alongside Harriet Smith and Mr. Elton, appears to be lipstick!

I had wondered what the set and actors looked like and how authentic the costumes were. I have recently been fortunate enough to gain some insight into this. I have just received a copy of an edition of Emma published in 1890 by George Routledge and Sons Ltd. The Irish dealer who I bought it from had described the book as having “some newspaper cuttings stuck to the front prelims”. Imagine my delight to discover that these cuttings were pictures taken from a magazine of the London production of Gordon Glennon’s Emma, with Anna Neagle and the rest of the cast as listed above. Photos of Mr. Elton’s proposal to Emma, Frank Churchill’s non-proposal to Emma and Mr. Knightley’s proposal to Emma are shown below.

Left: Mr Elton and Emma. Centre: Frank Churchill and Emma. Right: Mr. Knightley and Emma

The play ends with the whole ensemble on stage, with everyone asked to toast the three future brides, Jane Fairfax, Harriet Smith and Emma Woodhouse in turn. Note that Glennon has decreed that Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax will marry. Also note that Robert Martin does not get an appearance in this version of Emma. Below is the picture of that final final toasting scene.

From the left we can see:

Miss Bates; Frank and Jane; Mr. Woodhouse; Mrs. Weston; Emma; Mr. Weston; Harriet; Serle; Mr. Knightley; Mrs. and Mr. Elton

For more information on the representations of Emma on stage, I suggest that you view the entertaining video presentation by Professor Devoney Looser at the 2020 Virtual JaneCom which can be viewed on You Tube.

More about interesting books relating to Jane Austen will be posted shortly.

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