Playwright Rob Urbinati on Adapting Jane Austin's 'Lady Susan' to the Stage

Monday November 8, 2021
Originally published on November 4, 2021

Rob Urbinati
Rob Urbinati  (Source:Courtesy Rob Urbinati)

Rob Urbinati is the Director of New Play Development at Queens Theater in New York. He's also an accomplished playwright, having written ten plays, including "Death by Design" (which, Urbinati tells EDGE is "a Noel Coward/Agatha Christie mashup"), "Murder on West Moon Street," which is based on the Oscar Wilde short story "Lord Arthur Savile's Crime," and, more recently, he co-wrote a bilingual adaptation of "Miss Julie" with Mario Garza Jr.

Now seeing its world premiere at the Good Theater in Portland Maine, Urbinati's "Lady Susan" fits in comfortably with his oeuvre, being an adaptation of the Jane Austen novella of the same title. The story is epistolary (that is, told in the form of letters written by various characters), and takes place over the course of years, telling the story of a young widow — Lady Susan — and her daughter, Frederica, as Lady Susan maneuvers through the social circle of Regency England seeking favorable marriages for both herself and her daughter.

As Urbinati pointed out to EDGE, English laws at that time did not allow women to inherit anything; a woman in Lady Susan's position would have been left with nothing of their own. It's through the good graces of her brother-in-law Charles that Lady Susan has the prospect of a dowry for her daughter and at least some marginal existence for herself... if, that is, Charles can prevail over his wife, the disapproving Catherine, who dislikes Lady Susan and would just as soon see her living on the street.

Urbinati has condensed the novella's action into a single week, and placed the entire story at Charles and Catherine's home, which in due course becomes a Grand Central Station for a bevy of other characters, all buzzing around Lady Susan: Reginald, an athletic womanizer and Catherine's younger brother, takes a liking to her, as does Sir James, who has pursued Lady Susan to Charles' estate out of intense infatuation for the lovely young widow. The scandalized Catherine is convinced that Lady Susan is spinning a deceitful web to ensnare bachelors and married men alike. When the fashionable Lady Alicia shows up at the house, Frederica in tow, both of them guarding secrets, the plot thickens. Just who is the hero in this situation? Who is the villain? What are the stakes? And, for heaven's sake, will the characters learn to take it easy on Catherine's meticulously chosen furnishings and her immaculate garden?

EDGE had the pleasure of a chat with Rob Urbinati about Jane Austen's works, how he adapted the novella, and his approach to writing authentic dialogue for different times and cultures.

'Lady Susan' has its world premiere at the Good Theater in Portland, Maine
'Lady Susan' has its world premiere at the Good Theater in Portland, Maine  (Source: Provided)

EDGE: I have to be honest: I never really got Jane Austen. Was she satirizing marriage and society in Regency England? Was she sincere in writing romance novels?

Rob Urbinati: I can put those questions to rest, and it's a great place to start. Here's the thing with Jane Austen: She ultimately wanted to write commercial novels. She wanted her novels to sell. If you read her letters or biographies of her, she was very interested in that. So, there are ways in which she adapted her material and her characters and her content so that it would appeal to the widest audience.

If you just look at her novels from a distance, it's like they're all about romantic love, but there are obstacles in the path of the woman and the man that they have to overcome over the course of the novel, so that the novel ends with what seems like is going to be a happy marriage, right? That would be a very commercial kind of instinct on her apart. However, if you look at the married couples in her novels, they tend to not be happy at all. They're kind of miserable in a lot of ways. So, both things are true: She's smart enough to satirize, and sometimes not just satirize, but outright criticize the institution of marriage, and the [social and legal] position of women.

EDGE: "Lady Susan," at least your version of it, is much frothier, much lighter and funnier than, say, "Emma." The story was adapted into a film in 2016 by a Whit Stillman, called "Love and Friendship," which was it was a critical darling at the time.

Rob Urbinati: Yeah, a few things about that, if I could. The novella is actually dark. Austen wrote it when she was really young, like, 17 or something, and she never finished it. But scholars have suggested that the book was sort of loosely inspired by "Les Liaisons Dangereuses." It's epistolary in the same way — it's all letters. But also, Lady Susan, in the book, is really malicious. The book can be funny because she takes pleasure in her maliciousness, and therefore so do readers because she gets a kick out of destroying people, again in that "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" way.

In her subsequent novels, Austin had characters that were manipulative and cruel as secondary characters, but she never really foregrounded them. I think that ties back to what I mentioned earlier -- that it would make her novels less appealing to a broad audience.

In terms of "Love and Friendship," it's not my place to be critical of it here but it, it turns "Lady Susan," the novella, into a farce. It makes it very, very silly. Austen actually wrote a bunch of what is collectively now called her "juvenilia," and those were entitled "Love and Friendship." The tone of that early work, which actually preceded "Lady Susan," is very giddy, and that was the tone that Stillman took for his movie. I think that was clever on his part, and I think it's part of why he calls it "Love and Friendship," meaning the tone is more derived from the earlier work than it is from "Lady Susan." My adaptation is its own thing.

EDGE: The novella was left unpublished for something like 100 years. Was this because Lady Susan was just too scandalous for the time, being so malicious, dallying with married men, and using her sex appeal to get what she wanted?

Rob Urbinati: Nobody really knows, and it's particularly curious because sometimes with other early work — not "Lady Susan," but other novels that she had started — she went back and ultimately completed it. There was an earlier version of "Sense and Sensibility," for instance. So why did she not choose not to revisit "Lady Susan?" If she felt that the character was too cruel, too manipulative, there were ways in which that could have been [adjusted]. But no one knows.

My problem with "Lady Susan" is that it lacks a social context. The reason that Lady Susan is behaving manipulatively is that she is a young widow, and she has a daughter, and in this period in Regency England, if you did not have a male heir, then you were in possession of nothing when your husband died. She's trapped by society, and by the laws of the period that did not allow her to inherit. She's entirely dependent on the sort of goodwill of her brother-in-law. That's a social context that really — I'm not saying it allows for her manipulative behavior, but certainly allows me to understand it a little better.

The novella doesn't explore that at all. She sets out behaving as cruelly as possible, but it's always with an intent, and the intent is to get her daughter married to somebody rich, and also to get herself married to someone rich. One of the juiciest conflicts in the novella, and I've exploited it in the play, is that her and her young daughter are interested in the same man. They become rivals for the eligible male bachelor.

EDGE: In your adaptation, the women are really quite complex. Although we might initially like Lady Susan and feel she's sympathetic and nice, and we might think Catherine is horrible woman and a wicked sister in law, we start to see different sides of them. They're more dimensional and more nuanced than our initial take on them. I don't know if that's true in the book, but I think that that's something you pursue in the play very successfully.

Rob Urbinati: It is not the case in the book. Alicia isn't [portrayed in the play the way she is in the novella], either; Alicia is just like Lady Susan in the book. So, I sort of invented Alicia. And Frederica only has one letter in the book, her appeal to Reginald. I just made up that character's dimensionality, that she ultimately schools her mother her mother about the way she's behaving.

'Lady Susan' continues through Nov. 13
'Lady Susan' continues through Nov. 13  (Source: Provided)

EDGE: Was it a goal for you to give these characters more substance in the play?

Rob Urbinati: Yeah, it was a specific goal. I wouldn't say that the characters are not dimensional in the novella, but they sort of stay in that same place, whereas in the play I wanted the characters to evolve over the course of it. I also liked the idea that there aren't — this is true with all my plays — I think, there aren't overt heroes and villains. The audience's responses to 'Lady Susan' are complex; we're amused by her wittiness and her social graces in the early scenes, and then she sort of turns on her daughter, and the audience literally gasps. But then we kind of understand the rationale behind her behavior. I think the audience's response to her gets colored or flavored, and that's something I like to do in all my plays, and I think most writers do.

It happens a lot with Catherine, and some of that was a bit of a surprise to me because she's so cruel — and yet that plays comically, in a lot of ways. And ultimately, we get her backstory in the way that we get lady Susan's, which is, you know, Lady Susan tried to prevent her marriage, and why would she want somebody as a guest in her house who went to such extremes to do that and you know, ultimately to prevent her happiness? We also see that Catherine is very kind and welcoming to Frederica, so we that she has generous impulses.

EDGE: I'm glad you brought up Alicia, because as I was reading the play, I kept thinking, "She's so Maggie Smith in 'Downton Abbey." She's got some of the best one liners.

Rob Urbinati: The sort of "Lady Bracknell." Alicia lines are delicious, and audiences enjoy that. And Sir James banging into the furniture, being a sort of an ignoramus is a different type of humor, and that was intentional. The play is based on a Jane Austen novella, but I never tried to be absolutely faithful in terms of the plot and the characters. It's an adaptation. Alicia isn't really a Jane Austen character, but I wanted her in my play.

EDGE: How did you manage to make the language of the play so convincingly Regency and so authentic sounding?

Rob Urbinati: Thanks for the compliment. It's not easy, because obviously I don't speak like that, but it's really satisfying. First off, what I do is just make sure that the that the events of the plot are clear. Once I have all of that outlined, then I just start to play with the language and, you know, I was reading the other Jane Austen novels and books, finding terms, idioms that she used and making note of them, seeing if I could find a way of getting them into the play and then just weighing every word to find the perfect ones. It's not easy. It took three years.

And then we had a bunch of readings of the play. I like to start with informal readings with friends who are actors, and make sure that the language falls off their tongues. But there's no simple trick. Now, having watched final dresses before the tech rehearsal, and then I watched the show with an audience, there were 20 or 25 words that just don't land right. Seeing it in front of an audience is sort of the last phase of choosing the perfect words.

I remember I used to think it was a joke when writers said that they would go into some sort of zone when they wrote and then not remember, but that totally happens to me. I've heard words that I'd written when I saw the production, and I was like, "I don't remember writing that at all." Like when Catherine says she doesn't allow mammals to deflower her furniture. I was like, "I really wrote deflower? Where did that word come from?" But yeah, it's a fun process. It's sort of like a game. Like a crossword puzzle, when you find the perfect word you know it.

"Lady Susan" continues its world premiere at the Good Theater in Portland Maine through Nov. 13.