As readers, it is almost a source of comfort that the play has come to an abrupt halt because of the animosity it creates between the characters. For example, Henry Crawford in electing Maria for the role of Agatha reveals his preference to her over Julia, making the latter suffer “a sore and angry” heart (113). Meanwhile, Maria “felt her triumph, and pursued he purpose careless of Julia” while also ignoring her fiancé, Mr. Rushworth (113). Fanny also suffers as she watches her love Edmund engage in a role in the play for the sake of another woman, Mary Crawford.
This one production sparks a number of conflicts and emotional distress amongst the characters. Is Jane Austen offering the reader a critique of the theater, or rather a critique of the characters involved with the play? In other words, do all of the problems and conflicts originate in the play itself, or is there an inherent problem of selfishness or vanity in the characters? Also, do any of the character’s roles or behavior in the play reflect traits that can be traced in their everyday lives? Keep in mind, some characters are superior to the rest in acting and there are also numerous moments of deceit throughout the entire plot in Mansfield Park.
Also, the only two characters that are firm in their disapprobation of the play are Edmund and Fanny. Both do so on grounds of immorality and the predicted disapproval of Sir Thomas. While Fanny remains vehemently against the production, Edmund eventually falters and gives in to the group’s entreaties by taking the part of Anhalt. However, he again makes his decision on a moral ground as to prevent Mary Crawford from acting with another acquaintance that is not part of their immediate circle. Seeking Fanny’s opinion, he visits her in her room and reflects on his change of heart, “No man can like being driven into the appearance of such inconsistency. After being known to oppose the scheme from the beginning, there is an absurdity in the face of my joining them now, when they are exceeding their first plan in every respect; but I can think of no other alternative.” (108) Thus, Edmund presents this as the only option to protect Mary and the rest of the group from a wider social circle.
How should we read this argument of Edmunds? Is this the only moral option as he claims, or is he acting out of selfishness? Finally, as Fanny never indulges in the play and Edmund does choose to, does it show a moral superiority on either side?