There were touching moments in MacKaye’s Pride and Prejudice, too. In one scene, Elizabeth reaches for Darcy’s hand and pleads, “Take me home, Mr. Darcy! Take me home!” The play ends with Darcy’s rushing toward Elizabeth and folding her in his arms. Again, there’s no saying what actually happened in performance. Even if stage directions were followed precisely, having a woman playing a man holding another woman’s hand, or falling into an embrace, may have been less risqué for a female student actor than the opposite-sex alternative.
Still, many young women at this time would have memorized Austen-inspired lines of dialogue in order to deliver them looking deeply into the eyes of other women. The number of audience members who watched female actors locked in such gazes likely numbered in the thousands. Darcy, filtered as he’s been through the rom-com-industrial-complex, may seem to readers today as an obvious sex object for straight women. But his being played in drag a century ago suggests the potential for other kinds of desire, on stage and in the audience.
Portrayals of Austen’s female characters by men, and male characters by women, weren’t exactly seeking to lock her stories down in the service of heterosexuality. But the queer potential of Austen on stage became unmistakable in 1932 with the New York debut of the first biographical play about the author, Dear Jane. The playwright Eleanor Holmes Hinkley—T. S. Eliot’s first cousin—had written Dear Jane with a female-centric take on Austen’s story. Hinkley’s play imagines the path that led Austen to choose a writing life without marriage, turning down three successive, flawed male suitors who resemble Mr. Collins, Mr. Wickham, and Mr. Darcy. Jane rejects them because they don’t support her writing career, though her sister Cassandra fills that void, in Hinkley’s version.
Dear Jane resembles the contemporary biopics Becoming Jane (2007) and Miss Austen Regrets (2008) despite antedating them by almost a century. The major difference is that, at the end of Hinkley’s play, a young Jane runs off into the darkness with Cassandra, in a quasi-elopement. When Dear Jane was first performed at New York’s Civic Repertory Theatre, the parts of Cassandra and Jane were played, respectively, by the English-born theatrical whiz kid Eva Le Gallienne and her girlfriend, the recently divorced American starlet, Josephine Hutchinson. The two women had already been outed as a couple in the newspapers, and their off-stage relationship prompted snarky comments from Dear Jane’s reviewers. One critic claimed he couldn’t hear Hutchinson delivering the play’s final lines, suggesting he thought she may have said “my queer own pen.” (The line was “quill pen.”)
Taken together, these lesser-known stories suggest that actors and playwrights had opportunities to explore Austen’s work and life beyond the constraints of sexual and gendered conventions before critics thought to do so. But as scholars caught on in the mid-20th century, Austen-inspired pop culture evolved, too. Queering Austen on film was even more direct and active than on the stage. Amy Heckerling’s cult classic Clueless (1995) replaces Emma’s straight, striving clergyman Mr. Elton with Christian, a gay Californian teen. The new movie Before the Fall, described as a “modern gay take” with a “queer spin” on Austen, is set in present-day Virginia and was released on Amazon in June.