Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 4 2020 01:00PM

Jane Austen’s power to console during times of trauma is an established trope by now: cue mention of how British authorities prescribed her to shellshocked soldiers during World War I.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that Medicinal Austen should have a role to play in our current traumatic times, as something of an inspiration for a technologically updated version of that shellshock prescription.

According to the British news website, the three adult sons of coronavirus patient Geoff Woolf, a seventy-three-year-old lawyer, knew their father would need plenty of reading material to sustain him during a long, grueling hospital stay that has included two months on a ventilator, with no visitors allowed.

His sons bought Woolf a Kindle e-reader to keep him going and, as his condition worsened last month and they were finally allowed to see him, played the audiobook they knew would mean the most to him: Pride and Prejudice.

"This was the book Dad always read when he was ill and wanted to feel some comfort," twenty-eight-year-old Sam Woolf, an actor who has performed audiobooks, told the news site. "We hope he can hear it. There's evidence to suggest words can sometimes get through to unconscious patients. He had a little movement and has looked like he may have been reacting to it."

The staff at their father’s London hospital thought other virus-isolated patients would benefit from the same stimulation, and so the Woolf brothers have launched an effort to supply more recovering virus patients with audiobook-equipped Kindles. Partnering with the audiobook company Audible, they’ve obtained one hundred and fifty appropriately sanitized devices for four hospitals, along with single-use earphones donated by British Airways.

Now two of the Woolf sons hope to expand the effort to other British cities, with the help of a GoFundMe appeal that has already raised almost all of its £5,000 goal (about $6,200). They’re calling the project Books for Dad, in tribute to the man who read to them when they were children and taught them to love words.

Sadly, Geoff Woolf is unlikely to survive, but if Books for Dad succeeds in helping other patients, his children think, the loss of this Janeite won’t be in vain. "We wanted something positive to come from what's happened to Dad, a kind of legacy," Sam Woolf says.

By Deborah Yaffe, May 21 2020 01:00PM

Nothing beats hearing a soothing, familiar voice read an engrossing story aloud. I loved the read-aloud experience when I was a child doing the listening, and I loved it again as a parent sharing books, and closeness, with my children.

Perhaps it’s the uncertainty of coronavirus quarantine that makes us yearn for the comforting rituals of childhood: baking bread, doing jigsaw puzzles, playing board games. And, for Janeites, listening to one of our favorite actors read to us from one of our favorite books.

Earlier this spring, the Anglo-American actor Jennifer Ehle, best known to Janeites for playing Elizabeth Bennet in the iconic 1995 BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice, posted an Instagram video of herself in at-home mode – hair down, comfy-looking zippered fleece top, striped curtains visible in the background – reading aloud the first two chapters of -- you guessed it -- Pride and Prejudice.

Then she kept going – a couple of chapters at a time, sometimes for only six or seven minutes, sometimes for as long as forty-five; sometimes at home, sometimes in her car. Once in a while, she sipped from a mug, or accidentally dropped her phone, or adorably bobbled a long word. Sometimes she thanked her viewers for “sheltering with me” or took a moment to acknowledge those still working in essential jobs.

Eventually, she posted everything on a dedicated YouTube channel – a cumulative total of forty-four episodes, running to about fifteen hours of reading time, or some two or three hours more than most of Audible’s two-dozen-plus renditions of the book. The whole novel is now available: In Ehle's reading, Mrs. Bennet got rid of her two most deserving daughters just last weekend.

Ehle reads beautifully, of course, but she isn’t offering a polished-to-a-high-gloss, professional recording; for that, you’re better off choosing an Audible. Instead, she’s giving us something closer to that childhood experience of cocooning at home, wrapped in your blankie, while a parent’s soothing murmur washes over you.

It’s warm and reassuring. Or, as Ehle herself says at the conclusion of Part 44, moments after reading the final lines of Austen’s novel: “That was time well-spent.”

With no end to quarantine in sight, we could use more warmth and reassurance. Luckily, Austen wrote five other books! Hey, Jennifer: May I suggest Persuasion next?

By Deborah Yaffe, May 7 2020 01:00PM

For those of us who love our Jane Austen adaptations, the coronavirus quarantine has been the best of times and the worst of times.

The new film of Emma migrated to streaming way ahead of schedule—but the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis canceled its world premiere of Kate Hamill’s stage adaptation, which had been scheduled to open last month.

The online performance of Paul Gordon’s musical version of Pride and Prejudice drew a robust international audience for its free premiere, and his earlier musical adaptation of Emma became available free to Amazon Prime subscribers (and to the rest of us twice last night and once more today at 2 pm, if you sign up). But the London run of Laura Wade’s much-praised theatrical version of The Watsons, a success at Chichester in 2018, was canceled.

You can stream Clueless on any number of platforms whenever you’d like, or just slot your old disc into your DVD player. But the twenty-fifth anniversary theatrical re-release, scheduled for this week, was postponed indefinitely.

It’s all entirely predictable, of course: If you can see it in the privacy of your own TV room, then it’s available. If you can see it only in company with a large group of potentially contagious fellow citizens, then it’s not. We know the drill. It’s just getting old.

By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 16 2020 01:00PM

Last week’s online premiere of a new musical version of Pride and Prejudice, streamed for free by Streaming Musicals, drew a more than respectable audience: 160,000 viewers from fourteen countries, according to Variety.

Compared to the audience for a new theatrical production, P&P’s viewership numbers are staggering: Broadway theaters seat between five hundred and nineteen hundred people. Compared to the audience for network TV, not so much: The most popular show (NCIS) is averaging nearly twelve million viewers a week and even the least popular (Dynasty) is still pulling in more than 360,000.

The goal of Streaming Musicals, however, is not to compete with TV but to broaden access to theater, and in that context, Friday’s numbers look pretty good. Viewers got to see a live-on-tape performance filmed in front of an audience last year, during P&P’s run at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto, CA. The show is the brainchild of Tony-nominated composer Paul Gordon, who wrote the book, the music, and the lyrics.

After sitting through Friday’s airing, I must admit that I’m not a big fan of this P&P, which sold many tickets but got mixed reviews during its original theatrical run. I'm a purist, though: My hackles were up from the moment that Elizabeth Bennet strolled onto the stage, spoke the novel's famous opening line, and changed one of the words.

If you missed the online premiere but would like to judge for yourself, you can still catch the performance, albeit no longer for free: It’s available to buy ($19.99) or rent ($4.99), as is Gordon’s earlier musical version of Emma.

By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 13 2020 01:00PM

Just in case last Friday’s live-on-tape streaming version of a Pride and Prejudice musical hasn’t slaked your thirst for Austen adaptations, our friends across the (northern) border are offering another: One Man Pride and Prejudice, a theatrical performance that is, apparently, pretty much what it says in the title.

The man in question, actor Charles Stuart Ross, seems to specialize in one-man versions of pop culture classics: he’s done the One Man Star Wars, the One Man Lord of the Rings, the One Man Harry Potter. . . you get the idea. His Austen will stream on Facebook Live on Saturday night at 7 pm (Pacific).

According to Ross’ social media, his performance is part of #CanadaPerforms, an initiative by Facebook Canada and Canada’s National Arts Centre designed to keep artists afloat during the coronavirus shutdown of performance spaces. The $700,000 fund pays professional artists $1,000 for a performance live-streamed through the NAC Facebook page.

I can’t find Ross’ show listed on the #CanadaPerforms website, however, and his performance is live-streaming through his own Facebook page, rather than the NAC’s, so I suspect he may be an unofficial participant. Nevertheless, it sounds like a diverting way to spend a quarantined Saturday night.

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