Pride and Prejudice has seen many adaptations, from the notorious Colin Firth miniseries to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. But in Kelsey Hercs’s Threadbare Morality: The Queer Musings of Miss Mary Bennet, Jane Austen gets a decidedly queer reimagining from the perspective of the least likable Bennet sister. Ahead of the show’s run, from August 31 through September 2 at the Kraine Theater, the Voice sat down with Hercs to talk about it.
How did you first get the idea to do a play about Mary Bennet?
I was in a production of Pride and Prejudice when I was seventeen, and I played Mary Bennet. I read the book and [from having read the play script] I already really liked the character; I felt like she was different and sensitive and sad, and I thought that…there would be more of her in the book. I was wrong. Turns out, Jane Austen is super harsh on her. She doesn’t really get a very good edit — when the narrator is talking about her, it’s with such disdain. It plays into the wider themes of the book itself. The people who are “bad” are the ones who don’t have social graces and don’t understand how civility works. And it was interesting to me because she seems to have a lot in common with [male romantic lead] Darcy, in terms of being socially awkward, but [pop] culture elevates him to the status of brooding romantic hero even as Mary Bennet is relegated to the status of plain, unsympathetic jerk. And I felt like that take wasn’t what I got from playing her.
So I kept thinking about it and wondering why I had a different feeling about her than Austen did. She’s clearly anxious — which I and people my age and young New Yorkers can identify with. And I wondered: What if she was gay? That would explain a lot.… I wanted to explore the idea more fully. I graduated from conservatory in 2012 and started working on a version of it immediately, then I wrote a bunch of other plays and got distracted. Then I came back to Mary in 2015 and finished the one-act pretty quickly once I sat down. But for as long as I’ve known the character, I’ve always thought of her as a lesbian.
It explains a lot in terms of where she seems to find comfort. Because she seems to find comfort in religion in a way that’s very specific — she’s often criticized for not thinking of anything new of her own, only taking other people’s ideas, these stuffy sermons and advice books. And it makes a lot of sense if someone’s afraid of their own ideas. It makes a lot of sense if someone’s emotionally stifled because they’re afraid of their own emotions. I mean, I’ve been there.
And it changes our reading of the other characters, too.
Yes. For example, [Mary’s father] Mr. Bennet in the book is sort of seen as this jolly sage figure. But from Mary’s perspective, he pays no attention to her and makes fun of her when he does pay attention to her. And we’re expected to believe she’s too vain to notice. Of course she notices! If she were a real person she’d absolutely notice. [The inspiration for her character came from exploring] a lot of the pain attached to speaking dismissively of people who hurt you. Or how you try to speak in a way to convey to people that being treated in such a way doesn’t affect you and it’s fine. You know that this person treats you badly — and that’s “fine.”
You’ve written the script, and you’re playing Mary. How do you balance those two processes?
That’s honestly right now the hardest part. It’s been really difficult because a lot of times I’ll find something in the script that is very personal and I’m like, “Oh, it’s personal as a writer and as an actor and, wow, that makes me extra vulnerable.” Like, in rehearsal we were working on this moment where Mary overhears Jane and Lizzy talking about her and she kind of talks back at Lizzy in a way that she’d never be able to if Lizzy were actually there and — I so do that! I mean, everyone does that — when you overhear someone and you know somebody said something terrible and you wish you could confront them and it’s too far past. But there’s a lot of things like that in there.
Some people — self-proclaimed Austen purists, say — might accuse you of “making Austen gay.” What would you say to them?
[Laughs] It’s always been gay! LGBTQ people, we have always been here, getting our grubby little hands all over straight people’s stuff. I think about it all the time. These great writers we consider to be the greatest observers of humanity — Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Victor Hugo — you read their characters and think, “I’ve met that person! I know her!” And these people were living in a world with queer people. A purist can say Jane Austen would not have known what queer anything was. But I say even if that were true she still met some queer people. She might have seen someone be cagey at a party — wondering, “Why does that person suck at parties?” — and not known that it’s because they don’t want to dance with boys. It’s not a revisionist act. It’s reclaiming. We haven’t really had our stories told all along. And if we want to see our stories in all the contexts we have existed in, we have to make them ourselves. It’s our way of being able to find our own stories.