“The Play, on Saturday, is, I hope, to conclude our Gaities here….” Wrote Jane Austen from Bath in June, 1799. The play referred to was a comic melodrama by the popular playwright Augustus von Kotzebue, The Birthday, also known under the titles The Reconciliation (Die Versöhnung), Fraternal Discord, and The Veteran Tars, the title varying with the translator.
The plot of The Birthday/The Reconciliation/Fraternal Discord/The Veteran Tars concerns the invalid Mr. Philip Bertram, his devoted daughter Charlotte, his estranged twin brother Captain Bertram, and the kind-hearted doctor, Bloomfield. Charlotte has vowed never to abandon her invalid father for a husband, unless, as Bloomfleid proposes, “But suppose there was a man willing and able to…make a third in the circle of domestic felicity, who would dwell under your roof…”- the same proposal Mr. Knightley makes to Emma and Mr. Woodhouse. The play concludes with a reconciliation between the brothers being effected by Charlotte and Bloomfield. Mr. Bertram throws off his crutches, the brothers embrace, and Charlotte, presumably, is released from her pledge.
Austen’s situation in life did not permit her to be a regular theatre-goer, but it would have been unusual for even an occasional patron to avoid seeing a play by Kotzebue, who, critics notwithstanding (Sir Walter Scott declared that Kotzebue’s work displayed “…an affectation of attributing noble and virtuous sentiments to the persons least qualified by habit or education to entertain them”) was among the most prolific and widely produced playwrights of the latter 18th and early 19th century. If Austen did not catch one of his plays while at Bath, she might have seen one in London; Kotzebue’s plays were frequently to be seen at Covent Garden, The Haymarket and the Drury Lane. His plays were produced everywhere, from Russia to the United States. Of the six new German plays produced for the 1798-1799 New York season, four were Kotzebue works; twenty years later, of the seven German works produced for the New York stage, five were Kotzebue works.
It was a Kotzebue play, in fact, that Austen selected to work into the plot of Mansfield Park. When the young people gather at the Bertram household to put up a play, they immediately reject Shakespeare, the popular tragedies The Gamester and Douglas – though Tom Bertram was familiar with the latter, as his “I am sure my name was Norval-“ (the main character in Douglas) “- every evening of my life through one Christmas holidays.” They reject several comedies, though Tom Bertram, who has his eye on two of the choice roles, suggests The Heir at Law five times. At last they settle upon Lover’s Vows, aka A Child of Love, and The Natural Son. This adaptation of Kotzebue’s play was the work of the actress/playwright Elizabeth Inchbald, who is sometimes credited as the writer, though hers was only one of three English translations that appeared in the same year. It is likely that the Bertrams and their friends decided upon the Inchbald translation, over the more faithful ones by Stephen Porter and Anne Plumptre because it re-formed the work to exclude the elements of illegitimacy, which may have been tolerable on the London stage, but would not have been tolerated by Edmund Bertram.