This review of the Jan 5th, 2010 (Dutch) performance of De Brontë Sisters by Toneelgroep Dorst in Kampen was originally written for the university course Victorian Afterlives in 2010.
Lucasta Miller argues in her book The Brontë Myth that in addition to Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights finding their way into mass culture and becoming “what might be called modern myths,” the Brontë sisters themselves have also become mythic figures. One of the latest additions to this Brontë myth is the well-received theatre performance De Brontë Sisters by the Dutch theatre company Toneelgroep Dorst. The performance is freely based on the lives and work of the Brontës and though the story is focussed on describing the lives of the three sisters and their brother Branwell, there are frequent switches to scenes of their respective novels thereby blurring the lines between fiction and reality. Therefore, the performance does not give a fully factual account of the lives of the Brontës. In fact, having too much knowledge of the Brontës might hamper one’s enjoyment of the performance due to noticing obvious absences, interpretations and alterations. However, what Toneelgroep Dorst does succeed in doing is telling a fascinating story and providing a sense and feel for the lives of the Brontës. A strong element in the theatre performance is the characterisation of the Brontës. A particular interesting feat considering the fact that Toneelgroep Dorst consists of four older actors, with only one of them under the age of 60. Yet, due to the strong acting performances, the age differences between characters and actors are, after a slightly alienating beginning, quickly forgotten as the audience is taken in by the story.
The performance starts just after the death of Charlotte (Petra Laseur) as she meets her sisters and Branwell in heaven. Before she wakes up, a quotation from Jane Eyre is first spoken aloud by a voice over. The quotation in question is the moment when Jane is put on the stool and Mr. Brocklehurst puts her on display as an example to the rest of the school. Due to way it is performed, the quotation seems to apply to Charlotte herself and already sets her up to be outside of ordinary society. It is the earliest instant in the play of the interplay between the Brontë novels and their lives. After the quotation, the light comes up and the audience realises that the bundle of cloth on the floor holds a person inside namely Charlotte. Emily (Trudy de Jong), Anne (Elsje de Wijn) and Branwell (Theo de Groot) enter the stage. They all briefly remember events from their lives and the impact they have had before the scene changes and the characters are back in their childhood. This is signalled by the removal of the fancy skirts the sisters are wearing to reveal simple ones underneath. The actors spread out over the small stage with Emily and Anne furiously scribbling in the famous notebooks whilst Charlotte and Branwell talk about their dreams for the future. The childhood lives of the Brontës are shown in anecdotes and already a strong sense of the characters is communicated. Charlotte is quickly set up as a leader, strong-willed and dominant. Branwell and Emily have a slightly troubling but loving relationship, with Emily being passionate and unwilling to grant Branwell superiority because of his gender. Anne is quiet, and keen to maintain peace in the house: she runs to her father to stop Emily and Branwell from fighting once it gets slightly out of control. It is Charlotte who manages to pull the two apart.
Patrick Brontë is portrayed as an absent father figure. There are only a few brief mentions of him during the play mostly referring to him keeping apart from the girls, eating alone in his study, as well as the fact that Anne has to stay home with him at a later point in the storyline. An important theme in the play is the absence of a mother figure. Still in their childhood, the characters reflect back to their mother dying when they were still so small. Charlotte comments that it was thenceforth her responsibility to act as a mother figure. Throughout the play there is the conspicuous absence of both Elizabeth Branwell and Tabitha Aykroyd (Tabby) who could have served as mother figures, in order to play on this theme which towards the end of the play culminates in Branwell’s death struggle. By portraying both parents as almost completely absent, the siblings are really thrown on their own devices and it therefore functions as a means of creating audience sympathy. The death of the two older sisters is briefly mentioned, but curiously the effect on Charlotte is almost negligible. Instead, Branwell reads out a poem he wrote about Maria. By ignoring the impact of Maria’s death on Charlotte, the play directs the audience towards the decisiveness of Charlotte to care for her younger siblings and consequently to the fact that she has not had much of a childhood in the traditional sense. It is interesting therefore that in the play Charlotte and Emily are not leaving for Cowan Bridge until after the death of Maria and Elizabeth. When they are about to go, Anne tries to stop them, convinced with a child’s logic that they will die once they leave because that is what happened to the eldest sisters. They leave regardless, with Charlotte commenting on the importance of them receiving an education. A sequence from Jane Eyre follows; comparing Cowan Bridge to Lowood. This likening goes as far as naming the headmaster as Mr. Brocklehurst. The scene acted out is the visit of Mr. Brocklehurst to the school where he notices in the accounts that a fancier meal has been served instead of the spoiled food, and thus lectures Miss Temple about indulging the children. After reciting the hardships the girls have to deal with at the school, Emily makes up her mind to run away. Charlotte chooses to stay behind since she recognizes and values the necessity of schooling. By ignoring the role of the father in removing them from the school, which in reality he did after the death of the eldest sisters, and emphasising their own choice in going, staying and thus enduring the hardships or leaving, the sisters are given more autonomy in dictating their own lives. Furthermore, particularly in the case of Charlotte, there is a sense of martyrdom indicated by the hardships they have had to endure in order to be provided with schooling as well as later on in the play, the struggle against the gender envisioned roles in society.
An interesting absence in the play is the time the sisters spend at Roe Head. This absence affects the characterisation of Anne in particular. In the penguin introduction for Agnes Grey, Angeline Goreau argues compellingly for the emotional turmoil Anne underwent during her stay at Roe Head, as well as the strain it put on the relationship between Charlotte and Anne. Goreau argues that Anne “thought of her separation from home and Emily as a sacrifice she was making for the future happiness of all, but at the same time she was well aware of the sacrifice Charlotte was making on her behalf.” Goreau argues further that Anne learned partially through this experience to keep her emotions and thoughts from Charlotte, who “was, in any case, slow to recognize them and unable to accommodate any change in the fixed image she held of her youngest sister.” As Charlotte’s image of her sister has been the most prominent one in the years following her death, this poses an interesting issue regarding the characterisation of Anne that is unfortunately not addressed in the play. For in the performance, Anne adheres to the image laid down by Charlotte: calm, quiet, enduring and religious. The relationship between the sisters is not at all strained by Charlotte and Emily leaving for Cowan Bridge with Anne being left behind, nor is it by being left behind again when the elder two leave for Brussels. The image of Anne is further taken directly from scenes out of Agnes Grey. Thereby, the novel is granted the status of an autobiography. Anne’s motivation to work as a governess is the same as Agnes, and like Agnes, Anne is frustrated that she is still seen as a child. Charlotte’s reaction to Anne’s plans is Agnes’s sister Mary’s: “what would you do in a house full of strangers, without me or mamma to speak and act for you.” The actual line in the play only differs slightly, mostly due to being translated into Dutch. Some scenes from her life as a governess are acted out, also taken directly from the novel.
Yet, whilst Anne’s characterisation is mostly taken from the biographical notice that Charlotte wrote for the reprint of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, as well as from Anne’s own novel, it is Branwell who suffers most from audience expectations. The performance expects the audience to be vaguely aware of the Brontë lives and works. On the flyer of the performance the impact of some of the Brontë works is briefly described: Wuthering Heights is described as a masterpiece in which hatred, jealousy and a destructive passion dominate, and also one of the most gripping love stories of all times; The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as a book of which people feared the pernicious influence. In contrast, Branwell is described as an initially promising artist who in the end succumbs to alcohol and opium. Through this initial commentary on the character, and the subsequent audience expectations, Toneelgroep Dorst creates a dramatic irony on the stage when Branwell in his childhood spins a picture of a glorious future. Later on, when Branwell leaves for London, and the sisters dress him up all nice and neat, this irony is even more pronounced for the audience is all too aware that their dreams will come to nothing. The character is therefore not taken seriously by the audience, and because the audience already has the hindsight the sisters lack, the dreams of the siblings for Branwell´s future success come across as almost foolish and unrealistic. Throughout the performance, Branwell is seen as someone who is increasingly lacking in self confidence. London is a turning point for him where he, because he fears failure, stops trying, thereby letting himself as well his family down. His disappointment in himself becomes increasingly violent towards the end of his life, especially in relation to his sisters. The disillusionment of their dreams serves to create a contrast between the self-doubt of Branwell and the increasing self-confidence and hard work of the sisters.
The difficulties in getting their works published are merely touched upon. More emphasis is placed on the relations between the siblings, particularly on Charlotte’s betrayals of Emily: reading her poetry whilst Emily repeatedly asks her to stop reading, and revealing her identity to their publishers. Charlotte tries to convince Emily to publish her poetry together with Anne’s and Charlotte’s with the argument that such poetry deserves a larger audience, yet the distinct impression the audience receives is that Charlotte sees this as an opportunity to finally herself publish and become known. Emily’s work is merely a means for Charlotte and thus her motivation is highly selfish, especially considering the fact that Emily ardently refuses to publish. The creation of the pseudonyms is as much to convince Emily to publish whilst allowing her to remain anonymous as it is to avoid bias criticism due to them being female writers. Emily is swayed by the argument, but still insists on her anonymity being preserved when Charlotte and Anne go to London. Charlotte only seems too glad to shed her pseudonym and become known to the world.
Towards the end of the performance, Branwell, Emily and Anne die in sequence. Branwell’s struggle is most violent, but Emily calms him down and reassures him that he did not just disappoint. Emily dies on her beloved moors and Anne calmly in Scarborough. Charlotte is left behind, but as the performance moves back into the heaven sequence, the audience learns that she will find happiness again with her husband and enjoy life for the time she has left.
Overall, the performance is a highly enjoyable one. It merges the works and lives of the Brontës in an interesting fashion, especially for an audience who has some but no detailed knowledge of the Brontës. Though the simplicity of the decor has not been mentioned yet in this review, Toneelgroep Dorst clearly demonstrates how with only a few props and decor pieces a large variety of different settings may be created. Furthermore, the acting performances are of a high standard. The anecdotal way in which the Brontë’s lives and works are explored creates a clear overview of the major thematic dilemmas the Brontës dealt with. Therefore, although the performance is not factually correct, it serves as a nice introduction to the Brontës. In addition, watching the performance almost certainly guarantees a highly entertaining evening.
Bosman, Ingrid. “Acteren is een keihard vak” in BN De Stem. (Interview Petra Laseur). 13 October 2009. http://www.bndestem.nl/algemeen/cultuur/5651531/Acteren-is-een-keihard-vak.ece
Brontë, Anne. Agnes Grey. Ed. Angeline Goreau. (London: Penguin Classics, 2004)
Gaskell, Elizabeth. The Life of Charlotte Brontë. Ed. Angus Easson. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).
Miller, Lucasta. The Brontë Myth. (London: Jonathan Cape, 2001)
Toneelgroep Dorst, flyer of De Brontë Sisters. A slightly different version of the flyer text can be seen at: http://www.toneelgroepdorst.nl
 Lucasta Miller. The Brontë Myth. (London: Jonathan Cape, 2001) p. ix
 Petra Laseur in interview “Acteren is een keihard vak” by Ingrid Bosman. BN De Stem. 13 Oct 2009. http://www.bndestem.nl/algemeen/cultuur/5651531/Acteren-is-een-keihard-vak.ece
 Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë Ed. Angus Easson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996). Easson’s note no. 62 p. 479
 “Introduction” in Anne Brontë, Agnes Grey. Ed. Angeline Goreau (London: Penguin Classics, 2004). p. 19
 Goreau, “Introduction” p. 22
 Anne Brontë, Agnes Grey p. 68