Charlotte Brontë’s father was an Irishman called Patrick. Although the author of “Jane Eyre” grew up in a small cottage in Yorkshire, friends said she spoke with a slightly funny brogue. And she and her husband Arthur Bell Nicholls (who was originally from County Antrim) traveled to Ireland for their honeymoon.
So, as actress Maxine Linehan pointed out, it’s strange that we haven’t yet claimed her as our own. That’s what Linehan is about to do in a solo play called “Brontë: a portrait of Charlotte.” In a production presented by the Alloy Theater Company with previews starting this week at Theater 511 off Broadway, Linehan will channel the brilliant young novelist who died a few weeks before her 39th birthday.
For two hours, audiences will be privy to Charlotte’s thoughts on life, on writing and on early Victorian society. The play, written by William Luce in 1983, is woven from hundreds of letters Charlotte exchanged with her friend Ellen Nussey, deals with themes of loss and of love, as Brontë grieves for her siblings Emily, Anne and Branwell, and wonders if she will marry. When Linehan first came across it, she read it in one sitting.
Linehan, who describes herself as “pretty close to Charlotte’s age ” at the time the play is set, said that she feels a weighty responsibility to portray the historical figure accurately. (She joked: “I pray to God that I’ll outlive her.”) She has spent months conducting research into Charlotte’s biography and reading the many books that have been written about her. But she also has a natural affinity with the novelist. “I grew up in Ireland and my father was very similar to Charlotte’s father Patrick, in addition to the name,” she said.
Linehan now lives with her husband and their 2-year-old daughter in New York but she was born in County Cork, the eldest in her family. She loved acting but despite early success in the Irish Operatic Repertory Company, she went on to do a law degree.
“I was encouraged to study something a little more serious, for want of a better expression,” she told the Irish Echo in a phone interview.
It was law that brought her to New York, when the London firm that she worked for moved her out here. Acting was always in her blood, though, and Linehan said that her time away from acting was really just a “10-year hiatus.”
The differences between law and acting are not as stark as they might seem. A lawyer is a negotiator and an orator, although Linehan noted that, “one of the differences between being a lawyer and actor is your paycheck.” However, acting has treated her well and she describes herself as blessed. “I have never been happier,” she said.
Despite its historical content, Brontë is a striking and modern story. When Charlotte Brontë began her career she was forced to use the pseudonym Currer Bell because it was thought inappropriate for a woman to write. The content of the highly popular “Jane Eyre” was considered scandalous. Linehan describes Charlotte as “a very strong independent woman who was way ahead of her time. She was someone who pushed the envelope.”
In this production, the set is simple, to give a sense of the Yorkshire moors but also allow Charlotte’s mind to flit easily between interior and exterior landscapes. “It’s a memory play,” explained the director, Timothy Douglas. “The play’s environment wants to replicate the fluidity of memory… And so the set cannot be literal.”
Douglas spoke highly of Linehan, saying that unlike many actors, she doesn’t take direction personally, focusing instead on the important thing – the work. “It’s just the two of us. She’s lovely both as a person and as an actor,” he said. “We laugh a lot. We don’t take ourselves too seriously, but we take Charlotte Brontë very seriously.”
Brontë was initially written as a radio play for the legendary actress Julie Harris and after it became a stage piece, Harris toured the U.S. performing it, according to playbill.com. Linehan has spoken to William Luce, who is thrilled that his play is returning to the stage. Both Linehan and Douglas have high hopes for the production after this limited run.
Douglas wants audiences to come away with an authentic impression of Charlotte Brontë, and a realization that her world is not creaky or old-fashioned or much different from our own. As he put it: “She was not only extraordinary for her time – she would be extraordinary for our time too.”
“Brontë: a portrait of Charlotte” will open at Theater 511 next Tuesday, May 8, and will run for two and half weeks. Previews begin tomorrow night.