Tom’s friend John Yates is also at the ball. Yates came to Mansfield Park on Tom’s invitation after taking part in a theatrical group elsewhere. Yates’s shares his stories of the theater. He explains the plot of the play “Lover’s Vows,” and the dynamics of casting, rehearsal, and the cast’s relationships.
Yates’s descriptions of the process of putting on a play appeal to the young people of Mansfield Park, all of whom clearly are interested in the romantic drama that Yates describes.
Tom suggests that they put on a play at Mansfield Park, with Yates as manager. Tom becomes fixated on the idea, and it catches with Maria and Julia as well. Henry wholeheartedly voices his support. Tom insists that in order to do a play they must have a curtain, and Mr. Yates begins to imagine what to do for a stage.
Henry’s enthusiastic support for the play draws attention to the fact that Henry is an actor both onstage and off. His feigned interest in both Bertram girls at once is a kind of theatrical production in itself.
Edmund, who does not like the idea of the play, sarcastically says they should throw an enormous production. Edmund’s negativity does not stop them, however, and they go on to debate what genre of play to produce. Lady Bertram hears the whole conversation, and does not voice any objection.
In the upper class society of Mansfield Park, taking part in theatre is somewhat transgressive. This makes putting on a play undoubtedly more appealing to the bored youth of Mansfield, except for the morally upright Edmund.
Later that night, Edmund determines to stop the production from happening. Edmund confronts Tom with his reservations about the play in the drawing room, saying that he thinks it would be improper, especially since their father is absent, and since Maria is about to be married to Mr. Rushworth. Tom complains that Edmund takes everything too seriously, that they will have no audience anyway, and that they should certainly do the play before Sir Thomas returns, since his voyage will make Lady Bertram nervous and it is better to keep her distracted.
Edmund’s concerns about propriety fit with Edmund’s consistent sense of morality and desire to please his father, both of which Tom clearly lacks. This is yet another instance where Edmund shows himself to be much more responsible than Tom, despite the fact that he cannot inherit and Tom can. Edmund’s mention of Maria’s marriage as a reason not to do the play shows how improper manners threaten the marriage process, and how the marriage process makes otherwise seemingly innocuous things improper.
As Tom speaks of Lady Bertram, he and Edmund look over to see that she is exceptionally relaxed, and even about to fall asleep. Tom and Edmund continue to argue. Tom insists on doing the play, and finally Edmund begs him to at least be quiet about it for their father’s sake, and to be careful of spending too much money. Tom waves off his concern and tells him it will cost very little. He then tells Edmund that he doesn’t have to act if he doesn’t want to, but he can’t expect to control everyone else. Edmund says he absolutely will not be acting, and Tom walks out of the room.
Lady’s Bertram’s lack of concern about Sir Thomas after Edmund has just used her anxiety as an excuse is comedic. Lady Bertram is often used as a pawn for other characters to prove their points or negotiate, showing her lack of real will or agency as a character. At the same time, Lady Bertram’s lack of passion for her husband, who supposedly was a good (and “lucky”) match, again proves even socially admirable marriages to be rather dismal.
Fanny, who overheard the quibble, tries to comfort Edmund by suggesting that they may not find a suitable play. Edmund brushes off this idea, and says that all he can do is try to persuade Maria and Julia not to take part. Fanny suggests that Mrs. Norris might side with him. Edmund agrees, but doubts that she could convince Tom, Maria, and Julia either.
Fanny and Edmund strategizes about how to convince the others to not do the play, aligning them again in their sense of morality, and showing how the pair possess compatible values and senses of propriety.
The next morning Edmund speaks to Maria and Julia, who are just as unwilling to listen to him as Tom. As Edmund is trying to convince them, Henry enters the room, declaring that he and Mary will partake in the theatre as well. Edmund, now knowing that Mary approves of the play, softens his resolve. Mrs. Norris turns out to support the play as well, and so the project moves forward.
Edmund’s sense of righteousness, though, is clearly not as strong as it seems, since Edmund’s resolves softens when he hears Mary will do the play. Edmund’s love for Mary negatively impacts his morality, showing she is a bad influence for him.