Picking a play turns out to be a difficult decision. The carpenter already begins building the set, and the curtain is being made before the script is even picked. Julia, Maria, Henry, and Mr. Yates want the play to be a tragedy, while Tom and Mary prefer comedy. They vet various options, but find all of them imperfect for one reason or another. Fanny, meanwhile, listens and observes these discussions. She finds the objections to various plays petty, but hopes they end up picking one so she can watch.
Interestingly enough, Fanny, who seemed to side with Edmund in her objection to the play, and does not want to participate in the production, still hopes they end up putting on a play so she can watch. Fanny, though often described as morally consistent, can also be hypocritical, content to benefit from the people and things to which she morally objects.
Tom declares that they are wasting time and must choose something. He proposes another play, which flops. Then he suggests “Lover’s Vows” (the play that Yates rehearsed for previously). Everyone seems content with this suggestion. Mr. Yates is especially thrilled. He offers to play the Baron, and Henry to play Frederick.
“Lover’s Vows,” although now a fairly obscure text, was a popular and contemporary play at the time Austen wrote Mansfield Park. Like the novel, it follows the love lives and disgraces of a group of people from a mix of social classes.
Maria and Julia both want to play Agatha, Frederick’s mother. Julia points out that there is no part for Mary. Henry tells them that Mary does not want to act, but rather help with the production. Tom, however, insists that Mary should play the character Amelia. Henry says that Julia should not be the one to play Agatha, much to Julia’s upset and Maria’s triumph. Tom agrees, saying there is nothing tragic about Julia, and that she would do better as the Cottager’s Wife.
In the play, the character of Agatha is a lower class woman who has an illegitimate son, Frederick (played by Henry) with the Baron (played by Yates). As Maria and Julia fight over the part, they are again competing for the role that will allow them the most attention, and time onstage with Henry.
Yates objects to Julia playing the Cottager’s wife, thinking it is too insignificant a part for her. They argue back and forth. Henry tries to flatter Julia by telling her to take the part of Amelia. Tom objects and says that Mary is better suited for the part. Henry, though, continues to implore Julia to take the part. This softens Julia’s feeling of rejection, but she is suspicious of Henry’s waffling.
Yates, who throughout the rest of the play expresses romantic interest in Julia, seems to want her to play Agatha so she will be his character’s love interest. Julia, meanwhile, begins to catch on to Henry’s strategy of flattering her in order to maintain her affection and manipulate her.
Julia calls out the fact that Henry thought she would be overpowering as Agatha but not as Amelia, and Henry is stumped. Julia says that she would not take Amelia anyway, since she only wanted to play Agatha, and she hates the comedic part of Amelia. Julia then leaves the room, making everyone else feel awkward. Fanny feels bad for Julia and pities her feelings of jealousy.
Henry’s charm and good manners fail him when Julia calls out his hypocrisy, revealing her awareness of his tactics. Generally, the casting of the play involves a lot of negotiation, mirroring the real life manipulation in the actors’ love lives as well.
After a short silence, the conversation turns back to the play. Tom and Yates discuss the scenery while Maria talks with Henry. Eventually, Tom and Yates leave to look in the billiards room, which is now the theatre. Maria and Henry go to the Parsonage to tell Mary she has been cast as Amelia, and suddenly Fanny is alone. She picks up the play script, which is on the table, and reads. Fanny is scandalized by the parts of Amelia and Agatha, which she thinks are unfit to be played by gentlewomen. She hopes that Edmund’s chastisements will sink in and they will change their minds.
Fanny’s conviction that the roles of Amelia and Agatha are unfit for gentlewomen like Maria, Julia, and Mary is interesting, because it seems to support class distinctions —although Fanny herself has been consistently degraded due to lower class. In the play, Agatha, a commoner, marries above her station, while Amelia, the daughter of a Baron, marries below. This foreshadows the later interclass marriage between Fanny and Edmund.