Henry Crawford is an avid 'improver' (as indeed he is always interfering with the status auo), and Mr Rushworth eagerly seeks his help. When they are all at Sotherton they find the house oppressive, and, as soon as they come to a door leading to the open, 'as by one impulse, one wish for air and liberty, all walked out.' To appreciate what happens subsequently it is important to keep the layout in mind. First there is a walled lawn—nature tamed, ordered and civilised. But beyond that is a 'wilderness'—here things are less refined, less restrained, darker.
Providentially the door into it is unlocked and into the dark wood they all, variously, go. It is a version of the Renaissance topos of the wood of love—la selva d'amore—always understood as a dark maze in which one loses one's way. Here it is that Mary tries to undermine Edmund's intention to be a clergyman. (In the course of this conversation they leave 'the great path' and take 'a very serpentine course'—again outer action mimics the life within.) It is here that Fanny desires to sit down and be still, and she does so on a bench which confronts an iron gate which separates the wilderness from the unenclosed spaces of the park beyond. This is one of the most important gestures in the book. Mary, typically, has no taste for stillness. '"I must move," said she, "resting fatigues me"', and leaving Fanny immobile, she entices Edmund back into the wood. Then Henry Crawford and Maria and Mr Rushworth appear. Maria, always impatient of all restraints and enclosures, wishes to go beyond the gates and into the wider freedom of the park. The gate—perfect image for the rigid restrictions imposed by the conventions of civilised life—is locked. Mr Rushworth goes to fetch the key. Being engaged to Maria, he is in many ways the lawful person to 'open the gates', (there is perhaps a reference to virginity here, just as the locked garden represents virginity in medieval paintings). But in his absence. Henry engages in some very persuasive and suggestive double entendre with Maria. The improver of the estate is also the disturber of conventional life. The whole conversation should be looked at carefully; particularly when Maria complains that the iron gate 'gives me a feeling of restraint and hardship' and Henry answers, 'I think you might with little difficulty pass round the edge of the gate, here, with my assistance; I think it might be done, if you really wished to be more at large, and could allow yourself to think it not prohibited.' Their final adultery—also a bypassing of the 'iron' codes of society—is here prefigured. Fanny warns against the danger, but Maria manages to slip round the gate without any harm from the spikes. Subsequently the spikes of convention will damage her more deeply. Again, Fanny is 'left to her solitude'. And so it goes on. Mr Rushworth appears, upset to find he has been left behind; Julia turns up breathless and angry; Edmund and Mary continue their 'winding' walk in the woods. Only Fanny is still, silent, alone; not involved in the confused antics of all the others, who are variously pursuing their own desires and indulging their impulses. When they do all meet up again, one feels that some irreparable damage has been done. 'By their own accounts they had been all walking after each other, and the junction which had taken place at last seemed, to Fanny's observation, to have been as much too late for re-establishing harmony, as it confessedly had been for determining on any alteration.' Nothing constructive has been achieved, but the seeds of future disharmony have been sown, for the confused, often furtive, criss-cross moving around in the increasing liberty and concealment of garden, wood and park portends the more serious disorder that many of the characters will make of their subsequent lives. Fanny's staying-put is a small gesture of moral tenacity while the others dangerously roam.
The theatricals provide the core of the book; and, indeed, they are the occasion of one of the most subtle and searching pieces in English fiction. We know from the Memoir by Jane Austen's nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, that amateur home theatricals were popular in her family and by no means disapproved of as they are in the book. But in the novel she uses them as a vehicle to explore the profound implications of 'acting' and 'role-playing' for the individual and society. Her brilliant exploitation of the suggestiveness and relevance of 'theatricals' to modern life amply justifies Lionel Trilling's claim that 'it was Jane Austen who first represented the specifically modern personality and the culture in which it had its being'. The theatricals represent the culmination of the irresponsible licence indulged in during Sir Thomas's absence ('They were relieved by it from all restraint'). Of course the idea of home theatricals seems harmless if not positively charming to us. But in terms of the world of the book we must see the attempt to turn Mansfield Park into a theatre as a dangerous act of desecration: it is like transforming a temple of order into a school for scandal. Interestingly enough, all the characters sense that Sir Thomas would disapprove, but Tom overrules Edmund's objections by saying, 'His house shall not be hurt.' But in a deeper sense Mansfield Park is all but destroyed once 'the inclination to act was awakened'. For Mansfield Park is a place where you must be true to your best self: the theatre is a place where you can explore and experiment with other selves. A person cannot live in both.
It is perhaps helpful to bear in mind the old Platonic objection to acting: Plato thought a person could not be both a good citizen and an actor, because just to simulate a base character has a debasing and demoralising influence on the civilised self. There is a long history of comparable suspicion of the insidious dangers of acting. On the other hand, at least since the Romantic movement, there has been an increasing interest in role-playing, acting, masks, and so on—the feeling being that perhaps the self can only come to a full realisation of itself through experiments in different roles and by trying on different masks. One of the prevailing Romantic convictions is that we are very much more than the conscious mind tells us, that a man is a crowd of almost infinite potentialities (thus Whitman: 'I contain multitudes'). There has been a corresponding desire to try to extend life and consciousness by acting out many different roles. By 'losing yourself in a part', as we revealingly say, you may find another, buried part of yourself: the stage is a great place for discovering those hidden inner multitudes that Whitman mentions. Even reading offers important scope for vicarious role-playing. Clearly one danger in all this is that, although the self might enjoy an enhanced and enriched life by going from role to role, it may dissipate itself until the inner man loses himself in the actor and the face dissolves into the mask. Certainly, role-playing must make against stability and fixity: if the self is fluid, there is no limit to what it might do, no knowing how it might behave. Instead of life conceived as a rigid adherence to firm moral standards, it may turn into a series of improvisations suggested by the milieu of the moment, an endless metamorphosis.
The theatrical germ is brought to Mansfield Park by Mr Yates, a foolish visitor from the world of 'fashion and expense'; very soon all the younger people desire to act or, as Tom puts it, 'exercise our powers in something new'. Again it should be noted that it is in the absence of Sir Thomas that a whole range of hitherto restrained 'powers' and impulses start to press for expression and indulgence. Lady Bertram, of course, offers no obstructions; Mrs Norris positively likes the idea, because 'she foresaw in it all the comforts of hurry, bustle, and importance'. Only Edmund disapproves—and, of course. Fanny. They both refuse to 'act'. Fanny's words have a special emphasis. 'I could not act any thing if you were to give me the world. No indeed, I cannot act.' Henry Crawford is, revealingly, 'considerably the best actor of all'—even Fanny admits his great talents in this sphere. The point is, of course, that these talents stray out of the theatre and into real life: off stage he is 'at treacherous play' with the feelings of Julia and Maria—the latter being only too happy to indulge her illicit passion for Henry under the guise of 'acting'. Mary is also in her element in the theatre, and it is her teasing and tempting which finally undermine Edmund's resolution so that he allows himself to be persuaded to take a part. For when she provocatively asks, 'What gentleman among you am I to have the pleasure of making love to?' Edmund cannot resist the proffered role. This has important implications. Edmund has chosen to be a clergyman by profession: a profession is, in effect, the fixed role that we choose, as responsibly as possible, for life. Edmund at this moment symbolically abandons his profession, his role in life, to play at being a stage clergyman indulging in a love affair (for such is his part). It involves an abdication of his true self in order to indulge a passional impulse. And with his defection to the actors only Fanny is left among the 'players' as a centre of judgement and responsible clear-sightedness. The rest are no longer their true selves: 'and no man was his own' in Shakespearean terms.