Tom's friend Mr. Yates accompanies Tom back to Mansfield Park, where he speaks non-stop about his disappointment over not being allowed to direct a play at Ecclesford. The endeavor, it seems, was put an end to when the family's grandmother died. He never ceases talking about the disappointment, and finally Tom proposes that the young people at Mansfield Park indulge Yates by putting on a play. There is immediate jubilation about this idea, except on the part of Edmund and Fanny, who believe that Sir Thomas would be opposed to such goings-on: "I cannot agree with you," Edmund said, "I am convinced that my father would totally disprove it." However, objections are put aside and set construction on what has now come to be called "the theatre" starts. The area consists of Sir Thomas's private office. Petty arguments break out over selecting the play. The arguments go around and around, until it looks like they will never get anywhere. Even after the play Lover's Vows is selected, the young people continue to argue over who will get what part. Unsurprisingly, Maria and Julia squabble over the female lead. After reading the play, Fanny realizes that the cast members have no idea that the work is scandalous: "I think it exceedingly unfit for private representation and I hope you will give it up." Indeed, none of them have even read the play in its entirety. Maria insists that they should go ahead and put it up, and that if there is anything a "little too warm" that they should just leave it out. For some odd reason Julia refuses to participate if she doesn't get the part she wants, playing opposite Henry Crawford. When she doesn't get the female lead, she leaves the production in a snit, unwilling to take any part at all.
A great deal of confusion concerning casting arises as plans for the theatrical production proceed. Rushworth makes a big deal out of his little role, and says he is put out by having to wear the blue and pink of a fop; clearly, however, he feels very self-important. Everyone - with the exception of Fanny and Edmund - is delighted by the idea of the play: even Mrs. Norris decides to move back into Mansfield Park so that she can be of service. The part of Anhalt, the clergyman, remains uncast, and Tom insists that they must look outside of their intimate circle for an actor to play the part, which involves a marriage to Mary Crawford's character. Tom also insists that Fanny act as a cottager, an idea about which she recoils in horror. Both Tom and Mrs. Norris call her ungrateful, at which point Fanny becomes tearful. Mary Crawford defends her. Fanny, in dismay, visits the old nursery, which she has more or less taken for her own use since her attic bedroom is so small. Edmund knocks and finds that she is deep in reverie. He has come to ask for her advice about the play because he is horrified about having it transform into a public spectacle. After all, the women - and particularly Mary Crawford, who does not want to perform with a stranger - must be protected from talk. There is no choice, he tells Fanny, but for him to take the role of Anhalt himself. Edmund asks for Fanny's approval. She believes Mary Crawford has unduly influenced him: "was he not deceiving himself?"
The young players are delighted by Edmund's decision to play the clergyman. Fanny's distress deepens as rehearsals for the play continue, but she feels better when Mrs. Grant agrees to take the role of the cottager at Mary's request. Once again, Fanny fins herself in Mary Crawford's debt. Gossip regarding Maria and Henry continues to circulate. Mary insists that Henry likes Maria far more than Julia, but Mrs. Grant says Maria would never be inconstant to her fiancÃ©, Rushworth. They acknowledge that when Sir Thomas comes back from Antigua, he will help return the family to normalcy. Fanny is not the only one feeling sad: it seems that Julia has fallen in love with Henry, and now feels that her sister Maria, whom Henry favors, is her triumphant arch-enemy. Fanny becomes the support staff for the players. She hears all the gossip and all the complaints, provides them with coaching and prompting, and realizes that rather than being happy, everyone is distressed. She also feels that Henry and Maria are the best actors.
Rushworth acts like an idiot, wanting to be prompted through his own limited lines. Fanny is dreading the approach of Edmund and Mary's scene, until each individually comes to ask her to help them rehearse in the former nursery. They decide to rehearse together and have Fanny act as judge - a job she is too timid to undertake effectively. Fanny becomes distraught: "she could not equal them in their warmth. Her spirits sank under the glow of theirs, and she felt herself becoming too nearly nothing to both." During the dress rehearsal, the players find out that Mrs. Grant cannot take on the part of the cottager's wife after all, because Dr. Grant is ill, and she has to stay in the parsonage to take care of him. Soon the whole group gangs up on Fanny, especially Tom Bertram, urging her to read Mrs. Grant's part. Even Edmund begs her: "Do Fanny, if it is not too very disagreeable to you." Fanny is horrified, but ultimately too exhausted to continue refusing. Suddenly, there is an unusual noise in the other part of the house: to everyone's great consternation, Julia enters and announces that Sir Thomas has just returned home.
Yates's suggested play, Lover's Vows, is indeed very inappropriate for cultured ladies and gentlemen to put on. This is not only because of its subject matter - which is indeed scandalous - but also because of the casting. Maria is, after all, an engaged woman, and she will be playing Henry's mother, which is a physically intimate role that involves a great deal of touching. Furthermore, Mary and Edmund will play a married couple. For Mary and Maria to play roles that could be viewed as sexually inappropriate could damage their reputations in society if word were to get out. And, as Austen makes clear, it is often difficult to determine where real life stops and stage life begins. After all, Maria does not really love Rushworth; she has simply attached herself to him because he has a large estate, and is merely acting out the role of the happy fiancÃ©. Clearly, she is marrying Rushworth for his money. She flirts openly with Henry, acting the innocent while battling Julia for his attentions.
In this section, Fanny finds herself put to a test of her morals. She feels very ill at ease about the play, and is absolutely terrified at the idea of being forced into a situation where others might judge her. Furthermore, Tom's disparaging remarks to Fanny put her firmly back in her low social place. After all, she is merely a poor relative without any power whatsoever. While the others say they are giving her the choice of whether or not to participate in the play, they clearly expect her to please them by carrying out their wishes. And, while they might act like she is a member of the family, everyone is aware of the unspoken reality: Fanny Price is a nothing, and Tom, who acts like a cheerful, easy-going young man, is destined to become master of the house, and must therefore be obeyed at all costs. If Fanny isn't agreeable to him, he can easily send her packing.
Austen places Edmund and Fanny in parental roles: the two stand as proper examples for the other young people to follow. After all, they oppose the idea of the play but feel, like many young people, pressured to conform to the wishes of their peers. Mary's influence over Edmund is revealed when he succumbs to her charm once more, and agrees to lower his moral standards by taking on the acting role of clergyman (a role that he seems ill-prepared for in real life, given the ease with which Mary can sway his beliefs). Indeed, we must wonder how he will ever effectively speak to his parishioners if he is so undisciplined and easily influenced himself? If there is anyone who can withstand the social pressure to conform, it is Fanny. She naturally shies away from attention, and is horrified at the idea of standing on a stage with all eyes on her. However, even she cannot withstand the pressure to play the role of the cottager's wife, especially when Tom hints at her powerless social position. When Edmund also pleads with her to take the role so that the show can go on, she feels compelled to capitulate despite all of her misgivings. She is, after all, in love with Edmund, and these feelings overshadow her moral stance on the matter of the play. In short, Fanny seems to be the only one who has actually read the play and is thus capable of making an informed decision. Everyone else, it appears, is in the dark.
It is important to note that unlike today, when actors are glorified as celebrities, during the eighteenth century any association with this lowbrow profession was to be avoided by the upper crust at all costs. Actors were viewed as mere employees, and involvement in a play would thus bring the upper class closer to the lower class.