21 June 2011: Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

Live in HD broadcast, Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre, New York City. Brian Bedford, director and as Lady Bracknell. Seen at the Amherst Cinema, Amherst, Massachusetts

“Live” in the sense that this film is of a live performance, broadcast on four separate dates for multiple cinemas across the nation (and, for all I know, beyond as well). The film had also been edited for delayed cinematic presentation: the transition between Act II and Act III, which involves a change of setting, was done instantly, with no intermission, unlike that between Acts I and II.

This production has had a lot of publicity, especially for the fact of Brian Bedford playing Lady Bracknell as well as directing. We were prepared to enjoy ourselves. And through the first act we did, even though the Gwendolen, Sara Topham, seemed to be using the upper register of her voice quite a lot and even though the actors tended to shout and not just to project. But as the play progressed into Act II, we sensed some vague disappointment. We began to sense a certain being played down to in the quality of the performance. And gradually we realized that this production is aimed point blank at what is called “the Broadway audience.” It is an audience, evidently, that, much like the former president of the United States, “doesn’t do nuance.” Later (I am writing this review on 25 June) I asked a good friend of mine whom I had seen among the audience how he liked it. He hesitated, and then said, “It all seemed to be overdone.” He was right. Apparently this is what it takes now to succeed on Broadway: make it all unmistakably obvious. And be careful not to overestimate the intelligence of the audience.

An example of this overdressed playing down was an alteration of a line of Miss Prism’s in Act II. Jack is trying to book a time with Canon Chasuble to be baptized. Chasuble says he has “a case of twins” to baptize at 5:00 that afternoon, the latest offspring of Jenkins, a very hard-working man (nobody laughed at that). Miss Prism comments that she has often had to speak to the working-class people on the estate about this (she means, about producing so many children), “but they don’t seem to know what thrift is.” The wittiness of the line is in the use of “thrift” to mean an economizing of an unusual kind, even more basic than being careful about money. Bedford (I presume he is the one who decided on the change) altered the word to “restraint,” depriving it of any hint of wit or humor.

And he even went so far as to interpolate a line of his own invention. In Act III, Jack is on the library ladder, a volume of the Army lists in hand, having just determined that his name is, like that of his father, “Ernest John.” As he descends from the ladder he suddenly cries out, “A wild hope dawns across my life!” I know the text of this play very well, if I may say so, and no such line appears in that text. What exactly Brian Bedford had in mind in inserting such a line at this point is anyone’s guess. Somehow, it seems to point us in the direction of resolution, of denouement. But there are fewer plays that have a clearer, more economically and clearly written ending than this one. Was the line meant to indicate that Jack now knows who he is for sure? Wasn’t that already clarified when Lady Bracknell, just a few moments previous to this moment, broke the news to him that he is Algy’s older brother? I grant that I am not the typical audience member in the case of this play, since I know it so well, but things like this certainly do dampen one’s enthusiasm. The only thing that’s clear in this instance is that Bedford, or whoever was responsible for the interpolation, mistrusted the audience’s ability to understand what was happening.

All the same, there was, finally, much to be enjoyed, if one could keep the vague feeling of being played down to at bay well enough. The Algy, Santino Fontana, was the most successful of this generally competent cast. It would seem that Bedford had instructed his actors to say the lines as if they had never been uttered before and to say them with a kind of common-sensical seriousness, a certain matter-of-factness, but at the same time with much vocal variety and with very slight pauses at unusual places, as between an adjective and the noun it modifies. They all did this, and with good success, giving a freshness to Wilde’s dialogue that it often fails to embody.

Algy was certainly the best at this, but that was because he had made the discovery (or had it made for him by Brian Bedford) that Algy is a very knowing character: that is, he knows himself well, knows what makes him tick, knows what effect his personality has on other characters, and so has a remarkable capacity to anticipate. He knows in advance what effect his actions and utterances will have on others, and he is able to pace himself accordingly, picking up his interlocutors’ cues a split second before they finish the last word of the speech. And so he is the one character of the play who is never at a loss — for words, for insight, for retaliatory response, and, most importantly, for deep, thorough enjoyment of self and life. There is a joie de vivre in the character that is unquenchable; it defines all he is and stands for. Now, if he could only have been costumed in less clownish apparel, the presentation would have been perfect. Unfortunately, he looked like a barker at a circus, in outlandishly extravagant ties and jackets and shirts that shouted loudly at one another instead of matching in the best of taste. When, at the close of Act I, he tells Lane that he is going bunburying and instructs him to pack “all the Bunbury suits,” we shudder to think of entire suitcases full of the most garish, ill-matched outfits. And that is just what he shows up wearing when, as the fictitious young Ernest Worthing, he introduces himself to Cecily at the Manor House, Woolton.

In an interview before the play began, in Brian Bedford’s dressing room, Bedford was asked about his approach to the characters. If my recollection is correct, he said that he looked at the text of the play itself for clues for casting and directing. A prominent example is John Worthing (David Furr), masquerading as the non-existent wicked younger brother Ernest, in garb, facial features, and mien, who was certainly, as Algy describes him, “the most earnest-looking person I have ever met in my life.” Does he ever smile? What is in the text, for this character? He explains his invention of his irresponsible younger brother who lives in the Albany, gets into lots of “scrapes,” and never pays his restaurant bills as a necessary relief from living the life of the staid country manor house gentleman with a young ward and much general responsibility. But it would seem, in all the Jacks I’ve seen, that the text seems to promote the creation of an Earnest who is permanently depressed by it all, who tries his best to enjoy himself but fails.

There is an interesting complementarity between Jack (“Ernest”) and Algy. Early in Act I Algy volunteers to get Lady Bracknell out of the room so that Jack can propose to Gwendolen if Jack will go to dinner with him at Willis’s later in the evening. Jack agrees, but only in an off-hand way, as if where one eats doesn’t much matter. “Yes, but you must be serious about it,” Algy reprimands him. “I hate people who are not serious about meals,” he adds. “It is so shallow of them.” And then he goes further: “What you are serious about heaven only knows. About everything, I suspect. You have such an absolutely trivial nature.” (Or words to that effect.)

Jack is thus effectively characterized as emotionally and intellectually monochromatic, as having no sense of proportion. There seems to be no real sense of self there; “no there there,” as people like to say these days. One could carry this analysis further and suggest that Jack’s history as a foundling has robbed him of the thing that people with proper parents grow up possessing as a matter of course: an identity. I have often thought that the character of Jack is a somewhat thankless role to play; he seems unable to find any real pleasure in life — even though he answers Algy’s question “What brings you up to town?” by saying “Oh, pleasure, pleasure. What should bring anyone anywhere?” But we can’t really believe him. It all serves to make him merely nervous and anxious, and unable to be happy, even while he runs up astronomical bills at Willis’s and the Savoy and gets into undescribed “scrapes.” Is he possibly the victim of dramatic decorum? Does he always have to be the serious (in the non-Wildean sense) elder brother, an effective dramatic foil to the irresponsible younger brother, Algy? Perhaps so. Perhaps he has to remain the solemn elder brother even when in disguise as the wicked younger brother who will have to choose between this world, the next world, and Australia.

Be that all as it may, the text of this play (played here, of course, in its latter-day, three-act incarnation) is such a sturdy vehicle for laughter and enjoyment that it is hard to ruin. And certainly Brian Bedford didn’t ruin it: he simply redirected its energies so as to allow it to have an impact on people who cannot be expected to be sophisticated about it, or about anything else, for that matter. As a result, in order to enjoy the production on its own terms, someone who knows the play well has to set aside a number of cavils and disagreements and minor reactions of outrage and take it for what it is. Never mind the caricature of two young society ladies as “gells” who talk in very high-pitched little-girl voices. Never mind a Miss Prism who is utterly, radically divided between her proper career as a professional scold, an ogre in skirts who belies the effect of her sweet face by being as much of a gorgon about school lessons as Lady Bracknell is (at least, in Jack’s opinion) about the eligibility of young men for marriage — between that and a simpering sex maniac in disguise who wants to marry someone in the worst way, even if it is only the harmless, egocentric local clergyman. Never mind if the three settings in which the action of the play takes place don’t really harmonize, representing a range of colors and stylistic choices in Act I but an oversimplified garden in Act II, with yellow roses (Maréchal Niels — at least they got that right) on a trellis up stage right and pink roses upstage left, and a completely monochromatic “library” in Act III, with a tall case of books whose spines are all nearly the same color and whose furniture follows that same color scheme. Never mind that the casting of “little Cecily” is of someone (Charlotte Parry) who, as Cecily herself says, is “not little” (the term she used when engraving the cigarette case she gave to her “dear Uncle Jack”) but is “more than usually tall for her age” — but who ironically cannot fulfill the physical requirements called for in Algy’s description of her as “the prettiest girl I ever saw.” She is too tall, has a too-prominent nose and over-large features, and is generally on the verge of homely.

And, finally, never mind that the decision by Brian Bedford to play Lady Bracknell as well as to direct the production raises questions about cross-dressing that were completely side-stepped in the dressing-room interview (“I just decided I wanted to do it”) and, may I say, in the presentation of the character herself on stage.

This is a subtle point, admittedly. If you are a male actor in your mid-fifties and you “just decide” that you want to play Lady Bracknell, what is it exactly that you are deciding to do? You will know, of course, that it is not the first time such a cross-dressing has been attempted (to name only one previous example, William Hutt in a Stratford, Ontario production of some years back). In fact, it can be thought of as something becoming almost a tradition. And of course it is a delicious challenge, because it is one of the best “grande dame” roles in all of dramatic art, as Rose LeClerq, the first Lady B., demonstrated in the St James’s Theatre première in 1895. Does it have to be anything more than an actorly challenge deliciously well fulfilled? Bedford was, indeed, extremely good in the role. He followed his own directorial precept and discovered a common-sensically fresh reality in the lines. He passed the test presented by the required archetypal bewilderment and outrage of “Found?” Notwithstanding the fact that he was playing a woman of a certain age (or above), he used the full range of his (medium baritone) voice, including its lows for special emphasis, in a convincing way: we knew he was male, there was no deception attempted, but he comported himself like a woman, albeit a woman who wears her authority like a major life achievement. (“I do not approve of mercenary marriages. When I married Lord Bracknell I had no fortune of any kind, but I did not for a moment allow that to stand in my way.”) He owned the role, and there was never a false note.

And yet, this Lady Bracknell owned it like something very expensive that she had purchased, perhaps at Tiffany’s, and so had a right to carry with her wherever she went. In this respect Bedford’s inhabiting of his role was different from Algy’s inhabiting of his, in which there was no appreciable, measurable distance between the actor and the character; here, in Bedford’s case, there was a distance, small but perceivable and noticeable; tell-tale, in fact. You could see it in the eyes, which were not Lady Bracknell’s eyes but Brian Bedford’s eyes, luminous, calculating, yet disengaged, watching himself perform the role and at the same time keeping a careful watch on the full range of his stage creation. What was more important than inhabiting the role was to show that he could inhabit it while at the same time doing something else.

There was, however, another question. Granted, cross-dressing has been happening in the professional theatre ever since there was a professional theatre. The fact of boys playing women on the Elizabethan stage is common knowledge. For English theatregoers, the fact of women playing so-called “breeches” or “trouser” roles, as in the magnificent case of Eliza Vestris in the London of the early nineteenth century, is also very familiar. Is there a difference in kind between that phenomenon and the related but perhaps qualitatively different phenomenon of men playing women?

Well, it depends. There is a production currently mounted locally by the Hampshire Shakespeare Company of The Taming of the Shrew in which all the female roles are played by males and vice versa. Surely that’s different from having one mature male play a mature female while the rest of the roles are performed by persons of the same sex. (And when I was teaching plays in a UMass classroom and it came time to read a scene from the play, I asked for volunteers regardless of gender to play the role they were inclined to play; it opened up the play in surprising ways and added definite freshness and interest.) What is the impact of that decision on the audience? Is anyone offended by it? (Not that I could see.) Does it suggest that gender is a relative thing and that it can be changed in appearances in a dramatic performance with charming, entertaining results? Or does the occupation of a female role by a male actor ineluctably raise serious questions of the relationship between biological identity and social identity? Does it, for instance, suggest that the dramatic performance has somehow raised the same kind of deeply troubling questions that are raised when a human person actually undergoes a trans-gendering operation?

On the night of this Live in HD broadcast, such questions seemed very far afield, to the point of invisibility. There was a lot of fun being had, by both the actors on stage and the audience, even though not every audience member was fully invested in it. And most of us, whether completely engaged or not, were even happier to reflect on the fact that we had each paid a mere $20 for our ticket, instead of $125 for a seat in the 750-seat American Airlines Theatre in New York, along with all the other attendant costs. We have entered a new era of play- and opera-going, now that the digital world has progressed to the point of being able to broadcast simultaneous showings of distant productions, some of them transoceanic, to people who happily flock to their own local cinema to observe them, at a fraction of the cost of travel and entrance to the source venue. And we are just at the threshold of being able to estimate what good effect all this will have on the fortunes of dramatic art and operatic art as major art forms, which used to be more central to the society and culture than they have now become. O, brave new world, that hath such . . . technology in it?


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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