31 December 2006: The Importance of Being Earnest

Matinee. American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Ridiculusmus Company. The play devised, edited, and adapted by David Woods, Jon Haynes, and Jude Kelly. Directed by Jude Kelly. Performed by David Woods and Jon Haynes. First performance 21 December 2006.

This delightful, high camp version of Wilde’s classic farce is subtitled, in the program, “A trivial comedy performed by two Serious People.” They don’t say, as Wilde’s original subtitle does, whether the play is ‘for Serious People’ or some other audience. Yet it surely must be for an audience familiar enough with the original play to follow and understand it while it is being camped up unmer­cifully — and willing to be entertained by the camping up as well. The camping is done by the two actors, David Woods and Jon Haynes, who together act all the parts, aided and abetted in this fiendish ostensible destruction of a masterpiece by Jude Kelly, the director and collaborator with Haynes and Woods in this entirely serious rendering of Wilde’s trivial comedy.

If you’re going to camp something up, you must first read W. S. Gilbert’s advice to the players of his inspired farce Engaged (on which The Importance of Being Earnest is, in part, based). You must perform your roles with utter serious­ness, Gilbert instructs his actors, with no winking or nodding of heads, or inap­pro­priate body language, as if to say or indicate, “Oh, well, we know, and if we had a mind . . . “; because, directly you let the audience in on the fact that you know it is all a spoof, the play is ruined. The actors must seem entirely oblivious to the comedy they are creating and the humor they are generating. The two “Serious People” (note the capital letters), Woods and Haynes, are no less than maniacally serious, equally willing to let the action stop dead while they walk offstage to change a costume or to carry on with breakneck speed in order to keep up the frantic pace of a critically important scene. In fact, the pace of the performance overall becomes gradually but unerringly faster, as if the produc­tion were in a protracted but ever more desperate race against time, ever fearful of some Farcical Nemesis lurking in the cosmic surround.

Evidently, Haynes and Woods, and Kelly too, have taken such lessons as Gilbert prescribes to heart, and to head, and have decided that doing things by half-measures must be ruled out from the start. This is camp with a mission, treating its subject (Wilde’s play) with colossal sangfroid, as if it were beneath aesthetic contempt, while simultaneously lavishing on it the kind of veneration that comes only from actors whose secret desire since childhood has been to play all the parts in The Importance of Being Earnest—especially the female parts. (Who among us has never longed to play that moment when Lady Bracknell, who, as Gwendolen says, has a habit of coming back suddenly into a room, comes sud­den­ly back into the room where Jack is busy proposing and cries out, in stentor­ian tones, “Mr. Worthing! Rise, sir, from that semi-recumbent posture. It is most indecorous.”?)

How do you camp up The Importance of Being Earnest? I cannot count the ways, but here are some handy examples. Lady Bracknell’s Act I entrance is accompanied by music from Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”—cued by David Woods, as Lane, aiming his remote control at an on-stage CD player. (Know­ledgeable audience members will remember a line of Algy’s in Wilde’s play, cut like several other gems in this performance: “Ah, that must be Aunt Augusta. Only relatives or creditors ever ring in that Wagnerian manner.”) Much more illustrative music is summoned, in this anachronistic fashion, through much of the play, until in Act III a cue misfires and an angry Woods hurls his remote at the offending CD player—which then comes in on cue. By the time Lady Brack­nell has made her first entrance, all the bread-and-butter sandwiches have been devoured by David Woods’s Jack, who manages the astounding feat of cram­ming nine (I counted them, but perhaps I missed one or two) sandwiches into his mouth in rapid succession as he continues to speak his lines; for his part, Jon Haynes didn’t quite finish off the cucumber sandwiches intended for Lady Bracknell and so had to hastily deposit the remainder in a nearby dresser drawer as the dowager aunt (played, for the moment, by Woods) makes her command­ing entrance. As she appears, we see that Lady Bracknell’s costume includes a hat with a dead bird in it. The program note encourages us to see this as a takeoff on the dead bird in the hat Edith Evans wore as Lady Bracknell in the 1938 film with John Gielgud and Gwen Ffrancon-Davies. But this dead bird is duck-like, not dove-like, dark grey, not white, and has a foot-long neck and a wild, staring eye; it is in fact a life-size coot. While David Woods’s Ernest explains to Lady Brack­nell the story of how he was “found,” Jon Haynes’s Lady Bracknell heads for the on-stage piano—yes, that piano, the one Haynes began the act by playing, as Algy, with marvellously overwrought expression—and gives us a rendering of some truly lugubrious music, rushing back to her chair just in time to say “Found?” By the way, there is no room, in this up-to-date camp style, for histrion­ics of the sort that sometimes accompany the pronunciation of supposedly mem­or­­able Bracknellian phrases: “Fffffounnnnd?” for instance, or “A Hhhhannd’bbagg?” It is simply “Found?” or “A handbag?”—as if consistent underplaying was the preferred mode of delivery. Which it is. Matter-of-factness is the order of the day, somehow enhancing the outrageousness of the enterprise. It all continues at this rate in Acts II and III. Cecily puts four lumps of sugar into Gwendolen’s tea and then dumps the entire contents of the sugar bowl into it, going on to serve her a whopper-size piece of dark brown cake. And so on, all of it done with complete, throwaway aplomb.

Playing it straight is absolutely necessary, of course, even while the costumes, outlandish and over the top wherever possible, seem constantly ready to fall apart; they come in removable segments and uncannily, if sometimes fragmentar­ily, take on a life of their own. This, too, is part of the total camp-up, as in the Act I proposal scene. Haynes’s Gwendolen, resplendent in a yards-and-yards-of-yellow dress, a total flounce number, reaches out her upstage hand to caress the hair (a shaggy, misshapen brown wig) worn by the kneeling Woods as “Ernest.” But at this point Woods is urgently needed to dash backstage and change into the Lady Bracknell costume, which he does, leaving the wig suspended in mid-air, held aloft by Gwendolen’s outstretched hand. Immediately, the wig takes on a life of its own, an ersatz identity that does quite well as Ernest himself until Wood, dodging out of the Lady B. costume in which he has made a hilarious entrance (remember the dead coot?), reacquaints himself with Ernest’s hair. By the time we get to the revelation scene in Act III, in which the two actors face the formidable challenge of playing no fewer than the seven characters simultan­eously onstage (Jack, Algy, Cecily, Gwendolen, Lady Bracknell, Canon Chasuble, and Miss Prism), we find that Lady Bracknell’s gown has sufficient starch in it to stand upright on its own, while remaining fully open down the middle, allowing it to be momentarily abandoned and then reinhabited, by turns, by Woods or Haynes, as the need arises, simply by bending slightly at the knees, backing into it, and rising again. It is a sumptuous gown, which completely fails to cover Woods’s black bikini pants and bare legs. Good God. But it was delicious fun to see this lightning-quick change accomplished repeatedly.

Because of the rapid succession of short speeches by several characters over much of this act, Haynes and Woods had to resort to playing Jack and Algy sans trousers, donning the voluminous skirts of Gwendolen and Cecily as needed and leaving in view on the upper body the shirts and ties of formal wear for service as Algy and Jack; when the moment came for them to be Gwendolen and Cecily, they held pink umbrellas horizontally in front of them to obscure the men’s formal wear. A corresponding solution figured in the case of Canon Chasuble. It was at once disconcerting and hilarious to see him with a roman collar on top and black bikini underwear lower down. Miss Prism, meanwhile, was at times represented solely by her hat; below that was half a set of formal wear and, below that, white baggy drawers and dark socks held up by calf garters—all of this worn by the enterprising, indefatigable Haynes.

But Woods was no slouch either at these simultaneous multi-transformations. There were other, equally brilliant stratagems invented by the three collaborators in mischief. Only very occasionally did something fall flat. In the Act I interview, when Lady Bracknell asks Jack about his politics, his answer is that he doesn’t have any, really; “I am a Democrat.” Such verbal substitution is well within the frame of fun and games of Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera (which long ago abandoned Gilbertian advice to the players as wise but too purist to be fully embraced), but a reference to the current American political situation was too disconcerting to the audience here for them to laugh; that was not playing things straight, and they had become accustomed from the first to things being played straight. Similarly, toward the end of that same scene, when Jack asks Lady Bracknell what she would advise him to do to ensure Gwendolen’s happiness, he is suddenly in tears, bawling his eyes out, and as she rises, advising him to acquire at least one parent of either sex before the season is quite over, and then leaves, he collapses on the floor, curled up in a fetal position and continuing to roar. This seemed completely out of key, and the audience did not find this funny at all.

Perhaps the most noteworthy off-key things, however, were homoerotic ones. As Chasuble and Miss Prism, alone on stage in Act II, conduct their conversation about metaphorical fruits and green girls, they are playing croquet, with balls thrown on from backstage—all in the genuine spirit of camping it up, of course. But suddenly we find Miss Prism bending way over and Chasuble very close behind her, performing certain rhythmic actions with the hips that under differ­ent circumstances and, employing a different lexicon, would be referred to as “humping.” And in the second Act II love scene between Cecily and Algy, masqu­erading as “Ernest,” Cecily begins undressing Algy, untying his tie, unbuttoning his shirt, unzipping his trousers, and reaching searchingly into the gap. Cecily’s comment at the end of the scene, “I like his hair so much,” took on an entirely new and unexpected resonance. In both of these instances, suddenly we were taken out of the scene and transported to another sphere entirely — that of the social context that lies behind the play. The author of the program note makes sure to tell us that, after so promising an opening of the play, in early 1895, Wilde was convicted of homosexual offenses and “locked . . . up in Reading Gaol.” The note ends with this observation: “The comedy — light and bright and sparkly — hides anger and pain.” Gideon Lester, associate artistic director of the A.R.T., in some paragraphs of welcome in the program, tells a wonderful story about Harvard undergraduates mocking Wilde’s aesthetic costume at his lecture in January 1882 in Boston with even more extreme costumes of their own (a delicious high camp response to that serious lecturer), but Lester follows the anecdote by observing that today “we celebrate [Wilde] more as a hero and martyr for equality and human rights. . . .” It is notable, and cause for some rumination, that in recent years authors of program notes for productions of plays by Wilde appear to feel bound to tell us, somehow or other, that Wilde was gay, that he had a gay lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, that he traveled in two worlds at once, and that, as the current note would have it, “The Importance of Being Earnest celebrates this double life.”

The truth is that it celebrates it by keeping the two worlds completely separ­ate. Some years ago I saw Gary Hynes’s production of the play at the Druid Theatre in Galway. In Act I, when Jack makes his entrance, a leering Lane gives him a green velvet smoking jacket to put on, identical to the one Algy is already wearing. While Lane surreptitiously observes from behind a potted palm, Jack walks boldly down stage and gives Algy a full kiss on the mouth. Well, I remem­ber thinking, I wonder how this is going to work out in the next two acts. But it didn’t work out at all, the rest of the play being treated as though the erotic encounter between the two young men in Act I had never occurred. Perhaps that was Hynes’s message: that this second kind of life goes on in private circum­stances, untroubled — or, at least, unrecognized — by inhabitants of the other, “official” kind of life, and that it is vital the two worlds do not intersect. Drama­turg­ically speaking, the Act I sequence seemed like a sudden, unaccountable squall on an unexceptionably sunny day; it just blew over and was gone.

There are, to be sure, coded references to Wilde’s double life in the play, for those who choose to read them as such. One of the most intriguing is the address of Mr Ernest Worthing’s flat at the Albany, as printed on his calling card: “B.4.” it reads, in the first edition of the play. In the Lord Chamberlain’s licensing text and all other manuscripts dating from before the first production and even after, it is given as “E.4.” In revising the play for the first edition, Wilde made the change to “B.4.” Why? We have to speculate; but “E.4.” was the address of one of Wilde’s homosexual friends, George Cecil Ives, who, as he noted in his diary, had leased rooms in the Albany in early July 1894 (it had been unoccupied for several years before). Richard Ellmann in his biography of Wilde describes Ives as “a proselytizer for sexual deviation.” It seems clear that Ives was living in Albany by the time Wilde began writing his play. So the address of “E.4., the Albany,” as given in the first performance text, is a coded reference suggesting what kind of activities Jack, under cover as the fictitious “Ernest,” might be inclined to pursue when he comes up to town. In a way, Wilde is casting Ives as “the profligate Ernest.” As Ellmann notes, Wilde had met an Oxford undergraduate, John Francis Bloxam, founder of the short-lived magazine The Chameleon, in Ives’s rooms in Albany. Bloxam, too, makes his way into the play, coded as Lady Bloxam, “a lady considerably advanced in years” who leases Jack’s town house on the unfashionable side of Belgrave Square. Significantly, no attempt was made to change the “E.4.” designation during the run of the first production; it was only three years later, in 1898, when, in exile in Paris and given the opportunity to publish an edition of the play, Wilde seems to have thought better of the reference to Ives’s digs and changed it to what Wilde might have thought was the more harmless “B.4.” Perhaps it was a way of dis­tanc­ing himself from the events of early 1895, but Wilde continued to correspond with Ives in Paris about such personal matters. [I have pursued these matters at inordinate length in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest: A Recon­structive Critical Edition of the Text of the First Production, edited by Joseph Donohue with Ruth Berggren (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1995), pp. 120-22).]

Evidently, it was necessary to keep secret things separate and secret — a necessary condition of life, like knowing Bunbury — even if a good bit of risky flaunting also went on. (Wilde called this risk-taking “feasting with panthers.”) And so intro­ducing into a performance of a Wilde play open and obvious references to homo­sexuality, with no pretensions to “code,” however they may satisfy actors’ needs to “come out,” even in character and costume, or however they may serve to establish a sort of knowingness on the part of production and audience about things that everyone now knows exist offstage, finally seems inappropriate — just as much so in a high camp treatment of a timeless comedy classic as in a “straight” production of that classic.

I may be making too much of two small-scale instances where the near-perfect, brilliant sunshine of the Ridiculusmus production of The Importance of Being Earnest was briefly troubled by sudden squalls. Or I may be holding Ridiculusmus to too stern an aesthetic standard. And yet I came away from this production feeling that perhaps another set of admonitions, latter-day Gilbertian advice to the players, would seem to have been newly called for.

Let me now follow the lead of another sort of reference, a quotation excerpted from the writings of an entirely different author, Samuel Beckett, included in the long paragraph of credits for the Ridiculusmus company in the A.R.T. pro­gram. Beckett is writing about the need for new form in art, “of such a type that it admits the chaos and does not try to say that the chaos is really something else. To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.” This idea appears to be taken by David Woods and Jon Haynes as a principal byword explaining what they do. I have not seen any other of their productions (this is their first visit to the A.R.T.), but Beckett’s idea seems entirely appropriate to what they have done in their version of Wilde’s play. Looking at the remark­able clutter of the stage, as the play begins, you would be pardoned for describ­ing it as “a mess,” materially and aesthetically. It looks like an oversize property and scene storage room leased by a mediocre, semi-professional, down-at-heels provincial theatre. Non-descript dressers jostle for space with flats papered with generations-old striped or patterned wallpaper, between which are jammed floor lamps with soiled shades that would be infra dig in a junk shop. A couple of shabby bookcases upstage are filled with miscellaneous drab books and garish tea-things (as well as a salver for Lane’s use in Act I). An old spinet piano, which turns out to need a good tuning, is parked incongruously at stage right. A small, round table of indistinct style sits toward center stage, with two chairs that can’t possibly go together on either side of it. A couple of accordion-folded set pieces are wedged in right and left upstage (they will expand to become the rose hedge Cecily doesn’t water in Act II and from which she later extracts a pink rose for Algy’s buttonhole).

In these almost terminally unpromising surroundings the play begins, as if a rehearsal of a not-nearly-ready production in the only available space in town. What then happens is that Woods and Haynes proceed to bring order out of chaos. But that doesn’t put it exactly enough. What they do constitutes a two-plus-hours-long struggle against a chaos that constantly threatens to defeat their every effort. The very activity of camping up a production of this classic farce may be thought of as a determined subversion — a kind of radical re-ordering, perhaps — of the oppressive, life-denying chaos created by the dead weight of tradition. If that is too ponderous an idea for explaining what’s what in camping up a farce, let it go, in favor of a more down-to-earth point of view on the pro­ceed­ings, which constitute no less than a heroic grappling with the most recalcitrant of things: live stage performance. Everything that succeeds (and virtually everything does succeed) is the result of split-second timing that achieves what might otherwise result in catastrophe. A lot of the action looks almost casual, attributable to happenstance; but that is evidently an illusion. Hats are clapped onto heads, or wigs are snatched off of them, at the last possible second, just in time for the first word of that wig-character’s or hat-character’s line. Lady Bracknell’s Act I skirt just happens to be reachable at arm’s length, where it was so nonchalantly tossed a few moments before, and is magically whipped into place, with perfect timing, just as she begins to speak. At a certain point in Act II we do not see, for the life of us, how these two actors are going to manage to bring Miss Prism and Chasuble back in when they already have to represent four other characters — but they do: Prism and Chasuble become, for the occasion, hand puppets, manipulated by one or the other of the actors (don’t expect me to remember which one) from behind one of those expanded rose hedges.

It is all plainly astonishing. This is, as mentioned, my first experience with Ridiculusmus. As a result, I have made a significant addition to my list of pers­onal life-sightings, along with the Théâtre de la Jeune Lune, the Company of Women, and others. I relish the prospect of seeing them again. (I wonder what they would do with Ibsen or Zola: say, When We Dead Awaken or Thérèse Raquin?)


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

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

Share This Book