May 14, 2006: Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn, New York. Matinee. Sir Peter Hall’s Bath Theatre Royal production. Closing performance. Opened at BAM April 18. Running time 2 hrs 30 mins. Three-act text slightly cut.

Hilton Als wrote a very strange review of this production for the New Yorker in which he said that Hall neither added nor took anything away from this play; it was “direction by automatic pilot.” Whatever Als might have meant by this obscure remark, he failed to describe Hall’s efforts, almost entirely suc­cess­­ful, to bring out the farcical spirit of the play. Wilde himself explained, in a letter to the actor-manager George Alexander, that it should “go like a pistol shot.” The action is well paced, with no longueurs whatever. I sense there were small cuts here and there, markers of Hall’s intention to maintain a swift pace. At the same time he doesn’t slight the remarkably bright, brilliant dialogue that as much as anything else makes the play what it is. He has trained his actors in the art of building up to a witty verbal climax, as in Algy’s comment on Mary Far­quhar flirting with her husband across the dinner table: “ . . . and that sort of thing is enormously on the increase. It looks so bad. It is like washing one’s clean linen in public.” There is a delicious sense of anticipation and delay in Wilde’s adding “It looks so bad,” so that the punch line, when it comes, is all the funnier, and enhanced even more by the inversion in “clean.”

But of course the play is far more than an amalgamation of witty observ­ations on the manners and mores of contemporary society. No need here to review the crafty strategy of an action that serves to bring an ostensible outsider into the sheltering arms of a socially correct family via a slightly incestuous marriage to a first cousin. Suffice it to say that, over a hundred years later, the writing is still as fresh as the day the play opened (St James’s Theatre, Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1895), and the action plays as surely and as satisfyingly.

Back in February of this year I was asked to supply a list of questions for Peter Hall to answer. I did so, and among them were questions about the genre of the play. Farce? farcical comedy? or an amalgam of some kind? (The answers, along with the questions, were published on the BAM website.) Hall pretended to be impatient with such formulations and insisted that each and every success­ful play is a unique creation that must be taken on its own. In his program note he calls the play “a completely original farce” in one paragraph and in the next says “it defies category” and in fact is a “masterpiece which heralds the coming of sur­real­ism.” This last observation seems to me pretentious nonsense, as is his claim that the characters in the play use wittiness to cover up their true feelings — “an internal emotional real­ity.” He goes on to end the note by quoting Pinter’s famous observation that speech “is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness.”

All I can say is that this program note seems itself to be a stratagem to cover up the fact that the play Hall produced comes across quite patently as a first-rate farce. What­ever depths of emotional reality lurk in Algernon’s psyche, the actor playing the role succeeded so well in covering them up that they really don’t exist at all. The play exhibits an entirely successful example of the art of surface. Whatever we glean from it in the way of trenchant social criticism — Hall thinks the play offers its audience “tough” satire and “merciless” criticism — seems almost incidental to its intend­ed effect. To be sure, both Wilde and, later, Joe Orton understood that farce can be a vehicle for social critique of an important kind, and it is easy enough to observe that Wilde takes careful aim at the upper-class practice of arranged marriages. But the sheer fun generated by Earnest and, say, What the Butler Saw seems so triumphant that we ultimately don’t care very much about the “critique” of society offered by these plays, a critique whose object is in any case no novelty. “Don’t criticize society,” Lady Bracknell cautions Algy in Act III; “Only people who can’t get into it do that.” The line raises a nice laugh, as it did at this performance, but it leaves society — and the audience of the play — exactly where it found them. The play accepts the status quo of society, as does all good farce, and builds on that sturdy foundation a marvellous super­structure of fantasy and fun. If Hall wants to perceive Pinter­esque depths below the surface of The Importance of Being Earnest, he can have them to his utter sent­imental content — so long as he keeps them well out of the play.

Fortunately, to my sense of things at least, he does. The truest thing Hall says about Wilde’s characters is that they are “naturally egocentric.” They have strong wills, they need to get what they aim at, and the resulting clash of personalities prov­ides much of the energy for the forward motion of the play. Perhaps the most genu­ine­ly farcical character in this production is Miriam Margolyes’ Miss Prism. I’ve never seen this character performed in such an irascible tone before. Her sexual needs are much closer to the surface than those of the usually staid, up-tight governess. Instead of giving us a perfect picture of repression, Margol­yes gives us the full profile of a woman starved for love who simply cannot help herself when it comes to men. There is much support for this approach in Miss Prism’s lines and in her response to Canon Chasuble’s own lines. She is a supreme literalist of the sexual imagination. When Chasuble says that as her pupil he would “hang upon her lips,” she takes him literally and is profoundly embar­rassed and deeply discomforted, much to the delight of the audience. And she is only somewhat mollified when he explains that he “spoke metaphor­ically,” having drawn his image from “bees.” Later, Miss Prism finds opportunity for a kind of revenge when she explains, in a sort of reticent prop­osition to the “celib­ate” Chasuble, that mature women are to be preferred as marriage partners: “Ripe­ness can be trusted. Young women are green.” Chasuble is thrown off balance by the description, and for a moment we are allowed to think horrible thoughts of unmentionable disease or, at the very least, of the kind of greenish pallor supposedly exhibited by adolescent girls (as Polonius would have us think: “You speak like a green girl,” he tells his much troubled daughter Ophel­ia). Prism lets Chasuble suffer for a moment and then explains that she “spoke horticul­turally”: her metaphor was drawn from “fruits.” This is Wilde’s farcical writing at its brilliant best, and Margolyes plays it with a kind of aggress­iveness and petulance that memorializes the character in our minds.

No doubt Hall had a large hand in developing this line of character, and no doubt was also behind the idea of padding out the already fleshy body of the actress to butterball proportions. There is nothing left to chance or accident in a Peter Hall production. He has carefully coached his actors, all of them, on getting rhythm and proportion and emphasis absolutely right, as in Algy’s sardonic “All women become like their mothers; that is their tragedy. No man does; that’s his.” “Is that clever?” Jack asks. “It is perfectly phrased,” Algy replies. It is perfectly phrased, and the actor must seize the perfect parallelism in emphasis in order to get it right. Here, he does, under Hall’s persistent tutelage, and he does also in Act II, when he asks for a buttonhole and Cecily offers him a Maréchal Niel. “No,” he replies, “I’d sooner have a pink rose,” revealing that of course he knows that a Maréchal Niel is a yellow rose and saying that he would rather have a pink one. Details like this do ample justice to the delicacy and precision of Wilde’s beautifully finished text, evidently much appreciated by Hall.

Yet in other ways Hall noticeably departs from text and context, most notice­ably in the characterization of Lady Bracknell that he has imposed on Lynn Red­grave, the “star” of the show and probably the most ready explanation for the full and enthusiastic matinee audience. (This was the last opportunity to “catch” — hateful word — Lynn Redgrave in this role.) Red­grave’s Lady Brack­nell is decidedly nouveau; her body language is not that of a Belgravian dowager, and is much too free-wheeling and gesticular for a woman who, as she explains, lacked any fortune herself but married exceedingly well and now is the epitome of social correctness who gives dinners and receptions to which only the crème de la crème are invited or who “come in the evening, at any rate.” Redgrave’s Lady Bracknell is almost déclassé. I half-expected her to break out into a song- and-dance routine, the sort of thing Jack and Algy might have seen on the stage of the Empire Theatre if they had decided to “trot round” there a little before ten o’clock that night. This seems to be another instance of Hall’s opting for farce at the expense of . . . What? Believability? Societal accuracy?

Farce itself can be said to be déclassé, of course. It gives us a group of char­acters with claims to status and then sets them on a course of action that is sure to cut them down — only to rescue them at the last minute with no harm done. Setting obstacles in the way of the happiness of the hero is a sure way to develop a farcical action, especially if the hero’s desires are frowned upon by correct society. Jack’s irregular desire is to marry Gwendolen, the only girl he ever cared for in his life, but it is a desire he cannot satisfy unless, as Lady Bracknell caustic­ally explains, he can acquire at least “one relation, of either sex, before the season is quite over.” And so Lady Bracknell becomes the chief obstacle to satisfaction, the “blocking character” standing in the way of Jack’s — and Gwendolen’s — happi­ness. (I asked Peter Hall, in one of my questions, about Lady Bracknell as a blocking character; he professed not to know what I meant by the term.) But, to be a successful, believable blocking character in these circum­stances, Lady Bracknell has to be the very model of a modern, upper-class dutiful mother. She and Lord Bracknell have brought Gwendolen up, she explains, with the utmost care, and she refuses to allow her only daughter to “form an alliance with a parcel” — a young man whose “origin was a terminus.” I would have thought that, if she herself exhibits the telltale signs of a rank arriviste, it spoils the farcical idea and undercuts the fun. This Lady Brack­nell, played with a host of outré mannerisms by Redgrave, presumably under the vigilant eye of the director, clearly does not fit into the world she claims to oversee. If Gwendolen, as Jack fears, becomes like her mother in about a hundred and fifty years, the degrad­ation of proper Society will have become irretrievable.

This, nevertheless, is Hall’s somewhat fallible scheme, in the process of playing the play as farce. And the audience loved it just the way it was. I sensed there were a few people around us who knew the play well, as I do, and were enjoying the well-known lines as they came. Evidently Hall wanted to make the play accessible, and surely he did that. He was presumably not interested in mounting a produc­tion that might be praised as historically correct. The two female leads wore brassieres, not corsets, for example. (What the roly-poly Miss Prism wore is known only to her and her dresser.) And Algy’s jaunty felt hat for Act II was just right for the character, but quite anachronistic for 1895.

Well, what of that? You can’t have everything, in a production of Earnest or of anything else, and this one had the advantage of honoring the subtleties and clarities of the language (though the bad acoustics of BAM’s Harvey Theatre made some of the women difficult to understand) and keeping the action moving at a swift, delightful pace. Maybe Hilton Als was complaining that Hall’s approach to the play lacked an auteur-like concept. All the better for that, say I.


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

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