When I saw that The University of Utah’s Theatre Department would be putting on Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest this February 26-28 and March 3-6 at the Babcock Theatre, my immediate reaction was one of gratitude and wonder. Finally, someone has given me an opportunity to see one of Wilde’s plays performed live; a fairly rare event in our humble state. This got me thinking about the presence of Wilde in our modern-day society.
– by Z. Smith
Wilde has, in recent years, seen something of a resurgence, with his works being taken up by various artists and re-imagined through different mediums: in 2009 Momentum Pictures distributed a not altogether disheartening version of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, 2011 saw New York City’s Black Moon Theatre Company put on a multi-media performance of Wilde’s devilish Salome, and in 2015, Irish folk musician Oliver Cole molded Wilde’s fairy tale “The Happy Prince” into a tearfully moving song; the list continues on. Yet even with this exposure, Wilde arguably remains best known for his society plays: Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895), and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895)—each is, in its own right, an exploration of manners and human nature in the late 1800s. His other most recognizable works, though perhaps secondary to his society plays, are his lone novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890-1891), and his biblical one-act, Salome (1893). Where his society plays stand as keen and often biting representations of 1800s English society, Dorian and Salome stand as Wilde’s decadent masterpieces: exploring gender, beauty, duality, and the question of amorality in a moralized age.
Yet even with the above works included, we are still left with roughly fourteen years of his literary career unaccounted for. A cursory read of any Wildean biography will easily fill in these historical gaps: His literary career began at Oxford, where he wrote poetry and studied the classics (1874-1878). After gaining some recognition for his poem “Ravenna” (1878), Wilde went on to publish a poetry collection, Poems (1881); Poems’ success enabled him to embark on a lecture tour through America, Ireland, and England (1882-1884). Wilde’s tour solidified him as a public figure with a devastating wit, eloquent orating abilities, and a rather eccentric wardrobe. Having seen something of the world and now desiring to settle down, Wilde married Constance Mary Lloyd, and together they had two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan (1884;1886).Yearning to write again, Wilde set about refining his abilities as a prose writer, publishing several short stories along with two fairy tale collections, The Happy Prince and The House of Pomegranates (1887-1891). Once Wilde felt his literary voice was solidified, he took to writing essays like “Pen, Pencil and Poison” (1889) and “The Decay of Lying” (1891), refining Dorian (1890-1891), and perfecting his scripts for stage performance (1892-1895). Wilde later became embroiled in a legal battle concerning his sexual activities and propensities; the trial was lost, and he spent two years in prison (1895-1897). He was released, to the public’s dismay, and lived out his remaining years in poverty and infamy. Before succumbing to cerebral meningitis (1900), Wilde published his final poem, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” (1898), an exposé on England’s inhumane penitentiary conditions.
Laying out Wilde’s life, even in such a limited way, still speaks greatly to his literary abilities and highly diverse catalogue. And though I could go on for quite some time about all my personal favorites (below this article I have provided a concise list for your reading pleasure), my questions lay with The Important of Being Earnest. A comedy of manners and society, Earnest is Wilde’s most obviously farcical work, taking jabs at a variety of English traditions and “types” of people, through the powerful and often paradoxical use of language and situation. In the play Algenon Moncrief, a respectable gentleman, and his rouge dandy of a friend, John Worthing, come together and discuss their double identities; John, while in London, is known as Ernest, and Algenon, when wishing to escape the city, “visits” his friend Bunbury in the country. Through a convenient deception, both Algenon and John come to be known as Ernest, which just so happens to be the name their respective love-interests, Cecily Cardew and Gwendolen Fairfax, are enamored by. The play goes on to follow the repercussions of this deception to their hilarious heights.
Though I am a fan of Earnest and its merits, I am led to further ask why is it that his society plays, specifically Earnest, have been able to remain, and perhaps even grow, in the public’s eye, while the majority of his works has been collecting dust on much neglected bookshelves. In order to better answer this question I sat down with Sarah Shippobotham, professor, renowned dialect coach, and director of The University of Utah’s upcoming production, to get her take on what makes Earnest such an endearing work.
In an echoing classroom of the U’s Performing Arts Building, Shippobotham says she has always been fascinated by Wilde and his works, especially his society plays. Her first experience of Wilde was, as a child growing up in Britain, watching a stage production of The Importance of Being Earnest; though her most striking Wildean memory was watching Universal Pictures’1952 version of Earnest, “Edith Evans is one of the most iconic Lady Bracknells, she has put fear into every actress who has played [Lady Bracknell] since.” It is perhaps this early exposure that led Shippobotham to pursue a career in theatre, but it wasn’t until later, after much study, that she was drawn to directing Earnest. Shippobotham says that, compared to Wilde’s other society plays, Earnest is unique in that “the girls are not quite as virginal as some of the other heroines, the villains don’t quite exist, and the woman-with-the-past isn’t in Earnest as she is in the other [society plays].” These may seem like minor nuances to our modern tastes. We are used to non-virginal heroines, anti-heroes, and aged characters with or without unflattering pasts; but for Wilde’s time, breaking out of these boundaries was something of a feat. And, in further comparison to the other society plays, “[Earnest], though it has some interesting things to say, can be taken at a much lighter level”; which is to say it encourages a level of comedy that the other plays shy away from.
So is Earnest’s success and legacy solely owed to its comedy and unique character construction? Simply put, no. Shippobotham will have us see that Earnest is a play of substance and heart. “The thing I love about Earnest is that it can be quite light, but for it to work, it still needs to be human… there has to be a sense that these characters are real people, that hearts beat underneath; they just happen to live in a world where they love talking.” Yet finding the heart in a play like Earnest, a play so thoroughly embedded in artifice and written in such a literary style, can be difficult. “It can be a very cold play, but I hope we have found the heart of it. [Earnest] is about finding the passion, the earthiness, and the humanity of people” despite the artifice and pretenses. The reason Earnest has stood the test of time, says Shippobotham, is that “there is such joy in the mysteries and [peculiarities of Earnest]. It’s the farcical elements that make it understandable for anybody. [And] on top of that, it’s the things Algernon says; Wilde’s rhythmic language helps [the audience] laugh. It still reaches people.”
After speaking with Shippobotham, I can more clearly understand the appeal and draw associated with Earnest. It stands as an entirely singular work: Wilde’s wit takes precedence over all other features, thus allowing for a pleasantly intellectual and entirely enlivening comedic work; it uses artifice, pretense, and façade as a means to address our breathing, passionate, unalienable humanity; it arguably stands as his most immediately approachable work, because it isn’t bogged down with the weighty mechanics of symbolism, literary history, or overly decadent language. In comparison, many of his other works seem impenetrable: his fairy tales are written in a style that isn’t quite for children or adults, adding a level of confusion from the onset; his essays are predominantly idea-oriented, bringing a philosophical coldness that is uninviting, at best, to anyone but a scholarly reader; his poetry frequently devotes itself to aesthetic ideals, and consequently is mainly comprised of elegant but unyielding descriptions. And though I find myself an unmitigated believer in his entire catalogue, especially these lesser-known, least traveled works, I must finally come to admit that The Importance of Being Earnest is the perfect marriage between what Wilde does best and what the public prefers; it is every bit deserving of its place in history and the public’s collective heart.
Shippobotham says that, though not trying to drastically change the legacy of Earnest with this production, her and her student cast are trying to bring a warmth and humanness to this play, where it has often times be overlooked. This production will be a unique for the simple fact that the actors are students; not quite professional actors, not amateurs either, but actors involved in a growing process, constantly perfecting their craft. Shippobotham, through her adept direction, attention to period detail, and deep love of Wilde’s expertly extravagant language, will likely put on an Earnest very similar to those premier productions of 1895, bringing us one step closer to Wilde himself. And I certainly look forward to it.
Shows run from February 26-28 and March 3-6 at 7:30pm, with 2:00pm matinees on the 5th and 6th in the Babcock Theatre. General Admission is $18.
Info and tickets: http://www.theatre.utah.edu/event/the-importance-of-being-earnest/
Further Oscar Wilde reading:
“The Harlot’s House”
Impressions, “Le Jardin”
Fairy Tales and Short Stories:
“The Canterville Ghost”
“The Happy Prince”
“The Nightingale and the Rose”
Essays, Letters, and Lectures:
“The Decay of Lying”
“Decorative Art in America”
“A Few Maxims for the Instruction of the Over-educated”
The Picture of Dorian Gray
The Collected Oscar Wilde; Barnes & Noble Classics
The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde: Stories, Plays, Poems & Essays; Harper & Row Publishers
Oscar Wilde: A Biography by H. Montgomery Hyde; Farrar, Straus and Giroux