Oscar Wilde’s immortal comedy of bad manners was given a sparkling revival by CityTheatre Dublin in this handsomely designed production by Michael McCaffery.
Jack and Algy love Gwendoline and Cecily but both girls have set their hearts set on marrying a man called Ernest—no matter who he is. Watched over by the terrifying Lady Bracknell, the would-be lovers stretch to the limits the idea that “in marriage, three is company and two is none.
Playing with everything - wit and words, sex and society, and with the theatre itself, Wilde’s “trivial comedy for serious people” is a joyous affirmation of its author’s belief that “life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about”.
Directed and Designed by Michael McCaffery
Lighting Michael Scott
CAST In order of Appearance
LANE PIERCE KAVANAGH
ALGERNON MONCREIFF JIM ROCHE
MR JOHN WORTHING JP SHAWN STURNICK
LADY BRACKNELL DILLIE KEANE
GWENDOLINE FAIRFAX SINEAD MURPHY
CECILY CARDEW MAUREEN O’CONNELL
MISS PRISM RUTH HEGARTY
DR.CHASUABLE PASCHAL SCOTT
MERRIMAN PIERCE KAVANAGH
Stage Manager Suzanne May
Press Brian Barnes
Executive Producer Myra Geraghty
The challenge with THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST is that it's the Hamlet of comedy — it's full of quotes and the quotes get in the way of the play. There's a sort of conspiracy either side of the curtain whereby the actors jump through the verbal hoops (with all the directorial collusion you could wish for) and the audience sit back and "relish it" like an old friend. It's like Gilbert and Sullivan—there's a a hairy and rather dodgy tradition that has been tacked on it (quite a long time after the original pro- ductions, in both cases) and the result has something of the museum about it. I want to get it away from that and make it a play about people with a particular and very urgent dilemma that needs sorting.
People always talk about the "reality" that underlies real comedy but there seems to be a conspiracy to let all of that slip by unnoticed in this play. It's become a tale told by a genius filled with sound and laughter, signifying nothing. But I think it's immediate and overwhelming success was born of the fact that it was bang on - as sharp, unmistakeable , as highly col- oured and grotesque as the best and most brilliant political cartoon. If you look at a Steve Bell cartoon, you get the whole thing - characters, subject, situation and commentary in a flash. That was a great nineteenth century art, too!
There's no doubt that Wilde knew his targets - the subject and the object - and that the whole thing was carried out with exactly the degree of calculation that a man who's up against it applies when he sees a life line. He was screwed profes- sionally, socially and financially. He had been conspicoulsy, even ostentatiously "other" for more than fifteen years (he'd made his name, his reputation and his money out of being different - when Gil- bert and Sullivan satirised the "unmanli- ness" and venalism of the Aesthetic Movement, Oscar was not only targeted but went willingly as a living advertise- ment for the burlesque opera to places where the flower-hugging, velvet wearing cult was still unknown) and the net was beginning to close in. He'd lived a double life (no more so than many another man in his class but publicly, rather than clan- destinely) and there was a sense that his own personal nemesis was approaching. Oscar decided - perhaps he had no other choice - than to brave it out.
Like many another Victorian writer, Wilde sees himself a sort of Harlequin - he can take a terrible situation and by verbal and intellectual legerdemain, re-
On The Wilde Side
invent it and therefore himself, triumph- ing over adversity and about deliver a body blow to the very society that, only seconds before, had threatened to snuff him out. This is a play about a double life, about being one thing at home and something entirely different abroad and Wilde makes it an almost conscious act- ing out of the drama involved in being "found out", of being exposed and crimi- nalised., and then turning that all to his advantage... Discovery – unmasking - is the central danger, the core plot - in all of his mature plays. And that's why we still want to see them. They 're about that aw- ful moment when our sense of ourselves - that secret us that keeps us going is sud- denly brought face to face with harsh reality. Fantasy dies. Imagination dies. And where we were once splendid, we're naked and knackered with in the harsh glare of the working light.
Jack Worthing's " crime " is that of being possibly illegitimate and while, to me at least, there's no way that that taboo is a metaphor for Wilde's sexual preferences, the writer's looking at the impact that revelation might have on a life which has been immaculately and beautifully "con- structed". Oscar's Tite Street house was publicised and sold as "the Home Beauti- ful"( the implication was that most other homes were ugly) and it was an inevitable consequence that spiritual, emotional and psychological decay would result from cheap furniture and third rate wall hang- ings. Oscar's continuous harping on the idea that, aesthetically and spiritually, Britannia was “ no better than she ought to be”, was not destined to win him any friends and it was merely a question of time before he was unmasked as what most people had always suspected him of being, a fraud.
Everything hovering around Wilde's head, as the play comes into being, is about shame, disgrace, humiliation. He's over- drawn. He's living in hotels - less than a mile from his own "House Beautiful" because he can't or won't live with his wife and children. He writes to Con- stance, with a sort of remorse-ridden cor- rectness, the sort of letters that divorce lawyers now send on their clients' behalf, and he knows the game is up. And yet he's determined to brave it all out, to live his mother’s dream that he should live, if not die as an Irish martyr, no matter what the cause. In the play his characters face a similar horror. Jack Worthing, as ignorant as Oedipus of his own family and origins yet enjoying a wealth which gives him access to the better, if not the best eche-
lons of society, lives a secret life, creates another identity to allow him simply to function on the most basic emotional level. Algernon creates an alter-ego which will liberate him from the humiliation of depending upon relatives in order to hold body and soul together and give him a space to be what he believes himself to be - rather than the poor relation his circle consigned him to being. Lady Bracknell, guardian of Society’s portals, is nonethe- less all too aware of the discrepancy be- tween her caste's "standards" and their inability to maintain them financially. Like Speranza, she struggles constantly, almost tragically to keep up appearances. The young women have been brought up to subjugate human passion into an artifi- cial sensibility determined by a Victorian morbidity, centered around what is cor- rect and decent rather than what is life enhancing, while the educators and moral arbiters, Canon Chasuble and Miss Prism have become wells of frustration, vindic- tiveness , cant and disappointment.
The genius of the play and its writer is that all of these horrors—the stuff of Pinero and Ibsen and Shaw, of Wilde himself in other plays, are suddenly cast in the air and allowed to land, apparently randomly—in a way that's provocative, subversive and hugely entertaining.. Wilde alludes to that randomness in his letters and suggests, typically, that the play's disorder is the result of servants tidying his papers. Even taken as a meta- phor, the play's not autobiographical—it's too well-done for that. Instead, it does what all great artists do when they make great art—it takes the stuff of life and turns it into its correlative --- something that looks like us all, if we can only stop long enough to look behind the laughter.