'The Importance of Seeing Earnest': A Critical Experiment

All photographs by Shane Reid, courtesy of State Theatre Company of South Australia.

Jane is a theatre critic. Simon is her editor. Two weeks ago, they went to see The Importance of Being Earnest: Jane for the fourth time, Simon for the first. They spent the next five days emailing each other about the production, exploring its jokes, oddities, and hidden meanings–and ultimately gaining a richer sense of the play than either had foreseen. This is their conversation, as published by email between August 9 and August 13.

Hi Simon,

Thanks for coming along to see The Importance of Being Earnest last night, I had a wonderful time and it was really nice in such an unexpected way to take someone who wasn’t familiar with the play. I think it made me enjoy it all the more. I think sometimes I can get bogged down a bit in the thought of analysing theatre as work—especially when it’s a work like Earnest, for which this was the fourth (!) production I’ve seen—and it’s good to have a jolt away from that.

But then the joy for me in watching it for the fourth time (and I’ve probably read it another three or four times besides) is knowing these plot twists and jokes and having the opportunity to analyse how the director Geordie Brookman made the jokes land (or, occasionally, failed to make them land), what emphasis he put on the physical comedy, etc. Occasionally when I felt the show lulled a bit (because, say, it was focusing on plot rather than the humour for a few minutes) I was just ready for it to speed up, and then it was really lovely to sit next to you and know that when these jokes landed they were landing with you for the first time, when the plot twisted it was twisting for you for the first time. And it felt like there were a lot of people in the audience for whom this was their first Earnest! It was delightful.

A similar feeling, perhaps, to what I get when I’m watching children’s theatre—it all feels new to the audience. It’s nice to think that a 120 year old play is new to people. Would love to know more about how you were feeling as you were taken on the ride, while I was just sitting there waiting for Lady Bracknell exclaim “A hand-bag?”

I was struck in the theatre how long it’s been since I’ve seen a straight period piece. I couldn’t even tell you what the last one was … The last Wilde I saw wasn’t really Wilde at all, but Rabble Theatre’s The Room of Regret, based on The Picture of Dorian Gray. One of the things I loved about that was it felt like the company was exploring debauchery in a similar way that Wilde was in his time, trying to give us a similar shock to our senses that his readers in 1890 would have experienced. (Of course, The Herald Sun loathed it.)

Period pieces aren’t the works that tend to get me really excited about theatre and its possibilities, but the beauty in seeing Earnest this way is you really get to appreciate the complexity of Wilde’s use of the English language (but still so economical!). At the same time I wonder what 120 years has robbed from us in terms of context (appreciating, of course, the work was considered light hearted even for its time).

Talking about the English language, one of my favourite things about the work is considering how it has been translated. Wikipedia has a nice little summary. Still, wordplay aside it is just so English, don’t you agree?

I’d be really interested to know your take on Cecily and Gwendolyn. I feel I’ve seen them played incredibly naïvely—especially Cecily—and I didn’t get that same feeling from this production. Especially through the second scene where we meet Cecily and see her interact with Algernon and then Gwendolyn, Lucy Fry seemed to play her as a quite an astute and somewhat manipulative young woman. She had concocted this whole relationship with Earnest because of sheer boredom and creativity, rather than the simplemindedness that is usually emphasised. But then, I think she lost that a bit in the final scene—perhaps because of the plot turns she was played a bit dimmer—which in light of her previous characterisation was disappointing. How did you read her?

Talk soon,

Jane

Hi Jane,

If by the “jolt” that took you away from the feeling that you’re at work you mean “Simon’s obnoxiously loud laugh”, then no worries, you’re welcome. I loved Earnest: it didn’t have even a whiff of that stuffiness you sometimes see in period pieces. (I confess that until very recently most of my expectations about Wilde were based on this Monty Python sketch.) And I loved the irony of seeing a play which satirises decadence and debauchery (among other things, and only half in earnest), then drinking wine and eating oysters with a bunch of glamorous theatre people.

It’s interesting that you bring up the question of wordplay and puns and translation, because it’s been on my mind too. Do we even use the word “earnest” in quite the same way as Wilde any more? Have you described someone as “earnest” recently? I get the impression it’s moving towards becoming one of those words which just manages to hang on in a single idiomatic phrase—like “to take umbrage”, or “sleight of hand”.

I’m surprised anyone would want to take on the job of translating Wilde, but then translators are strange creatures. I actually tried my hand at translating something from German a while ago—a Brecht poem called “700 Intellectuals Worship an Oil Tank”—and one problem I encountered there can I think provide a illustrative example of why translating Wilde adequately would be so hard.

As you might’ve guessed from the title, it’s a kind of satirical take on industrialisation and capitalism, and it has this great line at the end:

Im Namen der Elektrifizierung

Des Fordschritts und der Statistik!

which I translated as

In the name of Electrification,

Progress and Statistics!

The problem is, “Fordschritts” is actually a clever pun on the German word “Fortschritt” (literally “forward step”) and the Ford Motor Company. I wracked my brain for an English equivalent—did I look up lists of car manufacturers on Wikipedia? Maybe I did—but it’s just not there. That kind of foolish square-peg/round-hole thinking is essential to translation, though, and I think it’s a good argument for why computers will never do literary translation or write plays.

Speaking of square pegs: I also had trouble parsing Cecily. How old is she meant to be? How long do sheltered British kids keep their governesses for, anyway? You’re absolutely right that she comes across as kind of manipulative—but then there are moments where that naïvety seems to return, and who knows whether it’s another mask, or the real thing, or something else altogether. That said, they nailed the physical comedy—the bit where Gwendolyn and Cecily throw cakes at each other could’ve been so puerile and unfunny, but somehow it worked. Which I think is in the spirit of Wilde, is it not?

Cheers,

Simon

Hi Simon,

We can both be members of the obnoxiously loud laugh club. It’s a good one.

I’m not sure how much the play satirises debauchery (although I’d agree it’s a satire on decadence) as much as it sets it up as an idea of the only way to truly live. Within this world of high-society, it’s by “Bunburying” (what a glorious word) and giving life to imagined characters that Jack and Algernon are able to live free lives and escape the bounds of their societal existence. What this says for the end of the play, where all the characters are paired off and this game of Bunburying is destroyed for the both of them, I’m not sure. Puts a melancholic tint on that happy ending, doesn’t it?

I always feel like I’m being somewhat naughty when I attend opening night drinks—and I rarely do it, for a whole host of reasons, not least of all because I’m usually faced with a morning-after deadline—so perhaps Earnest was the perfect production for it.

And, of course, Wilde was known for his own decadence – he was first acknowledged in London not for his writing but for his persona. Stealing from John Lahr’s introduction to his collected plays:

As his lively early biographer Hesketh Pearson reported, Wilde appeared at London evening parties “in a velvet coat edged with braid, knee breeches, black silk stockings, a soft loose shirt with wide low turned-down collar, and a large flowing pale green tie.” […] “Nothing succeeds like excess,” said Wilde, who took to wearing sunflowers and lilies in his buttonhole, garish touches that drew attention to the unforgettable self Wilde was so shrewdly reinventing. Inevitably, Wilde turned to theatre costumiers, not tailors, for the dramatic effects he required.

It was good to re-read that after thinking about Ailsa Paterson’s costumes—Lady Bracknell’s first costume in particular felt like it could have burnt my retinas out, and while at the time I thought that was taking things perhaps a tad too far, I’ve settled back down to thinking it was exactly what that figure needed. I really appreciated Paterson’s deign: the three locations were so simply but lusciously done, and then she used the costumes to really go overboard while still communicating characterisation. Did you have any particular thoughts of the design?

And I do use the word earnest, actually! At least in my criticism. I just had a look through my blog archive, and while I’m now cringing at the fact I said I “attended [the event] in earnest”, I’ve used it to describe characters, performances and even choreography. I think you’re right, though, in that it’s fallen out of common usage—perhaps it’s one left just for the critics.

I think your slight failure in translation is a quite wonderful demonstration of why we love language: it’s a beautiful thing that words are so complex that translation—ostensibly a process to bring a work to a larger audience—is so often an act of minor failures. Which of course is true in a completely different sense of any sort of arts criticism—there is always a level of failure in writing criticism, always something you weren’t able to articulate.

Cecily is “eighteen, but admitting to twenty at evening parties.” Lady Bracknell suggests this means it will not be long until Cecily is “of age and free from the restraints of tutelage.” So 19 or 20, perhaps? I’d suppose a governess would be something a young affluent women without a mother would be expected to keep until she’s married off, but that’s just conjecture. And because of her grandfather’s will we’re told Cecily won’t come of age until she’s 35, so who knows what is realistic and what is an 1895 poetic license.

I wonder now if you could read the disconnect between her manipulation and her naïvety as a result of less well developed Bunburying – while the two men have created fully formed characters to allow them a degree of freedom, as a woman Cecily is denied this. She’s always trapped under her guardian Jack or her governess Miss Prism, and so her version of a Bunbury cannot extend beyond her diaries and letters. It’s without the ability to fully take this creativity into the world that these glimpses of naïveté slip through. I would have liked to see Fry take just a bit more of a claim over the character’s wit, though. She was so almost there, but there was something lacking in the balance. Still, the fact that it is this character I keep thinking about says a lot. Is there a character you’re focusing on? Or is it just because I felt I was familiar with these characters that I get to pick out one in whom I’m seeing something new?

I had a friend talk to me the day after the show, saying he felt Brookman took the physical comedy a bit too far—he thought Algernon should be “cool as a cucumber” at all times. It wasn’t something I thought of at all while watching the production—because of course that physicality is exactly why you’d cast Nathan O’Keefe in any comedy. I loved it and I think you’re bang on in your assessment of the physical comedy being “puerile and unfunny, but somehow it worked” and that being in the spirit of Wilde. “Treat all trivial things seriously, and all serious things trivially” is one of his most well known sentiments.

Talk soon,

Jane

Hi Jane,

Ok, so I know analysing an author’s work through the prism of his life is one of the cardinal sins of literary (and presumably also theatre) criticism, but I still think this is an interesting idea: “Bunburying” is Wilde’s—oblique, sanitised—stand-in for the everyday dissimulations he would have had to undergo as a gay man in 19th century London. I doubt this is an original observation, but strangely enough it only just occurred to me. I’ve seen “decadence” used as a synonym for “homosexuality” more than once, too.

Perhaps one thing Wilde and his characters had in common here, then, is not just those garish, lush (in both senses of the word?) dresses and suits: but their daring broader society to notice their “deviation” and call them out for it. Even beyond the ordinary artifice you’d expect in the theatre, it seemed to me that the characters were almost ironically hamming up their excuses, decadently disregarding whether they were actually believed or not, because of course social expectations cut both ways: they know there’s no real risk they’ll be called out. I felt that particularly strongly in Algernon’s conversation with his aunt, begging leave from dinner. She knows he’s not coming to dinner; she probably knew before she even walked into the room.

And what a room it is! I really loved the set design: using a curtain to demarcate the stage was clever and flexible, and allowed for such extravagances as the gorgeous wall of roses in the country scenes. Is it reaching too far to suggest that that set—walls that aren’t really walls—is entirely in keeping with the spirit of the play? The curtain also adds a subtle sense of containment, which perhaps hints at that ambivalence you mentioned about the ending. It isn’t really a happy ending in the sense that, say, a Shakespeare comedy has a happy ending, although they might both end in marriages. That feeling of containment by social expectations is still very much there at the end. We shouldn’t pretend that Wilde’s comedy doesn’t also have a bitter note.

I thought the slightly strange dynamic between Lane and Algernon was quite telling in this sense, actually. Rory Walker’s Lane displays just enough begrudgment that I almost wondered whether he would do something to upset the butler/master dynamic—but then he covers for Algernon when Lady Bracknell asks after the missing cucumber sandwiches, and you realise that everyone in this society is a Bunburyist of some stripe, no matter their place in the hierarchy. (To repurpose Algernon’s famous line: “if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?”)

But as you point out, not everyone has the same Bunburying options as Jack and Algernon. I agree that Cecily’s age and situation necessarily limited her in this regard, and maybe if she had the autonomy of a Lady Bracknell she could outdo Algernon and Jack altogether—she certainly has the imagination for it, after all. (Thinking as a lawyer, though, I did have a strong suspicion that Cecily’s grandfather’s will couldn’t possibly affect her legal right to marry – and consequently I read that whole argument as an enormous bluff on Jack’s part!)

And what are we to make of Miss Prism’s revelation in the final act? This seems the greatest Bunbury of all, and in a way it turns the social structure on its head: Prism’s is the trump card that renders everyone else’s Bunburying irrelevant. You asked which character interested me the most; I think Miss Prism is up there for that reason, although her flirtation with the vicar is perhaps a little overplayed. But as I think I told you, I love watching Nathan O’Keefe perform, particularly in comic roles, and as others have pointed out, he’s such a perfect fit for Algernon it’s hard to see past his performance. Maybe Algernon is written as a coolly manipulative character, but O’Keefe makes his antic mode equally believable.

Even with the benefit of this discussion, I’m still not sure I’m capable of unpacking Earnest’s full implications—overwhelmed by the onrush of wit as I still am—on a first viewing. Like all great comedies, it seems to me that underneath the wit this play has a very serious core indeed. And that’s why I’ll be seeing it again.

Cheers,

Simon

Hi Simon,

I think you’ve struck a pretty healthy balance here with using things we know of Wilde’s life to colour a reading of his play without reading the work through an absolutist prism. I’d say, though, I think your idea of them “daring society to notice” is in this production, but not necessarily in all productions or even completely in the script. I think O’Keefe’s Algernon was absolutely playing this game with Hayes’ Lady Bracknell, but you could (as my friend I referred to in my last email thought you should) present the character as if he’s already won the game, no daring required.

(As an aside, I was very intrigued by this memorial notice I found for Wilde this week. No mention of Earnest at all, no details on why he was imprisoned, and it ends “Wilde’s life is one of the saddest in English literature. His abilities were sufficient to win him an honoured place as a man of letters, but they struggled in vain against his lack of character.”)

On your notes about Lane, if only he had the internet I can just see him setting up a snarky anonymous Twitter account: “shit my boss says”. And on Jack’s bluff—yes, quite. I don’t think anything is gospel here—and again, what is true in the script and what is true on the stage can be completely different things.

You do have rather a nicer reading on the contribution of Miss Prism to affairs than I do. I think the end verges slightly too close to deus ex machina for me, and while the reveal is absolutely what brings the work together and gives us a cracking finale it can feel a bit too much like pure plot resolution—as it did here through most of Caroline Mignone’s performance in this scene. But now I’m afraid I’m just being churlish. You’re absolutely right, of course, that there is a serious core to the work; I suppose I’ll be sitting in a theatre in 2034, watching the play for the fifteenth time, and I’ll have a whole new revelation about what Wilde was truly trying to say.

Absolutely agree on the staging—but (and?) will also add that the show is touring after Adelaide. The size of the playing space was quite a bit smaller than the size of the Dunstan Playhouse stage, which I agree adds a sense of containment and also intimacy with the audience, but perhaps this is the perfect sized set for their next theatre.

And so on that note, I should probably be the good theatre critic and sign off our correspondence by saying this production is in Adelaide until August 16, then tours to Canberra, Geelong and Wollongong. And I dare say it won’t be long before a new production is put on absolutely everywhere else, if there isn’t one there already.

Until next time!

Jane

Jane Howard is a freelance culture writer based between Adelaide and Melbourne, primarily writing about the performing arts.

Simon Collinson is the online editor at The Lifted Brow.