A Response to Oscar Wilde's THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST
Wait, That's the One with the Hedge Mazes and the Hunting Party, Right?
You may remember from Andrew Kramer's response to Nate Eppler's Larries, we've asked our 2013-2014 Ingram New Works Playwrights to pick a production of ours and speak out. This not only gives you insight into their minds but it also opens a direct line between you and the playwright to have a chat. We hope you'll take advantage of this unique opportunity and share your thoughts as well. Our next response comes from Jeremy Sony on our production of The Importance of Being Earnest.
It's rather daunting isn't it? Talking about an Oscar Wilde play with any sense of... well, importance (it's the only word that fit). I'm fairly certain that if Oscar–I'll call him Oscar; I think he'd be fine with the informality seeing that we are both playwrights... and people. I think if Oscar saw this response and it began all "Here is what I postulate about this theatre show from Mr. Wilde's dizzying intellect," he would laugh. He would most certainly laugh. Out loud. He would LOL. And then he would click away. Or walk away, but probably click, because–disregarding the fact that this is an online post and pretending for a moment he was reading it in the newspaper while on his morning stroll–Oscar doesn't seem like the type to LOL and OMG in public. Though thinking about it, he kind of was. And there I go, forming opinions about someone, labeling it with almost nonsensical ambiguity, and making a commentary. Which would also make him LOL. Think about it.
Because that's the thing. When I think about this classic play, The Importance of Being Earnest, I have very strong opinions on it. On the script. We're talking about the script right now. And I think we all have these opinions. They are laced into our subconscious during ninth or tenth grade literature, by a teacher not unlike in memory to Oscar's own Miss Prism. It's an old play, why I am reading it? What's it going to tell me? Ummmm.... it's a play of mistaken identity. It takes place in the country. During a hunting party. Or on holiday. No, the hunting party. Everyone pretends to be some guy named Earnest because that's how you get women in Oscar's time, right? You lie to them and they love you for it? Oh, and they play cricket. Yeah. Lots of cricket. Have I missed anything?
Some of you reading this post know exactly how many of those statements are opinion, how many are fact, and how many are neither opinion nor fact. I may have embellished a bit about the cricket (spoilers: they don't play cricket), but going in to this production, I'm not too ashamed or proud to admit that I believed a good chunk of that about this play. I realized upon sitting down that I hadn't read The Importance of Being Earnest since high school. And then---I feel like I'm sitting in the confessional talking to the priest here---I realized I might not have ever actually completely read this play. What's the internet acronym for Playwright Hangs Head in Shame? PHHIS? That's a lousy acronym. No, seriously, I don't remember reading it. That was ages ago. But for some reason, I was pretty fairly convinced that there was a hunting party and hedge mazes (spoilers: there are no hedge mazes).
Having seen the play now, I'm completely amused at myself for ever thinking some of things I thought. I knew straight away that I had no idea what was about to happen once I saw the immaculate set. I say immaculate in the traditional sense: that is awesome. This perfect, upscale, tidy, beautiful (is that stained glass!?) English flat, all Victorian and proper and---seriously, have you seen this set? I knew straight away that this whole hedge maze hunting party scenario was off the table. And more than that, it made me stop and begin to question everything I knew about this play. Years of thought and opinion, of theatrical prejudice, were being stripped away. Oscar would be so proud.
Yes, this play is about people pretending to be some guy named Earnest in order to win the hearts of the ladies with whom they have fallen in love; that much is clear quite early on. Within a scene we meet two men who, as if it were perfectly normal practice, have invented people---be they aliases or excuses---to further their own jovial exploits. Jack, who lives in the country, has created Earnest, his brother in the city; a persona he adopts in the city so that any dubious scrapes he may find himself in will not be gossiped about in the countryside. Perfect sense there. His best friend Algernon (or Algy, as in algae---an unfortunate, if not apt, sobriquet) has invented an invalid friend named Bunbury so that he might be called to visit this poor, sick pal whenever he needs to remove himself from an otherwise dreadfully boring social situation. To go "Bunburying," he calls it. And I'm sitting there thinking this is quite a lot of lies and revelations for the first scene. And yet, Oscar continues to deliver, throughout the play, more lies, more stories, more revelations, and examples of people doing what they have to in order to find happiness in a world that lives on reputation and names and order and all those things against which we want to rebel in our youth, yet cling to in our old age.
An old irrelevant play about hunting parties and hedge mazes? Like the Bracknells of this story, I was holding on to a preconceived notion of what Oscar had written; I was assuming for years–years, let that sink in, that's a long time–that I knew what this play had to offer, its place in the world, and was utterly convinced of my opinion on it. Yes, it's a comedy, a romantic one at that, but it also demonstrates the way we rank people in our society based upon their wealth, their upbringing, and their status in social circles. The elitism that Oscar highlights hasn't dissipated in the 118 years since he penned this play. In some cases, it's gotten worse. We form opinions about people; we did then and we do now. Oscar saw it. And not just people; in this case, a play. Opinions passed down from high school literature until they congealed into a passing judgement on a play that I needed to see to realize I was making that judgement.
Since seeing the production at Nashville Rep, I've gone back to read the script and it is filled with dozens of quick one-liners aimed at the aristocrats and society people that we're watching; aimed at people in general–clever observations on human behavior. Take for instance Algy's line: " Oh! it is absurd to have a hard and fast rule about what one should read and what one shouldn’t. More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read." This entire play is a group people doing things that someone else thinks they shouldn't do (spoilers: I'm talking about Lady Bracknell). It's trying to keep up appearances in a world where the mirrors are placed just a bit too high. This production showed me that.
It shouldn't be daunting to talk about plays written by people like Oscar Wilde. By that I mean, these plays which we first learn about in high school lit class are not these impenetrable stories from some forgotten time. They're alive with passion and humanity. Was this particular play written 118 years ago? Wikipedia says yes. Does it still hold relevancy as a commentary, as art? Nashville Rep's production says yes. This play is about people. Like me. Like you. Like Oscar. People who just want to be happy and are playing society's game as best they can in order to win that happiness. Oscar just makes the game funny. This play reminds me a bit of Jack and Earnest, being one thing and pretending to be another... but–spoilers–underneath, it was one in the same all along.
Thank you, Nashville Rep, for giving me a chance to realize that. And thanks, Oscar, for being you. I think we would have been great friends. We have a lot in common, being playwrights... and being people.
Thanks Jeremy, you bring up some amazing points. We hope that if you've seen another production of The Importance of Being Earnest that you'll come see our production to compare the two. If you've already been to our production of The Importance of Being Earnest (if so thank you for supporting us!) why not bring a friend or family member that hasn't seen the play and spark up a conversation. As always we love hearing from you so please take advantage of the comment box below!