Wilde on wit 

Theatre of an era when talk was spiritualized action

Wilde=words. Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is a comedy of language. Director Joe Proctor, in the notes for this production by the University of Montana Department of Drama/Dance, alerts the audience that they will have to listen up:

“Our so-called ‘visual’ age, with its dynamic moving images, has supplanted the spoken word as the core of our experience in the dramatic arts...The plays of Oscar Wilde [however]...are written to be heard.” That said, this production is a visual treat. The sets are busy, exquisite, and richly hued. They are like the ladies’ dresses, or at least those of the big and impressive Lady Bracknell (M. Kane) and her daughter, the little and vivid Gwendolen Fairfax (Kendra Mylnechuck). Some of Denise Massman’s costumes are objets d’art in which “object” dominates “art.” Lady Bracknell’s dress could accurately be called a chassis—it is a vehicle as much as a garb, and M. Kane, who plays this formidable character, drives and parks it with precision.

But back to the words.

Our “visual” age, in fact, seems to have an excess of talk. We have talk radio, talk television shows, “talk backs” at university theater productions. But is any of this especially Wilde-ian? Somehow, not much. “Talk itself is a sort of spiritualised action,” Oscar Wilde said on May 4, 1887 for the Court and Society Review. We get a glimmer of what he means when we watch this play.

The temptation in less skillful productions of The Importance of Being Earnest might be to inject a number of bits—visual or verbal—into the dialogue in order to snag a modern-day audience’s visually-hammered sensibility. Such a patronizing move is avoided here. The society fops John Worthing (or “Jack,” also known as “Ernest,” played by Rick Prigge) and Algernon Moncrieff (Justin Bates) do their share of mugging, but there is nary a pratfall, and not one blatantly contemporary reference to make us feel at home. Also no omissions, not even mention of the unpleasantness experienced by poor Bunbury—the fictional invalid Moncrieff uses as an excuse for gadding about—who suffers from the ailment of “being exploded.” (“Exploded! Was he the victim of a revolutionary outrage?”)

No, the characters in this parlor room comedy simply sit, pace or lounge and pronounce their pronouncements (“To speak frankly, I am not in favour of long engagements. They give people the opportunity of finding out each other’s character before marriage, which I think is never advisable”) or they produce ritualized inanities (“I hope, Cecily, I shall not offend you if I state quite frankly and openly that you seem to me to be in every way the visible personification of absolute perfection”). Airy or fervent, offhand or on the mark, quibbling over cucumber sandwiches or over points of fact, these people are always talking.

And we are always listening—never bored, because nothing ever happens to bore us (other than an assortment of marital engagements). We are not led to anticipate that anything, especially, will. The talk is the thing—well-crafted and witty, comically self-conscious (some of the talk is transcribed immediately into diaries), and above all properly enunciated, though not without extra-elocutionary amusements.

The mugging of Worthing and Moncrieff, and the fluttering of the young Cecily (Kate Britton), butts up splendidly against the rigid intensity of the society ladies, big and little, as well as that of Miss Prism (Carly Booth), Cecily’s governess. The latter three have each mastered hilarious versions of tic-ridden deadpan: Lady Bracknell’s lusciously-rolled Rs and hydraulic-quality nasal inhalations; Gwendolen’s desperately radiant smile that seems to cover three-quarters of her face, like a smile-mask on a popsicle stick; Miss Prism’s goggle eyes and slack jaw, bespeaking a long life of repression and thwartedness (she is, after all, authoress of an abandoned three-volume novel).

Through these assembled characters, attended to intermittently by droll and suspect servants (Julian Middendorf and Michael Knight) and the inevitably unctuous country clergyman (Shane Michael Waldron), Wilde lampoons the subjects of:

Marriage: “I have only been married once,” intones Lane the manservant. “That was in consequence of a misunderstanding between myself and a young person.”

Pedigree and Learning: As an infant, Jack (also known as Ernest) was found abandoned in a handbag in the cloakroom at Victoria Station. There had been a mix-up between himself and a three-volume novel.

Society: “One wants something that will encourage conversation,” honks Lady Bracknell, “Particularly at the end of the season when everyone has said whatever they had to say, which, in most cases, was probably not much.”

Gender: “All women become like their mothers,” Algernon instructs Jack. “That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.”

One of Wilde’s delights is his mixing of lowbrow material (obsessive conversations about muffins) with highbrow references slapped on in passing. “This is not the moment for German skepticism,” Gwendolen proclaims (apropos of nothing), as she and Cecily fuss about male patterns of behavior.

Sometimes Wilde’s words are nearly on the level of the frivolous. He can’t resist slipping in the occasional bit of blatant punning, sans finesse, simply for fun: “It is very vulgar to talk like a dentist when one isn’t a dentist. It produces a false impression.”

But his jokes are usually loaded, and his jibes against society, with his topic here of double identities, are deepened with our knowledge of how Oscar Wilde’s life ended—in obscurity and ill-health, after being imprisoned for “homosexual conduct.” His words might be trivial, but the talk isn’t small. Whatever visual fripperies this production might sneak in, they don’t obscure the significant pleasure of hearing Wilde making light.

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