Saturday, March 12, 2011

A Trivial Comedy For Serious People

During the January weekend we were in New York, Joshua and I attended a performance of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance Of Being Earnest” at American Airlines Theatre. The production, a remounting of The Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s summer 2009 staging, was a presentation of Roundabout Theatre Company.

In Stratford and in New York, the director was Brian Bedford, who himself portrayed Lady Bracknell in both productions. Bedford’s appearance as Lady Bracknell probably accounts for the widespread interest the production has received.

The production was a good one, although it has been grossly over-praised by the New York press. Of high polish there was none, of easy unaffected grace there was no trace.

The young actors were outshone by the veterans, an inherent hazard in any staging of “The Importance Of Being Earnest”, as the play’s character parts are richer than its parts for the four principals, all young. There was a general semblance of ensemble work, yet the ensemble was not distinguished: the ensemble was efficient when it should have been effortless and stylish. Many of the line readings were heavy; many of the jokes were “punched”.

The production was very much Bedford’s show. He was a magnificent Lady Bracknell, providing the only reason for this particular revival.

Of course, Bedford had assigned himself the best—and most notorious—role in the play. Lady Bracknell is the only character in “The Importance Of Being Earnest” that is interesting, let alone memorable. Formidable, commanding, fearsome, Lady Bracknell presides over Wilde’s comedy with the authority of a five-star general.

Bedford proved himself expert at high comedy, and adept at physical comedy as well—many of the laughs arose because of the physical mannerisms Bedford had created for Lady Bracknell—and his performance must be accounted a triumph. It was hard to keep one’s eyes off Bedford whenever he was onstage.

A few times I thought Bedford overplayed his hand, yet Lady Bracknell is such an arch, delicious role that overacting is practically built into any impersonation.

Wilde’s classic comedy of manners did not fare well in its first New York presentation. “The Importance Of Being Earnest” opened in New York only two months after its 1895 London premiere, but the play was not well-received by New York audiences. The production closed after a run of only twelve performances (the first London production, too, enjoyed only a brief run, playing 86 performances).

Further revivals were attempted in New York as early as 1902, but it was not until the 1920s that “The Importance Of Being Earnest” became a staple of the American stage.

Audiences and critics—in London and New York—did not know what to make of the play when it was first unveiled.

The most sparkling and finished comedy ever written—each line is polished until it positively gleams—and the greatest comedy of manners in the English language, “The Importance Of Being Earnest” puzzled early audiences.

The play was premiered during a period in which theater was expected to address social and political issues and be “morally uplifting”. By such standards, “The Importance Of Being Earnest” failed. The play satirized Victorian conventions, but it announced no explicit “message” that audiences were expected to carry with them as they exited the theater.

Of perhaps greater importance for the lack of success of the first productions, Wilde’s legal difficulties arose immediately after the play received its first London performance. Respectable persons—in London and in New York—did not want to be seen at performances of a play written by someone suddenly notorious and the subject of scandal. Any early enthusiasm for the play instantly chilled when Wilde’s name began to appear daily in newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Such considerations were no longer applicable by the 1920’s. After the conclusion of a wearisome world war, audiences were prepared to accept and enjoy the surface frivolity of a sparkling, witty comedy, a comedy in which epigrams of the highest quality flow nonstop for two-and-a-half hours.

The play is now a classic of the English-speaking stage. I am surprised it does not appear more often on theater bills.

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