Last night we went to see The Importance of Being Earnest. Generally I try to stick to Shakespeare, but it was on Lucy’s summer reading list, and frankly, I’ve never seen a performance of Earnest that disappointed. Nor did this one. It was directed by Brian Bedford, who also played Lady Bracknell. Algernon and Jack were very good, as were Gwendolyn and Cecily. The designer, Desmond Heeley, is just a stone genius. He lived on our top floor for a while and what I mostly remember about him is that he was always rushing in and out deploring the impossibility of what he was being expected to accomplish. And yet, every single time, he produces something extraordinary, even if he has to make it out of old panty hose and surgical tubing (a luminous Tempest, in the 1980s). In this production, the sets were fabulous—accurate but also somehow impressionistic, so that they never looked quite like a real Victorian drawing room or garden, but like an appropriately artificial version of such things—as were the outrageous waistcoats (one of them cerise!) favoured by Algy, but it was Lady Bracknell’s hats that stole the show. There were two, one black and silver, one red, both with feathers and sequins and I don’t know what-all, both enormous and anchored to an equally enormous wig in such a way that they could be made to quiver and vibrate with the equivalent enormity of her disapproval: “To be born, or at any rate bred, in a hand-bag, whether it had handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution!”
All very very funny, and the audience shrieked with laughter, and so did I, and yet nowadays the play makes me sad, because I can never see it without remembering that during its first run, poor Wilde was on trial and being convicted and sentenced to hard labour. It’s hard to decide which he would have liked least, the hard labour or being called “poor Wilde.” It’s difficult to watch that first scene with the cigarette case without remembering the cigarette cases produced against Wilde in evidence of his “gross indecency.”
I did figure out one thing about the play this time, though. It’s perfectly obvious in a way, but had escaped me until now. It’s always seemed to me that the playwright is much kinder to Cecily than to Gwendolyn, and I realized last night that it’s because she has an imagination. So too, of course, do the two young men (Jack fabulates a brother named Earnest, Algy invents Bunbury and indeed the entire concept of Bunburyism). Gwendolyn, on the other hand, has none whatsoever and is almost certain to grow up to be just like Lady Bracknell, as Algy foretells. But Cecily is actually an author, and one with an eye to the future audience of her diary: “You see, it is simply a very young girl’s record of her own thoughts and impressions and consequently meant for publication.” And what she writes comes true; she writes an engagement with Earnest (who turns out to be Algy but never mind) and so it comes to pass. Her diary, in fact, proves to be the perfect expression of Wilde’s dictum that literature always anticipates life rather than responding to it.
Tonight we fly to Paris!