The story goes that when Oscar Wilde traveled to America in 1881, he was asked by a customs agent if he had anything to declare. "Only my genius," he replied. The Irish-born poet, novelist and playwright was the Victorian era's most quotable aesthete, famously spouting barbed aphorisms even to his last breath. Feverish from the cerebral meningitis that would kill him in 1900, Wilde, at 46 disgraced and penniless, opened his eyes one last time, looked around his cheap Paris hotel room and said, "My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go."
The man who wrote such enduring works as The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lady Windermere's Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest, now onstage in a pitch-perfect production at Dallas Theater Center, died a persecuted genius, ruined by a repressive society that had outlawed homosexuality and made him an outcast. Wilde's health had been destroyed in prison, where he had been sent for openly practicing "the love that dare not speak its name" (a phrase Wilde's younger lover, Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas, coined in a poem).
It was the 1895 London premiere of Earnest, still one of English lit's funniest, most romantic stage comedies, that ultimately led to Wilde's downfall. Bosie's father, the 9th Marquis of Queensberry, so hated Wilde for seducing his son that he tried to disrupt opening night. Barred from the theater, the Marquis left rotting vegetables at the stage door. He later dropped off a misspelled note at Wilde's club: "Mr. Wilde posing as Somdomite."
Wilde, who was married and had two children, unwisely sued for libel. The trial did not go well. He was shamed and held up to public ridicule. The judge found him guilty of sodomy and sentenced him to two years' hard labor in the notoriously bleak Reading Gaol. Wilde was broken physically, psychologically and financially by the ordeal. (Wilde, the 1998 movie starring Stephen Fry in the title role and Jude Law as Bosie, plays this out with stirring beauty.)
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All of this history provides much-needed context for getting reacquainted with Earnest. It's a comedy most high schoolers still study (200 of them attended the preview performance reviewed at DTC the other night). But considering the current puritanical restrictions in public schools regarding any discussion of gay topics, do they really appreciate Wilde's courage in writing a play that so cleverly skewered the hypocrisy of the British upper classes?
On its surface, The Importance of Being Earnest is a light farce about two society bachelors in the 1890s, Jack Worthing (Paul Whitthorne) and Algernon Moncrieff (Michael A. Newcomer). Both men have invented fictitious characters to explain frequent trips out of town. At the pile of bricks he calls a country house, Jack is "Uncle Jack" to a pretty young ward named Cecily Cardew (Anna Camp). But in London, he's Ernest, fiance of Gwendolen Fairfax (Julie Evan Smith), an upper-class toff with a dragon-lady aunt named Lady Bracknell (Brenda Wehle). The name change is necessary to satisfy Gwendolen, who has declared she'll marry only an Ernest.
For Algy, the getaway ruse is a fictional friend named Bunbury, whose frequent illnesses require Algy to zip off to the country, a practice he calls "Bunburying." Playing a trick on Jack one weekend, Algy turns up at his country estate pretending to be Jack's non-existent younger brother Ernest, whereupon he meets and instantly proposes to Cecily, who, like Gwendolen, has decided that an Ernest is the only name worth wooing.
Through two short acts as bubbly as a fresh Buck's Fizz, Earnest plays out its comedic dilemmas. The girls quarrel over who is actually engaged to which Ernest. Lady Bracknell, the old fussbudget, refuses to let Gwendolen marry Jack/Ernest until he's unraveled his parentage. Turns out Jack was a foundling, abandoned as a baby in a large black bag in a London train station. Lady Bracknell cross-examines him like a prosecutor, one whose head is filled with clotted cream.
Lady Bracknell: I have always been of the opinion that a man who desires to get married should know either everything or nothing. Which do you know?
Jack: I know nothing, Lady Bracknell.
Lady Bracknell: I am pleased to hear it. I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square.
This is Wilde at his wiliest, writing effervescent throwaways full of ironic commentary on the vapid beliefs of the well-to-do. His epigrams remain some of the wisest observations ever penned about the human condition. "All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy," says Algernon. "No man does. That's his."
Underlying every line in Earnest is Wilde's contemptuous indictment of 19th-century homophobia. "Earnest" was a euphemism for homosexual. "Bunburying," a phrase it doesn't take a cryptologist to figure out, referred to the practice of conducting a secret gay life while passing as straight to the outside world, what's known these days as "living on the down-low."
Algy and Jack, the "earnest" gents, barely conceal their gayness. They swan around drawing rooms and gardens in smoking jackets and tuxedos, arguing over cucumber sandwiches and tiny muffins. They're gay as May as Jack and Algy, but act straighter in their "Ernest" guises, willing to marry wealthy, intellectually vacant girls to keep up their social status, while secretly buggering each other down at the Albemarle Club (or so one suspects).
No wonder the old Marquis was peeved. Not only was Oscar Wilde "Bunburying" with his son Bosie, he was making sport of it publicly and for laughs. (Idiotic Lady Bracknell, it was said, was based on Bosie's mother.) The opening of Earnest in 1895 was as scandalous as the trial that soon followed. It closed in a matter of weeks. Wilde never wrote another play.
It's satisfying then to rediscover the old chestnut being given first-class treatment under the direction of Stan Wojewodski Jr. at DTC. The handsome lads playing Jack and Algy dance through their roles like young Astaires. As Algy, Michael Newcomer (great name for a young actor) delivers Wilde's delicious lines with a slight slur, like he's sipped Perrier Jouet all afternoon. Moving the play into the 1920s works fine, too, with stylish period costumes designed by Linda Fisher, and a set by John Coyne that rises like pastel illustrations from an oversized pop-up book.
Brenda Wehle makes Lady Bracknell as lovable a dowager as one of Basil Fawlty's snootier guests. Raphael Parry gives the Reverend Chasuble a funny stutter-step--Wallace Shawn with hiccups. In the dual roles of acerbic city butler Lane and bumbling country servant Merriman, James Crawford, like everything else in this production, gets every detail exactly right.
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