Oscar Wilde and The Importance of Being Earnest

The following note by Rod Dungate is reprinted from Encore Theatre Company’s programme for their 2004 production of THE IMPORTANCE.

In my play Friends of Oscar I have Oscar’s son Vyvyan in conversation with a male prostitute, Jack Saul (I lifted him from an erotic novel of the period). Part of the conversation goes:Vyvyan My father has lot’s of names: Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde.
Jack That’s a lot of names.
Vyvyan That’s because he’s a playwright, poet, critic and Man of Letters.

Oscar was all those things (with all those names): they’re what made him famous. Today he’s probably famous for being a playwright oh yes, and for being a gay man. Except he couldn’t have been a gay man then – the concept of a gay man didn’t exist. More like what we would now call ‘a man who has sex with men.’

It’s often argued, in fact, that the stereotype of a gay man was constructed around the public persona of Oscar Wilde at the time of his trial urbane, witty, aesthetic, flamboyant, no respect for authority/society/social conventions and artistic. (Just think for a moment of the loaded word ‘artistic’ and you’ll see what I mean.)

Oscar had a long affair with Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie); at the same time he was popping around London taking his ‘bits of rough’ into all sorts of unsuitable places. (At the same time, too, his wife, Constance, had to ask friends to ask Oscar for money so she could feed their children.) I find it hard to imagine that fashionable members of London society were completely unaware of what was going on "Have you heard the latest, it’s quite awful . . . "

Oscar even makes reference to goings-on in private jokes in this play; these are jokes that if you are in the know are funny and if you’re not, it doesn’t matter. Take the title, earnest itself meant men who had sex with men it’s the word Uranist, a Victorian word for ‘inverted’. Then, in Act 1 Algernon says to Jack ‘We might trot round to the Empire at ten?’ A London theatre going audience would have been only too aware of the Empire. It was a large music hall famous for its foyer. A foyer famous for its female and male prostitutes. It must have been quite a genteel trade, there was a convention that the client always had to make the approach never the other way round. People probably went along to watch the action. ‘I can’t bear looking at things,’ replies Jack. ‘It’s so silly.’

Oscar was a man in the know so were many of his audience.

Much of the play was written in Worthing. Oscar says in a letter to George Alexander (first director of The Importance and first John Worthing): ‘The real charm of the play, if it is to have a charm, must be in the dialogue. The plot is slight, but, I think, adequate . . . Well, I think an amusing thing with lots of fun and wit might be made.’ Later, writing to Bosie: ‘Dearest Boy . . . I am overdrawn £41 at the bank: it really is intolerable the want of money. I have not a penny. I can’t stand it any longer, but don’t know what to do. I go down to Worthing tomorrow I hope to do work there.’ Again, later, to Bosie: ‘My own dearest Boy . . . I have been doing nothing here but bathing and playwriting. My play is really very funny: I am quite delighted with it. But it is not shaped yet. It lies in Sibylline leaves about the room, and Arthur has twice made a chaos of it by ‘tidying up’. The result, however, was rather dramatic.’ Bosie went down to Worthing to stay with the Wilde family. By all accounts he and Constance didn’t get on too well . . .

The Importance, was written originally in four acts but Oscar was persuaded to change it to three. George Alexander convinced him that the play shouldn’t have the four act society comedy form but the three act farce one. Whatever the reason, though, his three act version is leaner, tauter, fitter.

Oscar with his sharp wit and a generous dollop of immodesty described the play in an interview prior to its performance. ‘Exquisitely trivial, a delicate bubble of fancy’; he also helped with the view, ‘the first act is ingenious, the second beautiful, the third abominably clever.’ In addition, he suggested the play will help teach us a valuable lesson for living: ‘that we should treat all the trivial things of life very seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.’ I couldn’t put it better myself.

2004-05-01 15:26:02

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