It has been said of The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde’s most famous comedy, that the first act is genius, the second beautiful and the third abominably clever. Wilde delivered this verdict himself but that shouldn’t invalidate the judgment: Earnest is a play for the ages, one of the wittiest ever written and an absolute joy to hear and to behold; although, a trifle less so at a second night performance.
Second night curse
I saw Earnest in its current incarnation at Hawaii Pacific University’s Paul and Vi Loo Theatre just after its Good Friday debut. I avoid opening nights. Opening nights are like newborns: They may not be much to look at, but everybody loves them. An opening night crowd is peppered–nay, salted–with the performers’ friends and family, season subscribers, board members, major donors and a few chuckleheads. It is a partisan crowd.
It’s the Music Man effect. At the end of that show, the youngsters struggle to play their instruments, blatting out something close to Beethoven’s Minuet in G, and the crowd adores them. Similarly, an opening night crowd adores any play that has lines and blocking and relatives in it. Under such an effervescent response, the actors themselves feel bubbly. They open a few bottles to toast their success, then the next night’s performance goes flat and the bubbles belong to Alka-Seltzer. To me, it’s a test of the cast to keep the bubbles flowing.
In truth, the HPU performance was not so much flat as slow to find its pace. I blame it on the curse of the second night show. If you’ll pardon the metaphor, the first act was a walk and the second a bunt. By the third inning, however, the cast had finally found the sweet spot and knocked the show out of the park.
OK, awkward metaphor. It was a second night performance, that’s all. Let me put it to you straight: Earnest is a show not to be missed. Tell you why in a moment.
But first, the necessary backstory, both of the play and its creation.
Not even for ready money
In 1894, Oscar Wilde was desperate for funds. During the three years prior, he had garnered enormous successes with his plays, had been lauded for his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, and had met (and usually irritated) many of the eminent artists and writers of his time: Beardsley, Mallarmé, Shaw, Wells, Ruskin, Proust, Whistler and others.
Wilde, however, was notably profligate about money–and similarly profligate in his private life. He had, in fact, two private lives and several public ones. His wife and two young sons were often abandoned while Wilde fled to the country or to Paris to write. He would claim a need to escape and off he would go … somewhere, but not always where he claimed to be heading. The truth was, Wilde loved men, especially younger men, and sought their company, more or less privately. Only recently, though, he’d fallen madly in love with Lord Alfred Douglas (nicknamed “Bosie”), himself a profligate and reckless youth. Wilde and Douglas began an affair that would ultimately lead to Wilde’s imprisonment and financial ruin.
The ruin would come a year later. In 1894, though, the saving grace came for Wilde in the form of 150 pounds advance for first rights to his newest play. Wilde merely had to write it. The result was The Importance of Being Earnest and took Wilde but three weeks to produce.
Earnest is a comedy of manners and also a rather scathing indictment of Victorian society and its hypocrisies. Two young gentlemen, John (aka “Jack”) Worthing and his friend Algernon “Algie” Moncrieff, rely on subterfuge and dissimulation to escape life’s tedious duties. Algernon creates an invalid friend, Bunbury, to whom he flees in order to avoid dinner dates with his domineering aunt, Lady Bracknell. Similarly, Jack invents a profligate younger brother, Ernest, whom he “visits” in town when the task of caring for his ward Cecily becomes too morally tiresome. In fact, Jack becomes Ernest in town and as him woos Algernon’s cousin, the Honorable Gwendolyn Fairfax.
That both Cecily and Gwendolyn are determined to marry someone named “Ernest” sets up the plot points of the play.
Wilde’s genius here was to hold the mirror up to nature and then see himself in it. In the midst of the bon mots, the epigrams, the repartee and the charming cynicism that makes Earnest such a delight, there are also coded references to Wilde’s own life.
Wilde’s Uranian Code
In the play, Jack resides at the Albany, an apartment for young bachelors. Permanent bachelors, it was rumored in Wilde’s time. A forgotten cigarette case ignites the play’s plot; expensive cigarette cases were Wilde’s way of paying for sexual favors. Jack’s ward, Cecily, lives far off in the countryside; “Cecily” was the code for either a “rent boy” or a young male lover that one kept hidden.
Wilde wrote Earnest, it should be noted, in the seaside town of Worthing where he and Bosie trysted.
His two young bachelors lead double lives. Algie proudly indulges in “Bunburying” about the countryside (figure that word out for yourself), and even the word “earnest” may have had secondary meanings. Wilde biographer Neil McKenna posits that “earnest” could have derived from a corruption of the French term “uraniste”–itself a Victorian label for homosexuality.
Satire or truth?
Gay references aside, Earnest is a play everyone needs to see at least once, if not several times. Its epigrammatic wit still stings because society is no less hypocritical now than in Queen Victoria’s day. Furthermore, we see too few classics staged in Honolulu, and Earnest is one of the most accessible.
Another major reason to attend: the casting of actor Mitchell Milan in the pivotal role of Lady Bracknell. Casting a man in a woman’s role is not new in performance. Think Shakespeare. Think Tyler Perry. (No, don’t.) As recently as last year, New York director Brian Bedford cast himself as Lady Bracknell and his production of Earnest garnered three Tonys, one for Bedford himself.
As HPU’s Lady Bracknell, Milan is a delight. His razor-edged timing and acerbic delivery sharpen the play’s focus. For Milan’s performance alone, you should see the show.
The other actors acquit themselves well, particularly Sara Cate Langham as Gwendolyn and Lacey Perrine Chu as Cecily.
If I were to give any unnecessary and unasked for advice to the cast (Wilde would have), it is Wilde’s own: that an actor should “convert his own accidental personality into the real and essential personality of the character.” In The Importance of Being Earnest, dissimulation is not only essential to one’s existence within society, it is also a marked pleasure to deceive. When Jack Worthing states, “I could deny it if I liked. I could deny anything if I liked,” he means it. And he enjoys the taste of it, because lying–truthfully–ensures freedom.