Sunday, 13 November 2011

The Importance of Being Earnest

Because when you read this play in senior English, some of the more Victorian satirical moments are lost.

A seventeen-year-old just won't appreciate it.

So I've decided that, perhaps even if you, my dear reader, are actually seventeen (or younger), I want to introduce this to you for appreciation in the future. If you are eighteen (or older), I want to revive the memory and thought of this play, because I think Oscar Wilde would have liked that.

The man himself.

The Importance of Being Earnest, a Trivial Comedy for Serious People was the pinnacle of Wilde's career. It poked fun at the social conventions of the day, like society's do-si-do of marriage, and family politics, and the way we all wear masks to sometimes get away from pointless and tiresome social obligations. It debuted in London on Valentine's Day 1895, and it got rave reviews. But that wasn't before the detractors in his life (the Marquess of Queensberry, father of Lord Alfred Douglas, who was Wilde's somewhat secret lover) wanted to start shaking things up. Wilde was tipped off that the Marquess was going to throw a bouquet of rotten vegetables at him during the closing of the night's performace when Wilde would have been on stage taking his bow. Wilde cancelled the Marquess's ticket and the police barred his entry, and so it never happened.

But what came after was far worse: the Marquess raised questions of gross indecency (Wilde's rather harmless homosexual double life was something that nineteenth-century London just could not handle), and court trials commenced. Wilde was imprisoned for the very same, and after the success of The Importance of Being Earnest, Victorian society still couldn't seem to get into the groove of modern commercial understanding, the one that says, "Even bad publicity is good publicity." The play shut down after only eighty-six performances in London. But during his imprisonment, and after his death, the play went all over the world, to be performed on Broadway, in Melbourne and many other cities in Australia.

The physical labor pressed on him (breaking rocks, hauling rocks and the like) and the emotional isolation took their toll. He wrote De Profundis, a letter to Douglas, between January and March 1897, near the end of his lock-up in the Reading Gaol. This letter was not allowed to be sent, but instead he took it with him when he was released. The letter was copied twice; one copy to Wilde, one copy to Douglas. Wilde died not long after release, and many believe it was due to the conditions in which he was forced to live during his incarceration.

The letter was printed five years after Wilde's death. "From the Depths" he wrote describing the importance of his relationship with Douglas, and the spritual changes his imprisonment made on him.

This, I think, was the cathartic experience Wilde needed - he needed to write it out. Whether or not Douglas received or read the letter is beside the point; it was Wilde's importance of being earnest that made the difference.

More than a hundred years later the play lives on, printed in senior English student textbooks, and played by student theatrical groups, and adapted to film to be shown in cinemas everywhere. People have changed it to not only address the issues of a rather strict and straight-laced Victorian society's social conventions, but also today's social issues like race and homosexuality.

Wilde, the pioneer: he wasn't afraid to say the things that needed to be said.

"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." - Oscar Wilde

Happy Sunday, everyone.

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