The first I knew of Oscar Wilde was ‘The Selfish Giant’. When we were ten or eleven my friend Daniel and I were headhunted to write some incidental music for a school puppet play of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, which we then performed live at school and even took on tour to a local primary school. To be brutally honest I didn’t think the play was up to much (the only performance that has stayed in the mind is that of the drama teacher’s unexpected son, who played some kind of flamboyant old crone — the Snow Queen herself? no, I think she was called Mrs something), but I was proud of the music. I had a list of 20-odd cues written down, and intended to record them on tape for posterity (already an obsession of mine) but didn’t get around to it. I don’t remember a note of it now. It was about this time that I made a photocopy at school of ‘The Selfish Giant’, inspired to write some music for it, perhaps to accompany a real-time reading (aloud or silent) of the story. I thought I could capture its poignancy. Anyway, I never did it. Too much like hard work.
I’ve been thinking about Wilde quite a bit recently, particularly The Importance of Being Earnest. Stephen Fry tells a story of his own discovery of Wilde: he caught the 1952 Anthony Asquith film of Earnest on television, was captivated by it, started addressing people at every opportunity as ‘the visible personification of absolute perfection’, and devoured Wilde’s published works. It was the same for me. I’d have been fourteen or so when I first saw the film, and I marvelled that something more than a century old could be so funny. I borrowed a Penguin edition of De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Gaol from the library and did flick through it, but I decided the letter was too dense and the poem too long. More of the apathy that has plagued my whole life. Think of what I might have achieved. By the time Schubert got to my age he was dead.
The way I got to know the play properly was by listening to a BBC radio version that starred Geraldine McEwan as Lady Bracknell (when I read it now I still hear certain lines in her voice), Simon Russell Beale as Jack and Robert Bathurst as Algernon. I recorded it off the radio and listened to it ad nauseam. There is a scene in Alison Bechdel’s brilliant Fun Home, which I read earlier this month, where Bechdel feeds lines to her mother, who is rehearsing for a production of Earnest. I found I knew the dialogue off by heart. I can’t recite the play from beginning to end, but watching it I generally know what the characters are going to say the moment before they say it. Actually, I can do one bit:
Apprised, sir, of my daughter’s sudden flight by her trusty maid, whose confidence I purchased by means of a small coin, I followed her at once by a luggage train. Her unhappy father is, I am glad to say, under the impression that she is attending a more than usually lengthy lecture by the University Extension Scheme on the Influence of a permanent income on Thought.
I’ve seen it staged a few times, once with Patricia Routledge at the Theatre Royal in Bath, once a Cambridge student production with a male student in drag as Lady Bracknell. I think this is a fairly well established tradition, reaching its logical extreme in Gerald Barry’s recent operatic adaptation, where the role is sung by a basso profondo.
Listening to the McEwan/Bathurst radio version tuned my ears to comic nuance. I saw a production of the play done by students of the University of Westchester, let’s call it, several years ago at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Its gimmick was that the action had been updated to the 1980s, which I presume was a way of getting out of spending money on fin-de-siècle clothing. There was one gratuitously sexual dialogue-free vignette in a club, which I imagine embarrassed the performers as much as it did the audience, and a couple of lazy tokenistic amendments to the script (Lady Bracknell ranting about ‘the worst excesses of the last Labour government,’ Cecily moaning about having to study her ‘horrid, horrid Thatcherite manifesto’; no one laughed).
The performances were pretty OK as far as I recall, though the chap playing Jack said ‘irrevockable’ at the end, which made me shudder slightly, but there is one exchange that I remember especially:
Lady Bracknell. Good afternoon, dear Algernon, I hope you are behaving very well.
Algernon. I’m feeling very well, Aunt Augusta.
The way Bathurst delivers that line is delightful: ‘I’m feeling very well.’ He glosses over the changed verb and emphasises the ‘very’, to divert his aunt’s attention from the fact that he has specifically not answered her question. This is a man used to wrapping people round his little finger and getting his way. The student Algy opted for ‘I’m feeling very well.’ This reading draws attention to the verb, which is something Wilde’s writing really doesn’t demand, and makes Algy seem cringing and obsequious, which he isn’t, even in the presence of his aunt. It’s hard to do comedy if you haven’t got the ear for it.