The Importance of Being Earnest

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Is there anyone out there who is unaware of The Importance of Being Earnest? If so then hello! The Importance of Being Earnest is Oscar Wilde’s final, most well-known play – like his earlier comedies it is largely concerned with switched identities, sparring witticisms, and situations deliberated convoluted for comic effect. It’s still wonderful and very funny 122 year later, though certain thesps have done their best to ruin it by treating it as a restoration farce.

As a work it has proved a mixed blessing for Wilde. Its lightness compared to earlier and later works has contributed to his unfair reputation as a aesthetic fop with nothing to say beyond a few bon mots, and the play’s original run at St James’s Theatre coincided with the escalating feud with The Marquess of Queensbury, which would lead to his imprisonment just fifteen weeks after the play opened. Without it, however, how much of his work would ever be performed today? Probably not a great deal.

Here are a few of the many screen adaptations.

The first one, from 1952, is naturally the best, as it features Dame Edith Evans, the definitive Lady Bracknell. This is part one, further parts can be found on YouTube.

The second is from 1986, has Paul McGann, and looks shoddily shot in the way much British TV of the 80s does (this is not necessarily a bad thing)

The third is more recent, stars Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Frances O’Connor, Reese Witherspoon and Judi Dench, and is as much of a luvvie indulgence piece as you might imagine. Only Judy Dench really puts her own stamp on it.

George Bernard Shaw – Arms and the Man

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“Soldiering, my dear madam, is the coward’s art of attacking mercilessly when you are strong, and keeping out of harm’s way when you are weak. That is the whole secret of successful fighting. Get your enemy at a disadvantage; and never, on any account, fight him on equal terms.”

His first great success, Arms and the Man is at once one of GBS’s lightest plays and one of his most satirically cutting. While it’s clearly a parody of a type of play which has long fallen into well-deserved obscurity, the humour and the commentary within have both worn very well.

Set during one of the interminable Balkan wars which plagued the era and would lead eventually to the First World War, the play concerns a young girl, engaged to a local war hero, who finds a foreign mercenary hiding in her bedroom, who by turns shocks and beguiles her with old fashioned truth bombs. The mercenary is the original raisonneur, exposing the hypocrisy of the war, the age and the medium, but thankfully he’s also fuzzy round the edges, a wimp and a coward, with an inflated opinion of himself.

If this sounds too hackneyed to work, well, it is, but it isn’t, the execution is done well enough for it not to matter.

George Bernard Shaw – Arms and the Man (paperback)
George Bernard Shaw – Arms and the Man (full text at archive.org)
George Bernard Shaw – Arms and the Man (free audio production at Librivox)

And here is the first part of a fuzzy rip of a Masterpiece Theatre style production, featuring a young Helena Bonham Carter

Oscar Wilde – Salome

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Salomé is a rare instance in British theatrical history of an authentically ‘Symbolist’ drama. This means that it belongs with an innovative group of plays produced in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Conceived as an alternative to naturalism and the kind of plays that purported to represent life by reproducing everyday habits of speech and physical behaviour in recognisable environments, ‘Symbolist’ drama made use of poetic language and pictorial settings to invoke the inner lives of characters. Released from the constraints of the here-and-now it was free to express all manner of emotions both spiritual and sensual.

John Stokes – Salomé: symbolism, decadence and censorship

Oscar Wilde – Salomé (Original text in French)
Oscar Wilde – Salomé (English translation)
Oscar Wilde – Salomé (Free audio at Librivox)
Oscar Wilde – Salomé (Ken Russell production from 1988)

 

 

 

Hedda Gabler

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1890 is very much a landmark year in the psychological development of fictional characters.

So specious is the dramatist, so subtle is his skill in misrepresentations, so fatal is his power of persuasion that for a moment we believe Hedda Gabler is a noble heroine, and not a fiend, and that Lovborg is deserving of our pity and not our condemnation. (Clement Scott – The Daily Telegraph, 1891)

Ibsen’s greatest play and the most interesting woman that he has created – she is compact with all the vices, she is instinct with all the virtues of womanhood. (Justin Huntly McCarthy, London Black and White, April 25, 1891)

What a hopeless specimen of degeneracy is Hedda Gabler! A vicious, heartless, cowardly, unmoral, mischief-making vixen. (The Ledger, Philadelphia, February 13, 1904)

What a marvel of stupidity and nonsense the author did produce in this play! It is incredible to think that only a score of years ago the audience sat seriously before its precious dullness. (G.B. Shaw)

Ibsen created a masterpiece in Hedda Gabler, a crystal example of a maladjusted woman. She has sisters in every city, for she belongs to the widely dispersed sorority of moderately comfortable women whose restlessness and envy arise from their false standards of happiness, as well as from their egotism and uselessness. No doubt she existed in the past but her specific type is undeniably modern. Unlike the women of the older middle class who had their noses to the grindstone of the hearth, who reared children and ran their home, the Heddas described by Ibsen are rootless… (John Gassner – Masters of the Drama)

Henrik Ibsen – Hedda Gabler
Henrik Ibsen – Hedda Gabler (full text at Project Gutenberg)
Henrik Ibsen – Hedda Gabler (audio play at Librivox)

…and of course the TV version from 1963 starring Ingrid Bergman.