20 May 2010

Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest and screen adaptation

Having a Wilde time!

Set amidst the artistocratic excess of the late Victorian era, The Importance of Being Earnest remains one of Ocsar Wilde's most popular and enduring plays. The play is about two characters who take on fictitious names to escape needless obligations in their society. Algernon (Algie) and Earnest Worthing are friends, with a penchant for the good life. Earnest is in love with Algie's cousin, Gwendolen, who in turn is controlled by her imposing mother, Lady Bracknell.

Meanwhile, Algie discovers that Earnest has a young ward called Cecily Cardew living in the country side. When cornered, Earnest reveals that his actual name is John Worthing and he has created a fictitious brother called Earnest - who he comes to meet in the town - so that he can enjoy his life in London, without compromosing his respectable image back home. Algie tells Earnest that he too has a fictitious friend called Bunbury, an invalid who Algie goes to visit in the country whenever he wishes to escape his aunt Lady Bracknell's boring parties.

Gwendolen loves Earnest more for his name than anything else, she insists. She wants to marry him but her mother puts her foot down when she learns that Earnest has no living parents and in fact, was found as a baby in a leather bag at a railway station. So unless Earnest produces at least one parent Lady Brackwell will hear nothing about the proposal.

Meanwhile, Algie lands up in the country as John's brother - Earnest-- and instantly falls for Cecily. But there are confusions galore, as both Gwendolen and Cecily are now in love with two different men called 'Earnest'
The plot can appear complicated, but it is a finely constructed comedy of manners, bristling with some of Wilde's most humorous quotes.

The play was adapted into a film in 1952 and later in 2002 by Oliver Parker, who also brought to screen Oscar Wilde's other play, An Ideal Husband. The Importance of Earnest has a wonderful cast comprising Rupert Everette, Colin Firth, Frances O'cConnor, Reese Witherspoon and Judi Dench. Parker makes very minor changes to the original, retaining all the famous lines - though the use of too many wise-cracks in quick succession appears a tad forced and stilted when you hear it in a film. Parker embellishes the film with a few extra scenes - like the strip club scenes - which is needless and makes the drama too literal. On the other hand, the scene where lady Bracknell grills Earnest at her mansion is very effective.

Among the performances, Reese Witherspoon shines as Cecily. But it's Judy Dench - as the domineering Lady Bracknell who chews up the screen each time she appears. It's a delight to watch her mouth some of Wilde's best written lines, tinged with delicious irony. When Earnest refuses permission for Cecily to marry Algy, until she turns 35, Lady Bracknell asserts her view with dead-pan smugness. "London society is full of women of the very highest birth who have, of their own free choice, remained thirty-five for years."
The play is ultimately a light satire of Victorian ways and upper class foibles, and a comic masterpiece that is sure to delight generations to come. The film won't disappoint you either.


Aarkayne said...

Having seen the play not too recently here at the Guthrie in the Twin Cities, I have always wondered about the screen adaptation. This review certainly makes me want to check it out, if available on Netflix.

It must be said that almost always Wodehouse was inspired by what must be Wilde's original method of setting about a plot this way. Not to say Wilde himself may not have been inspired by the Bard from THE COMEDY OF ERRORS. Having said that each of their styles are unique and thoroughly enjoyable.

Thanks Sandy for reminding me of this film.

Alexander said...

I don't know about the movie but I have to say that I was exceedingly disappointed with the play. It is not just funny - it is much too funny, not to say inane. I don't know why it is often called a comedy when it is actually a pure farce, which in itself is a severe limitation. As Bernard Shaw wisely observed once, 'nothing is more serious than great humour'. And that's what this play painfully lacks: seriousness; I'd have loved at least a bit of it. After 'Lady Windermere's Fan', 'A Woman of No Importance' and 'An Ideal Husband', great comedies all right, 'The Importance of Being Earnest' was as a truly majestic let-down. I don't quite understand how so many people can hail it as Wilde's best play when, in fact, compared to other three, it is by far the worst one. Still, it makes a very amusing read, if forgettable.

sandhya said...

Majestic let down! Wow Alexander. You're a whistle blower on a play that is generally accepted to be an outright classic.

The plot is ofcourse a farce, and somewhat period specific - it's a light-hearted satire on the excesses, hypocrisy and frivolities of the English gentry. You cannot take the incidents seriously - you need a massive suspension of disbelief to enjoy it. But the dialogues are excellent, dont's you think?
When Lady Bracknell says - "To lose one parents, Mr Worthing, may be regarded as misfortune. To lose both seems like carelessness"
Isn't that supremely funny?

Alexander said...

Clearly, my dear Sandhya, you're not alone: somebody has marked, rather charmingly I'd say, my review of Wilde's plays on LT as an 'abuse'. Why? Becasue I said that fun for fun's sake makes no more sense than art for art's sake.

The dialogue is supremely funny, yes, but it's often surprisingly vacuous. Speaking of funny dialogues and Wilde, the third act of 'Lady Windermere's Fan' alone is thrice more amusing than the three acts of 'The Importance of Being Earnest' taken together; not to say anything about substance behind the fun, which is to my mind the value of any fun.

Lady Bracknell steals the show completely; that goes without saying. The two charming fellows, let alone the two stupid girls, are way less interesting. I loved also this one:

I would strongly advise you, Mr. Worthing, to try and acquire some relations as soon as possible, and to make a definite effort to produce at any rate one parent, of either sex, before the season is quite over.

Perhaps I am a bit too harsh on Oscar. There is, of course, no harm if a great dramatist unbends from time to time with a delightful farce (Maugham did it too, at least twice). Poor Oscar didn't have time; mere four years of stage bliss and he was ostracized for life. But I should like to believe that, had he had a decade or so more, he would have come back to writing powerful plays as his previous three before 'The Importance of Being Earnest'. It must be a fault in me but fun only, no matter how delicious, is by far not enough. I want some substance too.

sandhya said...

This is the best thing about you Alexander. You have no schooled opinion - they are original and provoking. So yes, it has got me thinking

I like one dialogue in the play where Lady Brackness says - 'Style largely depends on the way the chin is worn' ... 'London society is full of women of the very highest birth who have, of their own free choice, remained 35 for years. - it's obviously a comment on women hiding their age or whatever, and come to think of it, the line - 'remained 35 for years' doesn't quite work on its own, and it's obvious that the irony is a forced for laughs. There are many such instances I agree.

Alexander said...

I am generally no fan of W. H. Auden's superficial descriptions but when he called the play 'verbal opera' he hit the nail on the head, and he hit it hard. Do you know, dearest, how many operas have remained in the standard repertorire because of their libretti? Correct. None.

I think of Mozart's 'Cosi fan tutte', a work I am lamentably ignorant of (yet), which, astonishingly, is a pure farce very close to Wilde's play: two naughty girls play double games with two naughty boys. Frankly idiotic. But the music - the music is sublime, on par, if not superior, to many an opera with way better plots. You surrender to the bliss and couldn't care less about the text.

'The Importance of Being Earnest', of course, is infinitely superior as a text compared to the libretto of 'Cosi fan tutte'. But the play would have been better as an opera all the same.

sandhya said...

Alexander, I think I know where you're coming from. The Importance of Being Earnest is somewhat like a P G Wodehouse book. Frivolous and silly, but also diarmingly charming. And the wit frequently touches the sublime :-)

Alexander said...

I don't know about Wodehouse, I firmly take issue about 'The Importance...' having anything to do with sublime. Never mind.