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The Importance of Being Earnest



An Offering of Sincere & Studied Triviality in the Face of Disaster
Oscar Wilde's
The Importance of Being Earnest

For those of us—and there are untold legions—who worship at the font of WAG’s patron saint, Oscar Wilde, it was a promising sign when a new film adaptation of his last and greatest play, The Importance of Being Earnest, played before large crowds this past spring. That an intricate, cunning period comedy could get a sizeable audience in the season of Spiderman and Star Wars: Attack of the Clones is heartening, indeed. But discerning Wildeans should know that a far greater happening is upon us: the original 1952 film adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest has been released on DVD on the incomparable Criterion label, and it gives us a chance to watch one of the greatest stage-to-cinema productions in a sharper print than has been available for decades.

Wilde began writing The Importance of Being Earnest in August 1894, and it premiered six months later on St. Valentine’s Day, as Wilde was facing increasingly angry verbal attacks from his lover’s father, the Marquess of Queensbury. (Had it not been for Wilde and the public accusations of sodomy made against him, the Marquess would be known today solely for his standardization of boxing rules.) Two weeks later, Wilde unwisely pressed criminal libel charges against the Marquess. Improbably, Wilde actually attended the March 7 performance of The Importance of Being Earnest with his lover (Lord Alfred Douglas) and his wife together. (Wilde’s biographer, Richard Ellmann, reports that Wilde’s wife "had tears in her eyes.")

On April 5, after the libel charges were dismissed (on the grounds that Queensbury’s accusations were true), Wilde was arrested and charged with committing sodomy and indecent acts, the evidence for which had been brought out by Queenbury’s legal defense. A month later, Wilde was found guilty of all charges but one, and he was sentenced to the maximum two years of hard labor. He died three years after his release, an exile in Paris, at the age of forty-six.

That The Importance of Being Earnest’s effortless composition and critically acclaimed premiere coincided with Wilde’s public downfall is striking, to say the least, and it’s hard not to note at least in passing the ironically polarized parallels between Wilde’s life and the play. According to Wilde, the play’s philosophy was "That we should treat all trivial things very seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality." Wilde’s well-being would doubtless have been better served by taking the play’s philosophy to heart: tear up Queensbury’s offending notes, shrug off his slurs and spend a little time abroad while the scandal died down. But under Douglas’s influence, Wilde pressed on with the charges, and it wasn’t until the case had advanced too far to turn back that he realized how serious the repercussions against him might be, given how easily the Marquess’s claims could be proven true.

Flight, though it was adamantly suggested (and arranged) by many friends, seems never to have been a real consideration for Wilde once he faced his own criminal trials, and at least some of his contemporaries admired him for it. "He was an unfinished sketch of a great man," Yeats said of him, "and showed great courage and manhood amid the collapse of his fortunes." Courageous as his unflinching stance may have been once he faced criminal charges, the notion that he was unfinished seems particularly apt for describing Wilde’s inability to understand the seemingly obvious drawbacks to his pressing the initial libel suit. It was a singularly damning failing that suggests an intriguing mix of hubris and naivete. While The Importance of Being Earnest’s Jack and Algernon eventually learn to play cunning political games in the adult world to fulfill their hedonistic desires, Wilde himself failed utterly to learn the lesson.

Ironically, the prospect of imprisonment arises in an early draft of The Importance of Being Earnest. In an act that Wilde eventually cut (and which found its way in abbreviated form into this year’s film adaptation), Algernon is threatened with arrest for unpaid restaurant bills. Unlike Wilde, Algernon is able to scoff at the prospect of imprisonment—and avoid it. "I am not going to be imprisoned in the suburbs for dining in the West End," he says. "It is ridiculous."

An odd thread connects Wilde to Anthony Asquith, the director of the 1952 film adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest. Asquith’s father, a progressive who served as Britain’s prime minister from 1909 to 1916, had known Wilde socially, but as Home Secretary, he was involved in the prosecution’s criminal case against Wilde. (He was actually one of the officials who signed Wilde’s arrest warrant.) Anthony himself shrugged off his aristocratic background with an eccentric austerity (he wore his WWII British Home Guard uniform on his film sets for thirty years), but growing up as a member of Wilde’s privileged class clearly helped his celluloid presentation of Wilde’s satirical subjects.

As film historian Bruce Eder observes in the notes that accompany the photo gallery on the Criterion DVD, Asquith’s The Importance of Being Earnest was among the last great movies to come out of the British film industry post-WWII, and it also marked the zenith of the Rank Organisation’s association with theatrical works. The screenplay is strikingly close to Wilde’s original text; only the most historically obscure lines are deleted or altered.

Asquith’s direction—which respects the film’s theatrical origins without making it feel stage-bound—is pitch-perfect. But the film’s most remarkable feature is its cast. Michael Redgrave (as Jack) and Michael Denison (as Algernon) are delightfully buoyant and reflect none of the peculiar morbidity under which both Colin Firth and Rupert Everett seem to act in the new adaptation. Dame Edith Evans is definitive as Lady Bracknell (she played the role for thirty years on stage before appearing in the film, so we shouldn’t be surprised). And Dorothy Tutin and Joan Greenwood, who play Jack and Algernon’s love interests, mix childlike frivolity and maternal sternness in equal amounts—which is actually no mean feat, when you think about it. Asquith had worked with Redgrave and Margaret Rutherford (Miss Prism) before (and would work with Rutherford again), and that experience along with his appreciation for the stage (as well as his earlier stage-to-cinema projects like Pygmalion and The Browning Version) paid healthy dividends.

The Criterion DVD doesn’t have an audio commentary, but the Eder notes that accompany the photos section are informative and help place both the play and the film in their historical context. The print’s Technicolor is breathtakingly bright (its shows off the lovely sets nicely), and although the image is a bit grainy at times, it is certainly an improvement over the print previously available on videotape. Indeed, the DVD’s only problem is its sound. For a film whose best feature—the spoken word—relies so much on sound quality, it comes up a bit short on volume, I think.

A final note: If you’re new to Wilde and would like something more overtly thought-provoking, consider reading his 1890 novel, A Picture of Dorian Gray.

—Review by Doug Childers

Posted February 1, 2003



Wilde’s well-being would doubtless have been better served by taking the play’s philosophy to heart: tear up Queensbury’s offending notes, shrug off his slurs and spend a little time abroad while the scandal died down.



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