I live in terror of not being misunderstood
If Oscar Wilde really did live in terror of not being misunderstood—as he wrote in The Critic as Artist in 1891—then he need not have worried, at least not so far as his plays are concerned. That is because parts of the original texts are now so arcane that they are almost bound to be misunderstood, if they are understood at all.
Take Wilde’s most famous play The Importance of Being Earnest, which many say, quite rightly, is still relevant. Of course, it is, in everything from human shallowness to the fact that sugar is no longer fashionable.
But we should not allow the richness of the text to conceal the many dated references and topical allusions in it, which had a contemporary, often esoteric, relevance at the time Wilde wrote them, but which are now elusive—especially for young or non-British audiences.
To Modernize (and ears)
First a I shall provide a selected glossary to make the point.
All of these allusions from Earnest have contemporary social or political implications which, in Wilde’s time, would have either informed the plot, or at least would have decorated the text.
These knowing asides used to add to the entertainment of the London audience but are now just white noise to the international ear:
♦ the University Extension Scheme: a form of higher education for women;
♦ Radical newspapers: which were known for their anti-government sentiment;
♦ The Empire theatre: which was a hangout for prostitutes;
♦ German literature: which Miss Prism would know was the realm of female translators;
♦ the three volume novels that Mudie sends us: Mudie’s being a long-defunct lending library for books employing clichéd language.
♦ temperance beverage: meaning nonalcoholic;
♦ Leamington Spa and Tunbridge Wells: English places of retirement;
♦ Evensong: evening prayer in the Anglican Church;
♦ acts of violence in Grosvenor Square: an exclusive area of London where one would not expect rough characters;
♦ Oxonian: meaning from Oxford, in this case, educated or gentlemanly;
♦ duties exacted from one after one’s death: inheritance tax.
This list is not exhaustive, indeed, it omits four other outmoded references worth examining in detail: provincial pulpits, Wagnerian manner, Anabaptists and agricultural depression.
I Don’t Wish To Preach
The first example is when Gwendolen talks of ideals saying that the subject is mentioned in expensive magazines, before condescending to say that it has also reached what she calls the provincial pulpits.
This term is Wilde’s epithet for the pontificating editorials of the regional press—something which would have amused audiences in the 1890s who knew of Wilde’s ongoing spat with the Scots Observer over what that Presbyterian organ called the “foul” and “unnatural” elements in his homoerotic novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Lacking this background, however, the anti-puritan dig inherent in the word “pulpit” has only a vague meaning, and the whole expression possibly none at all.
Or, take Lady Bracknell’s doorbell remark that only relatives, or creditors, ever ring in that Wagnerian manner.
Audiences will usually appreciate this robust reference—although I’m not convinced whether students I’ve heard pronounce the Wag in Wagnerian actually do. And before latter-day Gwendolens demand some “old-fashioned respect for the young”, I hastily add that there is probably more to the Wagner joke for us all to appreciate.
If the seriousness of Richard Wagner symbolized mid-Victorian values, then it contrasted with Wilde late-19th century superficiality. The frivolous, who perhaps “didn’t think it polite to listen” to Wagner, were thus enabled to mock their snooty relatives in society, who did, by lumping them in with the commercial classes. The lesson being that any updating of the allusion needs to focus on the loucheness of the creditor as much as the loudness of the composer.
Font of Knowledge
There are example which are difficult to update because they have a direct bearing on the plot of Earnest: one such is the word Anabaptists.
In a play in which two grown men wish to be christened, it would be well to know that the Anabaptists were a religious cult that believed in adult re-baptism:
Chasuble. Am I to understand then that there are to be no christenings at all this afternoon?
Jack. I don’t think that, as things are now, it would be of much practical value to either of us, Dr. Chasuble.
Chasuble. I am grieved to hear such sentiments from you, Mr. Worthing. They savour of the heretical views of the Anabaptists, views that I have completely refuted in four of my unpublished sermons. However, as your present mood seems to be one peculiarly secular, I will return to the church at once. Indeed, I have just been informed by the pew-opener that for the last hour and a half Miss Prism has been waiting for me in the vestry.
By understanding that the Anabaptists opposed infant baptism—a form of indoctrination—we see that Wilde, if not quite heretical, at least sided with the more human aspects of their nontraditional approach to religion.
In this one passage, Wilde cleverly uses Canon Chasuble’s own words to cast him as a man of unpublishable piety cowed by secularism into retreating to the very church where the spinster Prism (a woman who hopes that “celibacy leads weaker vessels astray”) is still, symbolically, waiting in the vestry.
Similarly, Wilde knew his audience in 1895 would understand what Cecily meant in her girlish rivalry with Gwendolen with her punning suggestion that the agricultural depression has become a psychological disorder:
Gwendolen. Personally I cannot understand how anybody manages to exist in the country, if anybody who is anybody does. The country always bores me to death.
Cecily. Ah! This is what the newspapers call agricultural depression, is it not? I believe the aristocracy are suffering very much from it just at present. It is almost an epidemic amongst them, I have been told.
Most modern audiences, however, would have to learn that the agricultural depression was the name given to the c.1873—1896 rural exodus that led to a decline in land values. This is something which Jack has telegraphed when he says:
“I have a country house with some land, of course…but… as far as I can make out, the poachers are the only people who make anything out of it.”
Indeed Wilde himself had experience the same problem with property he owned in the west of Ireland.
If The Importance of Being Earnest were a novel (and it has been novelized) I would not engage in this exercise. Novels are meant to be read, and readers can pause to conduct their own research.
But plays are meant to be played—and listened to—and often they are never read. The audience has to rely on the ephemeral medium of the theatre, which is always a first-time experience, and possibly an only-time experience if the performance is bad: or, as someone once put it: poor players strutting and fretting for a couple of hours upon the stage and then being heard no more.
I was particularly motivated by my group of Wildeans who recently saw the production of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest in Philadelphia—although, on that occasion, the intelligible language was rendered just as meaningless as the unintelligible. For that see my review here.
The point is that not one of those budding Wildeans enjoyed it, and this fact disappointed me even more than the play had done. And it annoyed me: only Wilde should be the spendthrift of his genius.
So this is a plea to put the audience first. I know this is done all the time in movies—even movies of Wilde plays—but in film there is more money and the adapted screenplay is well established.
Sure, the theatre is meant to be more authentic—and it is good that Shakespeare is not only performed in its original text, but sometimes even in its original dialect.
But with Earnest, if George Alexander can lop off a whole fourth act, Oscar can rewrite many passages four years after the original, and the work is translated into dozens of languages that do not even have a homophonic equivalent for Ernest/ Earnest—then surely we can change a word or two into modern English?
Last year I went to see Sheridan’s The Critic in Washington, DC. It was not the original text, but rather an adaptation which I noted in my review was, “enhanced, by Jeffrey Hatcher’s judicial excisions, additions, and tweaking for the modern ear”. Nobody cared, much less knew, about those changes, because the play was thoroughly enjoyable. Moreover, appreciation of the original was enhanced.
About 120 years, give or take, separates us from Wilde, and Wilde from Sheridan, and, arguably the language has changed more in the latter period than the former. So if no one complained about losing one or two archaic references from one Dublin-born exponent of the comedy of manners, why not another?
After all—do not the stage directions for Earnest say Time: The Present?
Politics as Usual
If there is one dated context in Earnest that has become even more susceptible to change, it is Jack’s excuse that he has no politics because he is a Liberal Unionist.
The Liberal Unionists were a short-lived Victorian political faction now so entirely obscure that the point of the joke has been lost. I had thought that a suitable updating might be Wilde’s rejoinder that he has no religion because he is an Irish protestant. But there is now a better Irish candidate.
Politics has intervened with the perfect corollary to prop up this realignment in comedy and thus fill up more seats in the house:
Lady Bracknell. What are your politics?
Jack. Well, I am afraid I really have none. I’m a Democratic Unionist.
Lady Bracknell. Oh, the DUP? They count as Tories.
© John Cooper, June, 2017