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When I first re-encountered the script of The Importance of Being Earnest with a dramaturgical eye, I of course tried to think through the staging, the casting, the elaborate costuming, but my overwhelming reaction to the play is and always has been laughter. Wilde is praised widely for his wit, and there is truly no greater example of the way he captures the follies and foibles of the human spirit with a joy and lightness than The Importance of Being Earnest. Not only is it laugh-out-loud funny for a student with a BA in English Literature pursuing her Masters in Theatre, but I can recall my very first experience with the text as a high school freshman and how it was one of the first things we studied that year that got the entire class as excited and engaged as they were when we watched “Jurassic Park.” I believe this is because while the words themselves may be outdated and infused with an academic flourish, the silliness, wicked delight and above all the human tendency towards dramatics, escapism, friendship, belonging and love speaks across time. That is why so many high school and college curriculums include The Importance of Being Earnest as a part of their lesson planning. This is a good thing, as the notable name of Wilde’s infamous satire is a big draw for audiences. However, it means that many people will step into Vasey Theatre with expectations that we may or may not meet. With a theatrical pedigree expanding from The Abbey Theatre in Dublin and The Globe Theatre in London to more local venues like Philadelphia’s own Walnut Street Theatre and hundreds of productions in between, Earnest’s cultural cache is extensive. Even Dame Judi Dench, who played Lady Bracknell in the 2002 film version, alongside Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon, Frances O’Connor and Rupert Everett was not immune from the weight of expectation. She was quoted in an interview with The Independent as believing “audiences think you’ve failed” if the actor playing Lady Bracknell doesn’t deliver the “handbag” line as ironically as “etched into theatrical memory” by Dame Edith Evans.[1]

My more recent re-reads and focused study into The Importance of Being Earnest have been supplemented by my coursework over the last year and a half. Of course, before taking Dramaturgy: Classic I had a much vaguer concept of the role of a dramaturg on a production team, as a resource for actors and as the voice of the audience. In Dramaturgy: Classic Dr. Phillips also taught us where to “poke” at a classical text to make it more accessible to a modern audience. The type of critical thinking I do when I read and see plays now has deepened, and the thoughtful way I’ve begun to consider plays from all angles helped me unlock Earnest in new way, which I know will carry over into the type of information I provide to my cast and production team. Dramaturgy: Modern helped me refine my skills as a dramaturg by allowing me to try my hand at the expanse of the services expected and available from dramaturgical work. Even more than that, Dramaturgy: Modern forced me to see plays as a playwright’s way of interpreting and critiquing their immediate culture, and that looking for patterns and clues left by playwrights that help future audience unlock a time, place and human connection.

Script Analysis with The Importance of Being Earnest director Dr. Valerie Joyce will be useful to me in this process because I can now use the play’s actual mechanics—the who, what, when, where, why and how of the characters, stories, dialogue, etc—to make choices that serve the play and the actors. By stripping a narrative to its dramatic “skeleton,” I will be able to spot moments that, as the voice of the audience, I feel could be made clearer to help tell the story. Likewise, if an actor is seeking some direction or advice about why or how their character says or does something, I will be able to have a deep conversation based on a thorough interrogation of the script. Dr. Joyce’s guidance and instruction in Musical Theatre may be useful to me as a resource for the actors as well, as my training in vocal technique for effective storytelling may be of use in this dialect-heavy piece. Directing, too, will be useful when I sit in on rehearsals, because I now have a set of tools and “checks” that may come in handy if there is any troubleshooting in terms of blocking or creating a certain mood or feeling in the audience. I will also be able to use skills and exercises gained from my Teaching of Theatre course when I go into classrooms on the Villanova campus and beyond to share the work I’ve been doing in a way that is impactful, informative and exciting for the students looking to gain more from their night at the theatre than just a good chuckle.

In Ireland, the chance to comb the archives of the Abbey Theatre led me to a discovery of a connection between Irish culture outside the theatre and how that affected and was affected by the work happening in the theatre. While I was disappointed that the Abbey’s association with Oscar Wilde and his works have been much less well-documented and beloved than I expected (likely because of Wilde’s ex-pat status and pre-Abbey Theatre heyday), I was still able to begin thinking about the marriage of theatre and etiquette in a British Empire-dominated society through from the primary source research I collected from the archives at NUI Galway. My research culminated in a research paper titled, “Hold Your Applause & Other Rules of Theatre Etiquette: How Ireland’s National Theatre Responded to Shifting Social Movements in the 20th and 21st Centuries” where I explored the notices of theatre etiquette found in playbills at the Abbey Theatre from its inception in the early 1900s until today. This framing of the study of theatre through the eyes of its audiences rather than its scholars and practitioners allows me to use my position as the assistant of Marketing & PR for the Theatre Department to connect directly with the audiences who will be coming to see The Importance of Being Earnest. My course on Marketing in the Cultural Sector provides me with insight into the best practices that will capture the imagination of potential audiences and capitalize on their interests when thinking about the choices made in the rehearsal room and in the public-facing materials I will generate for the show (i.e. program note, lobby display, study guide, etc.)

As a life-long lover of Irish theatre, food, dance and culture, a big Oscar Wilde (Lady Windermere’s) fan, and a girl who played dress-up in long dresses and big hats until age 14, I have always been attracted to The Importance of Being Earnest. My primary interest lies in the way audiences of different communities engage with what’s on stage, and as Earnest is a satire of the people watching it, I am energized by the opportunity dig my teeth into it further. I intend to learn more about that dynamic of text and audience, and then see it played out on-stage in a production that I helped to mount. I love the way Earnest ties in with the current cultural climate of the US—we constantly scrutinize the upper classes (in our case celebrities and politicians) and are simultaneously in awe of them. We see this reflected in the success of shows like Saturday Night Live and in the prevalence of memes like a cut-out photo of Kim Kardashian’s crying face. It's important to acknowledge that we live in a time when we need to laugh at ourselves and the silly rules we make up for ourselves to keep from going insane.

So. Why this play for this audience at this time? Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest connects to today’s audiences in terms of the relationship between celebrity obsession and class divides, and as a side-splitting piece of theatre. First, I'll speak about Earnest as a picture of a type of celebrity worship still practiced in our culture today. If you’re searching for parallels between 2018 and Victorian London, you will not come up empty, specifically in terms of technology. In the Victorian era, technology was advancing rapidly. People flocked to centralized cities looking for work, household duties were becoming less strenuous. With the advent of electricity clothes were made in a factory, travel times were decreasing with the invention of motor cars, photography was a fast-advancing new art form and information was more widely available than ever.

 

With access to large amounts of information and precious little to do, the upper classes spent their time visiting, gossiping and throwing and attending society events that were reported in the papers for all to read. Society darlings could read about themselves and their friends, but so could the newly minted middle class and the lower classes. When “Lady So and So” stepped out with a new beau, the whole town knew about it. In 2018, with Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, the Paparazzi, People Magazine, Reality TV and a 24-hour news cycle, we the people are just as tuned in to what Oprah had for lunch and whether Kylie Jenner is pregnant as the Victorians were about their own public figures.

Perhaps it’s a form of escapism or of a twin zeitgeist feeling of this glamorous world being right at our finger tips if we can style our hair or fashion our hat just right. Perhaps when we see others with more than us, we derive a sadistic pleasure from the assurance that though we aren’t able to purchase that dress we work harder and are less vapid than those we secretly envy. Either way, Oscar Wilde knew then what TMZ knows now—it's fun for the average Joe to lampoon the rich—and they’ll pay a good chunk of their hard-earned money to see it done. At the same time, Wilde himself was one of these societal elite and the characters he’s created, while flighty and at times nonsensical, are sharp-witted and likable and ultimately fight for one another’s right to love.

Wilde’s portrayals are satire, but with he writes with a gentle pen. In 2018, with a reality-TV show president who's following criticizes the “Hollywood elite” any time someone on TV speaks out for a cause, (and platforms like Twitter allowing the NRA to rack up likes and retweets when they attempt to discredit the entire medical community calling for gun reform) Oscar Wilde’s wit and whimsy portrays a well-rounded view of those in the “upper echelons” of society as people with feelings and dreams and people who we are allowed to like and laugh at—earnestly.

 

[1] Benedict, David. “The Handbag from Hell.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 23 Oct. 2011, www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/the-handbag-from-hell-1590255.html.

initial response