Sunday 31 January 2016

The Importance of Not Being Earnest: The Opening of Oscar Wilde’s Most Famous Comedy

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is one of the most famous comedic plays in English and one that has enjoyed popularity since its first performance in 1895.

The play is admired for its quotable quips, farcical plot twists and exaggerated characters, but this week I’ll be looking at what Wilde does in his opening scene to engage and entertain his audience right from the start.

The cast of the 2002 film adaptation
Anyone who has ever acted in a comedy, done stand up or been part of an improv group will know that getting the first laugh is all-important. It settles the audience, establishes the mood and allows those watching and the performers to relax. But how to set up a joke so quickly when the characters and situation are new to your audience? Here’s how Wilde does it:

Morning-room in Algernon’s flat in Half-Moon Street.  The room is luxuriously and artistically furnished.  The sound of a piano is heard in the adjoining room.

[Lane is arranging afternoon tea on the table, and after the music has ceased, Algernon enters.]

Algernon.  Did you hear what I was playing, Lane?

Lane.  I didn’t think it polite to listen, sir.

Two lines of dialogue are all it takes for Wilde to make us laugh, but why do we?

First up, he opens with a comedic type—the sarcastic servant. Lane’s position is established immediately by what he is doing (‘arranging afternoon tea’) and how Algernon addresses him. His response to his master (‘I didn’t think it polite to listen, sir’) is sardonic but shrouded in politeness, bringing us instantly into the dynamic between these characters.

Second, Wilde ensures that we side with Lane from the outset, by placing us in an analogous position to him.  When the curtain rises, an audience hushes and is much more attentive than it will be in the middle of the play, when a lot may be going on. Those watching must assess what they can see and hear to be sure they are following. Because of this they will have been listening (like Lane) to Algernon’s piano playing quite intently and the idea of someone wilfully not listening will appear all the more ridiculous.

Once you’ve won your first laugh there is still work to be done to bring an audience on the journey with you. Introducing important character names early, without being overwhelming, is important in this. Over the next stretches of dialogue we are given the names Lane, Lady Bracknell, Ernest, Algy, Gwendolen and Cecily, gifting us with a run down of the cast and establishing the characters’ relationships to each other.

As well as setting up the cast, Wilde also hints at the laws of his universe. This is a world where masters are intrigued rather than angry about servants taking their champagne:

Algernon.  Oh! . . . by the way, Lane, I see from your book that on Thursday night, when Lord Shoreman and Mr. Worthing were dining with me, eight bottles of champagne are entered as having been consumed.

Lane.  Yes, sir; eight bottles and a pint.

Algernon.  Why is it that at a bachelor’s establishment the servants invariably drink the champagne?  I ask merely for information.

Lane.  I attribute it to the superior quality of the wine, sir.  I have often observed that in married households the champagne is rarely of a first-rate brand.

And where characters are unabashed at their hypocritical behaviour:

Algernon. Please don’t touch the cucumber sandwiches.  They are ordered specially for Aunt Augusta.  [Takes one and eats it.]

Jack.  Well, you have been eating them all the time.

Algernon.  That is quite a different matter.  She is my aunt. 

Another way in which Wilde pulls his audience in, using a technique that is the hallmark of his comedy, is by reversing the familiar, especially through altering common phrases and proverbial maxims. Here are a couple of examples from the first scene:

Algernon. Really, if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?  [Wilde applies to the ‘lower orders’ a role usually designated to the ‘higher orders’.]

Algernon. Divorces are made in Heaven [Wilde applies the language of marriage to divorce.]

Once you’ve set up your first laugh, introduced your most important characters, established rules for your world and pulled your audience in by building on, or reversing, information that is familiar to them, there’s one more thing that most comedies do—they set up a running joke, a comedic through line, which will keep the audience laughing even as further complications are added. In The Importance of Being Earnest, the cucumber sandwiches fulfil this role and it is these, rather than early gags about the piano or the institution of marriage, which the audience is most likely to remember.

What else do you think Wilde does in the early scenes of the play to pull his audience in? Why is it that Earnest remains so popular today? I’d love to hear your opinions so comment here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Sunday 24 January 2016

Theatre Review: Hedda Gabler, Henrik Ibsen, Bottoms Dream, Theater 54, New York City

The first time I saw Henrik Ibsen’s 1890 Hedda Gabler on stage was at the Old Vic in London in 2012. And it’s hard to imagine a starker contrast than between that traditionally staged and sumptuously costumed period production and Bottoms Dream’s studio performance, which I attended at Theater 54 in New York the other week.

This Hedda Gabler (adapted by Caitlin White) is stripped down, with only four characters, and performed in an intimate space with the audience surrounding the performers. Sara Fay George, as Hedda, spends much of the play writhing around the floor between scenes, playing with a pistol and acting out the drama unfolding in her subconscious. The subtleties of Ibsen give way to overt commentary on the lack of options open to the two women, Hedda and Thea (White), which is difficult since the costuming (by Mary Rubi) suggests a later, mid-twentieth-century setting.

The actors also seem inconsistent in their approach, as if there are some who do think they’re performing in a naturalistic production. Doug Durlcacher as George plays the role of the clueless husband quite predictably but comes into his own in the final scene as he and Thea reconstruct Eilert’s lost manuscript. Nat Angstrom meanwhile does a good job in capturing the character’s charisma.

Director Kevin Hollenbeck has chosen to put this Hedda Gabler in conversation with another perennial nineteenth-century favourite—August Strindberg’s 1888 Creditors (you can read my review of another NYC production of Creditors here). In this case, the two plays are performed back to back.

I only joined for the Ibsen play, but it’s easy to see the parallels two. Strindberg actually accused Ibsen of plagiarism in 1891, saying ‘Hedda Gabler is a bastard of Laura in The Father and Tekla in Creditors’. Yet I couldn’t help but wonder whether it might have been better to let the plays speak for themselves, rather than exposing the parallels through the stylised sequences between scenes.

Do you know of any plays currently being performed in New York that you think the Secret Victorianist should see? Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist. 

Sunday 17 January 2016

Review: Turner, Peter Ackroyd (2002)

Inspired by an exhibition I saw last July in San Francisco—J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free—and by a recent spate of interest in the personality of one of Britain’s most well-loved painters following the release of 2014 bio-pic Mr Turner, I picked up Peter Ackroyd’s concise introduction to the artist, part of his Brief Lives series.

Born in 1775 to a barber and his wife in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, Joseph Mallord William Turner became one of the most high-profile artists of the nineteenth century, known for his incredible use of light, his dramatic sea- and sky-scapes and his embodiment of the Romantic spirit on canvas.

Self-portrait, J.M.W. Turner (c.1799)
Ackroyd’s biography, while slight, gives us some insight into Turner’s (somewhat difficult) personality. What stood out most to me was the intensity of his relationship with his creations—many of which he couldn’t bear to part with, in spite of the high prices his works could command at the height of his career, but kept in his personal gallery, referring to them as his ‘family’.

Turner in some ways fits many of the stereotypes of the lone male genius—in his personal relationships (he remained unmarried), in his mode of speaking (his lectures for the Royal Academy were widely regarded as un-followable) and in his behaviours (often eccentric). But it is also seems that this was a persona he actively sought to cultivate.

Turner wasn’t such a lone ranger. He was supported emotionally and practically through most of his life by his father and assistant (his mother died in a mental institution relatively early in her son’s career). He also had at least two children with a widow, Sarah Danby, and lived as ‘Mr Booth’ with another widow, Sophia Caroline Booth, in the final years of his life, unbeknownst to many of his acquaintances.

Ackroyd is at pains to point out that, despite his mad professor demeanour, Turner was consistently lax in his execution of his duties as Professor of Perspective at the Academy. And, always attracted to myth, Turner was prone to exaggeration about his life. It is unlikely for instance that he really was tied to the mast of a ship to observe the storm that would be immortalised in Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842).

What does hold water though is the picture we’re given of Turner as a man ahead of his time, recommending ‘corrections’ to other artists’ paintings at a glance, making dramatic changes to his works on Varnishing Days, and paving the way for the Impressionists later in the century.

While the biography doesn’t suffer from its brevity, I couldn’t help but feel it wasn’t up to Ackroyd’s usually high standards of execution. The prose is a little sloppy, there are unnecessary repetitions and facts are referenced for a second or third time, without any reference to their earlier inclusion.

With only one small colour insert too, I sometimes couldn’t help but feel that half the story was missing. You’d do well to sit with your laptop to hand to refer to the works described, but not included, in the biography.

As with his life of Wilkie Collins, Ackroyd’s Turner is a great introduction to one of the nineteenth century’s premiere figures, written by a biographer with a good sense of the period. This isn’t one for the art history buffs but provides great context for the casual gallery-goer.

What would you like to see the Secret Victorianist read next? And are there any exhibitions currently in New York you think she’d like to visit? Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Saturday 9 January 2016

New Year, New Reading Resolutions for 2016

Everyone who reads this blog—die-hard Victorianists, academics, students, writers, and casual readers—is united by a love of reading. So, in these early weeks of 2016 I thought I’d share some possible Reading Resolutions for the year—suggestions of ways to improve, diversify and mix up your reading habits.

The Reader, Harold Knight (c.1910)
Make time to read: Many of us lead busy lives, but there’s no such thing as ‘too busy to read’. If you’re looking to increase the quantity of books you tuck into in 2016 then set aside reading periods, whether that’s substituting a good book for playing Candy Crush on your commute, reading in the bath or having a wind down period before going to sleep each night. More books, a more consistent routine and less screentime has got to be good.

Gamify your reading: Do you do well with lists, numbers and targets? Then set yourself a realistic number of books to read each month in 2016. Reward yourself for meeting your goals with a big tick, a gold star or by buying another book. Warning: you may find yourself ‘cheating’ and choosing shorter reads, but never fear, I have a list of brief Victorian works for you to tuck into!

Experiment with different formats: Inspired to read War and Peace by the BBC’s new drama but worried about the backache? Desperate to read when you have dinner to prepare for the family? Mixing up formats could allow you to fit more reading time into your day and help you to avoid fatigue. There are so many amazing audio books available and lots of the older works I blog about are available for free on LibriVox. And more and more of us have e-readers and tablets so we can read novels in electronic form. Don’t be afraid to try something new.

Girl Reading, Alfred Emile Leopold Stevens (1856)
Be part of a community: It’s inspiring to find others who love the same books you do, as I’ve found since joining Twitter and being part of a network of Victorianists there. Read with a friend, join a book group, get on Goodreads, and follow more blogs. Reading doesn’t have to be solitary.

Diversify: Maybe you typically read books published in the last 10 years, maybe everything you read was originally published in English, maybe your bookshelf is stacked with volumes penned by white men. Challenge yourself to go outside your comfort zone this year. Even if you have a niche interest area, there are ways to extend what you’re reading. I’m a Victorianist, but in the past year I’ve blogged about ten 21st-century novels as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series and written about many 19th-century writers from countries other than England. Push the limits and see what exciting new voices you can uncover.

Cheat on your genre: Go even further. Reject your usual preferences entirely. Maybe you’re an academic stuck in one century. Maybe you’ve always maintained that graphic novels aren’t ‘real’ books without ever reading any. Maybe you have a tendency to look down on books that are popular, are allergic to romance or are horrified at the thought of horror. Wouldn’t it be fun for once to mix things up and give something very different a go (especially if the experiment saves you from the hassle of regifting!)?

Reread: Give yourself the time to go back and reread a book that meant something to you—a childhood favourite, a novel someone you once knew loved, that set text in school your teacher made you hate. Give a book a second chance or read it with an older pair of eyes. You might be surprised at what you find.

If you have any other Reading Resolutions for 2016 I’d love to hear about them. Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Sunday 3 January 2016

Art Review: Splendour and Misery: Picture of Prostitution, 1850-1910, Musée d’Orsay, Paris

Paris exists in the modern popular imagination globally as a city of romance—the picture perfect background to innumerable engagements, honeymooners and weekend breakers. Yet the City of Love also has a darker past, a reputation for which, in the nineteenth century, it was even more famous, as a spiritual home for Europe’s sex trade.

Rolla, Henri Gervex (1878)
Forget the stylised costumes of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge (2001); the d’Orsay’s current exhibition, Splendour and Misery: Pictures of Prostitution, 1850-1910, is the first major art show dedicated to vice and contains 15 rooms of artworks (drawings, paintings, photographs and film), spanning the major art movements of the second half of the nineteenth century and beyond, and shedding new light on the practices of the trade.

Au salon, scène de maison close, Constantin Guys 
The show transports you from the streets of Paris, where both illegal and registered prostitutes rubbed shoulders with ‘respectable’ women, advertising their services with subtle visual cues, to the environs of the ballet, where many chorus girls led a double life, to the brothels (maisons de tolérance) where men could indulge in a variety of sexual pleasures at leisure, and, finally, to the pornographer’s studio where staged sexual acts, captured on early film, start to take on a decidedly modern appearance.

Les belles de nuit au jardin de Paris, Jean Béraud (1905)
The experience of visiting the show is designed to feel illicit. Deep red walls serve as a backdrop to the works, while velvet curtains veil those parts of the exhibition off-limits to under 18s, where crowds push to view daguerreotypes through peepholes and stand in awkward silence watching a reel of a nineteenth-century couple taking off layer upon layer of clothing before getting down to the deed.

Le Client, Jean-Louis Forain (1878)
Yet the major takeaway from the show isn’t to romanticise the work women at many social levels were often forced into due to lack of opportunities, education and equal pay.

Femme à La Voilette, Anquetin Louis (1891)
Venereal disease is a major subject and subtext for the works on show (there’s even a wax model taken from the marked face of a syphilitic woman), several of the paintings focus on the interiority and unhappiness of their subjects (for instance Edgar Degas’s L’Absinthe) and the realities of prostitution prove as fertile a ground for artists as the fantasies that surround it, with many works focusing on aspects of life at the brothel we might find mundane (like contemporary hygiene practices) or surprising (e.g. the homoerotic relationships between women living in close proximity to each other within these establishments).

L'Absinthe, Edgar Degas (1875-1876)
The exhibition’s title comes from Honoré de Balzac’s Splendeurs and Misères des Courtisanes (1838-1847) and there’s certainly a lot of splendour on show here too. There are the fine clothes of Jean Béraud’s belles de nuit, Edouard Manet’s infamous Olympia lounges naked and triumphant, and there are many paintings dedicated to recording the lives of the demi-mondaines—those women at the pinnacle of prostitution in the period, who enjoyed luxury and celebrity.

Olympia, Edouard Manet (1863)
When walking around the exhibition, it’s hard not to be struck by the sheer variety—of stories, social classes, sexual positions, body types. The curators choose to touch only briefly on the story of male prostitution (there are some early photographs of male/male penetrative sex on display), but the female sex worker is examined from every angle, always an object, frequently of lust, occasionally of horror, often of pity.

Rousse, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1889)
If you’re in Paris before 17th January, the exhibition is worth every minute in line at the d’Orsay. It’s a window into Paris’s past and into the bedrooms of generations of its men and women.

Sur le Boulevard (La Parisienne), Louis Valtat (1893)
Do you know of any art exhibitions in New York you think the Secret Victorianist should visit? Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.