Taking a walk on the Wilde side

“I have put my genius into my life and only my talent into my works,” Oscar Wilde fibbed, having liberally sprinkled his genius over the likes of Salome, The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest. More truthfully, he acknowledged his stories contained scant action, saying, “My people sit in chairs and chatter” – as Helen Thompson knows from rehearsing the prized role of Lady Bracknell in STC’s new production of the Importance of Being Earnest.

Despite her storied career, Thompson’s never professionally performed a Wilde play before. “It’s almost like a piece of music,” she says of the text, “because you have to follow the rhythm of the way he’s writing. If you ignore it, it becomes too wordy and too dense. But if you follow the way he wants you to say it, it becomes clear, and all the wit and cleverness comes out.”

Oscar Wilde. Top: Helen Thompson. Photo: Joanna Shuen.

Her examples abound. “The general was essentially a man of peace,” Lady Bracknell tells us, “except in his domestic life.” “The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound,” she proclaims. “Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever.” Then there’s her response when Algernon informs her that the doctors found out that Bunbury couldn’t live, so Bunbury died: “He seems to have had great confidence in the opinion of his physicians.”

We should thank Wilde’s parents for his gifts as well as his existence. He attributed the torrent of words that flowed so eloquently from his mouth to being prohibited from speaking at the dining table as a child. His father, a leading surgeon, was also an author, while his mother, Jane (who styled herself Speranza, and published verse), sowed the seeds of his poetry and wit. He also emulated her delight in what Wilde’s biographer Richard Ellman called “improving upon reality” – happily lying about her age. This anticipates Lady B’s decree in Earnest: “No woman should ever be quite accurate about her age. It looks so calculating.”

Also close to Lady Bracknell was his mother’s variously pompous or withering wit. Asked to receive a young woman described as “respectable”, Speranza declared, “You must never employ that description in this house. It is only tradespeople who are respectable. We are above respectability.”

Wilde, of course, adored her, and she came to adore him, after initially preferring his older brother, Willie, the family underachiever, who, when once asked at what he was working, answered, “At intervals.” Wilde was even grateful his parents christened him Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, remarking, “When one is unknown, a number of Christian names are useful… As one becomes famous, one sheds some of them, just as a balloonist… rising higher, sheds unnecessary ballast.”

Lady Bracknell, his ultimate comic creation (himself, aside), is, Thompson observes, only intermittently aware of the wit that vipers from her lips as she strives to corral the younger characters within the bounds of propriety. There’s the oft-quoted example of when Jack Worthing has told her he lost both his parents when a baby: “To lose one parent, Mr Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose both looks like carelessness.” Later, to Gwendolen, Lady Bracknell says, “Come, dear – we have already missed five, if not six trains. To miss any more might expose us to comment on the platform.”

Until he was brought undone, Wilde seemed to delight in a world that demanded a veneer of scrupulous decorum. “Never speak disrespectfully of society, Algernon,” Lady B admonishes. “Only people who can’t get into to it do that.” As Thompson says, much of the humour of Earnest comes from a horror of doing – or being seen to do – the wrong thing, and becoming persona non grata. “In the modern day,” she shrewdly suggests, “it’s like being cancelled on Instagram.”

The 1895 premiere of Earnest was a glittering occasion for Wilde, who had An Ideal Husband already running at the Haymarket. When a journalist asked him before the opening if his new play would be a success, he replied, “It already is. The only question is whether the first night audience will be one too.” After the show he resisted taking a bow, saying, “I took one only last month at the Haymarket, and one feels so much like a German band.”

Two months later came Wilde’s ill-fated libel case against the Marquess of Queensbury, whose son, Bosie, was his lover. Queensbury had publicly accused him of “posing as a sodomite”, setting in train legal wheels that would grind Wilde down to two years’ hard labour and ostracization from society. “Maybe he thought he was a little bit untouchable,” says Thomson, “and then he was just hung out to dry.”

But rather than dwelling on his final years, Oscar would want us to celebrate his prime via the verbal champagne of his wit, starting with two more of Thompson’s favourites from Earnest. There’s Lady Bracknell’s satisfaction on hearing that Jack smokes: “A man should always have an occupation of some kind. There are far too many idle men in London as it is.” And earlier Gwendolen tells Cecily, “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.”

To director Beerbohm Tree, Wilde said, “I shall always regard you as the best critic of my plays.”

“But I have never criticised your plays,” replied Tree.

“That is why.”

Years earlier, he said, “I am never disappointed in literary men. I think they are perfectly charming. It is their works I find so disappointing.” Of Dickens, he opined, “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.” And finally: “To win back my youth… there is nothing I wouldn’t do – except take exercise, get up early, or be a useful member of the community.”

As he reputedly told US Customs, “I have only my genius to declare.”

The Importance of Being Earnest: Roslyn Packer Theatre, September 5-October 14; The Importance of Being Earnest Expedited: Kings Cross Hotel, September 6-23.