The Importance of Being Earnest – What goes around comes around. (Theatre Review)
The Importance of Being Earnest
The Genesian Theatre
26 May – 30 June. You can grab your tickets here.
“Not that I agree with everything I have said in this essay. There is much with which I entirely disagree. The essay simply represents an artistic standpoint, and in aesthetic criticism, attitude is everything. For in art there is no such thing as a universal truth. A truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true. And just as it is only in art-criticism, and through it, that we can apprehend the Platonic theory of ideas, so it is only in art-criticism, and through it that we can realise Hegels system of contraries. The truths of metaphysics are the truths of masks.” (The Truth of Masks – A note on Illusion)
According to Oscar Wilde, the power of creativity is the power of simulation. But since the power of simulation is also always the power of dissimulation, Wilde’s theory of the mask is also the theory of the lie. In ‘The Decay of Lying’ Wilde’s character Vivian defends the aesthetic lie, as a counter to the unhealthy attachments to realism which accounted for cultural decline. According to Vivian, the decay of Lying “as an art, a science and a social pleasure” is responsible for the decline of modern literature, which is overly concerned with the representation of facts and social reality. He writes, “If something cannot be done to check, or at least modify, our monstrous worship of facts, Art will become sterile and beauty will pass away from the land.” The discussion of Lying as a social pleasure is a direct reference to the discussion of Mimesis in Plato’s Republic, making the connection (as did Plato) between lying and poetry as arts. It is in book two of The Republic that Socrates recommends ‘a censorship over our story-makers’ who shape the souls of the young citizens, such is the power of a persuasive narrative. (Is this not precisely what we struggle with in a ‘post-truth’ age when the loudest story with the most followers becomes ‘fact.’)
Given this context, it is arguable that Oscar Wilde was not criticizing the society of his day in The Importance of Being Earnest. Rather he was applauding the masks that reveal the truth. For Wilde, like Plato, the lie is simulacral; the question of the lie is a question of the relationship of art and truth, and ultimately of the very question of identifying the truth in the first place. Against the realm of facts, Algernon (a truly marvelous Cameron Hutt) recommends the joys, entertainment and convenience of lying. The lies regarding personas of Jack (Ted Crosby) and Algy uphold the fundamental falsities of society that keep art and decorum in place. For Oscar Wilde, life imitates art, and therefore art has a duty to beauty and an ideal state. To lie on behalf of an aesthetic ideal is to demand more of reality. The issue of The Importance of Being Ernest is which lies exist as an art and a questioning of morality, and which exist as inexcusable moral, ideological and political lies.
Therefore, within The Importance of Being Earnest, lies are graded and ranked and consequently awarded karmic style consequences based on their ability to cause offence. For Jack, his lie about calling himself Earnest is proven to be a closer truth than his own name, and his journey to societal worthiness. For Algy, his lie abut Bunburying holds no consequences. However, it is Lady Bracknell, who uses social wiles for political reasons regarding social standing, who is forced to face certain consequence of her judgements. But whether simple or complex, the issue here is that all of these lies imply a purpose and are undertaking, in a sense, speculatively, with a potential gain or utility in mind. Such lies cannot be called artistic, however: dependent on a final cause above or beyond them they are teleological and thus fall out of the realm of the aesthetic. For Wilde, the only form of lying that is absolutely beyond reproach is lying for its own sake: it is only then that lying becomes an art. The artistic lie is in itself simularcral and starkly opposed to the world of misrepresentation. In typical Oscar Wilde fashion, knowing and even knowledge itself is circular and of no value outside of its testing.
The Importance of Being Earnest is currently showing at The Genesian theatre. Competently and carefully directed by Trudy Ritchie, the cast deliver great performances, under her guidance. A particular stand out is Cameron Hutt as Algernon, who delivers his lines with the grace and timing the role needs. He is well supported by Ted Crosby as Jack (who plays his straight man well) and Emma Wright as a wily and clever Gwendolen. Roasanna Hurley (Cecily) and Meanie Robinson (Lady Bracknell) are strong in their roles as are the charming supporting roles of Lois Marsh as Miss Prism, John Grinston as Dr Chasuble, Rod Stewart as Merriman and Chris Dunwell as Lane. The cast deliver their fabulous lines on a truly lovely Owen Gimblett set that does the play justice. Trudy Ritchie directs a fine indeed production of The Importance of Being Earnest giving a just answer to the question of why we still go to see certain old classics. It is not the play, The Importance of Being Earnest that is of importance here so much as the importance we have placed on the play in our lives. When you engage with this writing (and it is easy to do in this well-presented production) one can’t help notice the circular nature and resurrection of all our societal obsessions.