U-M students go back to the Victorian era in Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest"
It was still early in rehearsals and cast members were beginning to master an unfamiliar language as well as a different set of values in a distant time. It was the ’90s when a queen reigned and defined an age.
No, not the 1990s, the 1890s.
That’s when Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest made its debut.
The University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance will present Wilde’s giddy and ever-popular comedy February 16-19 at the Arthur Miller Theatre.
Every year musical theater majors at the University of Michigan perform in a non-musical production. It’s all part of making theater students at ease in both musical and non-musical productions and honing their skills.
Production director Vincent Cardinal, a professor of musical theater at the University of Michigan, has directed and produced scores of productions across the country and is also a noted playwright. Cardinal said Wilde makes it easier for the actors to get into the Victorian era.
“You’re never in better hands than someone like Oscar Wilde,” Cardinal said. “Wilde is going to give them great language, really great characters, and they’ll be really good. When not solving problems, they’re becoming really good at their craft.”
Oscar Wilde said of Earnest it was a light comedy, a trivial play for serious people. He wanted audiences to believe the play was free of the social commentary that was the norm in British theater at the time. But Cardinal said Wilde’s play actually had a lot to say about the Victorian era, and it’s still relevant today.
“It’s appropriate to a time period where education is under fire, science is doubted. There are so many things happening in terms of our culture that are reflected in the Victorian era,” he said. “So the satire, he pretended it wasn’t satire, and he pretended it wasn’t a social critique, but it absolutely is, a subversive social critique that is doubly reflected in our contemporary society.”
The Importance of Being Earnest is on its surface a lighthearted play. A trifle about the romantic misadventures of Jack and Algernon. Jack is a man from the countryside who calls himself Ernest when he’s in the city. He’s courting Algernon’s cousin Gwendolen who insists that the man she marries must be named Ernest, for all the name implies about being loyal and steadfast. Algernon relishes playing pranks and makes his way to Jack’s country home, where he meets and woos Jack’s young ward Cecily, who is happy to learn that Uncle Jack’s friend is named Ernest. But underneath all of this (and a Gilbert and Sullivan-style climax) runs a sly attack on the values of the day, especially as represented by Gwendolen’s formidable mother, Lady Bracknell.
Cardinal said Wilde wanted it both ways. He wanted audiences to feel safe and unthreatened by suggesting that his play had none of the satire of his earlier works, while subtly slipping in his commentary.
“He wanted to skewer society and call people out on their behavior that was contradictory,” Cardinal said. “He wanted to call the ruling class out because very few people with a whole lot of money were controlling a whole lot of people without a lot of money and oppressing them and commandeering the world. He wanted to speak to it on the one hand but he didn’t want to make the play about that.”
For Wilde, the opening night of Earnest in February 1895 was the pinnacle of his career and the beginning of his downfall. The Marquess of Queensbury threatened to throw garbage at Wilde on opening night to protest Wilde’s relationship with the Marquess’ son Lord Alfred Douglas. The theater brought in extra security and the Marquess was denied entry. Wilde sued the Marquess for defamation of character. The suit failed, and it was Wilde who ended up in prison for public indecency and returned to society a broken man. He never wrote another play.
“He was a proponent of the aesthetic, the romantic movement, and the aesthetic movement, where they would say the beginning of the end is beautiful and the meaning is left to the beholder and not the creator,” Cardinal said. “I think he had trouble creating anything that didn’t have a deeper meaning because he was a great artist.”
For the young actors immersing themselves in the Victorian era, the play demands the command of a couple of different middle-class dialects and a facility for rapid repartee, especially between Jack and Algernon.
Cardinal said his cast has been adjusting well to the language.
“They are so good at contemporary dialect, inflection, and insinuation, and to find it in another form of music is exciting to them,” he said
The repartee between Jack and Algernon needs split-second timing and a sense of rhythm.
“Wilde makes it easy because it’s written so brilliantly, but they’re musical theater majors, so they inherently understand rhythm and music and they understand a solo and a duet,” Cardinal said.
Cardinal said he wasn’t worried about the repartee because of their musical background and has been focusing on other aspects of performance.
“It’s because they are so talented that it’s always a trick as to what you draw their attention to and what you don’t,” he said. “I just want them to be comfortable with what they are doing.”
Michael Fabisch, a junior music performance major from Minneapolis, plays the somewhat restrained Jack.
“Jack is a person who tries to cover up his faults with glamour and fanciness,” Fabisch said. “That insecurity starts to leak out when everything he plans goes wrong,” Fabisch said. “As the play begins he’s confident of himself, confident in quotes, and as the play continues, you slowly see him unravel as to who he really is, an insecure, infantile man.”
Fabisch said the dialect hasn’t been a problem.
“For me, it was the attitude,” he said. “Finding the realness even though it’s a heightened form of reality, and still be myself while putting on the character’s in this extravagant world.”
He said he had a hard time relating to a world where men had to always be in charge. He said he hasn’t experienced that very much in his life. He also has trouble portraying Jack’s elitist attitudes.
The bigger challenge is getting the rhythm right, especially in his ping-pong repartee with Algernon.
“The difficulty is that it is so fast-moving that it’s hard to get your brain to go fast enough or let your brain go fast enough to react to your partner,” Fabisch said. “The joy of it is that it's such a fast back and forth that it’s energizing. Those moments are when I have the most fun because it’s a constant flow of giving and receiving. The same person wins every night but they don’t win in the same way.”
Caleb McArthur, a junior music performance major from Athens, Georgia, plays Algernon, and he compares the character's friendship with Ernest to that of a college roommate dynamic.
“He’s the one who gets into trouble. He’s a bit of a trust-fund baby, he’s spoiled,” McArthur said of Algernon. “He always looks for the fun in life, and he always looks for adventures. Which propels him to get himself into a bit of fun in the country and also gets Jack wrapped up in it.”
McArthur said the Victorian setting is still one that contemporary audiences can relate to.
“It’s such a funny and clear story and you follow the characters so quickly. It was a challenge at first, I think the joy is finding the humanness that a contemporary audience can relate to,” he said.
McArthur said the play is so well written that it’s easy to focus on playing his part.
“At the end of the day, it’s knowing what you want from each scene,” he said. “What does my character want from this scene, what do I want from this line, if it really falls into place.”
Tomias Robinson, a senior musical theater major from Winchester, Kentucky, plays Lady Bracknell.
“Lady Bracknell is powerful. Intelligent. She’s like the embodiment of fire. When she enters the room, everyone looks at her because she draws all the attention. She has sickening energy,” Robinson said.
Robinson said that it’s a special challenge playing a Victorian lady.
“She is a woman of the Victorian age and here I am with a 21st-century Black queer body. So having to walk in her shoes takes a little realigning. It takes some adjustments,” Robinson said. “One thing I use as a connector between me and Lady Bracknell is my femininity and how I present that in my casual life. I use it as a connecting tool so it’s not too, too hard but I’m always trying to remind myself about authenticity, and I think that’s the challenge in presenting this character as the realistic and full woman that she was in the Victorian age.”
McArthur sees the parallels that tie our time to the Wilde’s.
“I think Oscar Wilde’s goal was to hold up a mirror to Victorian society. Even though we look at this and say, 'Look how ridiculous these people were,' and that we have grown from that in a lot of ways, but it’s not so different from what our society is today. When it comes to romantic courting. When it comes to the identities we put on when we are trying to impress other people,” he said. “There is a lot of that but yes enjoy the brilliant wit of Oscar Wilde, but walk away thinking about their own sense of identity and how that shifts depending on the people they want to impress.”
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
The University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance will present Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest at the Arthur Miller Theatre, Walgreen Drama Center, 1226 Murfin, Ann Arbor, at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 16, 8 p.m Friday-Saturday, Feb. 17-18, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 19. For tickets, go oline to tickets.smtd.umich.edu.