Friday, May 27, 2016

The Importance of Great Dialog and Sharp Wit

The Importance of Being EarnestThe Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's been years since I had read this or watched it performed, but I still remembered how crisp and clever was the dialog. After reading it again, I enjoyed it even more than the pleasant memory.

This play is about two men, John and Algernon, who lead double lives. They are habitual liars, and their mainstay fib is a "Bunbury", an invented friend/relative who they use to avoid social obligations. This concept of double life, of course, reflects other aspects of Wilde's life that later lead to his downfall. This play was actually still on stage when Oscar Wilde prosecuted the Marquess of Queensbury for libel, which led to disclosures about his homosexual relationships, crimes punishable by imprisonment.

The Importance of Being Earnest was Wilde's last dramatic work, and represents his top form. In the hands of Wilde the characters cut scalding paths through such topics as death, marriage, relative morality, and literature itself. Nothing is sacred, but it's never tasteless. Whether it's commentary that more than half of modern culture depends on what "shouldn't be read" or commenting that it's a terrible thing to discover one has been (accidentally) telling the truth their entire life, Wilde's punchy dialog is brilliant and challenging.

There is also a good deal of Wilde in his two protagonists. It's easy to see how his behavior and sneering commentary might have alienated Victorian society, but it's also clear that no one could do it better. Today it's a romp and a reminder that we rely on uncommon people like Wilde to question our false morality and society's conventions. Back then, however, it was perilous, and the joy Wilde has in his cavorting is heartening. I think it's impossible to read the interchange and, if not love him, at least to realize the enormous value of the mirror he lifts for society to reflect upon.

A word about the final reveal without giving anything away: Yes, it's not as brilliant as the rest of the piece, but given the tour de force of the rest, it's forgivable. Besides, he knew his audience. That kind of humor appealed to the masses, and there is no better proof than the work's immediate success on the London stage, which was unfortunately short-lived. Within weeks of its debut, Mr. Wilde would be in prison.

Enjoy it and appreciate that we live in a better time!


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