RETURNING TO WILDE ONCE MORE: LA IMPORTÀNCIA DE SER FRANK

We have included again Oscar Wilde’s delicious comedy The Importance of Being Earnest in our Victorian Literature syllabus and, luckily for our students, this has coincided with the successful production offered at Teatre Gaudí by the stage company Lazzigags Productions. Ivan Campillo, responsible for the new Catalan translation, is, besides, the director and also the mendacious John Worthing, who finds to his chagrin at the end of the play that he has been telling the truth all along.

Surfing the net, I learn that Ricardo Baeza seems to be the Spanish translator who came up in 1919 with the sorry title La importancia de llamarse Ernesto. Gosh. The Argentinean translator Agustín Remón went instead for the bland, unimaginative La importancia de ser hombre serio. Later Spanish versions tried to play with the pun included in Wilde’s title, and resulted in much better variations, such as Alfonso Reyes’s La importancia de ser Severo. This, however, has not caught on. As the Wikipedia author wisely notes, if in Catalan the usual title is La importància de ser Frank, since the Catalan adjective ‘franc’ means ‘honest’ as in English, one wonders why we don’t have La importancia de ser Honesto (which rhymes with Ernesto!) Or Perfecto, which would have amused Wilde indeed.

The gimmick of Campillo’s production is having a male actor, Ferran Castells, play both Lady Bracknell and the butler Merriman. The students who have seen the play were quite mystified by this. It is not, however, something unheard of, much less unusual. A review of a recent Chicago production (2010) notes that “Lady Bracknell, that caustic queen of Oscar Wilde’s comedies of obfuscation, tends to be played by men in drag. I doubt the doyenne would approve of this pervasive trend on Broadway and beyond —not that anybody ever asked the old buzzard” (my italics). Of course, Peter Pan used to be played by a young woman in drag, a habit inherited from old pantomime due to the titillation provided by the public display of female legs encased in tights. I am not sure, though, what kind of titillation is provided by a male-in-drag or drag queen Lady Bracknell. Is it because she’s outspoken and authoritarian that she’s thought to be masculine? Is it because she’s seen as a ‘queen’ in the gay sense of the word? How trite –I just can’t see a Victorian man saying her lines at all; this seems to be a gross misreading (or miscasting). Whatever the case is, Edith Evans was so good in the 1952 film version that I’ve managed to forget I’ve actually seen Judy Dench play the role in the 2002 version with Colin Firth and Rupert Everett. Odd, very odd.

I enjoyed Campillo’s version, in the end, because it proves that the text still works as a comedy, more than one hundred years later and in a quite different context. Campillo’s is quite a conventional production with an irregular tempo that should be faster yet I found it solid enough, particularly considering that, as for my students, for many members of the audience this is a first introduction to Wilde. I found the funniest moments still amusing even though I knew what was coming and that is high praise for the cast. We’ll see how the musical version of Els crims de Lord Arthur Saville works at TNC in a few months.

At Teatre Gaudí, my hair stood on end when I heard John explain that his ‘brother’ Frank/Ernest had died of a severe cold alone in Paris, for Oscar Wilde died there also alone (though of cerebral meningitis) in 1901 only six years after the play was first performed. Perhaps the bitter seeds of his disgrace were already there, in his protagonists’ imperious need to lie and lead a double life. Sadly, very Victorian…

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