Wednesday, May 25, 2022

a play of some importance

In search of other plays to read and separate out our Shakespearean ventures, our online play-reading group stumbled upon Oscar Wilde's A Woman of No Importance. This is probably the least-known of Wilde's 'drawing-room' plays, and unlike the most famous, The Importance of Being Earnest, it isn't a comedy. In fact it has a rather grim plot and a nasty ending, in which a character who's been slowly emerging from amiable disguise as a villain gets a comeuppance.

How this play is put together interested me considerably. The plot involves four characters, though this only becomes clear as the play goes on. But the bulk of it takes place at a garden party and in drawing rooms, and there are many other guests: eight of them, who talk quite a lot, clogging up the first act and then slowly disappearing as the play goes on. (There are also servants, who have very few lines.)

I found it interesting that they have particular verbal ticks, which become apparent as you read the play aloud with characters being done by different readers. Of the superfluous guests, three I thought were particularly interesting verbally. Lady Hunstanton is always forgetting what you'd think are salient features of her anecdotes. "Poor Lord Belton died three days afterwards of joy, or gout. I forget which." "There was also, I remember, a clergyman who wanted to be a lunatic, or a lunatic who wanted to be a clergyman, I forget which." If there's comedy in the play, it's mostly in lines like these from her.

Then there's Lady Stutfield, who has a habit of repeating words, usually very. "It is so very, very gratifying to hear you say that." "It is very, very helpful." Then there's the Archdeacon, who is always describing his wife's ailments - besides losing both sight and hearing, she has arthritis and dementia - in an oddly cheerful tone as if there's nothing wrong.

Each of these speaking styles is distinct to that particular character.

But the most interesting speaking style is that of one of the main characters, Lord Illingworth. I took this part and found it difficult to navigate, in the sense that I was uncertain what style and tone of voice to use for it. Lord Illingworth is capable of having a serious conversation in which he talks like a normal human being, and proves it twice during the play. But the rest of the time, whether addressing one person or the whole company, he is nothing but a slot machine that emits an unending series of Oscar Wilde quips. The most famous in his description of a fox hunt - "the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable" - but that's immediately followed by a typically paradoxical statement that "We in the House of Lords are never in touch with public opinion. That makes us a civilised body." And it just goes on, and on, and on.

It's a difficult play but a very interesting one.

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