The Theatrical ‘World’ of 1895

(L-R) Allan Aynesworth, Evelyn Millard, Irene Vanbrugh and George Alexander, via Wikimedia Commons

(L-R) Allan Aynesworth, Evelyn Millard, Irene Vanbrugh and George Alexander, via Wikimedia Commons

Source: William Archer, The Theatrical ‘World’ of 1895 (London: W. Scott, 1896), pp. 456-60

Production: Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest, St James’s Theatre, London, 20 February 1895

Text: The dramatic critic is not only a philosopher, moralist, assthetician, and stylist, but also a labourer working for his hire. In this last capacity he cares nothing for the classifications of Aristotle, Polonius, or any other theorist, but instinctively makes a fourfold division of the works which come within his ken. These are his categories: (1) Plays which are good to see. (2) Plays which are good to write about. (3) Plays which are both. (4) Plays which are neither. Class 4 is naturally the largest; Class 3 the smallest; and Classes 1 and 2 balance each other pretty evenly. Mr. Oscar Wilde’s new comedy, The Importance of Being Earnest, belongs indubitably to the first class. It is delightful to see, it sends wave after wave of laughter curling and foaming round the theatre; but as a text for criticism it is barren and delusive. It is like a mirage-oasis in the desert, grateful and comforting to the weary eye — but when you come close up to it, behold! it is intangible, it eludes your grasp. What can a poor critic do with a play which raises no principle, whether of art or morals, creates its own canons and conventions, and is nothing but an absolutely wilful expression of an irrepressibly witty personality? Mr. Pater, I think (or is it some one else?), has an essay on the tendency of all art to verge towards, and merge in, the absolute art – music. He might have found an example in The Importance of Being Earnest, which imitates nothing, represents nothing, means nothing, is nothing, except a sort of rondo capriccioso, in which the artist’s fingers run with crisp irresponsibility up and down the keyboard of life. Why attempt to analyse and class such a play? Its theme, in other hands, would have made a capital farce; but “farce” is far too gross and commonplace a word to apply to such an iridescent filament of fantasy. Incidents of the same nature as Algy Moncrieffe’s [sic] “Bunburying” and John Worthing’s invention and subsequent suppression of his scapegrace brother Ernest have done duty in many a French vaudeville and English adaptation; but Mr. Wilde’s humour transmutes them into something entirely new and individual. Amid so much that is negative, however, criticism may find one positive remark to make. Behind all Mr. Wilde’s whim and even perversity, there lurks a very genuine science, or perhaps I should rather say instinct, of the theatre. In all his plays, and certainly not least in this one, the story is excellently told and illustrated with abundance of scenic detail. Monsieur Sarcey himself (if Mr. Wilde will forgive my saying so) would “chortle in his joy” over John Worthing’s entrance in deep mourning (even down to his cane) to announce the death of his brother Ernest, when we know that Ernest in the flesh — a false but undeniable Ernest — is at that moment in the house making love to Cecily. The audience does not instantly awaken to the meaning of his inky suit, but even as he marches solemnly down the stage, and before a word is spoken, you can feel the idea kindling from row to row, until a “sudden glory” of laughter fills the theatre. It is only the born playwright who can imagine and work up to such an effect. Not that the play is a masterpiece of construction. It seemed to me that the author’s invention languished a little after the middle of the second act, and that towards the close of that act there were even one or two brief patches of something almost like tediousness. But I have often noticed that the more successful the play, the more a first-night audience is apt to be troubled by inequalities of workmanship, of which subsequent audiences are barely conscious. The most happily-inspired scenes, coming to us with the gloss of novelty upon them, give us such keen pleasure, that passages which are only reasonably amusing are apt to seem, by contrast, positively dull. Later audiences, missing the shock of surprise which gave to the master-scenes their keenest zest, are also spared our sense of disappointment in the flatter passages, and enjoy the play more evenly all through. I myself, on seeing a play a second time, have often been greatly entertained by scenes which had gone near to boring me on the first night. When I see Mr. Wilde’s play again, I shall no doubt relish the last half of the second act more than I did on Thursday evening; and even then I differed from some of my colleagues who found the third act tedious. Mr. Wilde is least fortunate where he drops into Mr. Gilbert’s Palace-of-Truth mannerism, as he is apt to do in the characters of Gwendolen and Cecily. Strange what a fascination this trick seems to possess for the comic playwright! Mr. Pinero, Mr. Shaw, and now Mr. Wilde, have all dabbled in it, never to their advantage. In the hands of its inventor it produces pretty effects enough;

But Gilbert’s magic may not copied be;
Within that circle none should walk but he.

The acting is as hard to write about as the play. It is all good; but there is no opportunity for any striking excellence. The performers who are most happily suited are clearly Mr. Allan Aynesworth and Miss Rose Leclercq, both of whom are delightful. Mr. Alexander gives his ambition a rest, and fills his somewhat empty part with spirit and elegance. Miss Irene Vanbrugh makes a charmingly sophisticated maiden of Mayfair, and Miss Evelyn Millard, if not absolutely in her element as the unsophisticated Cecily, is at least graceful and pleasing. Mrs. Canninge and Mr. H.H. Vincent complete a very efficient cast.

Comments: William Archer (1856-1924) was a Scottish theatre critic and translator of Ibsen. His reviews for the World were collected in annual volumes as The Theatrical ‘World’ of… The first performance of Oscar Wilde‘s The Importance of Being Earnest at the St. James’s Theatre, London was on 14 February 1895. The cast included Allan Aynesworth (Algernon Moncrieff), George Alexander (John Worthing), Rose Leclercq (Lady Bracknell), Irene Vanbrugh (Gwendolen Fairfax), Evelyn Millard (Cecily Cardew), Mrs. George Canninge (Miss Prism) and H.H. Vincent (Canon Chasuble).

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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