Ithaca circa 2008 is certainly not England under Queen Victoria’s rule. In today’s society there are rules, of course, but where are the Victorian manners? We wear polos — not play it — and the extravagant hats of the 19th century just don’t seem to be the style anymore. But more importantly, the language of our lives — short and sweet and slangy as it is — is nothing compared to the ornamented, scathing, elaborate wit of Oscar Wilde’s England. Written over 100 years ago, The Importance of Being Earnest is certainly a product of its times: Its characters talk about fashion and literature and romantic philosophies that we’ve only read about in history books, and they regularly say things like, “How perfectly delightful!”
It is all perfectly delightful, though, if for no other reason than because Oscar Wilde is a genius; a maestro of puns and one-liners that makes even the best humorists of our time lose their charm. And, as the Schwartz Center is looking to prove when Earnest opens Thursday night, all the antiquated, time-stamped nonsense of Victorian England is still perfectly delightful in our modern Ithacan society.
The Schwartz’s production — directed by Ithaca College’s Greg Bostwick — looks, by all means, to be a faithful representation of Wilde’s England. The actors, who range from undergrads to the Schwartz’s elder Resident Professional Teaching Associates, all carry the charm and fastidiousness of Victorian Brits, each adopting an accent and dressing in coattails, dresses and extravagant hats. Even the set, which through first act consists of fancy chaise in the parlor room of an upper-class flat, faithfully materializes the world surrounding Wilde’s words.
Still, in perhaps the most striking departure from traditional productions — and stop reading here if you’d prefer to be surprised, because it’s going to be funny — the dainty, old, demure tutor, Miss Prism, is played by RPTA John G. Hertzler, the Schwartz’s resident gruff, commanding macho man. But just as Hertzler himself is a sweetheart behind his towering presence, our inevitable fascination in this production’s Prism will stem from our ultimate awareness of the truth. Hertzler’s Prism can blush and bat her eyes and be as coy as she wants, but we know what we see.
That fascination in facades is why The Importance of Being Earnest continues to succeed even as our society moves away from all that phony sensibility. Throughout the play, everyone is lying: Jack, played in this production by Ian Jones ’10, pretends to be a city man to impress his foppish soulmate, Gwendolyn (Allison Buck ’09); Algernon, Jack’s best friend, played here by Ian Harkins ’11, pretends to be a country man to woo his skittish lady-in-waiting, Cecily (Mary Gilliam ’09); even Lane, Algernon’s man-servant (played by RPTA Jeffrey Guyton), finds it easier to tell his master, “I didn’t think it polite to listen” rather than confess to Algie’s excruciating piano playing.
Wilde himself was, of course, a liar his entire life, preferring to keep his “wild decadence” (read: homosexuality) a secret rather than face the social penalties of a public life as a gay man. He was forced to perform to the masses, to portray himself as a straight, dignified man of society while moving ever-closer to his inevitable exposure as a fraud. While Wilde landed in jail for his secret life, Earnest’s characters have much more liberty to pretend, though they too face the inevitability of exposure. At some point, Jack is going to have to confess to Gwendolyn, Algernon is going to have to learn to behave, and Miss Prism is going to have to kiss another man.
So what, then, is the reason for Bostwick and Company to keep the play set in Victorian England? After all, the humor of the play comes from our awareness of these characters’ secrets and the clever wordplay interspersed throughout their lies, so who cares if we’re in England? Well, as Guyton puts it, “In an age where even piano legs were covered up with cloth because they might suggest the shape of a woman’s leg, to be completely truthful would be to admit one’s appetites,” and to admit one’s appetites would not, as Wilde himself knew instinctively, be so perfectly polite. The entire play derives its humor from the contrast between animal instincts and human appearances; when Algernon and Cecily share a moment under a tree, reading from her diary teeming with sexual subtext, Cecily finds it more appropriate to say, “You dear romantic boy” than confess her voracious appetite.
So, the name of the game is confessions, confessions, confessions; and it’s usually a riot. On the surface, Earnest is a play filled with lots of hilarious moments. (The muffin scene is perhaps one of the funniest ever conceived, even without our knowledge of the characters’ lies.) But in the end, throughout the play — in-between the silliness and absurd hypocrisy — there’s always the sense that people have things to confess, and if Bostwick’s wonderful choice to cast J.G. Hertzler as Miss Prism is any indication, we’re in for some brutal truths-be-told.