In anticipation of the upcoming performance of “The Importance of Being Earnest” at Jorgensen on Oct. 5-15, the Rainbow Center held a lecture on how Oscar Wilde’s sexuality played a huge part in his play. A panel consisting of assistant professor, Lindsey Cummings, the director, Jean Randich, and the man playing Algernon Montcrieff, Stephon Pettway, came to bring new light to this famous play.
In the height of Oscar Wilde’s fame, Wilde was prosecuted for sodomy by the father of his lover, Bosie (the nickname of Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas). Wilde ended up being convicted and put in jail. When was finally released, Wilde was penniless and shunned to the point that no one was willing to publish his work. It was around this time that Wilde became a figure representing the “homosexual.” This is the first time that homosexuality became part of human identity, and it soon became characterized by Wilde’s “dandyism.”
UConn Student Lisha Samuel said that she was surprised that “at the time there was no ‘homosexual.’” She was amazed at Wilde’s role in the creation of this identity.
A dandy was a man who cared about how he dressed. They were often effeminate with longer hair and extravagant outfits. Wilde once said, “One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art.” They also were known to value wit, intellect and aestheticism. This went against the turn of masculinity from intellectualism in this era.
When asked what they took away from the lecture, one student, Zane Carey replied, “I knew he was a writer, but I didn’t know how much he put in his public role.”
In fact, Wilde became a leader in the aesthetics movement, with sayings like “life imitates art.” He also became a huge figure in later gay rights movements.
In the late 19th century, homosexual sex was considered sodomy and against the law. For this reason, men like Oscar Wilde had to live double lives. On the one hand, Wilde was married with two kids, and on the other, he was having relations with young men. This kind of double life became the basis to his play, “The Importance of Being Earnest.”
In this play, two characters, Jack Worthing and Algernon Montcrieff, participate in an act called “bunburying.” Bunburying, as coined by Wilde, was inventing a different identity, so you can live your life the way you want. For Algernon, this meant having a fictional invalid friend named Bunbury that he had to visit often in the country. For Jack, this meant having a horrible younger brother named Earnest that he had to visit often in the city. In turn, Jack would take up this identity of Earnest whilst in the city. This way, he could be as much of a troublemaker and bachelor as he wanted, as opposed to the wealthy, responsible guardian to a young woman named Cecily in the country.
Randich said that at one point, she had her actors read their lines while replacing the word “bunbury” with “homosexual” or “homosexuality.” She even had Pettway demonstrate this for the audience. For the most part, it came out as coherent. The words were basically interchangeable.
Besides the correlation between bunburying and homosexuality, there were plenty of other complex forms of subtext throughout the play.
In one scene, Algernon ate all of the cucumber sandwiches that he had put out for his tyrannical aunt, Lady Bracknell, before she even stepped through the door. Randich interpreted this as Wilde’s call to do what is forbidden.
When Algernon and Jack both tried to change their names to be Earnest in order to appeal to the women they loved, they effectively tried to become what they imagined themselves to be. Randich claimed that this emphasized that, “What you imagine yourself to be could be your real ‘birthright.’”
Pettway discussed how he tried to imitate Wilde in his version of Algernon. This way, the undertones of homosexuality would be better displayed in his performance.
Randich took many steps in her production of “The Importance of Being Earnest” to better display all the subtext. Rather than closing the curtains to punctuate a scene, Randich is having the actors dance to contemporary music. According to her, some of the dancing was suggestive enough that it seemed like two of the male characters planned on having sex. She is also introducing progressive shifts in dress style to reflect Wilde’s own change of style from his standard Victorian look to a more dandy fashion.
When asked if the lecture affected how they looked at the play, Carey and Samuel both agreed it definitely did, and they are incredibly excited to see Randich’s version of “The Importance of Being Earnest” this weekend.
Rebecca Maher is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.