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June 2019
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2005-08-16 Silly piece of nonsense delivers linguistic perfection

In the late 19th and early 20th century British literature, the literary giants are mostly Irishmen: Joyce, Yeats, Shaw, O'Casey, Wilde, and others. The three Irish playwrights Sheridan, Shaw and Wilde pretty much owned the British stage at this time.


However, I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that, the sole survivor of the Victorian era in British theatre is Wilde's "Importance of Being Earnest". The play's plot is a silly, frothy piece of nonsense, and yet, the dialogue and constant flow of witticisms is nothing short of linguistic perfection. Mistaken identity, separated siblings, questions of inheritance are all themes which had been treated on stage since the dawning of theatre.


The amusing, and at times disturbing figure of Lady Bracknell represents an authoritative, almost monstrous figure from the Victorian era - "To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose both seems like carelessness". Surely "A Handbag!" has to be one of theatre's most famous lines?


I was first introduced to this play by my inspiring Leaving Cert English teacher. During my time in UCD, I was fortunate to perform the title role (Ernest/Jack) at the John Field Room in the National Concert Hall at the tender age of 18 (first play ever performed there).


I have seen the play on numerous occasions since then, including a particularly memorable performance in London's West End, with Patricia Routledge (Hyacinth Bucket) stealing the show as Lady Bracknell.


When I heard that the Abbey were going to be staging this masterpiece with an all-male cast, I simply had to see it, if only for the novelty. There was something a little surreal about reading a programme which listed Miss Prism being played by Sean Kearns, and Jack by Darragh Kelly.


Once or twice during the evening I felt I was at a drag show starring Dame Edna, Shirley Temple-Bar and Frank Spencer's wife Betty, but all in all, I loved it! For me, the star of the show was Tadhg Murphy as Gwendolen, although Alan Stanford's delivery of Wilde's text as Lady Bracknell was inspired.


As critics have often pointed out, all of the voices in Wilde's plays are his, and in this way his plays (and those famous witticisms) are autobiographical. As a boy, Oscar was the apple of his mother's eye, but was unpopular with his classmates in Portora School in Enniskillen.


After Trinity College, Oscar went to Oxford, and this was a turning point in his life, leading to his celebrity and notoriety. Born into a nation famous for `seancha­' and story-telling, Wilde became the dream dinner-guest. He did not so much converse, as tell tales, and guests rarely interrupted his musical flow. "An Ideal Husband", "Lady Windermere's Fan" and "Salome" all became part of the theatrical repertory, and fans began to memorise many of the utterings of these titled aristocratic characters from his plays. "Work is the curse of the drinking classes".


But Wilde's huge success and fame, just like other geniuses (Mozart for example), was cut off in its prime. An unintellectual relationship began to dominate his life. This relationship was unrealistic, and doomed from the outset, came between Wilde and his art, and became his ruination.


Wilde wrote that "in married life three is company and two is none", and that there is "one thing worse than loveless marriages - a marriage in which there is love, but on one side only", and yet, somehow, Mrs Constance Wilde did not seem to notice that her husband was gay.


This `love that dare not speak its name' led to Wilde's imprisonment, and a broken spirit, health and artistic flow, and finally exile, anonymity and death. Those who had applauded his genius had turned on him like the crowd before Pilate. Stephen Fry portrays Oscar Wilde to perfection in the film "Wilde", and was, in my mind, the only choice for the role.


The text of "De Profundis" makes for an agonising read. "There is one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about" (Dorian Gray), and yet, because of his personal life "an eternity of fame" had changed to "an eternity of infamy" - fame for all the wrong reasons. Once again, society had eradicated a genius.


The all-male "Earnest" continues at the Abbey until September 24.