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By BTL Staff
ROYAL OAK – “The Importance of Being Earnest” (1895), Irish-born Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) crafted his final and most lasting play – by all accounts, a masterpiece of modern comedy. A century later, it strikes a wonderful balance by remaining both a respected and studied piece of literature, as well as a favorite with audiences.
Filled with wit and wisdom, it tells the tale of Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff. Both young men have taken to bending the truth in order to add a dash of excitement to their lives. Jack has invented an imaginary brother, Ernest, whom he uses as an excuse to escape from his dull home in the country and frolic in town. Algernon uses a similar technique, only in reverse: His imaginary friend, Bunbury, provides a convenient and frequent method of taking adventures in the country. However, their deceptions eventually cross paths, resulting in a series of crises that threaten to spoil their romantic pursuits: Jack of his love Gwendolen Fairfax and Algernon of his belle Cecily Cardew.
Next to his literature, Wilde is largely remembered for his flamboyant lifestyle and outrageous behavior, at least as measured by the times in which he lived. (In 1882, when asked what he had to declare while passing through customs into the United States, Wilde replied, “Nothing but my genius.”)
The first performance of “Earnest” in 1895 went smoothly, but almost didn’t.
Two years earlier, at the opening of Lady Windermere’s Fan, Wilde had worn a green carnation, an open acknowledgement of the homosexual subculture to which he and many of his friends belonged. In 1895, while “Earnest” was in rehearsal, Wilde was in the middle of his troubled but long-term relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, and was being pursued by Douglas’s father, the pugnacious and homophobic marquess of Queensberry. Queensberry had bought a ticket for the opening night of “Earnest,” and planned to disrupt the play with a demonstration. However, a policeman met Queensberry at the door and prevented his admission.
Two weeks later, Queensberry left a calling card in Wilde’s with a note written on it: “To Oscar Wilde, posing as a Somdomite.” (It was a spelling error. He undoubtedly meant “sodomite.”) Wilde decided to take legal action and sued Queensberry for libel, a step that would backfire. While Queensberry was acquitted, evidence of Wilde’s behavior that came to light during the trial led to his arrested for sodomy immediately after the libel proceedings. In what was called the trial of the century, Wilde was tried and convicted of homosexual practices, and subsequently sentenced to two years hard labor.
Upon his release in 1897, Wilde moved to Paris. With broken spirit and empty pockets, he lived out the remainder of his life in poor health under the pseudonym Sebastian Melmoth, relying on the charity of friends and sympathetic hotel managers. The following year, while in Berneval, France, Wilde wrote “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” a poem that explored the harsh nature of prison life. It was published anonymously in England under the pseudonym of C33 (Wilde’s prison number), and became his last significant work.
“The Importance of Being Earnest” is running at historic Baldwin Theatre, 415 S. Lafayette Ave. in downtown Royal Oak. through April 6. Tickets are $12 on Thursday, $14 on Friday, Saturday and Sunday (Tickets $12 for seniors and students on Sundays). Call 248.541.6430 to order tickets.