‘I have only my genius to declare’: The wit and wisdom of Oscar Wilde

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“I have put my genius into my life and only my talent into my works,” Oscar Wilde fibbed, having liberally sprinkled his genius over the likes of Salome, The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest.

Oscar Wilde is one of history’s most celebrated playwrights.Credit: Getty Images

More truthfully, he acknowledged his stories contained scant action, saying, “My people sit in chairs and chatter.”

Helen Thomson knows that all too well from rehearsing the prized role of Lady Bracknell in Sydney Theatre Company’s new production of the Importance of Being Earnest.

A stalwart of the Australian stage for more than 30 years, this is Thomson’s first professional role in a Wilde play.

“[The text is] almost like a piece of music because you have to follow the rhythm of the way he’s writing,” she says. “If you ignore it, it becomes too wordy and too dense. But if you follow the way he wants you to say it, it becomes clear, and all the wit and cleverness comes out.”

She can think of many examples from her character, including: “The general was essentially a man of peace, except in his domestic life” and “The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever.”

Helen Thomson plays Lady Bracknell in STC’s new production of The Importance of Being Earnest.Credit: Joanna Shuen

Then there’s her response when Algernon tells her Bunbury (a person he invented) has died, after doctors concluded he could no longer live: “He seems to have had great confidence in the opinion of his physicians.”

We should thank Wilde’s parents for his gifts as well as his existence. He attributed the torrent of words that flowed so eloquently from his mouth to being prohibited from speaking at the dining table as a child.

His father, a leading surgeon, was also an author, while his mother, Jane (who wrote verse under the pen name Speranza), sowed the seeds of his poetry and wit. He also emulated her delight in what Wilde’s biographer Richard Ellman called “improving upon reality” – happily lying about her age. This anticipates Lady B’s decree in Earnest: “No woman should ever be quite accurate about her age. It looks so calculating.”

Lady Bracknell also shares Wilde’s mother’s variously pompous or withering wit. Asked to receive a young woman described as “respectable”, Speranza declared, “You must never employ that description in this house. It is only tradespeople who are respectable. We are above respectability.”

Wilde, of course, adored her, and she came to adore him, after initially preferring his older brother, Willie, the family underachiever, who, when once asked at what he was working, answered, “At intervals.”

Wilde was even grateful his parents christened him Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, remarking, “When one is unknown, a number of Christian names are useful … As one becomes famous one sheds some of them, just as a balloonist when rising higher, sheds unnecessary ballast.”

Lady Bracknell, his ultimate comic creation (himself, aside), is, Thomson observes, only intermittently aware of the wit that vipers from her lips as she strives to corral the younger characters within the bounds of propriety.

There’s the oft-quoted example of when Jack Worthing has told her he lost both his parents when a baby: “To lose one parent, Mr Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose both looks like carelessness.”

Thomson in rehearsals for The Importance of Being Earnest.Credit: Daniel Boud

Later, to Gwendolen, Lady Bracknell says, “Come, dear, we have already missed five, if not six trains. To miss any more might expose us to comment on the platform.”

Until he was brought undone, Wilde seemed to delight in a world that demanded a veneer of scrupulous decorum. “Never speak disrespectfully of society, Algernon,” Lady B admonishes. “Only people who can’t get into to it do that.”

As Thomson says, much of the humour of Earnest comes from a horror of doing – or being seen to do – the wrong thing, and becoming persona non grata. She shrewdly suggests: “In the modern day, it’s like being cancelled on Instagram.”

Wilde with Bosie in Oxford, about 1893.Credit: Library of Congress, Kaufmann Collection

The 1895 premiere of Earnest was a glittering occasion for Wilde, who had An Ideal Husband already running at the Haymarket. When a journalist asked him before the opening if his new play would be a success, he replied, “It already is. The only question is whether the first night audience will be one too.”

After the show he resisted taking a bow, saying, “I took one only last month at the Haymarket, and one feels so much like a German band.”

Two months later came Wilde’s ill-fated libel case against the Marquess of Queensbury, whose son, Lord Alfred Douglas, nicknamed “Bosie”, was his lover. Queensbury had publicly accused him of “posing as a sodomite”, setting in train legal wheels that would grind Wilde down to two years’ hard labour and being ostracised from society.

“Maybe he thought he was a little bit untouchable, and then he was just hung out to dry,” says Thomson.

But rather than dwelling on his final years, Wilde would want us to celebrate his prime via his verbal champagne, starting with two more of Thomson’s favourites from Earnest.

There’s Lady Bracknell’s satisfaction on hearing that Jack smokes: “A man should always have an occupation of some kind. There are far too many idle men in London as it is.” And earlier Gwendolen tells Cecily, “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.”

‘To win back my youth … there is nothing I wouldn’t do, except take exercise, get up early, or be a useful member of the community.’

To director Beerbohm Tree, Wilde said, “I shall always regard you as the best critic of my plays.”

“But I have never criticised your plays,” replied Tree.

“That’s why.”

Years earlier, Wilde said, “I am never disappointed in literary men. I think they are perfectly charming. It is their works I find so disappointing.” Of Dickens, he opined, “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.” And finally: “To win back my youth … there is nothing I wouldn’t do – except take exercise, get up early, or be a useful member of the community.”

As he reputedly told US Customs, “I have only my genius to declare.”

The Importance of Being Earnest is at Roslyn Packer Theatre from September 5 to October 14.

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