The Wesleyan Argus | The Importance of Being Earnest reinvents a comedy classic

In a cross talk, two authors sit down to discuss a book, film, TV show, or work of art that is close to their hearts. Sometimes they disagree; at other times they are in perfect harmony. Here, news editor Elias Mansell and social media editor Lauren Cho discuss SpikeTapes recent production of The Importance of Being Earnest, an 1895 play by Oscar Wilde.

In The Importance of Being Earnest, a group of aristocrats in Victorian England are thrown into hilarious confusion when two of them are revealed to have used the false identity of a man named Earnest to evade social obligations. In this production, which performed on Saturday April 23rd and Sunday April 24th, the play was immersively restaged, with viewers following a single character throughout Russell House.

c/o Oscar Wilde

Elias Mansel: What did you think of the play?

Lauren Cho: To be honest, I didn’t really have any expectations because unlike you, I didn’t read the script – I just skimmed it. But I know you really like it.

EM: Yes. I’m obsessed with The Importance of Being Earnest. I’ve read it so many times and I saw it once in high school too.

LC: Do you think this is better than the version you saw in high school?

EM: Honestly it’s hard to say. The performance in high school was a pretty big deal for me because I didn’t know how many lines could be read because I had never seen it before. So that was a first – this obviously wasn’t a first – but I think this version brought a lot of new stuff with it.

LC: It’s a non-traditional take, and I think that speaks to the different costume design that ties all of these eras together. I mean, most importantly, Algernon is now a girl, but that role is originally male.

EM: Yes, they made it very strange. I saw Algernon a lot more than Oscar Wilde himself. It was a lot easier to sort of tell the characters apart I think. And they gave each character a very defined personality.

LC: They did. I mean it was very distinct. Given the time it was written, the speech is very easy to follow and I think part of that was just the fact that it was very well acted. I particularly enjoyed the interactions between Jack and Algernon. I found her really funny. There were times when the characters had to improvise quite a bit before everyone got into the audience because the house was the set and they were constantly switching audiences in and out.

EM: Yes, I don’t think they improvised. I think they made some changes in between. So I think it was in many ways –

LC: A loose structure.

EM: Yes.

LC: I think what surprises me is how much of the material honestly feels like a Wesleyan student could have written this just because the humor feels so timely. But knowing that this was actually in the original script, it makes sense. I think it speaks to the timelessness of the piece itself.

EM: I think one of the main things that evokes that kind of Wes feel is the actors and how improvised it feels. It’s not, but there’s a spontaneity to it because the conversations feel very natural. I think a lot of people think Victorian England was very different socially than it is today, but in many ways that felt like something to see today.

LC: That was super refreshing you know? And I’m glad that’s there. It really reflects our student body as a whole and also our generation. Spike Tape’s interpretation shows how we can approach a piece that has pretty much escaped our time.

EM: I loved Algernon alone in the original play. I’m obsessed with this character. I never eat muffins or see muffins or hear about muffins without thinking about Algernon. Literally like one of my favorite characters from the time. miranda [Simon ’24] killed it.

LC: We’re such big fans of Algernon and I think part of that is the character, you know? And that helps – partly because it was just so well acted and all the jokes landed so cleanly. They said they’ve done it both times you’ve been there – I’ve only been there once.

EM: The only thing that I felt made it difficult was that sometimes it can be difficult to hear the actors.

LC: This is the house too. All doors are open and you walk around the house.

EM: Honestly, that was another big part of it too. Getting that chance to hear other rooms made it a lot more immersive, which I think is one of the reasons it feels so modern. I found it very interesting the second time around too. We got to Algernon early and just saw Algernon play the piano a bit. It was really nice to see a character almost in that moment of loneliness. You don’t usually see that on stage, do you?

LC: I think it was a great experience. Really humorous, really, topical in a way that I think is totally unexpected. Also kudos to Spike Tape. I definitely thought the setting was great. I didn’t think Russell House would be as fitting as it was.

EM: The furniture was great. They did a good job with the layout. It just fits so well. I noticed that, with Algernon, you kind of completely missed the reveal part where Jack tells his origin story. I thought that might be confusing for someone who hasn’t read the play if they’re just following Algernon, so yeah, that was definitely a downside. Another reason was that they reused lines from other characters. It doesn’t quite fit the characterization, you know?

LC: I don’t think this was an easy game to customize, so I’ll give them credit. Because it’s not easy considering the setting. And the approach was really original. But it’s like there will only be bumps in the road. I still think the script was executed well overall. It was so funny. It made me laugh. I mean literally every scene Algernon was in made me laugh.

EM: I came out liking Algernon so much more.

LC: We’re reviewing this the day after it happened, but I’m still talking about it with as much excitement as day one. I would have liked to have seen it twice. To be honest, I’d love to see the script. I think that would be interesting.

EM: Yes. It would be interesting to see what actually happened to other characters.

LC: We didn’t see the female perspective at all.

EM: And I mean, Cecily and Gwendolyn are definitely marginalized in the original script of The Importance of Being Earnest. I’m curious how they fleshed out these characters outside of the main scenes.

LC: i think jamie [Steinman ’24] did a really good job.

EM: Oh yeah. Jamie? Great. outfit? Great. But also such a good Lady Bracknell, just likes to be loud, so sarcastic. That was the thing with the play as a whole. It was very sarcastic.

LC: Gen Z humor. The cast did a great job overall. I don’t think anyone was missing but yeah I think Miranda [Simon] stood out.

EM: Everyone was amazing.

LC: When describing this piece to a friend, I used the word “enchanting”. But I feel like each character was flattened into an archetype at times, which is understandable given the challenge of adapting a piece of this age.

EM: Yes. Cecily and Gwen just became these brats. They weren’t really developed in the same way.

LC: There are limitations in the original script. It’s very difficult to adapt a piece to be relevant to our current world, and these shortcomings aren’t the fault of the script adapters. It’s not that they haven’t done a good job. It was just that there wasn’t much original material in the beginning. So I think overall it was very thoughtful. It has been very carefully adjusted to fit where we are now, especially with the humor and our approach to gender and sexuality.

EM: I also wanted to talk about this other change: making it more explicitly queer, making it [Algernon] a female character, was a really interesting choice. I think it’s a very strange piece.

LC: How do you think it was executed?

EM: I mean, I thought it was kind of forced. I’m still kind of mixed about how I feel about it. I think it really drew my attention to the way the original script is weird. I was thinking about it [Algernon] and sort of putting on that persona of seriousness and that double fear of being discovered. I never thought about it, but I think it’s definitely in the original script now. This kind of layering of identities, kind of being behind a mask or, in [Algernon]’s case, a mustache. I hadn’t realized how queer the original script was until I actually saw it happen on stage with an explicitly queer relationship.

LC: I think there are many themes in this piece that just fit a lot better when played.

EM: “The urgency to be serious.” Just unbelievable. I want to lie all the time now. I learned that from the play.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Lauren Cho can be reached at [email protected].

Elias Mansell can be reached at [email protected].

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