STC decided to write to one of our favorite contemporary comic playwrights Jeffrey Hatcher (his adaptation of The Government Inspector opened our 2012-13 Season) to get his thoughts on Oscar Wilde’s inimitable style. What he said might surprise you…
The major difficulty in writing a piece about Oscar Wilde is knowing that it’s supposed to be funny. That while you’re discussing Wilde’s use of epigram, aphorism, irony, you should attempt to top him, preferably in a style akin to his own. I’m not even going to try,therefore relieving me (and you) of this burden. Even more difficult is writing a play in which “Oscar Wilde” is a character. I’ve done that, and while I don’t say I’ve learned my lesson, I did learn something, and learned it the hard way.
Some years back a number of us were commissioned to write plays on the theme “The Discovery of the American West” for the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Four of us came up with plays that probed/discussed/had-a-vague-connection-to the subject. Since the Olympics were to be held in Salt Lake City, and because I had recently read a book about Oscar Wilde’s 1882 tour of America, I thought it might be fun to write a play about his time there. Famously, he went to the city’s new auditorium and when asked his impression, said, “It’s wonderful, it has 5,000 seats and can comfortably accommodate five Mormon families.” Wilde, in that period, was in the first blush of fame. He had yet to write The Picture of Dorian Grey, The Importance of Being Earnest and Lady Windmere’s Fan. He had yet to meet Lord Alfred Douglas and his interesting father. He had yet to suffer two trials, Reading Gaol, Paris and an ignominious end. In the world of casting, that meant he didn’t have to be fat (that came late in his life). Wilde was most successful in those Western mining camps filled with rugged outdoorsmen who cheered him and wouldn’t let him leave (or so he said).
I concocted a plot, one part The Man Who Came to Dinner, one part The Play’s the Thing, and a couple parts original, in which a woman, not unlike Baby Doe Tabor, becomes smitten with Wilde and leaves her lover to follow Oscar to Salt Lake City, where our hero must somehow, somehow! convince her gun-toting lover that he has no romantic interest in the woman. In retrospect, one asks, “How hard could it be?” But the joke is that, in this period, no one suspects Wilde of being anything other than a robust, beef-eating English heterosexual. The title of the play, if it hasn’t already occurred to you, was Wilde Goes West.
The most daunting aspect was what to put into Wilde’s mouth. The mouths of the local mayor and sheriff, the ladies of various cultural societies and a family of Mormons named “The Normans,” were easy. But the pressure to come up with Wildean wit is like being put on stage at the Hollywood Bowl facing every famous comedian from Aristophanes to Bob Hope, Chaplin, Groucho and Woody Allen, while they chant in unison, “BE FUNNY!” I got around some of this simply by quoting Wilde: the line about the auditorium, the line about having “nothing to declare but my genius,” which in my script simply perplexes the locals. It’s easy to over emphasize Wilde’s construction of an epigram and lose “the funny.” This was most perfectly expressed in the Monty Python sketch where Wilde, Whistler, Shaw and Queen Victoria banter. Each time a famous witticism is uttered with perfect self-satisfied enunciation, the whole bunch doubles over in screaming (all too lengthy) guffaws of laughter, ending with Queen Victoria’s, “Oop! I think I wet ‘em!” The unmistakable subtext is, “Maybe this stuff isn’t as funny as we’ve all been taught.” And it’s true, there is that danger. But it’s not Wilde’s fault. He wrote words to be spoken by actors, to be heard by an audience, and much as we love them–actors, directors, costumers, lighting designers–all of them can conspire to kill a joke. Hitting the line too hard, punching the wrong word, moving on the punch, speaking from the shadows, wearing a distracting hat.
Actors are often told when rehearsing Wilde, “Play it for real, for high stakes.” But Wilde’s characters aren’t real, especially in his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest. Conversely, an actor shouldn’t play a character like “Jack Worthing” as a cartoon with exaggerated demeanor and expression. He can’t play him as he would Noël Coward; they’re kissing cousins, but they’re not twins. He can’t play him as he would Christopher Durang, as Durang is more anarchic and cares for his characters in ways that Wilde (admirably, for the sake of his aesthetic) doesn’t. The actor can approximate the style one would use in portraying a Joe Orton character, but the subject matter, characters and down market mileu are miles away from the Albany Hotel (at least the Albany of Wilde’s fictional imaginings, if not at the Albany he actually frequented.) When I think of Wilde in contemporary comedy, I tend to picture David Hyde Pierce in Fraser, and Sean Hayes in Will and Grace. They played people, but the people they played lived inside quotes, completely aware of the type they were. The “type,” capable of love, anger, despair, governs everything they do and say. They exist primarily to deliver the line, not only asactors but as people, yet they are never so self-aware as to cease being human.
Maybe this is how Wilde got his revenge, although he wasn’t a vengeful type: in the conventional world’s embrace of the Wildean “type” as popular hero.
Jeffrey Hatcher is a playwright and screenwriter. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife Lisa and son Evan.