Talking Wilde: An Afternoon Tea with Keith Baxter

Photo of Kelly McGillis and Keith Baxter in STC’s 1992 production of Measure for Measure by Joan Marcus.

Hearing Keith Baxter talk is like peering behind the curtain and realizing that the wizard is real. He is a one-man Brockett book of theatre history, peppering his conversation with names such as Irving and Tree, Coward and Olivier. He has acted with Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Scofield, been mentored by Orson Welles, roomed with Sir Alan Bates, and directed such longtime friends and STC mainstays as Elizabeth Ashley and Dixie Carter. A born storyteller, Baxter is prone to delightful shaggy-dog stories, filled with catty oneliners that can connect past and present in one breath.“One of my oldest and dearest friends,” Baxter says, “was Tennessee Williams. I miss him very much. I had acted in a play on Broadway, which closed on opening night. We were all glad it closed because it was written by Christopher Isherwood, who was a very unpleasant man. Tennessee called me and said, ‘Come down to Key West.’ I’ve licked an awful lot of my wounds in Key West, and so I did. I remember, I, Claudius was showing on television. And Tennessee said, ‘We’ve got to eat dinner early. We’ve got to see how many more people Siân Phillips has murdered.’ She played the wicked empress Olivia. And every time you turned around, she was poisoning her husband with figs or something. She was stunning.”

Siân Phillips—who Baxter, of course, had already known (they grew up in neighboring South Wales towns)—has reunited with him for the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s current production of The Importance of Being Earnest. Like Baxter, Phillips is a RADA trained classical actor with an impressive stage-and-screen resume. She won a BAFTA for I, Claudius and appeared alongside her former husband, the late Peter O’Toole in the 1964 film of Anouilh’s Becket. Onstage, she made an early reputation as one of the iconic leading ladies of the postwar era. At STC, she is playing Wilde’s ultimate monster of maternal malignity, Lady Bracknell. Baxter himself seems to marvel at his casting feat. “She acted in Under Milkwood, you know,” he says, a mixture of amazement and patriotic pride. “She knew Dylan Thomas.” He elongates the poet’s name, pronouncing it in the correct Welsh dialect. He pauses and looks triumphant. “Siân speaks fluent Welsh.”

This mixture of backstage history and Anglophile detail is characteristic of Baxter. He has made a name directing productions at STC (eight in all), which boast sensuous production values (the Washington Post has referred to him as a “stylistic hedonist”) as well as sociological nuance. He is also a specialist in Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest is the third Wilde that Baxter has directed, following triumphant prior productions of Lady Windermere’s Fan in 2003-04 and An Ideal Husband in 2010-11 (the Shakespeare Theatre Company produced A Woman of No Importance in the 1998-99 season). To Baxter, the play is unique among Wilde’s works—indeed, among all other works of drama.

Photo of the cast of STC’s 1998 production of A Woman of No Importance by Carol Rosegg.

“Wilde wrote about 11 plays, but four of them are absolute rubbish,” he says, reeling them off. “Vera; or the Nihilists, The Duchess of Padua, A Florentine Tragedy and La Sainte Courtisane. Producers have tried to put one over on people with Salomé—those long, prolix, purple speeches. They’re very boring and they don’t work at all. It was written for Sarah Bernhardt in French but it’s utterly dreadful in English, though it did serve as a wonderful libretto for the Richard Strauss opera.

“Of his other plays, this one is in a category all by itself. The Importance of Being Earnest, without any argument at all, is the greatest example of high comedy writing in the English language. Wilde, of course, was an Irishman, as Shaw was Irish, as Sheridan was Irish, and so many more—Farquhar, Goldsmith, Joyce, Beckett. Thank God they all wrote in English! Joyce once wrote that ‘Ireland is the brain of the United Kingdom. Condemned to express themselves in a language not their own, the Irish have stamped on it the mark of their own genius. The result is then called English literature.’”

The key to producing The Importance of Being Earnest, according to Baxter, lies in embracing Wilde’s radical simplicity. “His other plays demand huge casts, 25 people, opulent sets. But The Importance of Being Earnest has no stage effects at all, no flying Dutchmen, no animals onstage, which was all the rage in back then.” He digresses into the history of electric lighting, the theatrical effects of Sir Henry Irving and Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, before swooping back, elegantly, to the subject at hand. “Imagine, if you can, the effect on an audience in 1895. The lights go out, they come back up, and there you are in Wilde’s world, bright and dazzling. There are no shadows. There’s not a dark word or duff moment in the entire play.” He looks mischievous again. “Noël Coward, you know, could only sustain it for one act,” he says, cocking a wry eyebrow at Private Lives. “Those of us who have played Elyot, as I did, with Joan Collins, know that that second act is very…heavy…going. But the first act is superb.” He sniffs, and continues. “In The Importance of Being Earnest, every word is perfect. It’s an absolute miracle of a play.

“Wilde broke the mold of the theatre with it.” He smiles. “When I think about this play, I think about Wittgenstein, who once said, ‘Never stay up on the barren heights of cleverness, but come down into the green valley of silliness.’”

Photo of the cast of STC’s 2011 production of An Ideal Husband by Scott Suchman.

As is his wont, Baxter has surrounded himself with familiar faces and old friends. He has acted alongside and directed STC Affiliated Artist Floyd King, who is appearing here as Canon Chasuble. Gregory Woodell, who also appeared in Lady Windermere’s Fan and An Ideal Husband, completes his Wilde trifecta by starring as Jack Worthing. Anthony Roach, seen in last season’s Free For All production of All’s Well That Ends Well as a picture-perfect Bertram, is playing Algernon. As for the new faces, they come from famous friends. Patricia Connelly, who plays Miss Prism, is an old costar of Baxter’s (the Cleopatra to his Antony), and recommended to him by none other than Dame Maggie Smith. Vanessa Morosco, playing Gwendolen, mentioned Baxter to a common friend when she bumped into Dame Judi Dench in London this past summer. When working with Keith Baxter, the theatre world seems very small indeed.

With so much talent assembled, as well as the design team with whom he has directed eight previous productions, Baxter is both excited and humble. He plans on letting the talent do their thing. “You know,” he says, “Tennessee used to think the art of the director was hugely overrated. There’s a part of me that agrees with that. They take all of the credit and none of the blame. We’ve all been in plays where we saved the day as actors and then the directors got the best reviews.” For a moment, Baxter has a faraway look in his eye, as if thinking of another theatre story. Then he takes a breath and looks you in the eye. “All of us people in the theatre know the true importance of this play.” He smiles. “And that’s all that I’ll say.”

Drew Lichtenberg is the Literary Associate at STC and production dramaturg for The Importance of Being Earnest. He holds an MFA in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism from Yale School of Drama.