The Importance of Being Earnest Live in HD

On 2 June 2011, the Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of Wilde’s masterpiece will be broadcast live in HD at cinemas throughout the United States and internationally, with repeat performances being shown periodically until 28 June. To complete the experience, the Playgoer’s Guide to the production is available online, offering a brief sketch of the play’s original cultural context. [youtube][/youtube]

It is interesting that the information in the guide, as well as some of the trailers and videos on the theatre company’s website, seem to insistently emphasise the play’s social, historical distance; it has “such a silly plot” that just isn’t seen any more, and nor are the fantastic sets, it seems. It is a classic that is so far removed from our own understanding of the world that outlines of class and gender divisions in the fin-de-siècle are included in the guide (as if the same inequalties did not to some extent still exist in the 21st century) under the varying headings of “The Importance of History”, “The Importance of High Society”, etc, each of which reiterates the importance of the difference, of the distance, inherent in the play.

The distribution of the play, live, in cinemas across the world carries with it an element of egalitarianism, since, as Roundabout’s Artistic Director Todd Haines points out in a Q&A interview on the site, “those who have never set foot inside a Broadway house will have the thrill of seeing a show live on Broadway.” The event presumably offers an attempt to break down those barriers which might have prevented some from attending the show in a Broadway, West End, even local theatres. Haines goes on, however, to identify a larger audience that he seems to imagine will be composed of students, educators, and families “who have cultivated a love for Wilde’s work”.

Although the live HD broadcast collapses barriers of distance with one hand, with the other it creates new barriers and new distances both between Victorian and contemporary societies, as well as within the latter alone. This is not a event directed at Jersey Shore or Made in Chelsea viewers – it is for those families and students who have been fortunate to cultivated a pre-existing appreciation for Wilde, and evidently who are able to enjoy his play as some kind of hermetic museum exhibition of life and high-society in the 1890’s.

But is that really the case? In the Playgoer’s Guide, Bedford describes that “Wilde’s view of the upper class society of his time was that they were empty-headed people who had far too much influence and power. They were taking their cue from the woman who was sitting on the throne of course… Queen Victoria.”

Wilde’s frustration with the undeserved power and influence of the Victorian aristocracy is echoed by the grievances raised by a substantial percentage of the population regarding the continued status and influence of the Royal family today (most vocally, perhaps, in advance of the recent Royal Wedding). The wealth and privilege, not to mention some empty-headedness, that concerned Wilde continue to exist – even if the nature of those who wield such power has shifted slightly.

How far removed is Earnest from a series like Made in Chelsea after all? The stars of the Roundabout production – David Furr (Jack) and Santino Fontana (Algernon) took part in a fantastic collaboration with Playbill to perform a reading of Jersey Shore transcripts in the guise of their Earnest characters. The result highlights the darkly satirical nature of such shows as they point out the ridiculous in contemporary social phenomena in a way that perhaps should not be so sharply distanced from Wilde’s play. Certainly the two strains of cultural scrutiny offer intriguing perspectives on each other which should make for a livelier viewing of both.

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