Wilde, Whistler and More Wilde

On Saturday, March 1, we attended the Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest”.  But before that, we went to a one hour presentation at the theatre by Lee Glazer, Associate Curator of American Art at Washington’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

The setting is London – the time period, the 19th century.  The movement, Aestheticism, although Glazer made it clear that it was not a well defined movement, but more of philosophy adopted by several artists which concentrated on art for art’s sake, visual and literary arts, dress, interior design and (interestingly) consumerism, then growing with deepening economic prosperity.  Whistler was an early advocate of this movement. Wilde was a younger man, but they traveled in the same circle and became friends.

Glazer, expert on Whistler (the Freer has an extensive Whistler collection, including his famous reconstructed “Peacock Room”), spoke more about Whistler than she did about Wilde.  This is to be expected, and her description of his difficult personality, his lengthy litigation with John Ruskin, who dared to criticize one of his paintings (he won the case, but was only awarded one farthing) and his argument with the owner of the house in which he converted the dining room into the “Peacock Room” (at high cost and when the owner was out of town; Whistler was engaged simply to finish and alter as necessary the almost-finished work of a different designer, who had taken ill and could not complete the room).

Glazer was a wonderful speaker, clear and clearly knowledgable.  I enjoyed her prepared remarks as well as her responses to audience questions and comments.  But, as I was looking at a few web sites today, I was surprised to see that Wilde and Whistler wound up not friends, but – if not enemies – certainly not fans of each other.  Glazer did not mention this in her presentation, or at least neither I nor my wife remember her doing so.

If you are interested, look at http://www.mr-oscar-wilde.de/about/w/whistler.htm.  For one thing, apparently the young Wilde wrote (in a journal circulated in Ireland, not England, which Whistler may never had seen) a critique of the same painting that Ruskin criticized, “Nocturne in Black and Gold: the Falling Rocket”.  Using his sharp language, Wilde wrote that the picture was “certainly worth looking at for about as one looks at a real rocket, that is, for somewhat less than a quarter of a minute.”

This would have ended any relationship with the prickly Whistler before it began.  As time went on, Wilde began to worship Whistler, it appears.  At first, this impressed Whistler, but eventually Whistler’s prickly nature took over, and he found Wilde a copycat, and an irritating one at that.  The website quotes historian Stanley Weintraub as saying that Whistler felt that Wilde “was poaching dangerously upon his own intellectual preserve”.

Their relationship was never mended.

I enjoyed Glazer’s talk so much that I don’t want her not mentioning this quarrel to be taken as a major criticism.  But I do wonder why she left it out.

Back for a minute to Whistler:  On Thursdays, once a month, the shutter of the Peacock Room are opened – sounds like something to see.  And, in the Spring, there is going to be a major Whistler exhibit in the Sackler, featuring Whistler’s paintings of England. (The Freer has no special exhibits – and I believe by Freer’s bequest, the museum cannot even acquire additional works; it holds the Freer collection only.)

From the Glazer talk, after supper at Jaleo, we went to see the show at Shakespeare’s Lansburgh Theatre.  “The Importance of Being Earnest” is a very clever play, with very witty dialogue.  I thought this was a decent, but far from perfect, version.  The review in the Washington City Paper is right on, I thought.

(www.washingtoncitypaper.com/articles/45393/the-important-of-being-earnest-at-shakespeare-theatre-company-reviewed/)  Yes, it says “important”, not “importance”.

The other reviews (Washington Post and various on-line reviews were much more positive).  I thought some of the acting was first class – particularly the roles played by Katie Fabel (Cecily), Patricia Conolly (Miss Prism) and Sian Phillips (Lady Bracknell).  And the sets and costumes were wonderful.

So, what kept the production from being perfect?  It seemed to me that the cast worked very hard to make sure that every word was understood, and in doing so, they lost that spontaneity that is so important to the success of the play.  (How to explain this better — It was as if each line were prefaced by an unheard line, being “OK, now listen to this next line”.  That meant that there was a bit of hesitation, perhaps, before the next line was given, so that it was clear that the audience heard the last line.  And this took away the spontaneity……OK perhaps that doesn’t explain it either. I will stop here.)



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