If, on the one hand, the world continues to remember Oscar Wilde for "the love that dares not speak its name," the same world, on the other hand, continues to remember the same Oscar Wilde for his great and penetrating wit. In the long run, one cannot help but to have faith that the latter will be valued more than the former reviled. Revivals of Wilde’s plays are performed wherever the English language is spoken and, no doubt, in places where it isn’t.
When Wilde was writing, a century ago, his plays were enormously successful on the London stage, where he was deftly skewering the hypocrisies and pretensions of the very social order that made up his adoring audiences. The satire is so focused and the wit so true that even those who were its targets laughed merrily along.
One of the most enduring and perhaps the most popular of Wilde’s social satires is The Importance of Being Earnest, originally staged in 1895. It was made into a film in 1952 by Anthony Asquith (Pygmalion, The Winslow Boy, The Browning Version) and has now been restored in a sparkling new technicolor print.
First and foremost, this is light, light satire, without a trace of blackness. It is frothy and it floats ever gently over its lovable characters. At its center is Jack "Ernest" Worthing, a country gentleman of means with a young and beautiful ward, Cecily (Dorothy Tutin in her stunningly pretty blush of youth). Worthing is played by one of the leading actors of the English stage, Sir Michael Redgrave, the patriarch who, together with his offspring, has arguably provided theater and film audiences with more pleasure than any other single family. Redgrave is perfect here, as he pursues the charming, if a tad vapid, Gwendolyn Fairfax (Joan Greenwood with a voice of spun smoke). His buddy, who, in turn, woos Cecily, is played by Michael Denison with a mildly sardonic air. There is a special chemistry between Redgrave and Denison, the brilliant Wildean badinage pattering out between them with a deceptive ease.
But it is the two character actresses who steal this show and remain permanently engraved on the world’s funny bone. The great Margaret Rutherford, bearing perhaps the most inhabited face ever on screen, is Miss Prism, governess to Cecily. She woos the local canon with promises of the lasting allure of women of intelligence, her never still tongue rolling about in her cheek, a demented look in her hopeful eye. And Dame Edith Evans, as Gwendolyn’s aunt, Lady Bracknell, her hooded eyes looking down at the world, the stuffed bird on her hat momentarily, one is sure, about to dive onto her face, intones imperiously as she finds Redgrave on his knees, proposing to her niece, "Mr. Worthing! Rise, sir, from this semi-recumbent posture!" In a later scene, upon learning from Worthing that he is an orphan, she declaims, "To lose one parent is a misfortune; to lose both is a carelessness!" Wilde’s wit, Evans’ delivery. Unbeatable.