The Importance of Being Earnest – A Song for Act III?

The Importance of Being Earnest - Video Cover

The Importance of Being Earnest – Video Cover

In various clips that I watched of the 2002 movie adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, most conformed well to the original dialogue and intent of the playwright.  A key departure occurred in what in the play would have been the opening scene of Act III.

In the play, Gwendolen and Cecily are at the window observing Algernon and Jack (Earnest) eating muffins.  Gwendolen is encouraging Cecily to get their attention but before that can happen, the men notice the women and Gwendolen changes attitudes by stating, “They’re looking at us.  What effrontery!”  Subsequently, Algernon and Jack enter the house whistling a tune and Gwendolen, having previously determined that the women would not be the first to speak, asks Jack a question.

This scene in the play portrays its humor in the repeated, self-contradictory dialogue and the purported muffin eating.  In the film, the action is quite different but it retains, if not amplifies, the spirit of farce and buffoonery that Oscar Wilde intended.

In the film, Algernon and Jack are playing the piano and guitar respectively in the garden and serenading Gwendolen and Cecily as they look out from the balcony.  Accompanying Algernon and Jack are various members of the household staff which is fortuitous for when the women retreat into the house, the staff carries the piano and Algernon sitting on the piano bench continuing to play, into the house so the song may continue unbroken repeating the refrain, “lady come down, lady come down.”

While the film certainly deviates from the play in content at this point, it certainly retains the spirit and adds a dynamic, slapstick-type element with the boisterous physical action of the non-stop music playing and singing while being transported into the house.  As an adaptation playing to a modern audience the film version of this scene provides much more energy and is more engaging to a wider audience than the original script of the play.

I enjoyed watching a few other clips of this movie, as mentioned earlier.  Those that I did watch brought the characters to life in a way different from what I had imagined but no less entertaining.  Now the hope is to find the full version of the movie, first to enjoy and entertain and secondly to continue to observe how the filmmaker’s imagination contrasts to mine.

 

The Importance of Being Earnest – Singing Scene

In The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, the play does not specifically incorporate a song during the “singing scene”, which is just one way in which the 2002 film adaptation starring Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon and Judi Dench differs from the original play. In Wilde’s play, the passage includes the few lines used, but only has this stage direction:

[Enter JACK followed by ALGERNON. They whistle some dreadful popular air from a British Opera.]

Instead of whistling, the men sing a song titled “Come Down”, which essentially asks the women to come down from their physical position (above the men), and metaphorically, to forgive them and to stop being so aloof. The song occurs in two different settings, but both of them incorporate the physical aspect of coming down. In the first setting, the women stand on a balcony, and the men sing from below them. In the second setting, the women sit reading in the second floor hallway, by the stairs. The men move from their position outdoors to the room below the stairs (with the piano in tow). Thus, not only is the song added to the scene, but the scene occurs in two different settings. The four lines that comprise occur during the song scene are spread across these two settings. While the play indicates no break between these lines, the film director, Oliver Parker, interprets this scene differently. The effect is that this scene has far more comic appeal in the film. Instead of just the men approaching the women, whistling, trying, as they might, to look casual, the two Ernest’s follow Cecily and Gwendolen in order to woo them with a song. Because of this, the men become comic characters in this scene.

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Gwendolen and Cecily read each other’s diaries in Oliver Parker’s film adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest. Still from the Youtube clip.

The staging and additions in the film scene not only make the men seem more comical, but they also take advantage of the technical capabilities of film. In a stage play, it is difficult or impossible to change settings in the middle of dialogue, but with the portability of the camera, film allows such setting changes without interrupting the flow of the scene. In fact, this particular scene becomes more prolonged. The girls and their aloof friendship lasts much longer in the film than in the play (as shown by an earlier scene where they go horseback riding together, and in this scene, where they are reading the other’s diary), which makes the men seem even more persistent and comical. Parker, as director, takes a short segment of time from the play and expands it in the film in order create comic scenes and situations, as illustrated by the men singing to the girls. Personally, I think that this adaptation is a successful comedy film of the play, and uses funny moments within Wilde’s work in order to expand on the comic nature of the characters and situation.