‘The Importance of Seeing Earnest’: a review of The Importance of Being Earnest, produced by the State Theatre Company of South Australia, written in five-parts and conducted through email between me and my editor at the Lifted Brow:
Jane: Cecily is “eighteen, but admitting to twenty at evening parties.” Lady Bracknell suggests this means it will not be long until Cecily is “of age and free from the restraints of tutelage.” So 19 or 20, perhaps? I’d suppose a governess would be something a young affluent women without a mother would be expected to keep until she’s married off, but that’s just conjecture. And because of her grandfather’s will we’re told Cecily won’t come of age until she’s 35, so who knows what is realistic and what is an 1895 poetic license.
I wonder now if you could read the disconnect between her manipulation and her naïvety as a result of less well developed Bunburying – while the two men have created fully formed characters to allow them a degree of freedom, as a woman Cecily is denied this. She’s always trapped under her guardian Jack or her governess Miss Prism, and so her version of a Bunbury cannot extend beyond her diaries and letters. It’s without the ability to fully take this creativity into the world that these glimpses of naïveté slip through. I would have liked to see Fry take just a bit more of a claim over the character’s wit, though. She was so almost there, but there was something lacking in the balance. Still, the fact that it is this character I keep thinking about says a lot. Is there a character you’re focusing on? Or is it just because I felt I was familiar with these characters that I get to pick out one in whom I’m seeing something new?
Simon: I thought the slightly strange dynamic between Lane and Algernon was quite telling in this sense, actually. Rory Walker’s Lane displays just enough begrudgment that I almost wondered whether he would do something to upset the butler/master dynamic—but then he covers for Algernon when Lady Bracknell asks after the missing cucumber sandwiches, and you realise that everyone in this society is a Bunburyist of some stripe, no matter their place in the hierarchy. (To repurpose Algernon’s famous line: “if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?”)
But as you point out, not everyone has the same Bunburying options as Jack and Algernon. I agree that Cecily’s age and situation necessarily limited her in this regard, and maybe if she had the autonomy of a Lady Bracknell she could outdo Algernon and Jack altogether—she certainly has the imagination for it, after all. (Thinking as a lawyer, though, I did have a strong suspicion that Cecily’s grandfather’s will couldn’t possibly affect her legal right to marry – and consequently I read that whole argument as an enormous bluff on Jack’s part!)