The Importance of being an Aesthete by AHA tutor and actor, Richard Stemp

I realised, rather late, that one of the great compliments that Robert Woodward could pay was when he turned to you, a slightly wicked glint in his eye, and say, ‘Richard, you seem to me to be living entirely for pleasure’. It is a quotation from The Importance of Being Earnest, which I am currently touring with London Classic Theatre, and for that matter from several other works by Oscar Wilde: the man who, on entering the United States said, ‘I have nothing to declare but my genius’, was fond of quoting, if not actively plagiarising, his own work. Robert, the founder of Art History Abroad, was devoted to Oscar Wilde, and I remember him enthusing about the play, pointing out that even in the second line Wilde subverts the niceties of social convention, and starts a game, playing with paradox, and using contradiction to find out deeper truths.  Robert had made what he considered an ill-judged investment in the Channel Tunnel, but that at least rewarded him with return tickets to Paris once a year, allowing an annual pilgrimage to Wilde’s Tomb in Père Lachaise Cemetery. There he would lay a green carnation – a flower ‘invented’, Wilde said, by himself, and worn by himself and others of his circle at the first ever performance of The Importance of Being Earnest at the now-defunct St James’s Theatre on 14 February 1895.

Jacob Epstein, Study for the Tomb of Oscar Wilde, 1909-11

Wilde’s genius was declared to the Americans on a lecture tour in 1882, a tour which had relatively little to do with Wilde himself, and more to do with Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience, an operetta satirising the Aesthetic Movement. The main character, the poet Bunthorne, was a very shallowly disguised version of Wilde himself, and the producers thought it would be a good idea to introduce the original to the American public, so that they would understand what precisely was being satirised. You could almost see it as a 19th Century equivalent of those reality T.V. shows which are used to cast – and therefore publicize – West End musicals. That Wilde was well-known enough in England to be the subject of satire was in itself remarkable: he was 28 and had, as yet, achieved nothing except notoriety. His most important work would not be written until the last decade of his relatively short life:  he died in 1900 at the age of 46, with Earnest as his last, and arguably greatest, success. The play could also be seen as marking the pinnacle, and end, of the Aesthetic Movement itself.

The movement developed from the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, that short-lived confraternity of young idealists whose work continued long after the initially tight grouping split and was diluted by newly introduced artists. These included Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, who met at Exeter College, Oxford, and who remained friends and collaborators until Morris’s death in 1896. They left Oxford without graduating in 1856, having sought out Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whom they saw as the Brotherhood’s spiritual leader. By then Rossetti’s painting had moved away from the depiction of literary subjects, and from the inspiration which the Pre-Raphaelites had found in the works of Dante, Shakespeare and the Bible. No longer would art be the ‘handmaid of religion’, as John Ruskin would have had it, and Rossetti, together with Burne-Jones, and others including James MacNeill Whistler and Frederick Leighton, began to celebrate beauty, pure and simple, with no other aim: ‘Art for Art’s sake’. As Oscar Wilde said in his preface to The Picture of Dorian Grey, ‘All art is quite useless’.

William Morris, The Strawberry Thief, 1883

In this, Wilde was at odds with William Morris, who famously encouraged the beauty of functionality: ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful’. Nevertheless, the Aesthetic Movement and the Arts and Crafts Movement, fostered by Morris, go hand in hand. ‘The House Beautiful’ was one of the major concerns of both – and indeed the title of one of Wilde’s lectures during his 1882 tour of America. It was this which led Kerry Bradley, designer of London Classic’s Earnest, to use Morris fabrics for the furniture used by the ‘younger generation’ in our production. For example Jack’s chair is upholstered with a print called The Strawberry Thief designed by Morris in 1883. The cushion on Algernon’s chair has the same pattern, in a different colourway (the technical term used to describe the fact that the design is the same, but with a different combination of colours). I would like to think that there is a reason within the play why the same design is used for cushion and chair, but it may just be coincidence. And another coincidence: we are currently playing The Everyman, Cork (we opened on 29 January to a full house and rapturous applause!) and the auditorium is hung with Morris’s Windrush wallpaper. Like The Strawberry Thief this was also designed in 1883. It was first printed at Merton Abbey Mills, where I once performed in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and which is only half a mile or so from our rehearsal room for Earnest in Colliers Wood. I’d like to think there is beauty even in coincidence…

William Morris, Windrush, 1883

Remembering Robert’s eulogy on the opening of The Importance of Being Earnest as we started rehearsals – I now get to say that second line – I regret not having had the chance to take the conversation further and talk about the rest of the play: there was never enough time to spend with Robert.  He was such a great enthusiast, and had, in his own way, learnt to see Beauty in everything. I remember him saying, shortly before he died, ‘I can’t find it in myself to dislike anything any more’.

It is a wonderful play – do come along! We are in Cork until 9 February, in Ireland until 3 March and then touring Britain until June 15 – the full schedule is on the London Classic Theatre website:

http://www.londonclassictheatre.co.uk/index.php/2012/07/the-importance-of-being-earnest/

And if you come, stay for a drink, say ‘Hello’. It seems to me we will be living entirely for pleasure.

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