|Backstage in AWONI|
Normally I get very little done when I'm in a play. If I look back at my notebooks to check the facts of my memories of a show and I find great gaps - which is a little sad as these are times that are usually a wealth of stories flying about. Whilst I tend to be quite open and chatty backstage I don't find I'm in a position to do anything work wise other than focus on the job in hand. I can't read a book, do crosswords or any other activity even if it's a slow show, I have to focus on the part. It was only thanks to the fact that I was basically done with after Act One that gave me the chance to get out the notebook and write - which meant I wasn't the least bit open and chatty at all. Can't win em all.
In fact I was so absent from the production after my Act One gambit I didn't even notice the fact that one of the cast fainted in Act Two. Fell with beautiful grace apparently. Little things like that do make a show, I find; nothing gets everyone rooting for you like the collapse of scenery, the disintegration of a prop or the call for a doctor in the house. It wasn't the first casualty of the show, we'd lost one cast member on the dress rehearsal due to illness - the director was able to step in.
The great thing about being in production that is not your own is that you can sit back and analyse how the text works without the consequences. I spent some of the breaks in rehearsal creating different versions of the play, cutting characters and scenes and seeing what happened. So, what lessons can a playwright learn from A Woman of No Importance? To be referred to now and forever as AWONI. (I'm not going to precis the play for you, or do anything to help those who don't know the play with understanding what follows - if you don't know the plays of Oscar Wilde please, bugger off to Wikipedia and come back later. Or better yet, read the plays. Or even better yet, watch them, they are rather good - though, as I'm about to detail, some are better than others.)
AWONI is a proper curates egg of a play. It's a battleground for two plays in two different genres, one a social comedy, another a melodrama, in which neither side can claim success because of the presence of the other. Not that I'm knocking melodrama, I'm very fond of it, and with some edits I think the melodrama of the play is reasonably effective; it's the social comedy play that disappoints. It lets the side down by being a testing ground for dialogue in Wilde's next two plays An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest. However good the dialogue would have sounded on opening night we know (as future people) it is inferior because it's retooled and shiny in the later plays. His wit is aimed straighter and in a better context in the later plays, in AWONI exchanges come across as random passing shots; more a drive by shooting of wit than high powered rifle shots of killer lines.
Characters, lines and titles are re-used in later plays with abandon. Mrs Allonby is re-tooled for use in An Ideal Husband as Mrs Cheveley and is all the better by being necessary to the plot. In AWONI she is also needed as a temptress, but only dips her toes into the story of the melodrama. Her role is stronger on the social comedy side of the play, though her lengthy speech in Act Two is enough to try anybodies patience. Even the title of Wilde's next play is cribbed from her speech about an ideal husband.
Another flaw in the play is the philosophy, which comes across (primarily because it is) as misogynistic. But casual misogyny has always been a safe bet to get laughs in a theatre and so it proved in both productions I've been in, whether in an ironic sense or not, who can tell? It isn't just that the play is misogynistic, but that the biblical references, the philosophies of the mother and the father in opposition, come across as just what they are - the argument of the author. He might as well walk on stage, turn to the front and speak his mind. With trims and good playing these moments do pass reasonably well, but always beware of your argument showing.
The character of Lord Illingworth is in almost every play Wilde wrote, in one form or another, only in AWONI he is an out and out cad, whereas elsewhere he is witty, world weary, knowing and (occasionally) wise. There are browny points to Wilde for putting onstage a character who might be the author, who speaks many of the most Wildean lines, and yet make him (by the end at any rate) a complete bastard, as well as father of one. He suffers the most from lines-that-will-be-reused-better-in-later-plays syndrome, as well as lines-that-sound-a-bit-like-they're-funny-but-actually-aren't, they're-just-structured-like-jokes (and is proof that people will laugh at anything) syndrome.
However, these problems aside Lord Illingworth is a detailed and rather brilliant creation - a variation on a theme, perhaps, but a living one. He spars to a purpose, his philosophy he lives by - he is no hypocrite. The consistency of his character shows up the shallowness of Mrs Allonby, who is an inferior foil to counter so well forged a steel. He contrasts better with the other well detailed character - or perhaps caricature would be fairer - of Lady Hunstanton. Whilst she is a character of little weight and serves no function in the melodrama than as the go-between, she is the pivot which makes the social comedy work. She never understands anything anybody says, and her attempts at discourse are beautifully upside down. Around her, in the social comedy, orbits the Lady Bracknell in training, Lady Caroline, who has a hen pecked husband who takes a fair amount of flack but is fairly pointless, the air head Lady Stutfield (who thinks anything anybody says is very, very interesting - or some other suitably double barrelled and vacuous epithet) and other the other parts who pad out the scenes, who get smaller and smaller and less distinct as the play goes along. Mr Kelvil is either a pompous do-gooder or a pompous hypocrite, depending how the scene is played (he either flirts with Lady Stutfield or she flirts at him and crashes against his pomposity like the sea against the cliff) and he spars nicely against Lord Illingworth, but he is just a brief sketch and not inherently funny, and so not quite in step with the comedy side of things. Doctor Daubeny is a fantastic part, if only because he has a deliciously ill wife, who is described with increased relish as the play goes along like an ever dying Mrs Grundy. It is the kind of joke that builds as the play goes along, every time someone turns to him we know he will describe another failing that she overcomes with cheerfulness and we know it will be even funnier than the last. A tiny part, but beautifully drawn - and one of the few elements of the play not bettered when given to Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. She too has an invalid spouse, though it is more an aside than a mine for humour.
There is other minor character called Lord Alfred, but he's so tiny and almost always cut that it isn't worth mentioning him above existance.
As the above sketches show, the problem with the play isn't that it doesn't entertain, or that there isn't much in it's favour, but that the cast and the audience will never get past the notion that the play is deeply flawed - it is enjoyment in despite of itself - as the two sides of the play battle each other; and it is a play where the battle is on paper deeply uneven. The melodrama is a tight story of father, mother, son, son's love interest and a few people as go-between. The social comedy is a sprawling selection of characters who flutter on and off and do pretty much nothing at all. As such it's a play that must either be played as it stands with a cast of over a dozen or is hacked down to size. You can remove the social comedy from the play and leave the melodrama, reducing the play to a 70 minute no interval piece of work with about 8 actors. Or you can stick with the 14 or so needed in the original - but it does leave the supporting cast with a lot of free time, as the core of the play is carried by 4 people, with a few others to oil the wheels.
Let's look at the core characters: Lord Illingworth we have met. The melodrama is driven by his battle against Mrs Arbuthnot over who gets to control the destiny of their illegitimate son, Gerald. Mrs Arbuthnot is, in melodramatic terms, a good woman who has fallen. She is pure melodrama, unswerving from her position, utterly sure of her position, deeply ashamed of her past but proud of what it created. She is, frankly, a bit much to take - partly because melodrama is, in theatrical terms, long gone (though alive and well on the big screen) but also because she refuses to take even one step into the social comedy side of the play. If she were, even for a moment, really tempted to accept Lord Illingworth's position then she would step out from the 2D soft focus of melodrama and into the crueler 3D sharp focus of the social comedy, where an exaggerated realism exists. The problem for the melodrama side of the play is that Lord Illingworth is too rounded a character. He can be charming - for the first few acts most people will (despite his past actions) like him. Only at the end does he show how black his heart is, when he coldly refers to her as his mistress and his son as his - unspoken word - bastard. If he were a less likable man, more obviously a cad, then the melodrama would function better, but then the social comedy would fall apart.
The point to remember is that melodrama is not an inferior genre, it is just a different one. It's about characters who believe, absolutely, in what they are doing, as they do it. There is no doubt. And when they change their minds it happens in a moment, and then there is still no doubt. It moves action fast, in one direction and then, changes it, suddenly, to the surprise and delight of all. The melodrama of AWONI has a few brilliant changes in direction - driven by the most melodramatic character of all. Gerald.
Gerald, the son, is a character trapped in the amber of the melodrama. Though he is occasionally onstage for scenes best labelled social comedy, he doesn't interact with the others. The displays of wit and hypocrisy fly past his head like bullets, but he has no notion of the danger he is in and so never needs to duck. His love of the woman Hester, a rich American, is, like him, simple and sincere; he is devoted to his mother and excited about becoming the secretary to Lord Illingworth, to becoming a man, to stop being a wooden puppet and becoming a human being. He is painfully earnest.
But in his simplicity he becomes the powerful mover of the melodrama. He cannot be told why he can't become Lord Illingworth's secretary, so he forces his mother to back down. When his mother tells him the story of her fall, as of another, he turns around and defends the man (Lord Illingworth), unknowingly turning against his mother. She again has to back down. Every move he makes in Acts Two and Three are stabs her in the heart - and the audience enjoys such things, like watching Christians to the lions in emotional terms. Then Hester is assaulted by Lord Illingworth and, to stop Gerald from attacking his Dad, Mrs Arbuthnot confesses that "He is your own father!"
Drop curtain. The only problem with this sequence is that, just as The Merchant of Venice has never recovered from the Holocaust, AWONI has never recovered from Star Wars. It isn't the plays fault that all many in the audience will be able to hear at this moment is the rasping voice of Darth Vader admitting paternity on poor one hand Luke, but it is a problem none the less.
In the final Act Gerald does another about face, ordering his mother to marry Lord Illingworth. Again, he likes to put her through the ringer. Mrs Arbuthnot is saved from this position by the intercession of Hester, the American, who I will now draw my attention to.
Hester is an orphaned American who is caught between the melodrama and the social comedy, but existing as a character purely in the melodrama. She hates the hypocrisy of the ladies and berates them, but her weapon is a bludgeon to the ladies rapiers and not in keeping with that side of the play. We know the women are hypocrites, we can see that, we don't need an American to tell us so and put herself on a pedestal in opposition. She is a character that will be softened for An Ideal Husband as Lady Chiltern, but in that play she will have side, she will be tempted to do things differently, she will have, beneath her perfect exterior, a secret. Hester has no depths beyond the surface, a melodramatic marionette whose only purpose is to hammer home the moral of the story and to be the focus of crisis for Gerald. Whilst she achieves the first, she fails singularly with the second.
In theory there is a will-they won't-they romance between Gerald and Hester throughout the play which drives Gerald (a poor boy) to become Lord Illingworth's secretary and make his way in the world in opposition to his mother so that he has the social position and income to be worthy of her. Unfortunately the success of the romance is never seriously in doubt and, more importantly, we don't care. The romance of Gerald and Hester is understood and barely played on the stage, they do their wooing offstage, so that when the scandal of Gerald's paternity comes out we never really fear that it will change anything - and so it proves. Hester's appearance in Act Four, demanding that they do the right thing and shun Lord Illingworth is completely in character and entirely to be expected. Of course this dull, worthy, self righteous woman is going to side with the good people and not the bad, regardless of what they did in the past. So, Gerald and Hester are spliced, Lord Illingworth rejected - in a final sparing match to show his bad grace at losing the battle over the son - and all is right with the world. The play then ends with a paraphrase of the title, (the title proper already used to cringeworthy effect to close Act One of the play) and the audience gets to have a wry giggle to spur them to applause.
I've been in AWONI twice now and both times have played Mr Kelvil MP (not an ideal role, but I'm not quite young enough for Gerald or old enough for Lord Illingworth). Kelvil is in Act One, does a nice little turn and then reappears in Act Three... to say one line. As discussed earlier, there are a number of similar turns in the play, some of which are even briefer than Kelvil. Such extravagances, who add little or nothing to design or plot, are a major thread of pointlessness that irritates about the play. Earnest does not have them, unless you include the servants, and Ideal has only a few, some of whom are cutable. But it feels at it's greatest imbalance in AWONI. It is clear that the needs of the company for whom the play was written (Beerbohm Tree - i.e. a large company, lead by a number of big turns) didn't fit the ideal of the play, and Wilde added padding to fit the needs of the company. Playing a small role in AWONI is different to playing a small part in, say - to be really cruel - Shakespeare, where the demands of the size of the company creates little jewels of parts; in AWONI you are aware that you are playing padding and you'd rather be cut out of the play than go on stage - unless the pay is particularly good. In the first production of AWONI I was in, I did also double as general stage hand and butler, so I did keep quite busy. I was actually given a charter to upstage everyone, as I spent much of Act Two giving massages to the ladies onstage (it was a modern dress production and I think the scene was supposed to have some kind of spa setting) but I resisted temptation and practised being invisible. Whilst it is true that there are no such things as small parts, only small actors, it is also true that there's only so much you can do with two dozen exchanges, and sitting in a dressing room for two hours is incredibly boring. This is one of the reasons (though it's mostly about cost) that writers these days try to keep the cast size to that which the play requires, no more. No one writes one line parts anymore, unless they have one hell of a good reason. Or they're an idiot.So, what can be learnt from AWONI?
Give all your actors something to do.
Set a clear tone and agenda for your play.
Beware your argument showing.
Choose one genre and do it well.
And don't worry if it doesn't all come together perfectly - you can always cannibalise your play for parts and use it to write your next play - and do it better.
Oh, and what's AWONI's best feature? It's short - it's mercifully short - so even if no one likes it, they're never much more than 50 minutes from the bar.