I woke up at 4 a.m. this morning thinking about Oscar Wilde’s tomb. Must be the first week of May.
This is the point in the rehearsal process at which we begin trying to incorporate the frame. The frame is something I came up with; it’s not in the script and it is therefore not strictly necessary. Why, I thought to myself at 4 in the morning, why did I do this? Why did I make it more complicated than it had to be? I could just as easily have not incorporated a frame and I could be asleep right now instead of trying to figure out who’s going to lift the fake tomb off the rolly cart and how we’re going to get it off stage while also getting the screens on.
But it’s 10:00am now and I’ve had a couple Diet Cokes and done some grading, and so I can now say to myself: Remember what Sagot says in Picasso at the Lapin Agile. Without the frame, you don’t have a picture. Or words to that effect.
What Sagot means is that unless you define the boundaries of the work, it doesn’t become art. He’s talking about Matisse, but it’s true for a show as well: you have to establish the boundaries between the spectators’ world and the play world, and you have to direct the play with a clear idea of what the relationship is between them. With realism, especially if it’s set in the contemporary period, the boundaries are often invisible, because realism is supposed to look and feel like actuality; but the disappearance of that boundary is one of the things that tells the spectators it’s realism. That, in turn, tells them how to interpret it. Again, they don’t necessarily know this; but it’s happening all the same.
An Ideal Husband certainly doesn’t look realistic now, and it wasn’t realistic back in 1895 either. Like most of what was being put on commercially in London in the 1890s, it’s based on a formula developed by a French playwright named Eugene Scribe, which he called (as we say in English) the “well-made play.” Scribe churned out hundreds of these things and they were extremely popular. The well-made play was all about plot. You have a bourgeois or genteel family whose situation appears to be stable…until it is threatened by an outsider who controls a key piece of information (usually on paper–a letter, a bank draft, a property deed, etc.) that could blow the whole thing sky-high. The antagonist and the protagonist and the supporting characters maneuver and scheme. At some point, there’s something Scribe called the “scene a faire,” which is difficult to translate although if I were to try I might call it “must see TV,” in which the hero and the villain have a showdown. This leads to the denouement–literally, the untying of the knot–in which all mysteries are explained, all problems are solved, the disruptive influence is either domesticated or expelled, and the family can go back to living in peace and quiet. And, as Mrs. Cheveley would say, voila tout.
The well-made play’s plot machine is pleasingly elegant and produces a strong illusion of coherence and purpose; everything contributes to the denouement, everything has meaning. It’s also extremely artificial; and that perhaps is what initially attracted Wilde to it. In 1891, Wilde published a volume titled Intentions which included an essay called “The Decay of Lying,” which is written as a kind of mock-Platonic dialogue between two aesthetes, Cyril and Vivian. Vivian, putting Wilde’s point of view, naturally wins the debate; and Vivian’s argument is that good art, far from ‘holding the mirror up to nature,’ or honestly reflecting present-day actualities as realism tries to do, is a fabrication–an artifice–a lie. Art is not only not Nature, it’s better than nature: it’s more beautiful, it’s more sensual, it’s more intellectual. In classic Wildean fashion, Vivian takes the idea of art as lie, and artist as liar, and improvises a whole fantastic tapestry on this theme. Wilde admits that there are circumstances in which lying is pernicious–in journalism, for instance, a profession Wilde describes as “lying for a monthly salary”–but that “lying for its own sake,” purely for the beauty and pleasure of it, is the duty of the artist. “Lying,” Vivian finally pronounces, or “the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art.”
An Ideal Husband is about lying, both the beautiful and the pernicious kind. Wilde introduces his characters, not by giving realistic descriptions of them, but by telling you which works of art they resemble. It’s not an accident that Sir Robert collects landscape paintings by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, one of the first artists sniffed at by Vivian in “Decay of Lying.” As someone who turns Nature’s “lack of design” and “unfinished condition” into beautifully rendered (and framed!) compositions, Corot is a liar who pretends to be telling the truth–not unlike Sir Robert himself. An Ideal Husband also is a lie, a “beautiful untrue thing,” a piece of dramatic artifice that transforms a potentially tragic story into this glittering and delicious confection.
Any production of any play is, to some extent, a lie, in that it shows you the actions of people who don’t exist and transports you to a place in which you definitely do not reside. There are many different ways to lie with a production, some much more expensive than others. The image Paul has chosen to go with this blog, which is a view of the Act I set of a quite lavish production of An Ideal Husband by some very well-heeled professional company, is one way of lying: it’s an exquisite and seamless illusion, a little jewel box of fantasy framed by the proscenium arch, full of elegance and sophistication and sensory delights. Everyone in the audience knows it’s not real; but they don’t care because it’s so beautiful.
We can’t lie that way. That kind of illusionism is always going to be beyond us. We just don’t have money in the production budget to buy enough gilding for that kind of frame.
Instead, with the help of our set designer Adam Hammond, I’ve tried to create another kind of frame more inspired by Brechtian production techniques, which are artificial in a different and (thank God) much more frugal way. It uses two production elements–Mary’s costuming and Bill’s music–to serve up the main action to contemporary spectators. It presents the unavoidable breaks and gaps in our dramatic illusion as intentional and therefore (from Vivian’s point of view) beautiful; and it offers, for an audience which has inevitably assimilated the realism that Vivian hates so much, a reading of An Ideal Husband as a play with a compelling truth concealed beneath all its layers of artifice.
I can’t help being a little nervous about adding something to what’s already a work of art; but then Wilde’s play, ironically like Nature herself, always has to be groomed and tweaked and pruned and framed in order to speak to any modern audience. Almost nobody performs this play as written; you’d have to be insane not to make cuts, especially in Act I, which is full of topical jokes that no longer work, caricatures whose originals are long forgotten, and debates about things in which nobody remains interested. The main Problem–the dominance of idealism in Victorian society–has been dead so long, from our point of view, that we can’t even understand it without help. The gender politics are not as advanced as you’d think they might be, and occasionally become straight-up appalling. Indeed, in order to convince people to let me do this play, I had to assure them that I was going to do something about that hideous moment in Act IV when Lord Goring, without irony, starts explaining to Gertrude why a man’s life is more important than a woman’s.
We’ve been working on the picture for a month now and I know it’s going to be beautiful. It deserves a good frame. We have the tools, we have the talent. Time to get to work.
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