Constant readers of this blog will recall that about a month ago, I posted about the fact that we were getting to work on incorporating the frame. I expressed some trepidation about the fact that we were adding something new to Wilde’s work of art, and my occasional wish that I had not decided to make this production more complicated than it had to be. You may have been wondering: well, it’s June now. Does she still feel this way? Is she still cursing herself for her ill-advised audacity? Does the fear that this might have been a Bad Idea still prey upon her mind and gnaw at her viscera?
Gentle readers, the answer is:
No! Not even a tiny bit! This was a FANTASTIC idea! It was a FLASH OF GENIUS!
Lord Goring talks a lot about genius in this play. Mostly he seems to disdain it–or rather, to disdain the people who are claiming to be geniuses or to have discovered them. The snarkiest way he can think of to describe Mrs. Cheveley is as “a genius in the daytime and a beauty at night.” In much of Goring’s dialogue, in fact, one can detect the annoyance of someone whose avant-garde style is now going mainstream. The Picture of Dorian Gray came out in 1890; everyone’s had five years now to, if I may paraphrase Fergie here, copy his swagger. “Everybody is a paradox nowadays,” Goring complains. Mabel obviously feels the same way about geniuses.
All the society hostesses have their own pet geniuses, from the Hartlocks’ mauve Hungarian band (and their mauve Hungarian music) to Lady Bonar’s “wonderful genius” who, according to Lady Markby, “does…nothing at all, I believe.” In exchange for invitations to these parties, these ‘geniuses’ exhibit their talents for the benefit of the guests, who are desperate for amusement. If Lady Chiltern’s parties are sometimes a little on the boring side, it’s partly because she hasn’t descended to this kind of pandering. In her music room she’s got some German music going on, which is no doubt quite serious and classical and full of German idealism. That’s as far as she’s willing to go to amuse her guests. But then again, she doesn’t really have to do this. To make her parties unmissable, all she has to do is invite Lord Goring.
In Wilde’s world, conversation really was an art, and Wilde was a genius at it. We only have what Wilde wrote down; but his contemporaries speak wistfully all the brilliant things he said, of the floods of fascinating and inventive and astonishing talk that seemed to flow effortlessly from him, all of which is now lost to posterity. Many of the lapidary phrases that glitter in Wilde’s dramatic dialogue were tried out first in settings like the Chilterns’ dinner party. If Wilde really liked a line he would re-use it. Many of the lines of Goring’s Act III opening monologue, for instance, had been published earlier in a list of aphorisms about modern life. Long before the advent of broadcast media, he seemed to grasp the power of the soundbite. Quotable quotes from Oscar Wilde–some genuine, some fabricated–litter the internet. He would no doubt have found Twitter unspeakably vulgar. But he would have excelled at it all the same.
But I digress.
My point was: the frame is indeed GENIUS, but it’s not MY genius. It works because, in our little troupe, genius is almost as common as pluck.
When I started thinking about doing this play, there were a number of problems that jumped out at me. One: As we have all abandoned Gertrude’s kind of idealism long ago, it would be a challenge to make the play’s central issue speak to a contemporary audience. Two: There were four acts and three sets, and set changes are always difficult for us. Three: Because the aristocrats in this world could do NOTHING for themselves, there are a number of servant characters who can’t be removed from the text because they perform essential functions, and yet are such small parts that it would really be kind of unfair to ask an actor to commit to being in a full production just to do them.
I don’t know how another director would solve these problems. I decided to do it by creating an a capella group who could perform little snippets of music during the set changes, and then also play these servant roles. The singing element would make these roles more rewarding for the performers as well as the audience, and by performing during the transitions they would provide something our cell-phone-swinging culture seems to need, which is a seamless experience unbroken by so much as an instant of downtime.
But who would they be? And what would they sing?
I conceived the idea–I can’t remember when–of treating them like a kind of Greek/Brechtian/Little Shop of Horrors chorus whose song would comment on the action. I decided they would be commenting on the action from the point of view of all the LGBT people who were born after Oscar Wilde, for whom his example has been inspiring, terrifying, sometimes infuriating, and always formative. I will call them, I said, the Green Carnations. And then I did the smartest thing ever, which was ask Bill if he would write the music.
Bill’s music is fantastic. The singers are equally fantastic. Their sound just fills the space and transforms it. Shelley DeHosse came on board to choreograph their little micro-numbers and now they LOOK fantastic. Mary McCarthy has actually executed a costume concept that I originally thought might just be too complicated to read. I love listening to them and watching them. I have no doubt the audience will love it too.
So this is what I mean: genius, but not my genius. The genius of Bill, and Shelley, and Mary, and Amelia and Leslie and Helen and Gyuri and Jake. I, myself, cannot sing at all; but there is something really wonderful about watching other people do it. I feel the way that, say, an ostrich might feel watching a hawk take flight.
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