11 December 2011


Modernity signifies the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art of which the other half is the eternal and the immutable. 

Photo by EP
Oh! No wonder modern life is so tiring! I keep thinking it’s my age, but having forgotten to take my Kindle on the Tube with me to the Saturday matinee (that is a sign of age), I bought a copy of i, the Independent digest and a snip at 30p, and by the time I had reached Hammersmith I had read yet more confusing opinions about Prime Minister Cameron’s ‘Non’ to Europe; a scant prĂ©cis of the state of the British Arts; and an account of a rather enormous Bronze Age discovery in the Fens – of boats, spears and swords, to say nothing of clothing, found in the silt and peat of the old course of the river Nene in Whittlesey. Items that would ‘normally have been long since decomposed have been pulled out of the earth by archaeologists in pristine condition.’

As an actor one is conditioned to get one’s imagination round what one reads; perhaps one mistakes anything printed for a script. In any case, I was soon reading the words of David Gibson from Cambridge University’s archaeological unit: ‘It is giving us a 3-D vision of this community that we see very rarely in the world, let alone in this country.’ The site of the settlement is thought to have burned down around 800 BC.

The harsh, unlovely world of Hammersmith Tube station, which is really a shopping mall, gives out onto the confusing traffic island, dominated by the notorious flyover.

Photo by EP
Eventually one gains a sight of the river and the bridge. 

Photo by EP
Photo by EP
The dressing rooms at Riverside Studios are airless and too warm, but I was soon taking part in the regular vocal warm-up. The psychic warm-up to put oneself into Wilde’s world of 1895, a mere eight years after the opening of Hammersmith Bridge, is one’s own responsibility as one ties the laces of one’s shoes or mutters the odd line, stares at oneself in the mirror.

The bridge has been in constant need of repair and fortification ever since it was built, but Wilde’s play is as sound as a bell and a living delight, even surviving the addition of songs. Tonight the audience not only laughed at Miss Prism and Canon Chasuble’s restrained love duet, but mollified the laughter with sympathetic cries of ‘Ah!’ and ‘Oh!’

I have been reading on my Kindle Henry Arthur Jones’s drawing-room comedy Dolly Reforming Herself, first performed at the Haymarket thirteen years after The Importance premiered in London but somehow less ‘modern’ and certainly more morally simplistic. The Importance is just as hedged about with moral conventions, of course, but Wilde himself isn’t and the play sparkles and lives.

by Italian surrealist Giorgio de Chirico (1921)
Kathleen tells me The Importance is partly inspired by Euripides’ Ion of c.413 BC, that Wilde’s famous ‘handbag’ episode has its origins in the recognition scene surrounding the basketwork crib of the orphaned Ion. Wilde’s admiration and affinity for the ‘modern’ Euripides – who was attacked by the conservatives of his day and equally so in Victorian times – was a fascinating aspect of his own enlightened and humane thinking. In the commonplace book he kept at Oxford, he wrote:
And we who toil in the heated quarries of modern life may perhaps—or is it only a fancy—gain some freedom of soul from his genius who was the great humanist of Hellas, the cor cordium of antiquity.
So we are not so far away from those Bronze Age artefacts. Perhaps the word ‘pristine’ should also be attached to Wilde’s perfect comedy?

Tomorrow Wilde’s grandson is coming to our matinee.

Another modern drawing-room comedy inspired by Euripides’ Ion was one-time West Hampstead resident T. S. Eliot’s The Confidential Clerk, which premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in 1953. As a young actor in the 50s, The Confidential Clerk, which had at least one long speech for the foundling Colby, furnished me with an excellent audition piece.

Joan Greenwood and Douglas Watson in The Confidential Clerk,
Morosco Theatre, New York, 1954. Greenwood played Gwendolen in
the 1952 film version of The Importance.

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