This has happened before, including on September 6, 1642. That was when London playhouses were closed by the Puritan parliament. The argument ran that their activities were representative of “lascivious mirth and levity”. The circumstances of the current closure are, obviously, considerably more grave.
But in the immediate aftermath of Boris Johnson’s dangerously vague announcement that audiences should “stay away”, the timing of the consequent darkening of theatre has put me in mind of a different but allied disaster: the one that befell Oscar Wilde.
His masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest, opened in 1895 on Valentine’s Day. You can sense the scale of Wilde’s popularity when you know that his other great play, An Ideal Husband, had opened only a month before.
But 50 days later, Wilde was arrested on a charge of gross indecency. The box office takings collapsed and Earnest closed on May 8, with the trial and prison sentence wrecking Wilde’s reputation and his life.
The supposed ‘stain’ of his then illegal homosexuality meant that he and his work simply vanished from show. But when, decades later, theatres began restaging his work, they were accompanied by adaptations both inspired and insipid, the nadir of which came, by general consent, in October 2004 with the opening – and closing the very next morning – of the musical Wilde.
Universally damned, former DJ Mike Read’s bio-musical was speared most persuasively by the Daily Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish who wrote that Read “passes golden genius through the filter of presumptuous mediocrity and produces over two hours of leaden dross”.
Setting Wilde’s perfectly timed prose to music is, to be fair, not easy. Read avoided that by writing his own lyrics including the couplet for the Marquess of Queensbury, Wilde’s nemesis and father of Wilde’s lover Bosie: “I’m going to stand my ground and fight / The things you two do just can’t be right.”
Setting Wilde’s perfectly timed prose to music is, to be fair, not easy
The only operatic version of Wilde that still has currency is Richard Strauss’ Salome, probably because the original has none of Wilde’s trademark wit and also because Wilde’s prose was translated into German.
Back in English, even Noel Coward had a stab at making Wilde sing. In 1954, he turned Lady Windermere’s Fan into the musical After the Ball.
The highlight, arguably, is the trio Why Is It the Woman Who Pays?, whose first refrain begins: “Why are men permitted to sin and sin again / Say they’re sorry and then begin again? / Have they certain glands that automatically combust? / Why is it accepted that they just must lust?”
Robert Helpmann, who terrified generations as the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, was the original director of After the Ball. Afterwards, he said: “Everything Noel sent up, Wilde was sentimental about and everything Wilde sent up, Noel was sentimental about. It was like having two funny people at dinner.”
Different problems have beset attempts to musicalise The Importance of Being Earnest including, most recently Gerald Barry’s shriekingly manic operatic version, not to mention one written in the 1950s by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, scored for two pianos and percussion, which features Lady Bracknell arriving to Wagner’s The Ride of the Valkyries. A third, with music by B Tommy Andersson and libretto by William Relton, opened in 2017 in Sweden to strong reviews.
WH Auden described the play as “pure verbal opera”. He wasn’t wrong. Faced with Jack’s observation that he dislikes the name Earnest, Gwendolen tells him: “It has a music of its own. It produces vibrations.”
That’s why composers have such problems: the entirely different rhythms of music upset Wilde’s perfect comic timing and if you don’t believe me, track down recordings of the musicals Half in Earnest (opening with Don’t Touch the Cucumber Sandwiches), Earnest in Love, and The Importance, later reworked as Borne in a Handbag.
In recent years, the West End has been depressingly overstuffed with successive productions of Earnest
On what turned out to be my penultimate theatre trip before the closure, I was reminded of these while watching theatrical maverick and peerless Wilde expert Neil Bartlett’s clear-eyed production of the play, sans music, at RADA.
In recent years, the West End has been depressingly overstuffed with successive productions of Earnest, almost none of which has honoured its astonishingly subversive nature. I’ll fight anyone who disagrees with me that the play is the gayest in the language, and its sexual politics go way beyond the tiresome business of merely casting a man as Lady Bracknell.
Mercifully, RADA’s cast was too young to have been sullied by seeing such dross. Under Bartlett’s guidance, the best of them – Leonard Buckley, Sophie Kleiman and especially Elizabeth Dulau’s Lady Bracknell – beautifully allowed Bartlett’s vision of the text to shine. When theatres reopen, I look forward to seeing all of them in work.
Read David Benedict’s columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/author/david-benedict