The Importance of Being Honest: a riposte to Donald Sinden


The actor, Donald Sinden, had written to The Times denying that there was any double meaning in the title of The Importance of Being Earnest.  The paper asked me to pen a reply, which, in the event, was not published.

The theatre’s great strength has always lain in its ability to unite a disparate group of people. That this does not depend on their sharing a common perspective will be evident to anyone who has ever attended a pantomime with a child for whom Dick is simply the hero’s name.

Writing in The Times yesterday. Sir Donald Sinden argues against the now accepted view that Earnest in the title of Wilde’s famous comedy was Victorian slang for homosexual and Cecily a synonym for rent boy. In his support, he quotes conversations he held in the 1940s with three people who were closely connected with the original production and a later one with the twentieth century’s most celebrated John Worthing.

His list of expert witnesses is tendentious. We might well speculate on the innocence (Irene Vanburgh), ignorance (Allan Aynesworth) and duplicity (Alfred Douglas, who had long since tried to rewrite the history of his relationship with Wilde) which led the playwright’s three associates not to mention the subject. We might also ask whether Sir John Gielgud was as accomplished an etymologist as he was a master of theatrical lore.

Sir Donald’s objection conceals a broader one to the belief that Wilde’s classic comedy might have a subversive subtext. It betrays a strange misunderstanding of the complex ways in which writers transmute their experience into art.  Indeed, Wilde’s claim to have put his genius into his life and his mere talent into his work rings false precisely because he expresses so many of his personal obsessions in his plays. Although the love of Herodias’s page for the young Syrian captain in Salome is the closest he comes to a direct portrayal of homosexual desire on stage, all his major comedies turn on the proximity of scandal and of people proving other than they appear.

Like all great plays, Wilde’s can be read on various levels. Here is Lytton Strachey writing to Duncan Grant after having seen Beerbohm Tree as Lord Illingworth in the 1907 revival of A Woman of No Importance: ‘Mr Tree is a wicked Lord, staying in a country house, who has made up his mind to bugger one of the other guests – a handsome young man of twenty. The handsome young man is delighted; when his mother enters, sees his Lordship and recognises him as having copulated with her twenty years before, the result of which was – the handsome young man. She appeals to Lord Tree not to bugger his own son. He replies that that’s an additional reason for doing it (oh! he’s a very wicked Lord!)… The audience was of course charmed.’

What Strachey fails to say is that, for most of the audience, Lord Illingworth was simply offering the handsome young man a place as his secretary. They watched one play, Strachey and his friends another. Likewise, there would have been many at the first night of The Importance of Being Earnest (perhaps even sitting in some of the fifty seats that Wilde himself purchased) who would have recognised the significance of Algernon’s being ‘musical’, of Jack’s having received a cigarette case from Cecily (Wilde’s token of esteem to his own ‘cecilies’) and of Jack’s having been found at a railway station, then as now a popular rendezvous for mercenary male relationships.

Many of those intimates might well have been wearing Wilde’s trademark green carnation. Thirty years on in Bitter Sweet, Noel Coward satirised them as:
‘faded boys. Jaded boys, womankind’s
Gift to a bulldog nation
In order to distinguish us from less enlightened minds,
We all wear a green carnation.’
Later in the same song, this willowy chorus declared that ‘We are the reason for the “Nineties” being gay.’

The vast majority of the theatregoers who flocked to His Majesty’s would have been no more aware of the secondary meaning of gay, already being employed by a select coterie, than their 1895 predecessors would have been of that of earnest. Coward, along with all his confreres in the seventy years following Wilde’s downfall, knew that discretion was the better part of theatrical favour. Thus, in The Vortex, the 1924 play which made his name, the protagonist’s ostensible problem is drug-taking, nevertheless his obsessive relationship with his mother and indifference to his fiancée have led many critics to see cocaine as code for homosexuality.

Derek Jarman wrote of The Vortex that ‘Noel Coward put his sexuality in a little box and sniffed it’. Although Coward sometimes allowed the lid to be raised an inch – as when he added a verse to be sung by a man to his classic song Mad About The Boy for its New York production (it was not, in fact, played) – the first time that he lifted it high enough to alarm his fans was in his final play, A Song At Twilight, which centred on a successful author who, in his youth, had cynically exploited and rejected his male lover.  Although his inspiration was David Cecil’s biography of Max Beerbohm, when he himself originated the part. Coward was made up to look like Somerset Maugham. The parallels were not lost on Maugham’s nephew, Robin, who ‘nearly fainted’ when Coward read him the play.

Maugham, even more so than Coward, was a consummate judge of the boundaries of popular taste. Like Wilde’s, many of his plays turned on scandals, but in work such as The Letter and East of Suez, it is an acceptable racial – rather than an unacceptable sexual – element that gives them their bite. Indeed, when Robin Maugham showed his uncle an early draft of The Wrong People, he received a reply which, after telling him that ‘It’s easily the best work you’ve done’, urged him not to publish: ‘Why do you think that Noel and I have never stuck our personal predilections down our public’s throats?  Because we know it would outrage them.’

Terence Rattigan, Maugham’s successor as the West End’s favourite playwright, reaped a greater benefit from the theatrical codes which required him to disguise the nature of the passions at the heart of his work. Two of his finest plays, The Deep Blue Sea and Separate Tables, were inspired by homosexual incidents in, respectively, his own life and John Gielgud’s, both of which he recast in heterosexual terms. The myth that there once existed a first draft of The Deep Blue Sea in which the central role was written for a man has been authoritatively refuted by Frith Banbury, its original director.  Rattigan did, however, revise Separate Tables for its Broadway premiere, altering his disgraced Major’s offence from that of accosting women to that of importuning men.  That version, together with later work such as Variations on A Theme, reveals that Rattigan’s imagination worked better under constraints. Paradoxically, it was censorship which freed his art.

It is, of course, equally dishonest to graft gay elements onto a play as to reject them. The most infamous case of the former in recent years was Luchino Visconti’s Italian premiere of Harold Pinter’s Old Times, after which an aggrieved Pinter declared that ‘I did not write a play about two lesbians who caress each other continually.’  Likewise, Tennessee Williams fought a lifelong battle against critics who laid more weight on the author’s sexuality than on his characters’ truth – a view put with typical bluntness by Joe Orton when he wrote that Williams’ ‘heroines are drag queens’.

So, in answer to Sir Donald’s complaint, although I would be the first to take issue with the American academic who asserts that Bunburying ‘blatantly calls forth the image of a promiscuous sodomite’, it strikes me as just as perverse to deny that an artist makes references to his private concerns in his work. After all, even Shakespeare alludes in Hamlet to the child actor controversy which was then dogging the Globe. Given the complexity of Wilde’s private life, it would have been extraordinary if it had not in some way coloured his play. To paraphrase which, while Sir Donald may not realise ‘the vital Importance of Being Earnest’, others undoubtedly did and do.