This semester we’re awarding our Victorian Literature students extra points for attending a performance of either Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece La importància de ser Frank (see related posting in October), or Egos Teatre’s production of Els crims de Lord Arthur Saville, a musical based on Wilde’s short story. Ironically, Wilde’s classy and classic comedy was offered at the quite modest Teatre Gaudí whereas the musical is on at none other than the Sala Gran of the Teatre National de Catalunya. Yes, even more ironically, whereas the musical is subsidised with public money, Wilde’s classic was on at a commercial theatre.
I enjoyed myself enormously watching Egos’ ‘à la Sondheim’ musical version of Wilde’s cruel tale. As far as I am concerned, if a little bit of my taxes has gone to subsidising their joint effort this is fine, for I got back much pleasure for the evening. I actually think Egos have a very nice product in their hands that can be easily exported elsewhere in Spanish translation. As happens, whenever I see something really enjoyable in Catalan in one of our local theatres, whether commercial or subsidised, I can’t help thinking that either we’re VERY lucky to get such excellent performance standards or, the alternative, there must be HUNDREDS of great companies all over the world that pass unnoticed except locally because the language they use is not English (French, German… Spanish??).
Having said that, Egos’ musical ends with a song that comments on how the company’s only aim was offering a nice show and entertaining the audience. This chimed in very nicely with our last session with my Victorian class, as we discussed whether Wilde’s theatre was meant to be artistic or ‘only’ for entertainment. Very obviously, Wilde wrote for money and for a commercial theatre patronised by the upper classes. He was no committed Ibsenite and I very much doubt that, despite Salomé, he would have followed the road of the Shavian theatre club and the cherished project for a national theatre. Shaw explained in his The Quintessence of Ibsenism that whereas a typical, conventional play consisted of beginning, development and denouement, an Ibsenian play ended with the discussion of a serious issue. If considered from that angle nothing Wilde wrote was particularly significant; I find it particularly hard to explain why The Importance of Being Earnest has survived so well until our days. It must be its irreverence and its avowed intention to be a ‘trivial’ comedy for ‘serious’ people.
Shaw himself claims that a good play is that from which audiences take something home once the performance is over, meaning something apprehended intellectually, something learned – an idea, in short, or some kind of mental fulfilment. I didn’t get any new ideas from Els crims de Lord Arthur Saville but I did get much pleasure and this was due to something quite easy to notice: each member of the company had done their best to fill in the play to the brim with comic touches. There was much hard work behind every song, every gesture and this is why they got their well deserved ‘bravos.’ It might not be the kind of art Ibsen et al had in mind for the theatre, but there’s much to be said for the often neglected art of entertaining the audience.