For Easter, my mother gave me a DVD collection of BBC Oscar Wilde play productions. Last night I watched The Importance of Being Earnest from 1986. It'd been a while since I'd read the play, though it's not a work that fades in the memory at all. But I believe this was actually the first film production I'd seen of it. I know I skipped the Rupert Everett/Reese Witherspoon thing from a couple years ago. After I heard it contained a scene of Cecily getting "Earnest" tattooed on her ass, I knew the movie had roamed far off into a grandiosely atrophied frontier. Like a break dancing zombie.
But the 1986 production was good. I love it when an adaptation isn't a case of a director deciding a century-old work is about him. This was just fine actors and nice sets playing the scenes as written. Accommodations for the medium were sensible--unobtrusive camera movements and cuts where they were needed, and nothing too fancy. And I actually got the joy of seeing actors digest the words, adding the sharpness of human delivery to what was before, for me, words on a page.
I couldn't help thinking about Stephen Colbert again. The Importance of Being Earnest is a mockery of shallow Victorian society and their hollow scruples, and constantly turns Victorian notions of truth and nobility on their heads, only to reveal the plain philosophies as the absurdities they really are. The play is filled with casual assertions that sentiment ought to take precedence over reason. It seems perfectly natural to Algernon and Cecily that they should be engaged for months, even though they'd never met, simply because Cecily has created Algernon's "Earnest" in her diary. The story's "tension", if it can be called that, hinges on absurd particulars of heritage and name that nonetheless would ring true for the Victorian aristocratic audience.
So I thought of the wonderful rancour Stephen Colbert's performance has drawn from the Right. People on Fox news, and in Right-wing writings, have been insisting that Colbert went too far in front of the president but could not cite specific quotes from Colbert to demonstrate this. Scott Thill covers it well on Huffington Post. No matter how Right wing pundits squirm or try desperately to defuse it, they can't overcome the fact that when Colbert said, in his idiot guise, that he and the president go from "the gut" instead of the brain--it is the sort of thing Bush and his supporters say all the time, and it is self-evidently ridiculous. It's a bitter pill to swallow, when you realise that your central philosophy is utterly preposterous, and you've sacrificed human lives in its name.
I guess there's an ongoing battle between artistic wit and the ruling witless. The strain of keeping oneself stupid while maintaining a facade of intelligence must be a particularly humiliating kind of hell.