Saturday, August 15, 2009

High Society

“Never speak disrespectfully of Society. Only people who can’t get into it do that.” – The Importance of Being Earnest, Act III.

I doubt that Anton Chekhov and Oscar Wilde ever met, and if they had, I can imagine that the meeting would have been a study in contrasts; the analytical physician who explored the inner workings of relationships and went to intricate lengths to examine them, and the flamboyant Irish dandy who skewered London’s social mores with wit and sarcasm. Both playwrights made it their mission to mock the status quo, but both did it from opposite directions. In Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, it’s done with a surgeon’s skill, but also with a wistful affection. Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest goes in the other direction with just as much skill, except instead of using a scalpel, he uses a rapier.

The history of these two plays and their authors has some interesting parallels; both Chekhov and Wilde wrote at a time of change — the end of the 19th century — in their respective societies; Russia was beginning to see the fraying of the Czarist autocracy and upper class around the edges, and the Victorian age was coming to an end even as it reveled in its greatest excesses of fashion and class division. Both Chekhov and Wilde were outside observers; neither of them were born to the class they examined, and in both cases they provoked a backlash from their subjects. Wilde, never very shy about his bisexuality, rebelled against the hypocrisy of the straight-laced bluenoses who kept their marriages intact but also took off for long weekends in the country with their young boyfriends — “Bunburying” (notice the little play on words….). Chekhov took a more sympathetic view of his subjects, and while he presaged the decline of the aristocracy and the education of the lower and middle classes through the military, his point about the wistful dreams of the three women who feel trapped in their small-town lives, ever dreaming of getting to Moscow, is no less sharp. The difference between Chekhov and Wilde is that Chekhov is doing it through the subtext of the characters — the unspoken lines — whereas Wilde is doing it by being over the top and making fun of them. The methods are opposites, but the result is the same.

Both Chekhov and Wilde died in their mid-forties (Wilde in 1900, Chekhov in 1904), long before their time, and it would have been fascinating to see what theatre would have been like in London and Moscow had they had the chance to look at it and show us what they thought we were becoming.