Aestheticism and “The Importance of Being Earnest”: A Trivial Post for Serious People

Quant’è bella giovinezza
che si fugge tuttavia!
Chi vuole esser lieto, sia,
di doman non c’è certezza.
Quest’è Bacco e Arïanna,
belli, e l’un dell’altro ardenti;
perché ’l tempo fugge e inganna,
sempre insieme stan contenti.
Queste ninfe e altre genti
0sono allegri tuttavia.
Chi vuole esser lieto, sia,
di doman non c’è certezza.
Questi lieti satiretti,
delle ninfe innamorati,
per caverne e per boschetti
han lor posto cento agguati;
or da Bacco riscaldati,
ballon, salton tuttavia.
Chi vuole esser lieto, sia:
di doman non c’è certezza.
Queste ninfe anche hanno caro
da lor essere ingannate:
non può fare a Amor riparo,
se non gente rozze e ingrate;
ora insieme mescolate
suonon, canton tuttavia.
Chi vuole esser lieto, sia:
di doman non c’è certezza.
Questa soma, che vien drieto
sopra l’asino, è Sileno:
così vecchio è ebbro e lieto,
già di carne e d’anni pieno;
se non può star ritto, almeno
ride e gode tuttavia.
Chi vuole esser lieto, sia:
di doman non c’è certezza.
Mida vien drieto a costoro:
ciò che tocca, oro diventa.
E che giova aver tesoro,
s’altri poi non si contenta?
Che dolcezza vuoi che senta
chi ha sete tuttavia?
Chi vuole esser lieto, sia:
di doman non c’è certezza.
Ciascun apra ben gli orecchi,
di doman nessun si paschi,
oggi sìan, giovani e vecchi,
lieti ognun, femmine e maschi.
Ogni tristo pensier caschi:
facciam festa tuttavia.
Chi vuol esser lieto, sia:
di doman non c’è certezza.
Ciascun suoni, balli e canti,
arda di dolcezza il core:
non fatica, non dolore!
Ciò che ha esser, convien sia.
Chi vuole esser lieto, sia:
di doman non c’è certezza.

Now that I think about it, the fact that I have quoted the Magnifico twice in one week (three times if we count this post,) without any Leopardian quotes in the middle, was a clear symptom of this post growing in my mind, and being completed by a surprising staging of The importance of being Earnest, a play that, albeit funny anyway, is irretrievably lame in Italian without the pun that feeds the whole story.

As you know, I am self-taught in English literature, so I have not as much knowledge as I can have in other languages, but there are some authors, and some literary works that have marked my philosophical growth. In general, we can say that the English language and culture have forced themselves into my life for some time, until I just decided that to keep avoiding them was simply pathetic. You can imagine my happiness when, yesterday, I was told that I have no Italian accent in written English. Of course, I have someone to thank for that, but that is another story.

Going back to literature, I have always been interested in Aestheticism and Decadentism more than I have ever liked to admit. The ironic thing is that these movements are deeply rooted in the Italian Renaissance and Humanism, but they flourished almost all around Europe, barely touching Italy, plunged in its self-pitying attitude called Realism back in the XIX century. I can’t avoid asking myself how is it possible that, after living such a prosperous moment in the XV and XVI centuries, Italy abandoned this glorious path to never really return to it.

When I was invited to the play, of course, I accepted on the spot, judging impossible to say no to anything by Shakespeare or Wilde: I support transgression, but that would sound immoral to me! Once again, the theatre offer in London managed to surprise me. The Bunbury Company of Players presents a peculiar metaplay in which the actors are impersonating actors impersonating Wilde’s characters.

The play doesn’t really start or finish in a traditional way, we arrive to our seats and the curtain is not down; the stage is a bright living room in which, soon enough, and without a clear announcement, the actors start walking in as if nothing was happening: our play has started, but theirs hasn’t yet. A measured Patrick Godfrey (George/Merriman) is soon joined by a bubbly Nigel Havers (Richard/Algernon) wearing a Victorian suit and a pair of flashy red Nike trainers. We are still wondering what’s going on, until the sound engineer walks down the stairs to fix a problem: It should be the moment when the illusion collapses, and we step out of the fictitious world, and instead it is exactly when we feel ourselves diving in: The play inside the play is starting as well, and it is dragging us in a timeless place. Ironically, the satire of the society is still relevant nowadays, more than a century since the opening of The Importance. Just some quotes to prove this:

Oh! it is absurd to have a hard-and-fast rule about what one should read and what one shouldn’t. More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.


When one is in town one amuses oneself. When one is in the country one amuses other people. It is excessively boring.


I really don’t see anything romantic in proposing. It is very romantic to be in love. But there is nothing romantic about a definite proposal. Why, one may be accepted. One usually is, I believe. Then the excitement is all over. The very essence of romance is uncertainty. If ever I get married, I’ll certainly try to forget the fact.

The cast is simply wrong for The Importance, which makes them perfect for this adaptation. Martin Jarvis appears breathless and tired of telling his lines half of the time when acting as Anthony, and yet he is a charming 28+ years old John; Siân Phillips is simply marvelous and regal both as Lavinia and as Lady Blacknell; Havers is incredibly seductive and the two characters of Richard and Algernon are magically tangled and indistinguishable.

There is no real interval, and when we come back from the bar, the cast is already on stage, watching a match on the TV that is conveniently hidden in a XIX century drinks cabinet in George’s and Lavinia’s sitting room. Little by little, we all regain our seats, and at the same pace, the actors walk back on stage, apparently unaware of being there, a group of old friends getting ready to rehearse.

At the end, the different levels slowly converge again to put a perfect seal to the piece. The Importance ends between laughs and applause from the actors themselves: the round brackets are closed. The second play, the one that we actually went to see, ends a minute later, and the square brackets also close around the first ones. It is like in a matryoshka, with the smaller doll of The Importance nestled between the walls of the bigger frame play.

You know what? I want to re-read The Importance of Being Earnest now, and I think that is absolutely fine. After all, as Wilde would say:

If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.

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  1. Aestheticism and "The Importance of Being Earnest": A Trivial Post for Serious People | Tinseltown Times
  2. Theatre Review – The Importance of Being Earnest | strivetoengage

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