The importance of culture

I couldn’t help noticing that The Importance of Being Earnest was on again at the weekend. Earnest has a special significance to me. He proved that my English was better than I thought.

This was while living with the G family and attending the University of Sussex for a year, back at the beginning of time. In our second term Oscar Wilde’s drama would be one of our set books, and when it was on at the university’s Gardner Arts Centre, during our first term, we were advised to go and see it. I probably would have anyway.

But I suspected I wouldn’t understand all of it; either not catch what they were saying, or not actually know all the words. I suppose I could have taken the executive decision to read the play before, but that idea didn’t seem to occur to me.

Mr G, when he heard of my plans, said ‘a handbag?’ in a funny sort of voice, the relevance of which escaped me. (I got it afterwards.) Personally I was pretty impressed that a university would have its own theatre on the premises, as it were.

Anyway, we went, we saw, we enjoyed. What’s more, I reckoned I could understand every word. (If I were to read the play now it could be I’d find a difficult word or two, but at least it seemed plain as daylight at the time.) I think in a way that’s when I stopped thinking of myself as a foreigner handicapped by limited vocabulary. These days I know there’s a lot I don’t know, but I don’t fret. In fact, there is more I don’t catch, or understand, when watching NCIS: Los Angeles, than that time with dear Earnest.

Since then I’ve been to lots more plays, and I’ve seen several more versions of what I consider ‘my drama debut.’ The famous film with Edith Evans’s handbag quote, and probably also this one that was just on television with Colin Firth, as well as other stage productions.

At least we had no problem knowing about the trains to Worthing, what with it being more or less next door to us in Brighton.

(PDF time travel back to 1977.)


6 responses to “The importance of culture

  1. My sister will be very glad to know of the Colin Firth production if she doesn’t already.

    When I was in high school, they took a busload of us into San Francisco to see a production of The Importance of Being Earnest, and it made a big impression on all of us, as this was far from an everyday sort of occurrence.

  2. I also love the film version with Evans, Michael Redgrave et al. Oddly enough, I’ve never seen Wilde on stage – he’s rarely performed professionally in Australia, I think.

    This post made me remember two similar experiences in Germany back in early 2002. One was seeing the film ‘Nowhere in Africa’ in the cinema, then going to buy the book afterwards and reading it from cover-to-cover without stopping. (Not the first German book I’d read, but the first where reading was 100% painless and just as it feels in English. My first German book all-nighter, too.) The second was seeing Lessing’s Nathan the Wise on stage in Berlin. I can’t say I got every word, but I knew I hadn’t missed anything significant.

    Now, if only I could recapture that feeling when I have to *produce* a sophisticated version of said foreign language…

    • Oh I know that feeling. That’s why I stick to simple or clichéd language on Bookwitch.
      At the conference I went to in February, it was interesting to hear how well foreign speakers spoke English as they gave their papers, but also how much more limited their vocabulary was, compared to the native speakers. It didn’t mean the papers were any less interesting, but linguistically you could see how people ‘cope.’

  3. It’s a funny old play, Earnest. I remember reading it at school and being baffled as to why any man would want to be with a woman who was so obsessed with a particular name.
    Although Wilde is, brilliant of course, there’s also something a bit too ‘clever’ about his dialogue, as if he’s showing off/ condescending to the audience a little. But then, I don’t think he was one for hiding his light under a bushel!
    Got to love the man, though, especially if he was at all similar to the character Stephen Fry portrayed in ‘Wilde’. 🙂

  4. It sounded pretty British to me, but it’s a long time ago now. I think it may actually have been in the year before high school, now I think about it. But they were definitely American actors, so that might have made it easier to understand them. I don’t think Americans have that much trouble understanding British English until you get up to more northern dialects or the East End–or back to Shakespeare. Then there’s a lot of groaning.

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