“The Importance of Being Earnest is like a mirage-oasis in the desert, grateful and comforting to the weary eye – but when you come close up to it, behold! it is intangible, it eludes your grasp. What can a poor critic do with a play which raises no principles, whether of art or morals, creates its own canons and conventions, and is nothing but an absolutely willful expression of an irrepressibly willful personality.”
—William Archer, World Magazine, February 20, 1895
Yes and no. In the aesthete circles of the 1890s, “earnest” was code for “homosexual.” Thus when Wilde writes of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” he is advocating a serious, truthful and sincere approach to living, but also alluding to his secret life as a gay man – the duplicity and “gross indecency” for which he would be imprisoned. So in its essence, The Importance of Being Earnest is a pun. It speaks to the horrifying paradox that being true to yourself can require being false to the rest of the world. For Wilde the master wit, universal truth is accessed by means of puns and epigrams. So too for us: “The Importance of Being Ernest Hemingway” is the panic that rises up in twentysomething American males, an attempt to achieve an ideal of hard-boiled, hard-drinking masculinity. Not even Ernest Hemingway was Ernest Hemingway: his novels are a never-ending search for masculinity in war, bullfighting, booze and women, and ultimately his work is about this very failure. The Masculine Ideal seduces and repulses: the heart of his writing is the dissonance created by both the monstrosity of his ideal and his own inability to achieve it. His terse, declarative prose belies a pained sensitivity to a senseless world. This synthesis of the artist’s Life with his artistic Ideal has its antecedent in Oscar Wilde, who by his own admission poured his talent into his work, but his genius into his Life. These two writers share an eerie sympathy and betray each other’s secrets. The fusion of the Aesthete Dandy and the Hemingway Male destroys the illusions of both and reveals the intangible core: the ruptured soul of the Modern Man.
The Importance of Being Ernest Hemingway works from Wilde’s script, but via textual excisions and substitutions transplants the play from Wilde’s London to Hemingway’s Paris. The performance begins with a boxing match; absinthe fills the tea-cups; the aestheticism and clever charm of Wilde’s Wits become the nihilism and bile of Hemingway’s expatriates. With additional text from The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, and A Movable Feast (among others), we unearth the love story obscured by Wilde’s aphorisms: two men whose love dare not speak its name. The result is an explosion of feeling, facades stripped away to reveal the drama’s broken heart – turning this soufflé of a play into a tragedy of disappointed love.