(April 2009) Seeing The Importance of Being Earnest at the Shaw Festival in 2004 persuaded us that P. G. Wodehouse had no greater literary influence than Oscar Wilde. How very like Wodehouse’s idle young men in spats were Algernon Moncrieff and Jack Worthing (as played by David Leyshon and Evan Buliung)! How very like the manner of Jeeves was the deadpan sarcasm of Algernon’s manservant Lane (as played by Robert Benson)! How very much like Bertie Wooster’s dragon aunts was Algernon’s aunt, Lady Bracknell!
And how much do Wodehouse plots owe to The Importance of Being Earnest? In how many Wodehouse stories do young men and women make their way into English country houses posing as tutors or gardeners or friends of friends so they can pursue forbidden romances or purloin prize pigs or play detective? Of course Wilde’s play is a story of imposters too. When he is in London, Jack adopts the identity of a fictitious brother named “Ernest” so that he can live the life of a libertine in the city (as Ernest) without tarnishing his respectable reputation back home in the country. And when Algernon wants to meet Jack’s pretty ward Cecily Cardew (who like so many Wodehouse young women cannot marry without her guardian’s permission), he goes to the country house where she is staying, posing as Jack’s much talked-about but never-seen brother “Ernest”.
Wodehouse was only an impressionable 14 years old when The Importance of Being Earnest premiered in 1895, and we think it must have influenced him powerfully. If you took out of Wodehouse all the foppish young men, imposters, domestic blackmail, dragon aunts, butlers, and young women who need permission from guardians to marry — that is, the characters, the plot, and the comic elements of Wilde’s play — there wouldn’t be much Wodehouse left on our library shelves. And why else would Eustace Mulliner’s man Blenkinsop (in Wodehouse’s short story “Open House” have prepared cucumber sandwiches for Eustace’s visiting Aunt Georgiana, if not for the example of the cucumber sandwiches served by Algernon Moncrieff to Lady Bracknell in the first scene of Wilde’s play?
It’s easy to identify the writers who were dear to Wodehouse’s heart; his novels and stories have thousands of quotations from and allusions to Keats, Tennyson, Arthur Conan Doyle, and especially Shakespeare. Nowhere, however, is Wodehouse’s delight in Oscar Wilde so transparent as in his 1952 novel Pigs Have Wings.
There is, first, Lord Emsworth’s brother Gally. The now middle-aged Galahad Threepwood (a recurring Wodehouse character) has spent his life carousing in nightclubs and chasing barmaids, just as he did in the 1890s when he was a young man. (Galahad’s character is the antithesis of that of the pure knight of the Arthurian legends.) Remarkably, however, Gally’s decades of fast living have had no impact on his health or his perennially youthful appearance — no more than they did, Wodehouse gleefully tells us in Pigs Have Wings, on Dorian Gray.
The chief imposter in Pigs Have Wings is the butler’s niece Maudie, formerly a barmaid, now co-proprietor of a detective agency. Gally engages her to come incognito to Blandings Castle to help foil what Gally fears to be a plot to either steal or nobble Lord Emsworth’s prize-winning fat pig — and he insists that she pose as “Mrs. Bunbury,” an old friend of one of the guests.
Wodehouse’s choice of “Bunbury” for Maudie is surely an act of homage to Oscar Wilde. The reference, of course, is to opening scene of The Importance of Being Earnest , when we learn that for some time Algernon has pretended to have a friend in the country named Bunbury whom Algernon must frequently visit because of Bunbury’s alleged ill health. Whenever Algernon wants to escape London because of inconvenient social obligations, he pleads that his friend “Bunbury” needs him and flees town. While Wodehouse shows his affection for other authors by quoting from them, he acknowledges his debt to Oscar Wilde by using the names of Wilde characters in his stories — as in The Inimitable Jeeves, where Wodehouse makes “Lord Windermere” a character in a clichéd penny novel.
We have tickets to see The Importance of Being Earnest again next month in Ontario, this time at the Stratford Festival. Stratford stalwart Brian Bedford will be directing and playing Lady Bracknell (in drag), but the roles of Algernon and Jack will be played by two actors that we’ve seen most often in years past at the Shaw Festival, Mike Shara and Ben Carlson.
June 2009: We liked Bedford’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest. See this post.
October 2009. We weren’t altogether satisfied with the Stratford Festival’s 2009 Macbeth, but it did remind us how Wodehouse borrowed the most famous lines in Shakespeare’s play and turned them on their heads in his comic stories. See this post.