LADY BRACKNELL’S CONFINEMENT
Organic Theater Company Greenhouse
WHAT THE BUTLER SAW
at the Theatre Building
In his recently published book Stranger Wilde, Gary Schmidgall rightly points out that The Importance of Being Earnest, far from being merely a spoof of Victorian conventions and the role of cucumber sandwiches in polite society, is an almost compulsively self-revealing dissection of “the prevarications and protections of the Closet” in which the homosexual Wilde hid.
“Bunburying”–as the play’s protagonist calls his practice of pretending to visit an imaginary friend named Bunbury to disguise his forays into vice–was Wilde’s habit as well as his hero’s. And in Earnest everyone is a sort of Bunburyist; everyone has a hidden passion, a special secret.
Paul Doust’s one-person comedy Lady Bracknell’s Confinement starts where Earnest left off. Wilde’s play reveals that Augusta Bracknell, the Gorgonian grande dame who embodies her class’s notions of strict moral propriety, is a social arriviste and marital mercenary. But Doust’s monologue reveals that she’s an extreme Bunburyist: the child of working-class radicals posing as an aristocrat–and a man pretending to be a woman. The queen of class consciousness turns out to be literally in a class by herself.
Written in 1987, this 45-minute one-act is a perfect vehicle for would-be Dame Edna Everages. Like that female impersonator, a star on British TV, Lady B. never doffs her female disguise (though she admits early on that she’s really a man), and as with Everage’s routines, much of the humor in Doust’s play derives from a single running gag: a man playing not just any woman, but a pretentious one. Lady Bracknell never uses short words or simple sentences when big, elaborate ones will do. She speaks of “indecorous intersection” instead of sex and “sartorial transmogrifications” instead of costume changes; and she’s prone to grandiose generalizations, a few of them fairly amusing: “A marked dislocation from Reality is fundamental to robust mental health,” for example.
But even Doust’s best lines fall far short of Wilde’s twisted zingers and the eccentric epigrams concocted by such Wilde-influenced writers as Quentin Crisp and Joe Orton. Striving for comic exaggeration, Lady Bracknell’s Confinement too often ends up just sounding fussy, as Lady B. regales us with the cautionary story of how William Gallfin, a dockworker’s son who wanted only money and position, ended up the wife of the demented Lord Bracknell.
And what of Lady Bracknell’s daughter Gwendolen? Her existence is explained here in a confession as lurid as it is ludicrous. One-upping Wilde’s parody of penny-dreadful plots, with their improbable turns of fate and coincidence, Lady Bracknell’s Confinement offers a bizarre and confusing tale whose upshot is that Lady Bracknell is really Gwendolen’s father (by a woman he raped) and that Gwendolen is in love with her half-brother.
Unfortunately, Doust spends so much time spinning his strange story that he fails to take advantage of his play’s comic potential; Lady B. turns out to be such a freak that she offers no insight into the hypocrisies that fill all our lives. The greatness of The Importance of Being Earnest lies in the universality below its rarefied surface, but that wonderful satiric edge is sadly lacking in Lady Bracknell’s Confinement.
As a performance vehicle, the show is intermittently entertaining under Michael Barto’s direction. Tony Dobrowolski, a capable actor who also serves as producer, is campily amusing as drag queens go; he has a wonderful sphinxlike smile, though he lacks the transcendent quality of the best male actresses. He’s also far too restrained for one of the theater’s true larger-than-life roles. Perhaps he’s holding back so as not to overpower the tiny walk-up studio he’s appearing in, but it makes for a disappointing performance.
Still, he’s a hell of a costumer; the dress he designed (and made) for himself is a marvelous combination of outrageous excess and rigid severity–a button-down gray and black monstrosity that makes him look rather like the Merrimac. It says more about the constriction suffered in the name of money and position than anything in the script.
Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw shares most of the darkest themes of Lady Bracknell’s Confinement, including transvestism, bisexuality, adultery, rape, incest, and insanity–to which Orton adds alcoholism, murder, and a sweeping indictment of society’s substitution of power and position for honor and honesty. What would be the stuff of tragedy in other writers’ hands raises the comic stakes to howlingly funny levels–even in this sluggishly paced, amateurish, inconsistent staging by the inappropriately named Effective Theatre.
Set in a mental asylum, Butler begins with an act of simple deception–the presiding physician attempts to molest a young secretarial applicant by convincing her to take off her clothes for a “medical exam”–and over two acts escalates into a lunatic frenzy of obsession, all of it stemming from Dr. Prentice’s efforts to hide his infidelity from his sex-starved wife, an inquisitive cop, a bisexual blackmailing bellhop, and a high-ranking doctor from Her Majesty’s government, Prentice’s “immediate superiors in madness.” Building to an insane but always logical climax concerning the allegedly prodigious sexual endowment of Sir Winston Churchill, Butler startles its audience with a nonstop barrage of stinging witticisms that echo Wilde’s elegant eccentricity while conveying a bratty brazenness all their own. (Distraught wife to cross-dressing husband: “Have you taken up transvestism? I’d no idea our marriage teetered on the edge of fashion.”)
Written in July 1967, a month before Orton was murdered by his lover Ken Halliwell, Butler wasn’t performed until 1969. The current staging seeks to honor the 25th anniversary of that production, and it affirms Orton’s genius by default–his crackling dialogue and clever plotting are funny enough to survive even this limp rag of a show. Weakly played by actors with atrocious English accents who substitute self-consciously silly antics for the deep levels of disturbance Orton perceived in his characters, L. Walter Stearns’s Butler misses both the energy and the point of the play–never more than when Stearns drops Orton’s magnificent ending (in which the drunk, drugged, wounded, disoriented characters climb a rope ladder to escape the escape-proof asylum) for a silly bit in which the two male doctors suddenly kiss. It’s completely out of character–and the key to Orton’s work is that every action, no matter how outrageous, is always in character for the person who commits it. The best effect the Effective Theatre’s What the Butler Saw can have is to whet viewers’ appetites for a really good revival of the work.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Patricia Clay.