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‘Improving’ Oscar Wilde: To Hell in a Handbag by Jonathan White

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Article by Jonathan White ©.
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It started – as many momentous things do – with a throwaway remark. Helen Norton and myself – friends for 20 years – frequently bemoaned the shortsightedness of theatre companies in failing to cast us together as Miss Prism and Canon Chasuble in The Importance of Being Earnest. On the most recent occasion, the conversation ended with one of us saying “Sure, we’ll do it ourselves!”

And there the matter might have lain were it not for an e-mail the next day reminding me of the closing date for Show in a Bag. This excellent initiative by Dublin Fringe Festival, Fishamble: The New Play Company and Irish Theatre Institute facilitates actors – either solo or in pairs – to develop and present a new work of their own which can then – as the name suggests – easily travel the world. I rang Helen, related the coincidence and wondered should we at least discuss the possibility. She readily agreed.

What we quickly hit upon was the notion of a parallel play to The Importance. Much as the characters in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead play out their lives in their down-time from Hamlet, so we would focus on Prism and Chasuble in the moments when they leave Wilde’s stage. Stoppard suggests “Look on every exit as being an entrance somewhere else” and so we followed them on their walk to the schools and later, an assignation in the vestry of the rectory before their return for the main play’s denouement. This also prompted us to explore aspects of their characters only hinted at by Wilde. Two paragons of Victorian virtue, eking out humble livelihoods in service to the aristocracy. How had they got to where they were and how had they made ends meet along the way? The possibilities were intriguing.

We submitted an application, were called for interview and were asked among other things “Will it be funny?”. We looked at each other, 60 years of (mainly) comic character acting between us and solemnly assured them that indeed that was our intention. Within a few days, we were told we had been successful – “We’ll have to do it now” we realised.

There was one slight wrinkle – that same week Helen was off to London for four months to play in The Taming of the Shrew at Shakespeare’s Globe. In hindsight, this may actually have been a blessing in disguise. Instead of two neophyte writers sitting in a room trying to negotiate a way of writing together or writing two parallel first drafts, it was up to me to get things started and we would rendezvous down the road.

I had never written a play before. Oh, I had talked about it, I had made copious notes. I had even jotted down the odd fragment. But never a scene – or half a scene – written in anger. But a preliminary meeting with Gavin Kostick, Fishamble’s Literary Officer put things into perspective. He told me a 60-minute play was approximately 6,000-9,000 words in length and that I should have the first 1,000 of those at our next meeting two weeks hence. So, there was no alternative but to start writing.

My previous dramatic attempts had been dominated by Doing The Research. A university career spent – ostensibly – studying history meant that this was actually enjoyable and a bulwark of procrastination. But given my deadline, I had to develop a twin-track approach: writing the play while at the same time investigating its world. Far from the stereotypical image of reserve and conservatism, Victorian England was in fact a hotbed of often outlandish innovation and social change. And the fact that our two characters prided themselves on their learning meant that we could draw on all sorts of references and fields of interest. The arcane politics of the Church of England provided endless detail for Canon Chasuble’s back-story. And the fact that – according to Wilde – Miss Prism had once written a three-volume novel, provided us with another layer of thwarted literary ambition. Indeed, one of the great joys of the early work was poring over The Importance for throwaway clues and hints that we might mine for our story. Miss Prism’s handbag bore the marks of an exploding temperance beverage – a troubled relationship with alcohol, then?

We knew from the outset that we could never write like Oscar Wilde. That mastery of the aphorism, those exquisitely judged bon mots … it would be fatal to try and match them for style and substance. But we were equally determined that the words uttered would be absolutely correct for time, place and class. And with the help of our director, Conor Hanratty – a man who could fell a split infinitive at twenty paces – we managed to produce a credible approximation of their language. And there was fun to be had too – peppering Canon Chasuble’s speech with as many ecclesiastical and scriptural terms as possible, even appropriating and re-purposing a line from a section of The Importance that is now seldom performed.

With regular support and provocations from Gavin – culminating in him setting me the challenge of explaining in our play exactly why Miss Prism had placed the baby in the handbag – I duly supplied a first draft on schedule in the middle of June … and then the real work began. Over two concentrated bursts in Dublin and London, Helen and I began an exercise in literary topiary – cutting out what was unnecessary, shaping and highlighting what was working well, planting fresh seed where the ground looked bare. By the time she finished her London sojourn in August and we set about the task of rehearsal, we had a script we were very proud of. And remain so to this day.

(c) Jonathan White


To Hell in a Handbag: The Secret Lives of Miss Prism

Written & performed by Helen Norton & Jonathan White

June 19th – July 22nd 2017 13:00 – Bewley’s Café Theatre @ Powerscourt

Tickets and further information here.