What does The Importance of Being Earnest have in common with the Cohen brothers’ film The Big Lebowski? Of course they share satire and the glorious word play that, like nature, illuminates the poet’s point. This week I was lucky enough to experience someone else’s interpretation of each of these works. It was a stunning experience, and given the role interpretation plays in English Studies, made me pause for thought. Jeff Bridges called The Big Lebowski ‘mind candy’ because of the brilliant sequence of scenes and the genius of character, structure, and language. I admire his light touch while discussing a film, and I admire his respect for the audience. He lets the film speak for itself.
Oscar Wilde does not seem to have had a problem speaking for himself, though the dramaturge who staged The Importance of Being Earnest at a local theater seems to think he was not capable of making his point. Or perhaps she thought the audience could not, or would not, interpret the play according to her particular convictions. By adding an act to the beginning of the play, a gratuitous interlude Wilde’s Act 2, and some odd casting she robbed the audience of the ‘mind candy’ that contributes so much to the pleasure of a play. The bone I have to pick with her revolves around interpretation; the liberties taken with Wilde’s play underlined her personal interpretation of Wilde’s work and contributed biased editorial about his life and choices. These revisions and the confusing staging of the first act dramatically interfered with audience engagement, at least for me and my guests. For two and one half hours all I could think of were some pointed questions in my University of London Study Guides.
My Study Guides are constant companions for most of the year. They stress some points that became clear last Sunday sometime between Jeff Bridges’s interview and sitting through the earnest though grating production of Wilde’s work. It occurred to me that while interpretation might be the grail of English Studies, it is not about telling the reader or audience what to think. Interpretation is about interaction and engagement; after all, literature, drama, and art are about our humanity. For me, this includes the characters, the audience and the artists who create the work. If you will allow the metaphor, every emotional portrait painted is more about the artist than the sitter. What I learned from this production is respect for writers and readers, and how important effect upon the audience actually is.
Effect upon the audience and how it is achieved is now a fore-thought rather than an after-thought. It was very instructive to hear Mr Bridges’s talk about interpretation from an actor’s point of view. His respect for ‘mind candy,’ the intellectual space where audience engagement and interpretation takes place, juxtaposed with a dramaturge’s posturing as something like an intellectual dominatrix proves the point that genius is born and not paid.
Speaking of Wilde’s genius, it is one thing to borrow Wilde’s words and quite another to put words into his mouth. This weekend I learned how powerful dramatic performance can be; statements from the stage can cast judgment and long shadows. I learned to question different aspects of a performance and appreciate their effect. This came at a wonderful time, just as term begins. Here’s to Mr Bridges and another year of mind candy.