Why I chose…Earnest and Arms

My mother died in March 2004, having outlived my father by nearly 22 years. As I often use humor to process the most intense emotions, I began to quip about “being orphaned at 37,” often adding some variant of this quote:

To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.

This quote elicited many a blank look.

If pressed, I would name the quote’s author, though I did not always remember the quote’s context.

It is thus a window into my interior thought processes to realize, having completed the seven-day Facebook book challenge (seven covers in seven days, no explanations), that the quote originally appeared in a book I selected for that challenge.

Before I explain further, just bear with me while I describe my late mother’s favorite story as a child.

Called “The Selfish Giant,” it tells the story of a giant who walls off his lovely garden from the children who used to play there, causing winter never to end in it. Only when children find a way back into the garden does spring return. That the story ends with some maladroit Christian symbolism detracts little from its overall elegance.

This VERY short tale, one in an anthology of stories I used to browse in a favorite maternal great aunt’s high-end Philadelphia apartment, was my first encounter with Oscar Wilde.

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I was most likely exposed to the alchemic mix of high- and low-brow that is British comedy in sixth grade, when “in the know” classmates started talking about something called “Monty Python.” Perhaps this was because the seminal comedy film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, released just two or three years earlier, was already achieving cult status.

It is true that by sixth (or maybe seventh) grade I was regularly watching reruns of the surreally-brilliant Monty Python’s Flying Circus; it was one of a series of half-hour shows I would watch at 11 pm on Saturday nights, just before the Charlie Chan movie on Philadelphia’s Channel 48.

Around the same time, I discovered the decidedly-lowbrow (but no less funny) The Benny Hill Show. Entering high school a few years later, I happened upon the slap-dash lunacy of The Kenny Everett Video Show, the intelligent sci-fi surrealism of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the witty and well-written Doctor in the House (OK technically, Philadelphia’s PBS station WHYY was airing the 1972-73 follow-up series Doctor in Charge).

I was so enamored of this sitcom that I tape-recorded episodes 5 and 6; I still have the cassette, though I long ago taped over both episodes.

In short, by the spring of my senior year of high school, I was already an ardent fan of the broad slapstick and respect-for-audience-intelligence that defines British humor.

One afternoon that spring, I came home from school, sprawled out on our navy blue living room sofa, and pulled out a slim paperback.

Reading the paperback, I started to laugh. These were not soft chuckles or suppressed giggles. This was from-the-belly, out-loud, roll-around-on-the-floor laughing.

And I did not stop laughing until I finished the paperback a few hours later.

This is what I read.

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That I read this comic masterpiece as part of a small-group (n=2) presentation on the works of Oscar Wilde for my senior year English class—one of the most challenging and rewarding classes I ever took—is certain. What I forget is whether everyone in the class had to read The Importance of Being Earnest or just my presentation partner and I.

He and I also read and analyzed The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde’s only novel and the basis of this film, occasionally labeled noir[1] (including being screened in 2016 during NOIR CITY).

For that presentation, I freely admit that I dressed (as closely as I could with what I had) as Oscar Wilde and spoke in a mediocre British accent (yes, he was Irish…but we were presenting him in the context of late Victorian-era literature, or something). Despite my theatrics (because of them?) our presentation was very well-received by our peers. There are always critics, of course, including the one who noted that I sounded like “someone from Monty Python.”

Sorry, no photographs of me in that attire exist, nor do any recordings of my accent.

Clearly I had enjoyed this performance, though, because a few days later, my cousin and I went for cheesesteaks in a now-defunct joint just off the Roosevelt Boulevard in North Philadelphia—and I wore my Oscar Wilde attire and used the same accent. The reaction from fellow patrons, such as it was, was muted.

As for the play itself, I think it perfectly encapsulated everything I loved about British humor: it was irreverent, intelligent, silly and insightful all at the same time.

And it was laugh-out-loud funny.

Besides the ageless Dorian Gray, I would eventually read other works of fiction by Wilde: the plays Salome, Lady Windermere’s Fan, An Ideal Husband and A Woman of No Importance come to mind, as does the novella The Canterville Ghost. I enjoyed all of them, but none knocked me flat they way Earnest still does.

Incidentally, our eldest daughter read The Canterville Ghost for the first time tonight. She enjoyed so much she needed to relay its entire plot to me while brushing her teeth.

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Perhaps it was in the advanced United States history class I took my junior year, or perhaps it was in the (surprisingly mediocre) introductory political science course I was allowed to take at Villanova the following year[2].

At some point in my last two years of high school I was introduced to the Fabian socialists, a group of late-19th-century British writers and thinkers who advocated for needed social reforms, albeit more gradually than their Marxist counterparts. The Fabian Society, founded in 1884, morphed into the Labour Party in 1906; Labour remains one of the primary British political parties.

I was fascinated enough by the Fabian socialists that I wrote a paper (for what class, I could not tell you now, though it was probably in high school) on them. And I learned that one of their key members was an Irish-born playwright by the name of George Bernard Shaw.

Until then, all I really knew about Shaw was Monty Python member Michael Palin’s absurdist portrayal of him in a sketch in which Shaw, Wilde and James McNeill Whistler (the artist renowned for painting his mother) trade insulting witticisms directed at an unnamed King at a party.

And then I read this play.

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I was most likely assigned it in that same high school English class, but it might have been in a college course. Regardless, I was immediately moved by its simple and direct anti-war message.

Central to the story is that Bulgaria (backed by the Russian Empire) is at war with Serbia (backed the Austro-Hungarian Empire) in 1885; the alliances are eerily prescient of World War I, which would not start for another 29 years.

The play begins in the upstairs bedroom of the daughter of the highest-ranking Bulgarian officer (Major Petkoff) serving in the conflict. Raina and her mother Louka share the naïve romanticism about war and the soldiers who fight in it that would itself be shattered in the trenches of World War I.

Louka tells Raina her handsome young fiancée Sergius has that day led a “cavalry charge! think of that! He defied our Russian commanders—acted without orders—led a charge on his own responsibility—headed it himself—was the first man to sweep through their guns.”[3]

Filled with visions of her fiancee’s noble heroism, she settles down to sleep, only to be startled by a man creeping into her room. He is a Swiss mercenary fighting for the Serbs trying to escape capture. Despite the fact that he paints a far less flatteing picture of the cavalry charge and openly mocks its leader (unaware he is the fiancée of the woman whose bedroom he has entered), Raina ultimately decides to protect him. She gives him her last three chocolate creams (“Bless you, dear lady! You can always tell an old soldier by the insides of his holsters and cartridge boxes. The young ones carry pistols: the old ones, grub. Thank you.”[4]) which he ravenously consumes. Derisively (for now), she calls him a “chocolate cream soldier.”

As you might expect, over the course of the play, including the unexpected return of  her “chocolate cream soldier,” Raina rethinks her attitudes toward the nobility of war, apprehending its banal horrors more fully.

Unlike the film Johnny Got His Gun (the unforgettable backdrop for Metallica’s “One” video), which uses Grand-Guignol-style horror to convey its anti-war message, Shaw’s play is more subtle, using gentle satire and romance to make the same point. Shaw is sympathetic to all of his characters, allowing their debate to unfold without overt mockery or caricature.

Let me be clear: I am neither anti-soldier nor anti-military. I am a realist who honors the sacrifice of untold millions in wars and recognizes their occasional grim necessity.

But I am staunchly opposed to the glorification of war as the pinnacle of an aggressive form of heroism. I am staunchly opposed to government officials who have never served themselves using war as a political weapon. I am disgusted by candidates who use “Swift Boat” tactics to defeat those who have actually served in combat. To take one example: my maternal aunt is good friends with former Georgia Democratic Senator Max Cleland. Cleland, who lost both legs and an arm serving in the Vietnam War, was defeated for reelection in 2002 after one term in part because his Republican opponent Saxby Chambliss attacked his patriotism in the context of his votes on various post-9/11 homeland security measures. This may also have been an early example of the clannish us-vs.-them nature of contemporary politics.

As with Wilde, I would read other plays by Shaw, including Candida, Major Barbara, Saint Joan and the astonishing Man and Superman. And as with Earnest, I enjoyed them (particularly Man and Superman), just not nearly as much as I did Arms and the Man.

Honorable Mentions:

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

I read this in that challenging high school English class as well as in at least one college class. My only new thought on this masterpiece, perhaps the only work of fiction more often quoted than Casablanca, is how drawn I have always been to the character of Horatio. He is the quiet and loyal friend who tries (unsuccessfully) to get his friend Hamlet through his existential crisis and survives while everyone dies. Nice work if you can get it.

Complete Stories of Edgar Allan Poe (International Collectors Library)

Forget that in just five stories[5] Poe essentially invented modern detective fiction. Forget the bizarre circumstances of his life (marrying his 13-year-old cousin) and death. This tortured artist was THE master of the short story (one that he felt should take no more than two hours to complete)—“the form in which the ‘highest genius’ might most advantageously exert its powers [and whose] compactness made possible both high excitement in the reader and maximum artistic control by the writer.”[6] If nothing else, Poe’s unrivaled tales of horror and suspense allowed Vincent Price to have a long and distinguished career.

Stalking the Nightmare by Harlan Ellison

Yet another collection of short stories, this time in the vein of science fiction and fantasy. Written by the controversial Ellison, these are mind-bending stories of genies and sewers intermixed with three real-world stories, including his aborted screenplay efforts for the first Star Trek movie. Actually, as good as this collection is, my all-time favorite Ellison work remains his script for the single best episode of ANY Star Trek: “The City on the Edge of Forever.”

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

I wanted to include at least one non-detective-fiction novel, and I chose this satiric dark comedy masterpiece in a close call over John Kennedy Toole’s absurdist posthumous gem A Confederacy of Dunces. Breakfast may not be Vonnegut’s most famous novel, but it is the first one I ever read, back in the carefree summer between graduating high school and enrolling at Yale. That is probably why it has stuck with me all these years, because I associate it with one of the happiest times of my life. It is also laugh-out funny.

The Aeneid by Virgil

When my mother, our keeshond Luvey and I moved in with my aunt and cousins in the middle of 7th grade, I was thrust into a new school in the middle of a school year. The most challenging part was choosing a foreign language to study in media res. I chose Latin. Having no choice, I quickly caught up, finding that I enjoyed Latin’s logical structure. Two years later, having moved into a beautiful new apartment (just Mom, Luvey and I), I inadvertently enrolled in the sophomore Latin class at Harriton High School while still a freshman; this choice helped me win Harriton’s first ever Latin award. In that class, we read the other epic poem about the Trojan War, this one from the perspective of Aeneas, son of King Priam of Troy. After the fall of Troy, Aeneas finds himself in North Africa, where he falls in love with Queen Dido (infelix Dido). Forced by the gods to relocate (leading Dido to commit suicide), he eventually helps to lay the groundwork for the founding of Rome. After reading much of it in Latin, I read it again for a freshman-year English class at Yale, making it the only major piece of fiction I have studied in two languages.

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I began this post with a quote about lost parents. Let me end it with another quote from The Importance of Being Earnest:

All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.

I do not necessarily agree with the first part (Nell is nothing like her mother, for example). However, if I can be anything like my mother, who I miss (along with my father) every day, then so be it.

Until next time…

[1] For a film noir research project, I compiled 32 published film noir lists (minimum 120 titles) and 12 smaller lists (25-119 titles); a total of 4,825 films appeared on at least one of these lists. Dorian Gray appears on five of 32 LISTS, with 6.5 total POINTS (LISTS plus appearances on “sublists” within the 32 larger lists and/or one of the 12 smaller lists). Only 889 (18.4%) titles appear on more LISTS that Dorian Gray, and only 838 (17.4%) have more POINTS.

[2] I was one of two Harriton High School seniors who, by virtue of our exceptional PSAT scores, could take one of a selected group of courses at Villanova; my equally-bright classmate took a math course.

[3] Shaw, Bernard. 1984. Arms and the Man. Definitive Text (originally published 1898). New York, NY: Penguin Books, pg. 7.

[4] Ibid., pg. 16.

[5] The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Mystery of Marie Roget, The Purloined Letter, The Gold Bug, Thou Art the Man.

[6] Silverman, Kenneth. 1991.Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance. New York, NY: HarperPerennial, pg. 166

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