Magazine article The Spectator

Driven to Shame

Magazine article The Spectator

Driven to Shame

Article excerpt

Singular life

I am feeling ashamed. The other day I went with my nieces to see The Importance of Being Earnest, with Colin Firth and Rupert Everett. Don't bother. There can never have been such a travesty of an adaptation of a Wilde play. If you want to see it done well on film, get out the old video with Michael Redgrave and Michael Denison. At least the cast knew how to speak the lines. The Americans don't really understand Wilde, although they may pretend to. This is why they invariably tend to call An Ideal Husband The Ideal Husband.

In any case, Earnest is my least favourite of Wilde's plays. Bernard Shaw, before he started hectoring us mercilessly on socialism in his own offerings such as Major Barbara, was a theatre critic. When Wilde's earlier plays were derided by the other critics, and someone even wrote that anyone could knock off one of them in a week, Shaw leapt to his defence and said he wished he could do the same. The critics loved Earnest, however. Yet Earnest was the play Shaw didn't like.

He was, I think, for once right. Earnest is the only Wilde work without any sort of a lesson. Consider An Ideal Husband, which is about a politician who has behaved corruptly, lied and must face up to the truth or lose the love of his life. There was a serious point here, and the play was all the better and, curiously, funnier for it. As far as I can make out, and I say this humbly, there seems to be no serious point to Earnest. It appears to be simply a string of one-liners hung on the skeleton of a childish and absurd plot.

But that is not why I am ashamed. It is because my 17-year-old niece Genevra told me she was taking her driving test in two weeks' time. I, too, took driving lessons when I was 17. I wasn't very good at them. Whenever the instructor told me to turn left I turned right and parallel parking was simply beyond my powers. But perhaps I was lazy. My A levels came up and I neglected to try again. Now, in my thirties, I still can't drive. When people find this out, I use two excuses. The first is that it is too expensive to run a car in London, and the second that there is nowhere to park one. It is true that many of my friends only use their cars in the country for the same reason.

But I seldom get away with this line of argument, so I tell them that in Arab countries women don't drive at all - by law. But once, when changing this law was under consideration, it was mainly the women who protested. …

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