Last year Brian Bedford was nominated for his star turn as the human gorgon Lady Bracknell in a revival of Oscar Wilde’s still wickedly funny, iconic “The Importance of Being Earnest”
Although some might ask why a man is playing a female character, albeit without compare, Bedford is far from the first of my gender to play Bracknell. In fact it is a theatrical tradition that goes back to the 70’s, if not earlier.
I should know, because I had a go at the grand dame myself.
As the scribes say, let me begin at the beginning.
It was the Spring of 1976. I was in Peter Brodie’s English class at Solebury School, a private school just outside of New Hope. We had just started doing “The Importance of Being Earnest” and Brodie was fond of having his students read plays out loud. Nobody wanted to read Bracknell, even the girls, and I volunteered. I had seen Anthony Asquith’s film version a couple years before and Monty Python had several members playing dowagers for comic effect so it seemed like it would be fun. Brodie, a little surprised, went for it and the class loved it. It was a healthy way to play the class clown without getting in trouble or being laughed at. People were actually laughing WITH me, not at me. Then it ended and I forgot all about it.
Until further down the semester when I was approached by two students who wanted to co-direct The Importance of Being Earnest for their senior project. Solebury had this thing called Senior Project which was optional but most seniors did. You usually found something you were very passionate about, maybe something you wanted to do for a career, maybe not, and if it was approved and your coursework was caught up, you got to do it. It was not unusual for more than one student to collaborate on a student project. For instance three friends of mine climbed a series of peaks in the Andirondacks for their senior project and as far as I know, nobody became a professional mountain climber.
So Joely and Jack had heard that I did a killer Bracknell in English class and invited me to audition. You could have knocked me over with a spoon, as they say. Always a hog for attention, I had not quite anticipated being asked to dress as a 19th century dowager for a school play. But, being the attention hot that I was and a risk taker(at least on stage) I said “Why not”.
I don’t remember if anyone else tried out but I was offered the part. And I took it.
This was not my first part in a play, nor would it be my last. But, to this day, it was probably the most fun.
Jack and Joely couldn’t have been more giving as directors. Although I never acted professionally, I’ve been in my share of plays mostly in amateur theater groups and most directors don’t let you just do your thing. Not that I was given a blank check but as long as I learned my lines I was encouraged to do Bracknell pretty much the way I did her.
My Bracknell was basically an imitation of Dame Edith Evans performance in the Asquith film with a few sprinklings of Graham Chapman’s best prissy old English woman for good measure.
Perhaps the most surrealistic part of the experience was when I was fitted for a dress, which was to be made by Mrs. Sundstrom, a wonderful if somewhat, ahem, commanding teacher who was probably closer to a “Bracknell Type” than anybody I’ve ever met. But she couldn’t have been nicer at the fitting and the dress helped me get into character.
If anybody remembers plays in high school, you usually only do one performance so there’s really only chance to get it right. You can’t grow into the role. It’s sink or swim time.
I’d like to say the performance went without a hitch but it didn’t. Bracknell is only on stage twice in the show, albeit for nice chunk of time. But there is a large amount of time between her appearances. I opted to spend this time in a friend’s room instead of back stage, which seemed the right thing to do at the time.
It wasn’t. They say performance anxiety, however uncomfortable it may be, is a crucial element in any good show, be it theater or music or whatever. I got so relaxed between my times on stage that whatever edge I had I lost and I found myself dropping line. Fortunately, the production was so tight and I had bought enough good will in the first act that nobody noticed.
The show was a success and I was well received. In fact, the school’s assistant headmaster came onstage to congratulate me after the show.
I was never an athlete but this was the closest I ever came to having been on a winning team.
Even if I had to put on a dress to do so.