This past weekend the Experimental Theatre of Vassar College presented “the importance of being earnest [a queer adaptation].” This joint-senior project in drama was based on a student-adapted version of Oscar Wilde’s classic tale from the late 19th century, which is lauded to this day for its humor and subtle queering of the institution of marriage. As both a supporter of live theatre and a student in DRAM 222, I had to see this show. On opening night, I sat in a nearly packed house not knowing what to expect from this production.
I recognize the fact that care and energy went into this work, and I do want to congratulate this cast for all that they did well, but I would be doing a disservice to the artists involved as well as to the drama community as a whole if I were to simply pat creators on the back for creating without being critical of their work.
Frankly, I was disappointed with some elements of this queer adaptation. Sure, to put on a modernized version of a classic can mean a multitude of things to different people, but I personally believe that intersectionality is a vital component of modern narratives of queerness that was ultimately forgotten by the casting of this play.
“earnest” presented a cast of white people, and only white people, navigating queerness, and while I don’t want to invalidate the plight of white queer people, I have to call attention to the fact that this is a more narrow perspective than I think our modern context calls for. I do not say this to place blame with the creative team of “earnest” alone. The whiteness of Vassar’s drama department as a whole is a systemic issue that needs to be addressed.
One of the three department shows this semester very specifically required and asked for POC actors to audition. I can recall, prior to auditions, a number of posts on Facebook that relayed the message that if people of color did not audition, the show could not happen. This dedication to representation was essential for the play’s success, and I wish that a modern and queer adaptation of any show would have also shared the same desperation for representative casting.
I know that there are plenty of talented POC artists on campus, and so there must be a reason that so few want to get anywhere near Drama Department productions. We have to do a better job of creating a space that welcomes intersectional art and artists.
To present a piece as a queer adaptation (rather than just another version of a classic and popular piece) raises the stakes of the production—especially considering the hugely varied historical uses of the word “queer” as an insult and othering label applied to people who did not fit the acceptable mold of a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, neurotypical person.
The high-stakes nature of this production brings me to a point that needs to be made about creative adaptations in general. In modernizing a show, it is extremely important to question: How do we prioritize changes made to a text? What do these changes add to or take away from certain narratives? And what do these changes say about the positionality of the writer—maybe more importantly, how do these changes reflect the intended audience and the present moment?
What about the changes? An obvious change that was made to the script included the transformation of the original setting (19th-century England) to a modern Connecticut and New York. This change was a very technically necessary element of bringing “Earnest” into the present day— okay. Another major change was an overhaul of much of the blocking for the sake of visible queerness onstage, which included but wasn’t limited to the opening scene with actors kissing in their underwear—okay.
My confusion about the changes made didn’t stem from the existing choices themselves, but rather the absence of others. After seeing that such big elements of the play had in fact been changed for the sake of a queer adaptation, I was left wondering: Why couldn’t more have been altered to present a more inclusive narrative? I don’t ask this in ignorance of the fact that it’s not possible to effectively tell every story that is out there in a single two-hour piece.
What about the audience? We as artists on campus are almost always making theatre that will be exclusively shown to our fellow Vassar students (with the exception of a few staff or family members). “earnest” was unlike most other shows at Vassar in that it was open to the public. On opening night, I would say there was a surprisingly even split of older white people and Vassar students in the audience. This puzzled me until I realized I was watching a play that was reaching the older white audience in ways it would never speak to me. I don’t doubt that there were pressures put on the creative team by the Department to keep in mind that they were presenting for locals, but why was it that a large number of the creative choices made appeared as an effort to target an audience that isn’t nearly as diverse as we know Poughkeepsie truly is? If we can coordinate a bus to and from a retirement home, what’s stopping us from extending that same attention to a group home?
So while some older audience members left feeling educated, I left feeling frustrated, wondering who was this show really for—and why? On Thursday night, one older couple left during the very first scene. That same night, many of my fellow drama students laughed throughout the entirety of the show almost as much as they exchanged incredulous looks. The changes made to “Earnest” created a show that was clearly subversive and maybe even revolutionary for some people—but problematic for others.
I am not crying “problematic” to maliciously attack one person or group of people—I want to be able to engage in a dialogue about why I was left with this impression more than anything. An easy defense for any piece of theatre is that artists are usually trying to stay true to the text in front of them. I think this is something that could have been said of “earnest,” but at the same time there is an inescapable contradiction between this potential goal and the clear aim to modernize the piece. This play picked and chose what elements got to be changed and which stayed the same with very specific goals in mind. This was presented as “a” queer adaptation rather than “the” adaptation, but at the end of the day, it was the one that the Department went with, and this choice calls to attention our intrinsic prioritization of certain narratives over others.
We can’t allow ourselves to become complacent. If you are willing and ready to create art, prepare to engage. Our ability to question art and push its wider implications will always be the priority in these discussions. If these conversations don’t take place, then the art just happens, and Vassar’s theatre-makers will be left creating in a bubble where they are not held accountable for what they present. “earnest” is neither the first nor the last theatrical piece at Vassar that will warrant this kind of critique; it’s just the first one being spoken about critically in this newspaper—I hope it’s not the last.
I’m sure that there’s going to be someone reading this who thinks I’m overreacting, but this is not the part where I say sorry to you. Check the privilege that allows you to so comfortably be bothered by my voice and this view.
I unapologetically own the fact that my positionality as a queer Mexican Jewish girl left me wanting more from both this production and from the Drama Department as a whole.