March 3, 2006
Life in code
Miriam Margolyes on ‘earnest’ folks in Oscar Wilde’s time and now
Columbus is about to have a major brush with British royalty. Of the theatrical set, that is. Two grand dames of the English theater, Lynn Redgrave and Miriam Margolyes, are stopping by the capital city in a touring production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, directed by Sir Peter Hall.
At the height of the Victorian era, Wilde gave the proverbial finger to the uptight society by being openly queer. He was not only one of the best playwrights to have lived, but he was also a precursor to the modern GLBT civil rights movement post-Stonewall. He was destroyed by a grand inquisition--led by the McCarthyesque Marquis of Queensbury--into his private life and imprisoned, perhaps one of the more famous victims of a literal gay bashing.
His masterful plays survive today not only because of their exceptional wit and wisdom, but also because they are coded and brimming with relevance for our troubled and often humorless times.
I had the honor and pleasure of talking to Miriam Margolyes about Wilde and the production in which she plays the inimitable Ms. Prism. Margolyes has played this part before on a radio production of Earnest opposite Dame Judy Dench as Lady Bracknell.
Margolyes won the British Academy’s Best Supporting Actress award in 1993 for Martin Scorceses’s The Age of Innocence. She also received Best Supporting Actress at the 1989 L.A. Critics Circle Awards for her role in Little Dorrit and a Sony Radio Award for Best Actress on Radio in 1993. She was the voice of Fly the dog in the delightful pig tale Babe.
In 2002, Queen Elizabeth conferred on Margolyes the Order of the British Empire, one of the highest honors bestowed upon women in the U.K.
She spoke to me from Los Angeles, driving to a performance of Earnest in the pouring rain, something which reminded her of her other home, England.
Margolyes is an amazingly upfront person, passionate about rectifying the inhumanity of contemporary societies and equalizing the inequalities faced by those on the margins of society. Her grace, compassion, inimitable spirit and sparkling humor came through in spades as we chatted for about an hour.
Kaizaad Kotwal: When and why did you move to the States?
Miriam Margolyes: I came to California in 1989 [after the award for Little Dorrit] and I thought that if they can give me, an unknown person, an award, then I can move there and see what happens. I was 50 at the time and I thought it was very brave of me. I got a whole new wardrobe, because I am terrible with clothes, and came here. Then, I was interviewed on the Today show by Katie Couric, and Johnny Carson saw me and invited me on his show. And from that I started to get work almost immediately.
KK: Have you acclimatized well to the U.S.?
MM: Oh no, not at all. I have remained completely English and I am still no good with clothes. America has welcomed me here and I think it is she who has acclimatized to me.
KK: When you are in the U.S. what do you miss about England?
MM: The BBC. A decent newspaper, the equivalent of the Guardian.
KK: And when in the U.K. what do you miss about your home here?
MM: The weather. Although tonight it is so reminiscent of England with all this rain.
KK: What do you like about your role as Ms. Prism in Earnest?
MM: The language. I enjoy words very much. She speaks beautifully. I also like her repression because under that she is an extremely sexual being. And I love playing comedy, so all in all this is such a great blessing.
KK: Oscar Wilde was writing in a very repressive era and living as a gay man. How do you think this affected his work and life, especially the witch-hunt to expose him?
MM: Yes, sadly that is true. The need to hide was the fuel for much of what he wrote. Many people may not know this, but “earnest” was used in Victorian times for homosexuals and even then it was known only to a few. Today you would call it a “friend of Dorothy.” The fact that he led a double life is reflected in many of the characters he wrote from An Ideal Husband to Lady Windermere’s Fan and Earnest.
KK: Having lived here for a while and having come from England, what do you think Wilde would have made of so much of the anti-gay rhetoric and open homophobia masquerading as public policy and law from the extreme right?
MM: The anti-homosexual melody doesn’t change, does it? Their music is unvaried and horrible. Wilde would have portrayed them with scorn and wit and made mincemeat of them all. Were he alive today he would not have been destroyed the way he was back then. It is the most wicked tragedy, what they did to him. He had so much more to offer. Today he would have been like a Gore Vidal, an elder statesman of gayness.
KK: What do you make of this persistent gay bashing from the White House down to religious leaders and prominent members of the media?
MM: I can’t understand it. It’s like the whole country is divided. On the one hand you have the popularity of shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Brokeback Mountain--which I think is going to win the Oscar--and on the other hand you have this curiously frenzied attack on homosexuality. Is it part of the Puritan tradition from the founding of this country which has turned in on itself and gone sour? I mean what on earth does it matter who you love. These are the silliest people. They’re just stupid and I have contempt for them. And I don’t consider they have a right to their opinion like so many will say. People don’t have a right to stupid, uninformed opinions, I’m sorry.
KK: Why do you think you are so animated by the unequal treatment of queer people?
MM: I am merely trying to be active in promoting a decent attitude towards anyone. Homosexual or black or anyone mistreated. I am simply on the side of life.
KK: What does a play like Earnest have to say to audiences today?
MM: The play is relevant as it stands set in the 1890s. You don’t have to change a thing. I am wary to say what a play is about. But Earnest talks to us about how you live your life and how do you love. Do you lie or tell the truth?
KK: What is it like to share the stage with Lynn Redgrave?
MM: Lovely. She is just a lovely lady. It is an honor. She is completely brilliant as Lady Bracknell and the entire cast has bonded rather well.
KK: After this tour what’s on the agenda for you?
MM: I don’t know. I’ll be looking for work. (Laughs) I’ll be an old broad searching for work.
KK: You have had a most distinguished and varied career. Are there pieces of theater or film you want to do or people you’d like to work with?
MM: I want to do more Shakespeare. More Chekhov. I would love to do a sharp comedy like the British version of The Office, not the formulaic American ones. I would love to work with Martin Scorcese again having worked with him on The Age of Innocence. I want to work with this young director of Junebug, Phil Morrison. I want to work for young new directors who have no respect for you.
KK: Why is that?
MM: Because they make you do things that you haven’t expected yourself to do. They push you.
KK: Are you happy with where you are, professionally and personally?
MM: Not at all. (laughing) I want to be more important.
The Importance of Being Earnest will be at the Southern Theater, 21 East Main Street in Columbus from March 9 to 12. Showtimes are 8 pm March 9 – 11 and 2 pm on March 11 and 12. Tickets are $37, $47, and $57. Call 614-4313600 or 614-4690939 for reservations or more information.