Sunday, March 6, 2011

In Which Trai Mini-Reviews 'The Importance of Being Earnest', 'Peter Pan', and 'Pygmalion'

Many apologies about the lack of reviews in February. My courseload this semester has a lot of reading, as in a few books a week, and while it's great to read so much, time for reading outside of class has been incredibly scarce. I'm hoping things will settle down, but for now, reviews might be few and far between.

Mini-Reviewing the Classics!

The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde: This was one of those times when I only knew vaguely about the plot, mostly through osmosis. All I could remember was that it had to do with leading a double life, and that it was, symbolically, the play that Peter tries to see Mary Jane starring in in Spider-Man 2.

So yes. There went the extent of my acquaintance with Oscar Wilde, besides a long-held resolution to read The Picture of Dorian Gray. Eventually. I was pleased to finally read this play, having wanted to ever since the Spider-Man thing, and I wasn't disappointed. I found it witty, ironic, and really fun to discuss.

We go into The Importance of Being Earnest knowing two men: "Ernest" and Algernon. Algernon is very confused as to why his friend "Ernest" has a cigarette case declaring him to be someone's "Uncle Jack." As it turns out, "Ernest" is an identity fabricated by Jack, one that helps him escape from his duties as a guardian to his ward and go out on the town. Jack is also very much in love with Gwendolen Fairfax, and wishes to propose to her. They are forbidden to marry by the formidable Lady Bracknell, Gwendolen's mother, but Gwendolen swears her allegiance to him anyway. Algernon, meanwhile, is determined to disguise himself as Ernest in order to meet Jack's pretty young ward, Cecily. All of this would be fine--if Cecily and Gwendolen were not both convinced that they're engaged to the same Ernest, and Jack has already decided to conveniently "kill off" his Ernest persona.

This play was a quick read and also a really hilarious one; I truly enjoyed it and will definitely read it again sometime. I got a good laugh out of the many ironic lines, and I'm surprised at how well it holds up today. I'm sure all of us are guilty of occasional "Bunburying"--inventing a sick relative to get out of some social obligation! This was a welcome break from my habit of reading dramas whenever I sit down to read a play, and I'd definitely recommend it for fun book club discussion or something of that sort.


Peter Pan, by J.M. Barrie: This was one book that I was returning to after a previous acquaintance--I'd gotten most of the way through it around the time the 2003 live action movie debuted, but never had the chance to finish it. I was excited to finally read the whole thing, and as I read it, I could remember exactly which parts had made my 12-year-old self happy and which parts had confounded me slightly.

We start, of course, with Wendy, John, and Michael, three children who are whisked off by Peter Pan to Neverland. Peter believes that the Lost Boys of Neverland could use a mother to tell them stories, and Wendy agrees. Once in Neverland, however, the siblings have to contend with a few different dangers: Peter's sometimes mercurial nature, for one, and for another, the threat of Captain Hook and his fellow pirates.

This was a really, really interesting book to discuss in a college classroom. Gender roles are huge here, in a way that younger readers might not pick up on. There's a lot of underlying messages about growing up into mature adults, and the ending, when it comes, is bittersweet. Most of my classmates were surprised at the violence of the story: there are several instances when the boys are really threatened by the pirates, and there's actual deaths, not the Disneyified kind. (In addition, Tinker Bell can sort of be a bitch sometimes.)

This is actually one that I'm glad I didn't fully read until now--I wouldn't have appreciated it as much eight years ago, and I'm now really curious to break out my DVD of the 2003 version and see how it stacks up (pretty closely, according to my memory). This can be read to kids pretty safely--they won't even notice the violence, as it isn't lingered on too much--but is also a really thought-provoking and emotional read for adults.


Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw: My only acquiantance with anything Pygmalion-esque had been seeing My Fair Lady a few years ago, a show I wasn't quite enamored with. (I had a tough time understanding the Cockney accents, for one thing, which isn't an issue now that I've become acquainted with several British TV shows and other works of literature whose characters have strong accents, such as Wuthering Heights.) With that in my memory, I fully expected to hate this play with a passion.

I really should learn by now that more often than not, when I expect to hate something, I end up at least liking it. Shock, shock, surprise, surprise: I loved this play with everything I have. It wasn't the conventionally romantic drama the musical is. It's a really well-written look into the hearts and minds of two strong-willed individuals, Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, and I enjoyed every page.

I'm sure we all know the story, but to recap: Eliza Doolittle is a poor flower-seller who comes to Professor Henry Higgins seeking lessons in elocution. She has aspirations to rise from the gutter of her current life and start anew in a flower shop, and to do that, she must reform the way she speaks. Hugely confident in himself and viewing Eliza as an intriguing project, Higgins takes her on, making a bet with his friend Colonel Pickering that he can pass her off as a duchess in a few months.

After that, we get a brief glimpse into Eliza's lessons, and then into her development into someone who can pass as an upper-class lady. I was really pleased with the depth of the play's characterizations and the range of issues it brought up. After all, don't we still judge people by the way they speak? Should we do as Higgins does, treating everyone exactly the same, or as Pickering does, treating Eliza with respect as he would a lady, even when she isn't one? What hold does a creator have over his creation?

Spoilers ahoy! What pleased me most about this one was the ending, as unpopular an opinion as that is. Shaw could have taken the easy way out and gone for the traditional romantic ending, but he didn't, and the play is so much the better for it, in my opinion. End spoilers.

All of these awesome classics can be found for free via Project Gutenberg. Go forth and read!

The Importance of Being Earnest: here.
Peter Pan: here.
Pygmalion: here. If anyone is looking for a print edition, I can't recommend this one enough. I'm a huge fan of the Enriched Classics line; their edition of Jane Eyre helped my understanding mightily, and this edition of Pygmalion had great notes and even some scenes that are normally excised.

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