The acclaimed English actor Brian Bedford, who is playing Lady Bracknell in the recently-extended production of The Importance of Being Earnest, talks to Kevin Sessums about Oscar Wilde, playing opposite Gielgud—and what he wears under his dress.
On February 19, 1970, Dick Cavett honored Sir Noel Coward on his recent knighthood by welcoming as his guests on his talk show Sir Noel and his good friends, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. As a surprise, the two stars of that Broadway season's smash hit revival of Coward's Private Lives, Tammy Grimes and Brian Bedford, serenaded Sir Noel with a medley of his most popular songs. Cavett then turned to Sir Noel, and asked him, "What is the word for when one has terrific, prolific qualities?" Sir Noel: "Talent."
The talented Mr. Bedford has in the intervening 41 years had many terrific, prolific successes of his own, many of them in the Moliere comedies for which he has been hailed as the finest English-speaking exemplar of the Comedie Francaise franchise. But now, at 75, he is having a triumph that is thrilling audiences not only with its hilarious audacity but also its seriousness. Bedford has taken on the role of Lady Augusta Bracknell in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest at New York's Roundabout Theatre and there is not a stunt-like moment in his portrayal. From the glorious second he makes his entrance in his fortress of a 19th-century gown, one forgets he is a man and believes he is, indeed, Lady Bracknell. In no sense of the word is his performance a drag. Bedford is creating that most difficult form of theatrical lore: the legendary comedic performance. Legend has always been trusted to the tragedians. But the buxom Bedford has now staked his claim.
>I met him last Friday over a noontime breakfast of a bowl of oatmeal and raisins in the West Side apartment he shares with his partner, the actor Tim MacDonald, who plays the marvelously droll butler Merriman in Earnest. No 19th-century gown was worn as he greeted me and we settled around his dining room table. Instead he was wearing a T-shirt and sweat pants. He feet were shod in socks but no shoes. In another room, MacDonald was doing a bit of laundry. They were guilelessly displaying the epitome of marital domesticity, today's version of the Wilde life.
KEVIN SESSUMS: George Bernard Shaw was the lone critic of the time who did not like The Importance of Being Earnest. He wrote that although it was "rib-tickling," it "lacked humanity."
BRIAN BEDFORD: Well, he's a fine one to talk. But he and Oscar were quite pally. They were both Irishmen, of course. There's a marvelous letter he wrote to Shaw about censorship that is very funny and apropos. As a companion piece to this production of Earnest, which originated at Stratford Ontario, I did a one-man show called, Me Oscar Wilde, which was based on his letters.
I read his collected letters a few summers ago. As a lapsed Mississippian, one of the most shocking to me regarded his visit with Jefferson Davis down at Davis' home in Biloxi. Wilde had stated on one of his reading tours of the States that the one man he wanted to meet was Davis because he found such similarities between the South and Ireland. He spent the night with the Davis family and even left them an inscribed photograph of himself which was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina. The mind boggles at that meeting.
He also met Walt Whitman. Walt Whitman thought he was adorable. Even went on the record about that.
You think they slept together?
Oh, one wouldn't think so. They were not each other's type. But it is a fascinating conjecture.
As fascinating as Laurence Olivier and Danny Kaye.
“John [Gielgud] and I became very close friends during that period. We’d take long walks around Stratford. Have dinner together a lot.” Did he make a pass at you? “No. Well…”
Oh, I don't believe that one. That was just the sputtering of Spoto. [Biographer Donald Spoto who claimed the bisexual Olivier was lovers with Kaye.] Yet Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman! Oh, my. Wouldn't you have liked to have been a fly on the wall there. But getting back to this George Bernard Shaw thing for a moment. I think he just didn't get The Importance of Being Earnest. But to try and describe what he didn't get is like trying to define the word "camp," which is impossible.
Well, Susan Sontag attempted to define it in her 50-odd Notes on it. She even prefaced them with the sentence, "These notes are for Oscar Wilde." Peppered them with a few of his aphorisms. The campiest concept to me is Susan Sontag attempting to grasp it with all that gray matter of hers. She did write that to talk about it is to destroy it. So let us—forgive me—decamp from such a discussion.
Yes. Let's. What I find rather.... well... not campy at all but finally tragic... about Earnest is it is the play in which Oscar found his writer's voice and yet it also was the beginning of his downfall. Opening night was Valentine's Day, sadly enough. February 14, 1895. There had just been a big snowstorm in London. Queensbury [John Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensbury, the father of Lord Alfred Douglas, AKA Bosie, who was Wilde's young lover] showed up that night with a lot of rotten vegetables to throw at Oscar at the curtain call but they luckily got rid of him before the curtain even went up. But it was only three or four days after that when Queensbury left "the card" at Oscar's private club, that card with the most famous misspelling of all time when he accused him of posing as a S-O-M-D-O-M-I-T-E.
That would be a great title for something.
It's almost as good as The Daily Beast.
There are certainly bits of coded in-your-faceness in Earnest. Bracknell, for instance, was the name of the country estate where the mother of Oscar's titled little catamite summered.
Earnest is full of codes. Oscar always threw everything in from his private life. One of his most interesting letters was Oscar pitching the play—which at the time he called Lady Lancing, whatever the fuck that means—to George Alexander, the original producer of Earnest.
Alexander was looking for a play to fill a hole in the schedule at his theater where Henry James had just had such a failure with his play Guy Domville.
And as usual, Oscar was in desperate need of money. So he wrote this letter to Alexander, who ultimately was responsible for changing Wilde's four-act first draft of Earnest into three acts. He also did serious surgery within the play itself. Oscar was driving everybody nuts during the rehearsals so Alexander hit upon this brilliant idea. He knew that Oscar liked to go to Algeria and misbehave. Bosie was about to go there anyway. So Alexander paid for Oscar to go to Algeria for a few weeks holiday as well. The rehearsals continued and Oscar came back right before the opening in time to see a dress rehearsal. Afterward, he said to George Alexander, "This is very strange. I once wrote a play very similar to this one." In fact, the only name of a character that remains from that initial letter pitching the play is Miss Prism. Every other character had its name changed. But not Prism, whom Oscar described in that letter as "a dragon of propriety."
That could have just as easily been a description of Lady Bracknell. Your portrayal of her is the finest confutation of The Method I have ever witnessed. Unless, that is, you tell me you are wearing panties each night beneath that monster of a gown. So which is it? Boxers or panties?
I'm afraid it's Y-fronts. What do you call them here? Briefs. God! I'm shocked I've admitted such a thing.
So the confutation is intact—Y-fronts and all. I mentioned Henry James' famous failure as a playwright. And Wilde wrote of Jefferson Davis that he was "fascinating, as all failures are." You have had such a triumph with this role as you have had in so many roles on the New York stage. But what would you consider your biggest failure?
Well, I tried to play Ariel to Sir John Gielgud's Prospero. I wasn't very good. I was about 21 maybe. John was my mentor. If I had to cite one person who mentored me in the theater I would absolutely cite John. It was all organized by Peter Brook—even though I had met John several times in certain circles since I was about 19. I was in A View From the Bridge as Rodolpho. Peter Brook was directing it. Arthur Miller was at rehearsals. And in the back of the orchestra as we rehearsed there was this haze of blond je ne sais quoi. It was Marilyn. She was always sitting out there quietly watching us. It was a fabulous time. So at the end of that run, Peter Brook said he wanted me to be in The Tempest at Stratford-upon-Avon and John would be playing Prospero. He even asked me which part I wanted to play. Unfortunately I chose Ariel instead of Ferdinand. Ferdinand was in my limited range at that point and with Ariel I was completely out of my depth. Plus, I was going through such a self-destructive period at the time. I was so deeply unhappy. And felt so inadequate. And, indeed, I was in that part. I was awful. But John and I became very close friends during that period. We'd take long walks around Stratford. Have dinner together a lot.
Did he make a pass at you?
Was he in love with you—but from afar?
Well, not from too far away. We'd need another hour to talk about John.
You came up in the world of Gielgud and Coward and their cedar-closeted ilk and yet you've lived most of your life quite openly regarding your sexual orientation. Coward was once asked why he didn't just finally come out all the way. He said, "Because there are still three old ladies in Brighton who don't know." How long have you been with Tim?
[Tim MacDonald from the other room]: 25 years!
[Bedford in Bracknell's lowest register]: Oh, don't listen to him. I just met that person last night.
What is the difference between Coward and Wilde?
I don't think Coward would quite have happened without Wilde. I consider in the classic comedy tradition that Private Lives is the play that followed The Importance of Being Earnest. And the play before Earnest was School for Scandal.
And you've had great triumphs now in all three. And the difference between performing Moliere and Wilde?
Is everything a satisfactory answer?
You attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Do you think talent can be learned?
No. I don't. Developed? Yes. Not learned. It's a very mysterious thing: talent. I was once in Baltimore touring in Deathtrap. Maggie Smith was at the Eisenhower Theatre doing a Stoppard play at the same time. I had promised her I'd go see a certain evening performance but I had had a matinee so I was late getting there. They pushed me into what might pass as the royal box but a bit further away from the stage. I was watching the play—entrances and exits and all that—and then Maggie appeared. It seemed as if she had a different writer. It seemed as if she had different lighting. Even all that way back where I was sitting, that performance of hers arrived at me like a beacon. Every thought that passed through her head was miraculously clear. That is unexplainable. That is talent.
Bless your heart, Brian. You've just described your own performance as Bracknell.
Kevin Sessums is the author of the New York Times bestseller Mississippi Sissy , a memoir of his childhood. He was executive editor of Andy Warhol's Interview magazine and a contributing editor of Vanity Fair and Allure. He is a contributing editor of Parade. His new memoir, I Left It on Mountain will be published by St. Martins Press.