More Wile E. than Wilde
The Canterville Ghost
The source: The Canterville Ghost is a cute story, knocked off in a hurry by rising, flamboyant wit Oscar Wilde in 1887—a few years before he was to write The Picture of Dorian Gray. Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost is a comedy of manners about what differentiates Americans from Brits. Its Victorian ending is sexually suggestive (involving a young American girl who disappears into a secret room and “releases” the ghost from his long torture).
The Canterville Ghost remains a footnote in Wilde’s meteoric, edgy career. Wilde was a brilliant Irishman, a cultural outsider who witnessed the world and handled the language more clearly than most Englishmen. He wrote four plays brilliantly satirizing the upper classes, including The Importance of Being Earnest. Simultaneously, he bedded a much-younger British lord, resulting in Wilde’s conviction for “homosexual acts” and sentence to hard labor in prison. When they let him out, Wilde fled to France and died not long afterward at the age of 46.
The matter at hand: The Canterville Ghost as currently produced by the Children’s Theatre of California. Here, you get no whiff of Wilde’s controversial life. Wilde materializes in the show only as a gaudy commentator.
The Canterville Ghost has been catnip to entertainers for 100 years, even though literature professors disdain it. Numerous playwrights, filmmakers and TV types from London to Hollywood have taken a whack at producing the tale. They all fall for the same aspect: Wilde’s prescient comic conflict between the sensible American inventor (plus wife and family) who buys a creepy old English estate and the ancient ghost who haunts the place. The English ghost becomes dejected because he just can’t scare these new people.
The Children’s Theatre of California version moves the action up to 1910, a decade after Wilde’s death, in order to reference a motor car. However, script writer Marisha Chamberlain preserves a surprising amount of dialogue from the original. Nonetheless, this Children’s Theatre production, directed by Buck Busfield, is watered-down. It owes as much to Warner Bros. as it does to Wilde.
This is unlikely to dismay the average sixth-grader meeting the story for the first time. We are movie-trained, after all. It’s a cute show, but it falls short of the higher standard set by the first Children’s Theatre of California production, Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, which had a better balance of kid-adult appeal and a clearer message at the end.
Final footnote: Wilde’s story can be found in most libraries (and online). A reading beforehand enhances the show, though you may wish for more.