This week, Brian Fabry Dorsam professes his love for British television and explores the connection between Oscar Wilde’s Victorian comedy, The Importance of Being Earnest, and Evelyn Waugh’s World War II tragedy, Brideshead Revisited.
In 1945, the year that brought the end of the second Great War, Evelyn Waugh published his brilliant and important novel, Brideshead Revisited. Brideshead tells many stories, but perhaps the most famous is that of Sebastian Flyte. Born to an immensely wealthy family in rural England, Sebastian fights on both sides of his own great war between his inborn sexuality and his inbred Catholicism. Eventually, inevitably, he becomes his war’s only casualty, losing himself to alcohol, loneliness, and depression.
Though Waugh’s story takes place primarily in the 1920s, decades after Oscar Wilde’s Victorian masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest, I’ve always felt a strong connection between the two central figures. Sebastian, I feel, is a tragic Algernon. His story is Algernon’s story, were Algernon written into a tragedy rather than a comedy. An immeasurably rich playboy consumed by excess and pleasure, bound to familial expectation, and encountering, perhaps for the first time, real love – thus begins each story, though one ends with tears, the other with laughter. For this reason, as I progress with my character work, I’ve been looking at the beautiful and diligent 1981 television adaptation of Brideshead for inspiration.
In this version, Sebastian is played by Anthony Andrews, who imbues Sebastian with wit, charm and a deep melancholy that seems to predict his sad demise. Andrews’s Sebastian has a wonderful carelessness about him that contrasts stunningly with his deep and ultimately unshakeable reverence. Waugh’s telling and Granada Television’s faithful retelling both depict with impeccable restraint and subtlety Sebastian’s painful struggle between his unalterable devotion to his Catholic upbringing and his undeniable, passionate love for his dearest friend, Charles. The series provides a detailed look at declining English aristocracy, coloring wonderfully the importance of family, the influence of upbringing and the conflict between love and duty. The setting likewise gives a rewarding glimpse into life at Oxford University, the alma mater of both Sebastian and Algernon. I am absolutely transfixed by this series, and owe the whole effort an incredible debt. Here’s a brief but illustrative clip of Andrews at work, followed by a few photographs: