Bet on the Kiss

One of the secret pleasures of writing your own plays is that you get to use them as a way to try and fix the things that annoy you in other people’s plays. Case in point: As I’ve often mentioned, I’m a huge fan of Oscar Wilde, and his works were a major influence on my play, “An Invitation Out,” but something he did in one of his early comedies has always bugged me.

At the end of Act One of “A Woman of No Importance,” witty Mrs. Allonby challenges the dandyish Lord Illingworth to kiss a visiting American puritan named Hester Worsley, and Illingworth gladly accepts. But once the challenge is made, Illingworth and Hester are never actually onstage at the same time, no tension is built, and their tete-a-tete happens entirely offstage. Hester just runs on yelling about how she’s been terribly insulted, other plot mechanics kick in, and that’s pretty much the end of it. Which has always struck me as a huge missed opportunity. There was an interesting scene that happened out of our view, I was sure of it, and the fact that I would never get to see it continued to irk me every time I picked up the play. But as I worked on “Invitation,” I noticed that a few of my characters had some surface resemblance to Wilde’s trio – there was the witty young lady, the dandyish gentleman, the awkward outsider in their midst – and I suddenly realized I had a once-in-a-lifetime chance to write my own version of the scene I’d been dying to read for years.

I started with the same basic situation – the lady bets the dandy he can’t get a kiss out of the outsider – but since the similarities between our characters were superficial at best, my dandy’s attempt to get that kiss became a much different scene than the one between Hester and Lord Illingworth that I’d been imagining for so long. As I went through various drafts of the play, that scene always stayed in, but in each draft the answer of who exactly “won” the bet became murkier and more complex, and I began to think that maybe Mr. Wilde was on to something when he decided not to open that can of worms. Even so, it’s still one of my favorite scenes I’ve written. So if you happen to come see my play next month, you’ll have to let me know if you think it was, in fact, a good bet, or if Oscar was right all along and I should have left well enough alone.

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