The Importance of Being Earnest
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The Importance of being Earnest, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People is a play by Oscar Wilde. First performed on 14 February 1895 at St. James's Theatre in London, the play is a farcical comedy in which the protagonists maintain fictitious personae in order to escape burdensome obligations. Working within the social conventions of late Victorian London, the play's major themes are the triviality with which it treats institutions as serious as marriage, and the resulting satire of Victorian ways. Contemporary reviews all praised the play's humour, though some were cautious about its explicit lack of social messages, while others foresaw the modern consensus that it was the culmination of Wilde's artistic career so far. Its high farce and witty dialogue have helped make The Importance of Being Earnest Wilde's most enduringly popular play.
The successful opening night marked the climax of Wilde's career but also heralded his downfall. The Marquess of Queensberry, father of Lord Alfred Douglas, an intimate friend of Wilde, planned to present Wilde a bouquet of spoiling vegetables and disrupt the show. Wilde was tipped off and Queensberry was refused admission. Soon afterwards the feud came to a climax in court, and Wilde's new notoriety caused the play, despite its success, to be closed after just 86 performances. After imprisonment, he published the play from Paris but wrote no further comic or dramatic work. The Importance of Being Earnest has been revived many times since its premiere and adapted for the cinema on three occasions, in 1952, 1992 and 2002.
After the success of Wilde's plays Lady Windermere's Fan and A Woman of No Importance, Wilde's producers urged him to write further plays. In July 1894 he mooted his idea for The Importance of Being Earnest to Sir George Alexander, the actor-manager of St. James's Theatre. Wilde summered with his family at Worthing, where he wrote the play quickly in August. His fame now at its peak, he used the working title Lady Lancing to avoid pre-emptive speculation of its content. Many names and ideas in the play were borrowed from people or places the author had known: Lady Queensberry, Lord Alfred Douglas' mother, for example, lived at Bracknell. Michael Feingold, an American critic, claims that Wilde drew inspiration for his plot from W. S. Gilbert's Engaged. Meticulous revisions continued throughout the Autumn—such that no line was left untouched, and "in a play so economical with its language and effects, they had serious consequences". Richard Ellmann argues that Wilde had reached his artistic maturity and wrote this work more surely and rapidly than before.
Wilde hesitated about submitting the script to Alexander, worrying that it might be unsuitable for the St. James's Theatre, whose typical repertoire was relatively serious, and explaining that it had been written in response to a request for a play "with no real serious interest". When Henry James's Guy Domville failed, Alexander turned to Wilde and agreed to put on his play. Alexander began his usual meticulous preparations, interrogating the author on each line and planning stage movements with a toy theatre. In the course of these rehearsals Alexander asked Wilde to shorten the play from four acts to three. Wilde agreed and combined elements of the second and third acts. The largest cut was the removal of the character of Mr. Gribsby, a solicitor who comes from London to arrest the profligate "Ernest" (i.e. Jack) for his unpaid dining bills. Algernon, who is posing as "Ernest", will be led away to Holloway Jail unless he settles his accounts immediately. Jack finally agrees to pay for Ernest, everyone thinking that it is Algernon's bill when in fact it is his own. The four-act version was first played on the radio in a BBC production and is still sometimes performed. Peter Raby argues that the three act structure is more effective, and that the shorter original text is more theatrically resonant than the expanded published edition.
The play was first produced in St. James's Theatre, London, on St. Valentine's Day 1895. It was freezing cold but Wilde arrived dressed in "florid sobriety", wearing a green carnation. The audience, according to one report, "included many members of the great and good, former cabinet ministers and privy councillors, as well as actors, writers, academics, and enthuasists". Allan Aynesworth, who played Mr Algernon Moncrieff, recalled to Hesketh Pearson that "In my fifty-three years of acting, I never remember a greater triumph than [that] first night." Aynesworth was himself "debonair and stylish", and Alexander, who played Mr. Jack Worthing, "demure".
The cast was:
- Mr. J. P. Worthing – George Alexander
- Mr. Algernon Moncrieff – Allan Aynesworth
- The Rev. Canon Chasuble, D.D. – H. H. Vincent
- Merriman – Frank Dyall
- Lane – F. Kinsey Peile
- Lady Bracknell – Rose Leclerq
- The Hon. Gwendolen Fairfax – Irene Vanbrugh
- Miss Cecily Cardew – Evelyn Millard
- Miss Prism – Mrs. George Cunninge
The Marquess of Queensberry, the father of Wilde's intimate friend Lord Alfred Douglas (who was on holiday in Algiers at the time), had planned to disrupt the play by throwing a bouquet of spoiling vegetables at the playwright when he took his bow at the end of the show. Wilde and Alexander learned of the plan, and the latter cancelled Queensberry's ticket and arranged for policemen to bar his entrance. Nevertheless, he continued harassing Wilde, who eventually sued for libel, triggering a series of trials ending in Wilde's imprisonment. Wilde's ensuing notoriety caused the play, despite its success, to be closed after only 86 performances.
Until after Wilde's death his name remained disgraced and few discussed, let alone performed, his work. A collected edition of Wilde's works, published in 1908 and edited by Robert Ross, helped to restore his reputation. In 1911 The Importance of being Earnest was revived by Alexander in St. James's; he and Aynesworth resumed their lead roles. Max Beerbohm said that the play was sure to become a classic of the English repertory, and that its humour was as fresh then as when it had been written, adding that the actors had "worn as well as the play". The play's respectability was assured in 1946 when a charity performance was attended by King George VI. As Wilde's work came to be read and performed again, it was The Importance of being Earnest which saw the most productions.
John Gielgud was possibly the most famous Jack Worthing of the twentieth century, and his 1939 production was seen as a turning point in modern stagings: it quickly served as a model for later performances. Gielgud also directed, produced and acted in the 1948 Broadway production whose cast won a special Tony Award for "Outstanding Foreign Company". The play has been performed at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival five times beginning in 1975 with William Hutt playing "Lady Bracknell" in both the 1975 and 1976 productions. The 2009 production was directed by Brian Bedford. In 2005, the Abbey Theatre produced the play with an all male cast; it also featured Wilde as a character – the play opens with him drinking in a Parisian café, dreaming of his play.
Lady Bracknell's line, "A handbag?", has been called one of the most malleable in English drama, lending itself to interpretations ranging from incredulous or scandalised to baffled. Dame Edith Evans, both on stage and in the 1952 film, delivered the line loudly in a mixture of horror, incredulity and condescension. Stockard Channing, in the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin in 2010, hushed the line, in a critic's words, "with a barely audible 'A handbag?', rapidly swallowed up with a sharp intake of breath. An understated take, to be sure, but with such a well-known play, packed full of witticisms and aphorisms with a life of their own, it's the little things that make a difference."
Set in "The Present" (1895) in London, the play opens with Algernon Moncrieff, an idle young gentleman, receiving his best friend, whom he knows as Ernest Worthing. Ernest has come from the country to propose to Algernon's cousin, Gwendolen. Algernon, however, refuses his consent until Ernest explains why his cigarette case bears the inscription, "From little Cecily, with her fondest love to her dear Uncle Jack." "Ernest" is forced to admit to living a double life. In the country, he assumes a serious attitude for the benefit of his young ward, Cecily, and goes by the name of John (or Jack), while pretending that he must worry about a wastrel younger brother named Ernest in London. In the city, meanwhile, he assumes the identity of the libertine Ernest. Algernon confesses a similar deception: he pretends to have an invalid friend named Bunbury in the country, whom he can "visit" whenever he wishes to avoid an unwelcome social obligation. Gwendolen and her formidable mother Lady Bracknell then call on Algernon. As he distracts Lady Bracknell in another room, Jack proposes to Gwendolen. She accepts, but seems to love him very largely for his professed name of Ernest; Jack resolves to himself to be rechristened "Ernest". Lady Bracknell discovers them and interrogates Jack as a prospective suitor. Horrified that he was adopted after being discovered as a baby in a handbag at Victoria Station, she refuses him and forbids further contact. Gwendolen, however, manages covertly to swear her undying love. As Jack gives her his address in the country, Algernon notes it on the cuff of his sleeve; Jack's revelation of his pretty young ward has motivated Algernon to meet her.
Act II moves to Jack's country house, the Manor House in Woolton, Hertfordshire, where Cecily is found studying with her governess, Miss Prism. Algernon arrives pretending to be Ernest Worthing and soon charms Cecily. She falls smitten with Ernest, so Algernon plans for the rector, Dr. Chasuble, to rechristen him "Ernest". Jack, meanwhile, has decided to put his double life behind him. He arrives in full mourning and announces Ernest's death in Paris of a severe chill, a story undermined by Algernon's presence in the guise of Ernest. Gwendolen now arrives, having run away from home, she meets Cecily in the temporary absence of the two men, and each indignantly declares that she is the one engaged to "Ernest". When Jack and Algernon reappear, their deceptions are exposed.
Act III moves inside to the drawing room. Lady Bracknell arrives in pursuit of her daughter and is surprised to be told that Algernon and Cecily are engaged. The size of Cecily's trust fund soon dispels her initial doubts over Cecily's suitability as a wife for her nephew. However, stalemate develops when Jack refuses his consent to the marriage of his ward to Algernon until Lady Bracknell consents to his own union with Gwendolen.
The impasse is broken by the return of Miss Prism. Lady Bracknell recognises the governess: twenty-eight years earlier, as a family nursemaid, she took a baby boy for a walk in a perambulator and never returned. Miss Prism explains that she had abstractedly put the manuscript of a novel she was writing in the perambulator, and the baby in a handbag, which she had left at Victoria Station. Jack produces the very same handbag, showing that he is the lost baby, the elder son of Lady Bracknell's late sister, and thus indeed Algernon's older brother – and suddenly eligible as a suitor for Gwendolen. Gwendolen remains firm that she can only love a man named Ernest. What is her fiancé's real first name? Lady Bracknell informs Jack that, as the first-born, he would have been named after his father, General Moncrieff. Jack examines army lists and discovers that his father's name – and hence his own real name – was in fact Ernest. As the happy couples embrace – Jack and Gwendolen, Algernon and Cecily, Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism – Lady Bracknell complains to her new-found relative: "My nephew, you seem to be displaying signs of triviality." "On the contrary, Aunt Augusta", he replies,
"I've now realised for the first time in my life the vital Importance of being Earnest".
In contrast to much theatre of the time, The Importance of Being Earnest's light plot does not tackle serious social and political issues, something contemporary reviewers were wary of. Though unsure of Wilde's seriousness as a dramatist, they recognised the play's cleverness, humour and popularity with audiences. George Bernard Shaw, for example, reviewed the play in the Saturday Review, arguing that comedy should touch as well as amuse, "I go to the theatre to be moved to laughter". Later in a letter he said, the play, though "extremely funny" was Wilde's "first really heartless [one]". In The World, William Archer wrote that he had enjoyed watching the play but found it to be empty of meaning, "What can a poor critic do with a play which raises no principle, whether of art or morals, creates its own canons and conventions, and is nothing but an absolutely wilful expression of an irrepressibly witty personality?"
In The Speaker, A.B. Walkey admired the play and was one of few see it as the culmination of Wilde's dramatical career. He denied the term "farce" was derogatory, or even lacking in seriousness, and said "It is of nonsense all compact, and better nonsense, I think, our stage has not seen". H.G. Wells, in an unsigned review for the Pall Mall Gazette, called Earnest one of freshest comedies of the year, saying "More humorous dealing with theatrical conventions it would be difficult to imagine." He also questioned whether people would fully see its message, "..how Serious People will take this Trivial Comedy intended for their learning remains to be seen. No doubt seriously." The play was so light-hearted that many reviewers compared it to comic opera rather than drama. W.H.Auden called it "a pure verbal opera", while The Times wrote that "The story is almost too preposterous to go without music".
Of the theatre of the period, only the work of Wilde and his fellow Irishman Shaw has survived, as well as the farce Charley's Aunt. The Importance of Being Earnest is Wilde's most popular work and continually revived today. Max Beerbohm called this play Wilde's "finest, most indeniably his own", saying that in his other comedies Lady Windermere's Fan, A Woman of No Importance and An Ideal Husband "you are aware of the mechanism, you are aware of Sardou".
Richard Ellmann says that The Importance of Being Earnest touched on many themes Wilde had been building since the 1880s – the languor of aesthetic poses was well-established and Wilde takes it as a starting point for the two protagonists. While Salomé, An Ideal Husband and The Picture of Dorian Gray had dwelt on more serious wrongdoing, vice in Earnest is represented by Algy's craving for cucumber sandwiches. Wilde told Robert Ross that the play's theme was "That we should treat all trivial things in life very seriously, and all serious things of life with a sincere and studied triviality." The theme is hinted at in the play's ironic title, and "earnestness" is repeatedly alluded to in the dialogue, Algernon says in Act II, "one has to be serious about something if one is to have any amusement in life' but goes on to reproach Jack for 'being serious about everything'". Blackmail and corruption had haunted the double lives of Dorian Gray and Sir Robert Chiltern (in An Ideal Husband), but in Earnest the protagonists' duplicity ("bunburying") is merely to avoid unwelcome social obligations. While much theatre of the time tackled serious social and political issues, The Importance of..is superficially about nothing at all. It "refuses to play the game" of other dramatists of the period, for instance George Bernard Shaw, who used their characters to draw audiences to grander ideals.
As a satire of society
The play repeatedly mocks Victorian mores and social customs, marriage and the pursuit of love in particular. In Victorian times earnestness was considered to be the over-riding societal value, originating in religious attempts to reform the lower classes, it spread to the upper ones too throughout the century. The play's very title, with its mocking paradox (serious people are so because they do not see trivial comedies) introduces the theme, it continues in the drawing room discussion, "Yes, but you must be serious about it. I hate people who are not serious about meals. It is so shallow of them" says Algernon in Act 1; allusions are quick and from multiple angles. Wilde embodied society's rules and rituals artfully into Lady Bracknell: minute attention to the details of her style created a comic effect of assertion by restraint. In contrast to her encyclopaedic knowledge of the social distinctions of London's street names, Jack's obscure parentage is subtly evoked. He defends himself against her "A handbag?" with the clarification, "The Brighton Line". At the time, Victoria Station consisted of two separate but adjacent terminal stations sharing the same name. To the east was the ramshackle LC&D Railway, on the west the up-market LB&SCR—the Brighton Line, which went to Worthing, the fashionable, expensive town the gentleman who found baby Jack was travelling to at the time (and after which Jack was named).
Wilde managed both to engage with and to mock the genre. The men follow traditional matrimonial rites, but the foibles they excuse are ridiculous, and the farce is built on an absurd confusion of a book and a baby. In turn, both Gwendolen and Cecily have the ideal of marrying a man named Ernest, a popular and respected name at the time, and they indignantly declare that they have been deceived when they find out the men's real names. When Jack apologises to Gwendolen during his marriage proposal it is for not being wicked:
JACK: Gwendolen, it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth. Can you forgive me?
GWENDOLEN: I can. For I feel that you are sure to change.
The name Ernest, it has been posited, might also have an ulterior meaning. John Gambril Nicholson wrote in 1892, "Though Frank may ring like silver bell, And Cecil softer music claim, They cannot work the miracle, –'Tis Ernest sets my heart a-flame." Theo Aronson has suggested that the word "earnest" became a code-word for homosexual, as in: "Is he earnest?", in the same way that "Is he so?" and "Is he musical?" were also employed.
Contrary to claims of homosexual terminology, Sir Donald Sinden, an actor who met two of the play's original cast ( Irene Vanbrugh, Gwendolen and Allan Aynesworth, Algernon), and Lord Alfred Douglas, wrote to The Times to dispute suggestions that 'Earnest' held any sexual connotations: "Although they had ample opportunity, at no time did any of them even hint that "Earnest" was a synonym for homosexual, or that "bunburying" may have implied homosexual sex. The first time I heard it mentioned was in the 1980s and I immediately consulted Sir John Gielgud whose own performance of Jack Worthing in the same play was legendary and whose knowledge of theatrical lore was encyclopaedic. He replied in his ringing tones: "No-No! Nonsense, absolute nonsense: I would have known" (it is relevant that Gielgud was well-known in theatrical circles to be gay). Russell Jackson agrees, noting that "nothing of the overtly Dorian mode is to be found in the finished play or its drafts." Instead, Wilde may have transposed his apprehension into Lord Chiltern's (non-sexual) blackmailing situation in the darker, political play, An Ideal Husband. By contrast, the humour and transformation in The Importance of Being Earnest is much lighter in tone, though Algernon's protest at his putative arrest, "Well I really am not going to be imprisoned in the suburbs for dining in the west-end!" ironically foreshadows Wilde's incarceration a few months later.
Use of language
While Wilde had long been famous for dialogue and his use of language, Raby (1988) argues that he achieved a unity and mastery in Earnest that was unmatched in his other plays, save perhaps Salome. While his earlier comedies suffer from a unevenness resulting from the thematic clash between the trivial and the serious, Earnest achieves a pitch-perfect style that allows these to dissolve. There are three different registers detectable in the play. The dandyish insouciance of Jack and Algernon, established early with Algernon and Lane's exchange, betrays an underlying unity despite their differing attitudes. The formidable pronouncements of Lady Bracknell are as startling for her use of hyperbole and rhetorical extravagance as much as the disconcerting opinions therein. In contrast, the speech of Dr Chausable and Miss Prism is distinguished by "pedantic precept" and "idiosyancratic diversion". Furthermore the play is chock full of epigrams and paradoxes. Max Beerbohm described it as "littered with "chiselled apothoegms - witticisms unrelated to action or character", of these he found half a dozen to be of the highest order.
ROBERT BALDWIN ROSS
—Dedication of The Importance of Being Earnest
Wilde's two final comedies, An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest, were still on stage in London at the time of his prosecution, and they were soon closed as the details of his case became public. After two years in prison with hard labour, Wilde went into exile in Paris, sick and depressed, his reputation destroyed in England. In 1898, when no-one else would, Leonard Smithers agreed with Wilde to publish the two final plays. Wilde proved to be a diligent reviser, sending detailed instructions on stage directions, character listings and the presentation of the book, and insisting that a playbill from the first performance be reproduced inside. Richard Ellmann argues that the proofs show a man "very much in command of himself and of the play". Wilde's name did not appear on the cover, it was "By the Author of Lady Windermere's Fan". His return to work was brief though, as he refused to write anything else, "I can write, but have lost the joy of writing".
On 19 October 2007, a first edition (number 349 of 1,000) was discovered inside a handbag in an Oxfam shop in Nantwich, Cheshire, mimicking the discovery of Jack Worthing as an infant. Staff were unable to trace the donor. It was sold for £650.
The Importance of Being Earnest's popularity has meant it has been translated into many languages, though the homophonous pun in the title ("Ernest", a masculine proper name, and "earnest", the virtue of steadfastness and seriousness) poses a special problem for translators. In a study of Italian translations, Adrian Pablé found thirteen different versions, using eight titles. Since wordplay is often unique to the language in question, translators are faced with a choice of either staying faithful to the original – in this case the English adjective and virtue earnest – or creating a similar pun in their own language. Four main strategies have been used by translators; the first leaves all characters' names unchanged and in their original spelling, thus the name is respected and readers reminded of the original cultural setting, but the liveliness of the pun is lost. Eva Malagoli varied this source-orientated approach by using both the English Christian names and the adjective earnest, thus preserving the pun and the English character of the play, but possibly straining an Italian reader. A third group of translators substituted Ernest with a name that also represents a virtue in the target language, favouring transparency for readers in translation over fidelity to the original. For instance, in Italian, these versions variously call the play L'importanza di essere Franco/Severo/Fedele, the given names being the values of honesty, propriety and loyalty, respectively. French offers a closer pun: Constant is both a first name and the quality of steadfastness, thus the play is commonly known as De l'importance d'être Constant, though Jean Anouilh translated the play under the title: Il est important d'être Aimé (Aimé is a name which also means "beloved"). These translators differ in their attitude to the original English honorific titles, some change them all, or none, but most leave a mix partially as a compensation for the added loss of Englishness. Lastly, one translation gave the name an Italianate touch by rendering it as Ernesto; this work liberally mixed proper nouns from both languages.
Aside from multiple "made-for-television" versions, The Importance of Being Earnest has been adapted for the English-language cinema at least three times, first in 1952 by Anthony Asquith who adapted the screenplay and directed it. Michael Denison (Algernon), Michael Redgrave (Jack), Dame Edith Evans (Lady Bracknell), Dorothy Tutin (Cecily), Joan Greenwood (Gwendolen), and Margaret Rutherford (Miss Prism) were among the cast. In 1992 Kurt Baker directed a version using an all black cast, set in the United States of America. Oliver Parker, an English director who had previously adapted other plays by Wilde, made a film in 2002; it stars Colin Firth (Jack), Rupert Everett (Algy), Dame Judi Dench (Lady Bracknell), Reese Witherspoon (Cecily), Frances O'Connor (Gwendolen), Anna Massey (Miss Prism), and Tom Wilkinson (Dr. Chasuble). Parker's adaptation includes the dunning solicitor Mr. Gribsby who pursues Jack to Hertfordshire (present in Wilde's original draft, but cut at the behest of the play's first producer). Algernon too is pursued by a group of creditors in the opening scene.
Opera and radio
In 1963, Erik Chisholm composed an opera from the play, using Wilde's text as the libretto.
To commemorate the centenary of the first performance of The Importance of Being Earnest, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a radio adaptation on 13 February 1995; directed by Glyn Dearman, it featured Dame Judi Dench as "Lady Bracknell", Sir Michael Hordern as "Lane", Michael Sheen as "Jack Worthing", Martin Clunes as "Algernon Moncrieff", John Moffatt as "Rev. Canon Chasuble", Miriam Margolyes as "Miss Prism", Samantha Bond as "Gwendolen" and Amanda Root as "Cecily". The production was released on audio cassette by Hodder Headline Audiobooks by arrangement with BBC Enterprises ( ISBN 1-85998-218-2).
On 13 December 2000, BBC Radio 3 broadcast a new radio adaptation directed by Howard Davies starring Geraldine McEwan as "Lady Bracknell", Simon Russell Beale as "Jack Worthing", Julian Wadham as "Algernon Moncrieff", Geoffrey Palmer as "Rev. Canon Chasuble", Celia Imrie as "Miss Prism", Victoria Hamilton as "Gwendolen" and Emma Fielding as "Cecily", with music composed by Dominic Muldowney. The production was released on audio cassette by the BBC Radio Collection ( ISBN 0-563-47803-9).