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|The Importance of Being Earnest|
|Written by||Oscar Wilde|
|Place premiered||St James’s Theatre,
|Setting||London and an estate in Hertfordshire|
The Importance of Being Earnest, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People is a play by Oscar Wilde. First performed on 14 February 1895 at the St James’s Theatre in London, it is a farcical comedy in which the protagonists maintain fictitious personæ in order to escape burdensome social 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, whose son Lord Alfred Douglas was Wilde’s lover, planned to present the writer with a bouquet of rotten vegetables and disrupt the show. Wilde was tipped off and Queensberry was refused admission. Soon afterwards their feud came to a climax in court, where Wilde’s homosexual double life was revealed to the Victorian public and he was eventually sentenced to imprisonment. His notoriety caused the play, despite its early success, to be closed after 86 performances. After his release, he published the play from exile in Paris, but he wrote no further comic or dramatic work.
The Importance of Being Earnest has been revived many times since its premiere. It has been adapted for the cinema on three occasions. In The Importance of Being Earnest (1952), Dame Edith Evans reprised her celebrated interpretation of Lady Bracknell; The Importance of Being Earnest (1992) by Kurt Baker used an all-black cast; and Oliver Parker‘s The Importance of Being Earnest (2002) incorporated some of Wilde’s original material cut during the preparation of the original stage production.
- 1 Composition
- 2 Productions
- 3 Synopsis
- 4 Themes
- 5 Dramatic analysis
- 6 Publication
- 7 Adaptations
- 8 Notes and references
- 9 Sources
- 10 External links
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 George Alexander, the actor-manager of the 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‘s mother, for example, lived at Bracknell.[n 1] There is widespread agreement among Wilde scholars that the most important influence on the play was W. S. Gilbert‘s 1877 farce Engaged; Wilde borrowed from Gilbert not only several incidents but, in Russell Jackson’s phrase “the gravity of tone demanded by Gilbert of his actors”.
Wilde continually revised the text over the next months: no line was left untouched, and “in a play so economical with its language and effects, [the revisions] had serious consequences”. Sos Eltis describes Wilde’s revisions as a refined art at work: the earliest, longest handwritten drafts of the play labour over farcical incidents, broad puns, nonsense dialogue and conventional comic turns. In revising as he did, “Wilde transformed standard nonsense into the more systemic and disconcerting illogicality which characterises Earnest’s dialogue”. 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 at the St James’s Theatre on 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 enthusiasts”. Allan Aynesworth, who played 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 Jack Worthing, “demure”.
The cast was:
- John Worthing, J.P.—George Alexander
- Algernon Moncrieff—Allan Aynesworth
- Rev. Canon Chasuble, D.D.—H. H. Vincent
- Merriman—Frank Dyall
- Lane—F. Kinsey Peile
- Lady Bracknell—Rose Leclercq
- Hon. Gwendolen Fairfax—Irene Vanbrugh
- Cecily Cardew—Evelyn Millard
- Miss Prism—Mrs. George Canninge
The Marquess of Queensberry, the father of Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas (who was on holiday in Algiers at the time), had planned to disrupt the play by throwing a bouquet of rotten 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 launched a private prosecution against the peer for criminal libel, triggering a series of trials ending in Wilde’s imprisonment for gross indecency. Alexander tried, unsuccessfully, to save the production by removing Wilde’s name from the billing,[n 2] but the play had to close after only 86 performances.
The play’s original Broadway production opened at the Empire Theatre on 22 April 1895, but closed after sixteen performances. Its cast included William Faversham as Algy, Henry Miller as Jack, Viola Allen as Gwendolen, and Ida Vernon as Lady Bracknell. The Australian premiere was in Melbourne on 10 August 1895, presented by Dion Boucicault, Jr. and Robert Brough, and the play was an immediate success. Wilde’s downfall in England did not affect the popularity of his plays in Australia.[n 3]
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 of which contemporary reviewers were wary. Though unsure of Wilde’s seriousness as a dramatist, they recognised the play’s cleverness, humour and popularity with audiences. 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 Walkley admired the play and was one of few to see it as the culmination of Wilde’s dramatic 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 the 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”, and The Times commented, “The story is almost too preposterous to go without music.” Mary McCarthy, in Sights and Spectacles (1959), however, and despite thinking the play extremely funny, would call it ‘a ferocious idyll’ ; ‘depravity is the hero and the only character.’ 
The Importance of Being Earnest is Wilde’s most popular work and is continually revived. Max Beerbohm called the play Wilde’s “finest, most undeniably his own”, saying that in his other comedies—Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Woman of No Importance and An Ideal Husband—the plot, following the manner of Victorien Sardou, is unrelated to the theme of the work, while in Earnest the story is “dissolved” into the form of the play.[n 4]
Until after Wilde’s death in 1900 his name remained disgraced, and few discussed, let alone performed, his work in Britain. Alexander revived The Importance in a small theatre in Notting Hill, outside the West End, in 1901; in the same year he presented the piece on tour, playing Jack Worthing with a cast including the young Lilian Braithwaite as Cecily. The play returned to the West End when Alexander presented a revival at the St James’s in 1902. Broadway revivals were mounted in 1902 and again in 1910, each production running for six weeks.
A collected edition of Wilde’s works, published in 1908 and edited by Robert Ross, helped to restore his reputation as an author. Alexander presented another revival of The Importance at the St James’s in 1909, when he and Aynesworth reprised their original roles; the revival ran for 316 performances. 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”.
For a 1913 revival at the same theatre the young actors Gerald Ames and A. E. Matthews succeeded the creators as Jack and Algy. John Deverell as Jack and Margaret Scudamore as Lady Bracknell headed the cast in a 1923 production at the Haymarket Theatre. Many revivals in the first decades of the 20th century treated “the present” as the current year. It was not until the 1920s that the case for 1890s costumes was established; as a critic in The Manchester Guardian put it, “Thirty years on, one begins to feel that Wilde should be done in the costume of his period—that his wit today needs the backing of the atmosphere that gave it life and truth. … Wilde’s glittering and complex verbal felicities go ill with the shingle and the short skirt.”
In Sir Nigel Playfair‘s 1930 production at the Lyric, Hammersmith, John Gielgud played Jack to the Lady Bracknell of his aunt, Mabel Terry-Lewis. Gielgud produced and starred in a production at the Globe (now the Gielgud) Theatre in 1939, in a cast that included Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell, Joyce Carey as Gwendolen, Angela Baddeley as Cecily and Margaret Rutherford as Miss Prism. The Times considered the production the best since the original, and praised it for its fidelity to Wilde’s conception, its “airy, responsive ball-playing quality.” Later in the same year Gielgud presented the work again, with Jack Hawkins as Algy, Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies as Gwendolen and Peggy Ashcroft as Cecily, with Evans and Rutherford in their previous roles. The production was presented in several seasons during and after the Second World War, with mostly the same main players. During a 1946 season at the Haymarket the King and Queen attended a performance, which, as the journalist Geoffrey Wheatcroft put it, gave the play “a final accolade of respectability.”[n 5] The production toured North America, and was successfully staged on Broadway in 1947.[n 6]
As Wilde’s work came to be read and performed again, it was The Importance of Being Earnest that received the most productions. By the time of its centenary the journalist Mark Lawson described it as “the second most known and quoted play in English after Hamlet.”
For Sir Peter Hall‘s 1982 production at the National Theatre the cast included Judi Dench as Lady Bracknell,[n 7] Martin Jarvis as Jack, Nigel Havers as Algy, Zoë Wanamaker as Gwendolen and Anna Massey as Miss Prism. Nicholas Hytner‘s 1993 production at the Aldwych Theatre, starring Maggie Smith, had occasional references to the supposed gay subtext.
In 2005 the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, 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. The Melbourne Theatre Company staged a production in December 2011 with Geoffrey Rush as Lady Bracknell.
In 2011 the Roundabout Theatre Company produced a Broadway revival based on the 2009 Stratford Shakespeare Festival production featuring Brian Bedford as director and as Lady Bracknell. It opened at the American Airlines Theatre on 13 January and ran until 3 July 2011. The cast also included Dana Ivey as Miss Prism, Paxton Whitehead as Canon Chasuble, Santino Fontana as Algernon and Paul O’Brien as Lane. It was nominated for three Tony Awards.[n 8]
The play is set in “The Present” (i.e. 1895).
- Algernon Moncrieff’s flat in Half Moon Street, W
The play opens with Algernon Moncrieff, an idle young gentleman, receiving his best friend, John Worthing, whom he knows as Ernest. Ernest has come from the country to propose to Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolen Fairfax. 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, the heiress Cecily Cardew, and goes by the name of John (or, as a nickname, 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. Jack refuses to tell Algernon the location of his country estate.
Gwendolen and her formidable mother Lady Bracknell now 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 accordingly resolves to himself to be rechristened “Ernest”. Discovering them in this intimate exchange, Lady Bracknell interviews Jack as a prospective suitor. Horrified to learn that he was adopted after being discovered as a baby in a handbag [n 9] at Victoria Station, she refuses him and forbids further contact with her daughter. Gwendolen, though, manages covertly to promise to him her undying love. As Jack gives her his address in the country, Algernon surreptitiously notes it on the cuff of his sleeve: Jack’s revelation of his pretty and wealthy young ward has motivated his friend to meet her.
- The Garden of the Manor House, Woolton
Cecily is studying with her governess, Miss Prism. Algernon arrives, pretending to be Ernest Worthing, and soon charms Cecily. Long fascinated by Uncle Jack’s hitherto absent black sheep brother, she is predisposed to fall for Algernon in his role of Ernest (a name she, like Gwendolen, is apparently particularly fond of). Therefore Algernon, too, plans for the rector, Dr. Chasuble, to rechristen him “Ernest”.
Jack, meanwhile, has decided to abandon his double life. He arrives in full mourning and announces his brother’s death in Paris of a severe chill, a story undermined by Algernon’s presence in the guise of Ernest.
Gwendolen now enters, having run away from home. During the temporary absence of the two men, she meets Cecily, each woman indignantly declaring that she is the one engaged to “Ernest”. When Jack and Algernon reappear, their deceptions are exposed.
- Morning-Room at the Manor House, Woolton
Arriving in pursuit of her daughter, Lady Bracknell is astonished to be told that Algernon and Cecily are engaged. The revelation of Cecily’s trust fund soon dispels Lady Bracknell’s initial doubts over the young lady’s suitability, but any engagement is forbidden by her guardian Jack: he will consent only if Lady Bracknell agrees to his own union with Gwendolen—something she declines to do.
The impasse is broken by the return of Miss Prism, whom Lady Bracknell recognises as the person who, twenty-eight years earlier, as a family nursemaid, had taken a baby boy for a walk in a perambulator (baby carriage) and never returned. Challenged, 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 elder brother. Having acquired such respectable relations, he is acceptable as a suitor for Gwendolen after all.
Gwendolen, though, still insists 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 the army lists and discovers that his father’s name—and hence his own real name—was in fact Ernest. Pretence was reality all along. As the happy couples embrace—Jack and Gwendolen, Algernon and Cecily, and even Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism—Lady Bracknell complains to her newfound 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.”
Arthur Ransome described The Importance… as the most trivial of Wilde’s society plays, and the only one that produces “that peculiar exhilaration of the spirit by which we recognise the beautiful.” “It is”, he wrote, “precisely because it is consistently trivial that it is not ugly.” 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 Salome, 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.[n 10] 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 (Algernon’s “bunburying” and Worthing’s double life as Jack and Ernest) is undertaken for more innocent purposes—largely to avoid unwelcome social obligations. While much theatre of the time tackled serious social and political issues, Earnest is superficially about nothing at all. It “refuses to play the game” of other dramatists of the period, for instance Bernard Shaw, who used their characters to draw audiences to grander ideals.
As a satire of society
The play repeatedly mocks Victorian traditions 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 managed both to engage with and to mock the genre, while providing social commentary and offering reform. The men follow traditional matrimonial rites, whereby suitors admit their weaknesses to their prospective brides, but the foibles they excuse are ridiculous, and the farce is built on an absurd confusion of a book and a baby. 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.
In turn, both Gwendolen and Cecily have the ideal of marrying a man named Ernest, a popular and respected name at the time. Gwendolen, quite unlike her mother’s methodical analysis of John Worthing’s suitability as a husband, places her entire faith in a Christian name, declaring in Act I, “The only really safe name is Ernest”. This is an opinion shared by Cecily in Act II, “I pity an poor married woman who’s husband is not called Ernest” and they indignantly declare that they have been deceived when they find out the men’s real names.
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).
Suggested homosexual subtext
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.” There were few claims at the time of subtextual content, but modern critics often suggest it may simply have gone unnoticed by the Victorian audience. 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.
Sir Donald Sinden, an actor who had met two of the play’s original cast (Irene Vanbrugh and Allan Aynesworth), 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”.
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, except perhaps Salomé. While his earlier comedies suffer from an 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’s exchange with his manservant—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 for her disconcerting opinions. In contrast, the speech of Dr Chasuble and Miss Prism is distinguished by “pedantic precept” and “idiosyncratic diversion”. Furthermore, the play is full of epigrams and paradoxes. Max Beerbohm described it as littered with “chiselled apophthegms—witticisms unrelated to action or character”, of which he found half a dozen to be of the highest order.
Though Wilde deployed characters that were by now familiar—the dandy lord, the overbearing matriarch, the woman with a past, the puritan young lady—his treatment is subtler than in his earlier comedies. Lady Bracknell, for instance, embodies respectable, upper-class society, but Eltis notes how her development “from the familiar overbearing duchess into a quirkier and more disturbing character” can be traced through Wilde’s revisions of the play. For the two young men, Wilde presents not stereotypical stage “dudes” but intelligent beings who, as Jackson puts it, “speak like their creator in well-formed complete sentences and rarely use slang or vogue-words”. Dr Chasuble and Miss Prism are characterised by a few light touches of detail, their old-fashioned enthusiasms, and the Canon’s fastidious pedantry, pared down by Wilde during his many redrafts of the text.
Structure and genre
Ransome argues that Wilde freed himself by abandoning the melodrama, the basic structure which underlies his earlier social comedies, and basing the story entirely on the Earnest/Ernest verbal conceit. Now freed from “living up to any drama more serious than conversation” Wilde could now amuse himself to a fuller extent with quips, bons-mots, epigrams and repartee that really had little to do with the business at hand.
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. 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”.
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. The easiest case of a suitable translation of the pun, perpetuating its sense and meaning, may have been its translation into German. Since English and German are closely related languages, German provides an equivalent adjective (“ernst”) and also a matching masculine proper name (“Ernst”). The meaning and tenor of the wordplay are exactly the same. Yet there are many different possible titles in German, mostly concerning sentence structure. The two most common ones are “Bunbury oder ernst / Ernst sein ist alles” and “Bunbury oder wie wichig es ist, ernst / Ernst zu sein”. 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-oriented 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 replaced 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 respectively the values of honesty, propriety, and loyalty. French offers a closer pun: “Constant” is both a first name and the quality of steadfastness, so 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.
Apart 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), Edith Evans (Lady Bracknell), Dorothy Tutin (Cecily), Joan Greenwood (Gwendolen), and Margaret Rutherford (Miss Prism) and Miles Malleson (Canon Chasuble) were among the cast. In 1992 Kurt Baker directed a version using an all-black cast, set in the United States. Oliver Parker, an English director who had previously adapted An Ideal Husband by Wilde, made the 2002 film; it stars Colin Firth (Jack), Rupert Everett (Algy), Judi Dench (Lady Bracknell), Reese Witherspoon (Cecily), Frances O’Connor (Gwendolen), Anna Massey (Miss Prism), and Tom Wilkinson (Canon 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.
Operas and musicals
In 1963, Erik Chisholm composed an opera from the play, using Wilde’s text as the libretto. Gerald Barry’s operatic version, commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and the Barbican Centre London, was premiered in Los Angeles in 2013. The stage premiere was given by the Opéra national de Lorraine in Nancy in 2013.
According to a study by Robert Tanitch, by 2002 there had been least eight adaptations of the play as a musical, though “never with conspicuous success”. The earliest such version was a 1927 American show entitled Oh Earnest. The journalist Mark Bostridge comments, “The libretto of a 1957 musical adaptation, Half in Earnest, deposited in the British Library, is scarcely more encouraging. The curtain rises on Algy strumming away at the piano, singing ‘I can play Chopsticks, Lane’. Other songs include—almost predictably—’A Bunburying I Must Go’.”[n 11]
Radio and television
There have been many radio versions of the play. In 1925 the BBC broadcast an adaptation with Hesketh Pearson as Jack Worthing. Further broadcasts of the play followed in 1927 and 1936. In 1977, BBC Radio 4 broadcast the four-act version of the play, with Fabia Drake as Lady Bracknell, Richard Pasco as Jack, Jeremy Clyde as Algy, Maurice Denham as Canon Chasuble, Sylvia Coleridge as Miss Prism, Barbara Leigh-Hunt as Gwendolen and Prunella Scales as Cecily. The production was later released on CD.
To commemorate the centenary of the first performance of the play, Radio 4 broadcast a new adaptation on 13 February 1995; directed by Glyn Dearman, it featured Judi Dench as Lady Bracknell, Michael Hordern as Lane, Michael Sheen as Jack Worthing, Martin Clunes as Algernon Moncrieff, John Moffatt as Canon Chasuble, Miriam Margolyes as Miss Prism, Samantha Bond as Gwendolen and Amanda Root as Cecily. The production was later issued on audio cassette.
On 13 December 2000, BBC Radio 3 broadcast a new 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 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.
BBC television transmissions of the play have included a 1974 version starring Coral Browne as Lady Bracknell with Michael Jayston, Julian Holloway, Gemma Jones and Celia Bannerman. Stuart Burge directed another adaptation in 1988/*1986 with a cast including Gemma Jones, Alec McCowen, Paul McGann and Joan Plowright.
Gielgud’s performance is preserved on an EMI audio recording dating from 1952, which also captures Edith Evans’s Lady Bracknell. The cast also includes Roland Culver (Algy), Jean Cadell (Miss Prism), Pamela Brown (Gwendolen) and Celia Johnson (Cecily).
Other audio recordings include a “Theatre Masterworks” version from 1953, directed and narrated by Margaret Webster, with a cast including Maurice Evans, Lucile Watson and Mildred Natwick; a 1989 version by California Artists Radio Theatre, featuring Dan O’Herlihy Jeanette Nolan, Les Tremayne and Richard Erdman; and one by L.A. Theatre Works issued in 2009, featuring Charles Busch, James Marsters and Andrea Bowen.
Notes and references
- “Bunburying”, which indicates a double life as an excuse for absence, is—according to a letter from Aleister Crowley to R. H. Bruce Lockhart—an inside joke that came about after Wilde boarded a train at Banbury on which he met a schoolboy. They got into conversation and subsequently arranged to meet again at Sunbury. Carolyn Williams in a 2010 study writes that for the word “Bunburying”, Wilde “braids the ‘Belvawneying’ evil eye from Gilbert’s Engaged (1877) with ‘Bunthorne’ from Patience“.
- This caused a breach between the author and actor which lasted for some years; Alexander later paid Wilde small monthly sums, and bequeathed his rights in the play to the author’s son Vyvian Holland.
- In a 2003 study, Richard Fotheringham writes that in Australia, unlike Britain and the US, Wilde’s name was not excluded from billings, and the critics and public took a much more relaxed view of Wilde’s crimes. A command performance of the play was given by Boucicault’s company in the presence of the Governor of Victoria.
- Victorien Sardou was a French dramatist known for his careful, but rather mechanical, plotting.
- George VI was not the first British king who had attended a performance of the play: his grandfather Edward VII, when Prince of Wales, was in the audience for the first production.
- Rutherford switched roles, from Miss Prism to Lady Bracknell for the North American production; Jean Cadell played Miss Prism. Robert Flemyng played Algy. The cast was given a special Tony Award for “Outstanding Foreign Company”.
- Twenty-three years earlier Dench had played Cecily to the Lady Bracknell of Fay Compton in a 1959 Old Vic production that included in the cast Alec McCowen, Barbara Jefford and Miles Malleson.
- Best Revival of a Play, Best Costume Design of a Play and Best Leading Actor in a Play for Bedford (winning for costumes). The production was filmed live in March 2011 and was shown in cinemas in June 2011.
- 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. 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.”
- Wilde himself evidently took sandwiches with due seriousness. Max Beerbohm recounted in a letter to Reggie Turner Wilde’s difficulty in obtaining a satisfactory offering: “He ordered a watercress sandwich: which in due course was brought to him: not a thin, diaphanous green thing such as he had meant but a very stout satisfying article of food. This he ate with assumed disgust (but evident relish) and when he paid the waiter, he said: ‘Tell the cook of this restaurant with the compliments of Mr Oscar Wilde that these are the very worst sandwiches in the whole world and that, when I ask for a watercress sandwich, I do not mean a loaf with a field in the middle of it.'”
- Since Bostridge wrote his article at least one further musical version of the play has been staged. A show with a book by Douglas Livingstone and score by Adam McGuinness and Zia Moranne was staged in December 2011 at the Riverside Studios, Hammersmith; the cast included Susie Blake, Gyles Brandreth and Edward Petherbridge.
- Ellmann (1988:397)
- Raby (1988:120)
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- D’Arch Smith (1998:7–8)
- Williams, p. 156
- Denisoff (2001:66); Feingold, Michael, “Engaging the Past”; Hudson (1951:101–105); Jackson (1980:xxxvi); Koerble (1952:144); Pearson (1957:63); Raby (1995:28); Stedman (1996:151); Thompson (2006:255); and Williams (2012:156, 411)
- Jackson (1980:xxxvi)
- Jackson (1997:163)
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- Mendelshon, Daniel; The Two Oscar Wildes, New York Review of Books, Volume 49, Number 15, 10 October 2002
- Raby, 1995 in Pablé (2005:301)
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- The Importance of Being Earnest, Oxford World Classics, Peter Raby, Introduction, p.xxiii
- …”you are aware of the mechanism, you are aware of Sardou”: Beerbohm (1970:509).
- Bloom (2008:143)
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- “The Theatres: Mr. George Alexander at the Royal” The Manchester Guardian, 5 November 1901, p. 6
- “The Theatres”, The Observer, 12 January 1902, p. 4″
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- Atkinson, Brooks. “John Gielgud’s Version of Oscar Wilde’s Play”, The New York Times, 9 March 1947, p. xi (subscription required)
- Hayman (1971:155)
- Tony Awards archive.www.broadwayworld.com
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- Bostridge, Mark. ” Earnest the musical? Earnest the sequel? Don’t laugh…”, The Independent on Sunday, 1 September 2002
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- Jones, Kenneth. “A Wilde Hit! Broadway’s Earnest Gets 17-Week Extension, Bumping People Musical to Studio 54”, Playbill.com, accessed 26 January 2011
- “Tony Award nominees, 2010–11”, 3 May 2011
- “Zooming in on handbag”, Playbill.com, accessed 28 July 2013
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- Handbags at dawn The Guardian, 23 January 2010
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- Hart-Davis (1978:141)
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- Pablé (2005:301)
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- Pablé (2005:304)
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- Dennis (2008:123)
- Nicholson (1892:61)
- Ellmann (1988:33)
- Ellmann (1988:88)
- The Times, 2 February 2001, p. 19
- Jackson (1997:167)
- Jackson (1997:168)
- Raby (1988:125)
- Jackson (1988:xxix)
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- Mason (1917:429)
- “Rare book found in charity shop”, BBC, accessed 3 May 2010
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- Pablé (2005:318)
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- “Broadcasting”, The Times, 23 November 1923, p. 19
- “Broadcasting”, The Times, 3 May 1927, p. 25; 21 November 1936, p. 23
- ISBN 978-1408426937
- ISBN 1-85998-218-2
- ISBN 0-563-47803-9
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- “The Importance of Being Earnest”, Victoria and Albert Museum
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