On this Day:
In 1895, Oscar Wilde’s “Importance of Being Earnest,” opened in London.
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 personae 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. Some contemporary reviews praised the play’s humour and the culmination of Wilde’s artistic career, while others were cautious about its lack of social messages. 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. Their feud came to a climax in court when Wilde sued for libel. The proceedings provided enough evidence for his arrest, trial and conviction on charges of gross indecency. Wilde’s homosexuality was revealed to the Victorian public and he was sentenced to two years imprisonment with hard labour. Despite the play’s early success, Wilde’s notoriety caused the play to be closed after 86 performances. After his release from prison, he published the play from exile in Paris, but he wrote no more comic or dramatic works.
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 first stage production.
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”.
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.
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 Jack 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 any poor married woman whose 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) (per Wikipedia).
First, a Story:
“Always borrow money from a pessimist.
He won’t expect it back.” – Oscar Wilde
Second, a Song:
The Importance of Being Earnest is a 2002 British-American romantic comedy-drama film directed by Oliver Parker, based on Oscar Wilde’s classic 1895 comedy of manners The Importance of Being Earnest. The original music score is composed by Charlie Mole. The film grossed $8.4 million in North America.
Here is the movie trailer for the 2002 version of The Importance of Being Earnest. I hope you enjoy this!
Thought for the Day:
“There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” -Oscar Wilde
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Have a great day!
Dave & Colleen
© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky