An introduction to The Importance of Being Earnest
Manuscript draft of The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
From Oscar Wilde’s manuscript of Lady Lancing, an early draft of what would be later retitled as The Importance of Being Earnest.View images from this item (18)
Copyright: © Estate of Oscar Wilde
Theatrical and social worldsThe play opened at the St James’s Theatre in King Street in February 1895, a compact but extremely elegant house then leased by the actor-manager George Alexander. 10 years earlier Wilde had already marked out Alexander as a romantic actor with ‘a most effective presence, a charming voice, and a capacity for wearing lovely costumes with ease and elegance.’ In 1892 they had worked together on Lady Windermere’s Fan. Although the actor had strong opinions of his own – and insisted that a surplus act be dropped from The Importance – the partnership was in many ways the ideal match of two urban sophisticates. The St James was situated in the most fashionable part of town with ‘gentleman’s clubs’ to hand and it was not far from the Albany, a long established block of superior bachelor apartments, or from the popular Willis’s restaurant – both of which are mentioned in various versions of the play. The audience at the St James would therefore have seen on stage a reflection, admittedly a distorted one, of a social ambiance that they either knew intimately or had heard a good deal about. Not that The Importance offers a very flattering picture of that world, since it’s characterised by underlying greed (if only for buttered muffins), self-indulgence (none of the major characters actually works) coupled with financial insecurity (Lady Bracknell changes her tune completely the minute she hears of Cecily’s inherited fortune).
Acting edition of The Importance of Being Earnest
List of actors from the first performance of The Importance of being Earnest at St James’s Theatre in February 1895, from the acting edition.View images from this item (12)
Photographs of a production of The Importance of Being Earnest
Photographs from an early performance of The Importance of being Earnest, 1895.View images from this item (7)
Place in the repertoireAlthough we think, quite rightly, of The Importance as a unique comic achievement, Alexander and his fellow actors were all at home in the Victorian repertoire and well-practised in audience technique. The Importance is original mainly in the perfection of its plot and its consummate style, and it draws on a calculated mix of genres: burlesque, comedy of manners, melodrama and, perhaps most of all, farce. As a reviewer conceded in 1895: ‘the very fact that Mr. Wilde’s inspiration can be traced to so many sources proves that he can owe very little to any of them and I, for one, certainly do not intend to upbraid him for his eclectic taste’. Farce loves symmetry and The Importance draws on an established tradition in which pairs of characters swap roles and mirror one another. Obvious precedents include Box and Cox by J M Morton (1847) and W S Gilbert’s Engaged (1877). The theatre historian Kerry Powell has even shown that Wilde’s sublime masterpiece has a surprising amount in common with a long forgotten farce entitled The Foundling that had been performed as recently as 1894. Although brilliantly structured The Importance isn’t, in the end, entirely symmetrical because Algernon’s name remains unchanged despite Cecily’s earlier fascination with her ‘wicked cousin Ernest’. A loose end or two makes the triumph of desire over circumstance all the more remarkable and welcome.
Vera, a play by Oscar Wilde
Title page from Vera; or, the Nihilists, an early melodramatic play by Oscar Wilde dating from 1883.View images from this item (10)
Limited edition of The Importance of Being Earnest
Oscar Wilde’s signature within one of 12 finely made limited editions of The Importance of Being Earnest, 1899.View images from this item (8)
Secret meanings and influenceAlthough sheer good fortune ultimately wins out, Wilde’s ‘Trivial Comedy for Serious People’ is founded upon a mode of intellectual paradox that reveals truth by inverting commonplace wisdom. Even the play’s punning title neatly captures and explodes the dominant Victorian moral principle that sincerity is its own reward. Moreover, the title may even have passed a secret signal to members of Wilde’s circle since the word ‘Earnest’ bears a euphonious relation to the term ‘Uranian’ which was coming to be used to denote homosexual relationships between men of different ages. The idea of a secret life (the ‘Bunbury’ alibi) would certainly seem to reflect the kind of subterfuge that a gay man might be obliged to adopt in the homophobic climate that, following the introduction of the notorious Criminal Law Amendment act of a 1885, threatened offenders with imprisonment. Wilde of course, was to fall foul of that law himself in the spring of 1895. However, the presence of various other sub-textual hints at homosexuality, recently claimed by some academic critics, remains extremely controversial. Although his greatest moment of triumph immediately preceded his social downfall, we should be careful before forcing Wilde’s life into a classically tragic pattern. Not only could he have had no precise idea of what the future might bring when he started to compose the play that he originally called Lady Lancing, it has led an independent life quite apart from the dire misfortune of its author, endlessly revived and inspiring modern plays from Tom Stoppard’s Travesties (1974) to Mark Ravenhill’s Handbag (1998).
As history has shown, The Importance of Being Earnest is both of its time and ahead of its time. Respecting the more progressive views of the period, all Wilde’s plays invariably centre on women who are called upon to realise and demonstrate the superior qualities they possess in comparison with the majority of men. In The Importance Cicely and Gwendolen are as unafraid of expressing themselves as any of the ’New Women’ who were coming into prominence in the real world in the 1890s, and – miraculously – their ambitions are fulfilled in the most surprising and entertaining way imaginable.
 Quoted by Peter Raby in Oscar Wilde (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 128.
 The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, vol. VI: Journalism Part I, ed. by John Stokes and Mark W. Turner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 48.
 Unsigned review, Truth, 21 February 1895, xxvii, pp. 464-5, repr. Oscar Wilde. The Critical Heritage, ed. by Karl Beckson (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970), pp. 191-3, p. 192.
 Kerry Powell, ‘The Importance of being at Terry’s’, in Oscar Wilde and the theatre of the 1890s (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 108-23.
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