Taken from the British Library’s Eccles collection, this is an actor’s edition of Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest. The copyright date is given as being entered in October 1893, as part of the legislation for which playwrights such as Arthur Henry Jones had campaigned.
When and where was The Importance of Being Earnest first staged?
As explained above the cast list, Earnest was first staged in London, ‘at the St. James’s Theatre, on Thursday, February 14th, 1895’. As the play’s farcical plot is structured around the conventions of society marriages, Valentine’s Day must have seemed an appropriate date. It was Wilde’s second social comedy playing in London at the time: An Ideal Husband had opened at the Haymarket Theatre on 3 January.
Who worked with Wilde on the play?
For Earnest, Wilde returned to work with George Alexander, with whom he had worked on the highly successful Lady Windermere’s Fan in 1892 , though not for An Ideal Husband (1895), which was played at the Haymarket Theatre. As he had with the 1892 play, Alexander made pointed editorial interventions, including reducing the play from four acts to three.
As it shows on the cast list, Alexander was also an actor, and played the role of ‘John Worthing, J. P. [Justice of the Peace] (of the Manor House, Hertfordshire)’ in this play. Despite Wilde having written to him in 1894 ‘the play is not suitable to you at all: you are a romantic actor’, Alexander was a critical success in the part.Alexander’s own life was not free from controversy; also in November 1895, he was arrested for soliciting a prostitute, but was given the benefit of the doubt when he claimed to have been merely helping a beggar.
Was this first staging of the play successful?
With the exception of the writer George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950), the critics were virtually unanimous in their praise for the play. However, Wilde's trial and conviction on charges of homosexual behaviour happened during the play’s run, making it increasingly difficult to keep the play going. Alexander initially tried to save the production by simply removing Wilde's name, but eventually had to withdraw it entirely as the scandal mounted. The two men fell out over this. After his release, Wilde remembered that Alexander rode past him on a bicycle at a French seaside resort, and, rather than stopping to talk to him, gave him a ‘crooked, sickly smile’. Nevertheless, Alexander would later pay small monthly sums to Wilde, and bequeathed Vyvyan Holland (1886–1967) – Wilde’s son – the rights to Wilde’s plays as a legacy.
What was the play’s afterlife?
In 1909, when matters had calmed down (Wilde died in 1900), Alexander revived Earnest, again playing Jack Worthing for 316 performances. During countless subsequent versions, it has come to be regarded as the greatest English stage comedy of all time.
- Article by:
- Carolyn Burdett
- Fin de siècle
‘Art for art’s sake’? Aestheticism and decadence shocked the Victorian establishment by challenging traditional values, foregrounding sensuality and promoting artistic, sexual and political experimentation. Dr Carolyn Burdett explores the key features of this unconventional artistic period.
- Article by:
- John Stokes
- Popular culture, Fin de siècle
The Importance of Being Earnest draws on elements of farce and melodrama in its depiction of a particular social world. Professor John Stokes considers how Oscar Wilde combined disparate influences into a brilliant satire which contained hidden, progressive sentiments.