This is the manuscript for the play which would become Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1895); the drafts are mainly in pen and ink, but there are many insertions which use pencil and typewriter.
In August and September 1894, Wilde took a holiday with his wife, Constance, and two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan, to Worthing, a seaside town on England’s West Sussex coastline. (They had also stayed here in 1893). There, he wrote the majority of the play which would become Earnest, for which he had already been paid in advance. He marked the manuscript we see here with his address in case of loss: ‘The Haven, 5 the Esplanade, Worthing.’
Wilde was still in contact with his lover Lord Alfred Douglas, to whom he wrote before his departure that London was becoming intolerable: he had run out of money, and Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensbury, was ‘out on the rampage’, angry at their relationship.
Around 25 October 1894, Wilde wrote to the actor and theatre manager George Alexander (1858-1918) explaining that he had been ill with a ‘sort of malarial fever’, but had finished, and was sending, the first copy of a ‘somewhat farcical comedy’; the original draft of which was in four acts:
It is called Lady Lancing on the cover: but the real title is The Importance of Being Earnest. When you read the play, you will see the punning title’s meaning.
As Alexander was about to find out, the plot turns partly on misunderstandings related to characters called ‘Ernest’. Wilde seems to have been aware he was on to something as early as 13 August, when he wrote to Alfred Douglas ‘My play is really very funny: I am quite delighted with it.’ In another letter to his friend Robert Ross, he explained the play’s philosophy: ‘we should treat all trivial things very seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.’
This is despite the strains Wilde was under during the period; as his biographer Richard Ellmann explains, ‘Wilde masked his cares with the play’s insouciance, by a miracle of control.’