It seems extraordinary that this play closed in the midst of its highly successful first run, after a mere eighty-odd performances, because its author, Oscar Wilde, had been arrested on charges of gross indecency. A hundred years on, that might actually make a play even more successful, and the sexual proclivities of an author would have little impact today. How times change.
Wilde's subsequent conviction and his incarceration to two year's hard labour, lost the English stage a hugely gifted playwright of exceptional wit and teeming intellect. On Wilde's death one journalist at the time commented: 'Nothing he ever wrote has the strength to endure'. Obviously the journalist had no skills either as a literary critic or as a clairvoyant, because Wilde's work has stood the test of time, and his plays, novels and stories still delight.
Set in the late Victorian era and first performed in 1895, 'The Importance of Being Earnest' is arguably Wilde's most famous work, and for many his best comedy. It's certainly the play most people seem to know, and as such it's little wonder that it's been revived again. This excellent version is directed by Peter Gill.
The most notable character in the play has to be Lady Bracknell, a domineering, aristocratic snob perhaps most famously portrayed in the 1952 film version by Dame Edith Evans. Here, the ever-popular Penelope Keith takes on the role and the challenge of finding her own unique delivery for the famous line 'A handbag?' when Earnest reveals how he was found as an infant in the left luggage office of Victoria railway station.
The plot hinges on a name and deception. It starts in the bachelor pad of one Algernon Moncrieff in London, who is swiftly joined by his chum Ernest Worthing. Both do very little it seems apart from socialise and pursue women. Ernest, however, has a secret. In order to spend time away from his respectable life in the country and live it up in London, he's devised a kind of alter-ego which he adopts for his times in town. In the country he goes back to being John Worthing (also known as Jack, somewhat confusingly). Algie also admits to having an alter-ego, called Bunbury, and goes 'bunburying' whenever social duties prove unendurable.
Ernest is in love with Algie's cousin Gwendolen, but her mother, Lady Bracknell, is only interested in a man's wealth, and whether he is on her list of eligible bachelors. The fact that Gwendolen is besotted with Ernest (and his name in particular) has no bearing on the matter as far as Lady Bracknell is concerned.
Algie is intrigued about Ernest's ward, Cecily, and unexpectedly turns up at Ernest's country home, promptly falls in love with Cecily and she with him. The problem is that Algie tells Cecily that he is 'Ernest' who Cecily thinks is John's wayward brother from London. It's not nearly as confusing as it seems, and everything, of course, turns out alright in the end.
Penelope Keith has sensibly recognised that it's not necessary to be over-the-top in portraying the larger-than-life Lady Bracknell – the lines do that for her. Yet Keith still stamps her unique authority on the character. It's a restrained, though not reserved, Aunt Augusta that Keith gives us, but it's every bit the domineering, matriarch that one expects and a highly entertaining and formidable performance in every respect. And Keith ignores the snare of the famous 'handbag' line, delivering it as a mere enquiry rather than something monumentally profound.
Keith is challenged for supremacy of the stage by her daughter Gwendolen, played by Daisy Haggard, and also Ernest's ward, Cecily, played by Rebecca Night. Both of these girls know what they want, and leave us in no doubt that they're going to get it. These are hardly the reserved young ladies that Victorian decorum required. Haggard and Night are both quite exceptional, milking the humour without forcing it and both employing faultless timing.
Tim Wylton reinvigorated the role of the Rector of Woolton with his drooling admiration for the ageing Miss prism. And there's a neat piece of business when the footmen and butler flee from the room when the the fur starts to fly between Cecily and Gwendolen when they think they're in love with the same man.
Though you can enjoy most of the humour without too much background about the Victorian era, it's worth reading the excellent programme notes by Al Senter which give details about the economic and political climate and certainly make some of the jokes more understandable. In particular, there are lines about the newly introduced death duties and the state of the rural economy which was adversely affecting the wealth of the aristocracy.
Much speculation surrounds some of the language used in this play. Some people claim it contains code, reflecting Wilde's homosexual activities. 'Earnest' was apparently slang for being gay, 'Bunbury' referred to a kind of double life, and 'Cecily' was apparently a well-known term for a rent boy. Whether the use of these terms was coincidental or deliberate is now subject only to speculation. But in view of Wilde's scathing wit and his love of courting danger, I think it's highly likely that he included some references to his own alter-ego that his pals would have recognised.
Interestingly, the Victorians were not nearly so squeaky clean as they liked to think – exactly the point that Wilde was satirising in 'Earnest'. Among the Victorian's 'alternative' social activities were 'ether sniffing parties'. This involved the participants gathering round an open bottle of ether, sniffing the fumes, collapsing, and then staggering off home when they revived. And the use of cocaine was not uncommon nor illegal, as is shown in the famous Sherlock Holmes stories.
Though I don't really care much for the pseudo-morality of the Victorian upper classes, or their nauseating attempts to fill their lives with endless social rounds or by gorging themselves on a surfeit of ritualised meals, I can make an exception for 'The Importance of Being Earnest'. The humour is very difficult to resist because it's so intelligently observed and witty. I also admire the coup which Wilde managed to pull off – he poked fun in his play at the very people who came in their droves to watch it. Of course, in the end, they got their revenge, though it also lost them their best source of entertainment.
What the popular press had to say.....
MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says "Sparkling revival." NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Even Peter Gill's disappointing, rather second class production left me elated and delighted to catch Wilde's philosophic witticisms again." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "..Enchantment and delight." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "A decent, serviceable production."