The Importance of Being Earnest Play | Sport For Jove

Director's Notes

Irishman Oscar Wilde was one of the definitive wits, satirists and storytellers of his age, bridging an uncomfortable chasm between the conservatism of the 19th Century and the exciting free-thinking of the 20th. His sparklingly brilliant plays caught the mood of the changing epoch beautifully.

All works of art come into sharp relief when you learn of the peculiarities and pressures that shaped them in their own time and Earnest’s place in Wilde’s life, and Britain’s life, is fascinating and heartbreaking. Its hilarious opening night in 1895 came at the end of a century in which theatre had increasingly sought to tackle social issues, often in pointed and earnestly moralistic ways, particularly in melodrama, and subsequently with the advent of ‘realism’. Wilde’s Earnest is, superficially, about nothing at all. It refuses to play the game of other dramatists of the period, and while it dazzled many, it brought condemnation of Wilde from some sources. “As devoid of purpose as a paper balloon”, wrote one critic, and he was complimenting the work.

Wilde’s fellow Irish dramatist, George Bernard Shaw, earlier an advocate of Wilde’s work, was not at all impressed. Though he was “amused” by the play, he wrote that “unless comedy touches me as well as amuses me, it leaves me with a sense of having wasted my evening”, denigrating its farcical properties, and its lack of emotional and intellectual rigour as a comedy that fails to provoke thought and discussion of social and political issues. He said, Earnest, “clever as it was”, was Wilde’s “first really heartless play”. Shaw brilliantly used characters to draw audiences to grander ideals or drive home powerful messages and felt Wilde had betrayed or abused that theatrical responsibility, “representing a real degeneracy produced by his debaucheries”.

It is these “debaucheries” that are tied up so powerfully with the play’s position in Wilde’s life, and perhaps beguiled critics such as Shaw into missing the point or pointedness of Wilde’s philosophy and satire in the play. Perhaps. Or perhaps such resonances simply aren’t there. Its submerged political swipes and social stings, its class ridicule and brutally mercenary exchanges, and perhaps even a dark fury about the heterosexual and religious norms of marriage, are held down with such restraint and such a delicate and entertaining linguistic brilliance, that it is hard to argue for their existence at all. Shaw saw them, but felt they were “essentially hateful”. Others saw no such harm and believed it a delightful ode to an age of surfaces and superficiality. It is a much-debated point and in itself demonstrates Wilde’s sheer skill as a portrait maker. He can make an audience look at itself in a mirror that warps and distorts its image to quite ridiculous proportions but keeps them laughing at themselves throughout.

The original playbill had read, “a serious comedy for trivial people”, but was altered late in rehearsals to the probably more palatable, “a trivial comedy for serious people”, but if you think about it, both titles leave teeth marks, and introduce his audience to the mode of logic reversals, aphorism and epigrams that will define the style.

On its opening night at London’s St James Theatre on Valentine’s Day, 1895, there was “a snow-storm more severe than had been remembered in London for years”, said Wilde’s friend, Ada Leverson. The warm reception that night quickly froze as Wilde’s personal double life became the scandal of the age only months later. The raging success of that first night and the expectation of a long run of this silly farce about leading a secret double life, about burying one’s true identity in order to engage in polite society and its trivial customs, about having one name in “town” and another in the “country”, about marrying first cousins and perhaps worse, about ‘Bunburying’ and getting into “dreadful scrapes” from which one can only just escape, about “cloak rooms” which have served to provide the means for a “social indiscretion and have probably been used for that purpose before now”, took on a wildly more dangerous meaning.
Wilde became Britain’s most notorious sexual criminal on April 5, 1895, charged with gross indecency. On May 8, the play closed, ruined by his fall from grace. Remarkably, Australia was the first nation to take up a production of the play, and in that very year, 1895, quite an incredible thing to think we took it up so quickly. That opening night in London however spelt the beginning of the end for Wilde’s reputation. His affair with Lord Alfred Douglas (‘Bosie’) had driven Bosie’s father, John, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry, to public and private attacks on the poet, and he arrived at the theatre on that first night to hurl a bouquet of rotten fruit at Wilde, but the playwright had been tipped off and hired police to turn Douglas away.

What is perhaps most unusual about Wilde’s comedy is that his expertise in classical antiquity and tragedy seemed to guide his instinct. Tragedies are fuelled by certain fundamental rules – that fate will determine the outcome; that self-determined actions will, in the end, only reinforce that fate; that order will only be realised through disorder; that pride will be the attribute that elevates the human spirit but also prove it’s undoing; that birth, death and marriage are the thresholds across which these grand themes will typically be played out; and, most importantly, that moral responsibility lies at the heart of the drama. What are our responsibilities to our families, to our societies, to our ‘gods’ and to ourselves? Tragedies force characters to search out their truest, most inward identities.
Wilde, in the lightest comedy imaginable, (bordering on farce), obeys all of these tragic structures, with fate being the defining element. With the lightest of touches, he writes a play about identity, and the individual’s place in a surprisingly ugly and brutal social scheme, where people are trapped in the various prisons of money, social standing, class, lineage and hypocritical moral strictures, where survival is bound up in deceit and self-preservation, where happiness is found through hiding, and where every character, (except Cecily, the play’s wealthiest figure), is clinging on by their fingernails to society’s precipice. They are all desperate and willing to throw each other under the omnibus to survive.   

Fate provides a striking metaphor in the play for the random structures of the English class system too. The baby Ernest was abandoned in a handbag at a cloak room in Victoria Station. Victoria was the primary two-line station in London, one vast set of tracks leading to the upper class suburbs of London (the Brighton Line), the other to the east end and the poorest suburbs of London and beyond. Almost Oedipus like, a man’s identity was left at a crossroad and whomever may have found him and taken him would determine which class he would grow up in. A man with a “first-class ticket to Worthing in his pocket at the time” happened to take him up and hence he achieved an upper-class lifestyle. And even this “lost baby in the bag” motif is steeped in classical tradition, right back to the Book of Exodus of course, but also Greek drama and Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale and Pericles – where abandoned children are finally and almost magically reunited with their families.

There is a great deal of Wilde himself in the play and clearly its inspirations were deeply personal. Oscar’s brother Willie Wilde was the picture of idleness, drifting from club to club, from lunch to lunch, racking up impossible debts (including at the very restaurants named in the play), which Oscar repeatedly had to pay. He wrote the play in the seaside resort of Worthing, where he had often enjoyed his own secret double life, and his earliest drafts of the play even used his lover’s name, “Lord Alfred” instead of Algernon. Bracknell indeed was the country town in which Lord Alfred’s mother lived, the wife of Oscar’s great enemy. Wilde was sailing perilously close to the wind. He pulled back from some of the obviousness of these references by his final draft but kept the pointed game-playing in the choice of names and events. He even included a scene in his penultimate draft that involved the men being formally threatened with the debtor’s prison at Holloway. Wilde cut the scene under pressure from the actor-manager of the St James Theatre as they approached the opening, turning the play from a 4-act to a 3-act story. Only a month later when Wilde’s life collapsed with his arrest, he found himself in Holloway awaiting trial before his final hard labour in Reading Gaol, a terrible irony.

Lady Bracknell is a remarkable figure and perhaps much more remarkable than the mythic “Gorgon” she is described as, capable of withering her foes with a look and a brutal quip. We observed in rehearsals that, were she a businessMAN, the questions she asks and the objectives she pursues would be admired and accepted as a critical part of the ‘job” of securing economic, corporate and political assurance. Were she a man playing the hard game she plays, her take-no-prisoners approach would win business awards and represent the stuff that builds a society. As a woman though her tactics are often seen purely through the prism of greed, one-eyed social climbing and narcissism. She is a businessWOMAN, a proto-entrepreneur, controlling with a ruthless hand the only investment the market allows her - marriage and familial continuity. Her ailing, disengaged, unseen husband is of no help and nor was the other father figure, Algernon’s apparently violent dad, “a man of peace, except in his domestic life” – she has only her wits and her instinct to survive and keep her family afloat. It is such a powerful portrait of control concealing vulnerability but never complaining of it. She is a Ronda Rousey in a cage the size of London, doing what she needs to do, love her or hate her.

Being Ernest and being Earnest…
There is a popular theory that ‘earnest’ was euphemistic street slang of the Victorian period for being ‘gay’, and some evidence points to the possibility. Wilde borrowed the pun from an 1892 volume of poetry by homosexual poet John Gambril, dedicated to his lover Ernest. “By 1895, Earnest had come to allude to male same-sex love, at least within the literary circle”, according to Wilde biographer, Nicholas Frankel.

Was Wilde, as a homosexual playwright, writing a play where two men, bound by the moral codes of their oppressive religious culture, create duplicitous identities, one for their public, social lives, and another under which they are free to enjoy their private passions, their secret and surreptitious pleasures, getting into “dreadful scrapes” and living a lie that is “rarely pure and never simple”? Are Algy’s alter-ego ‘Bunbury’ and Jack’s ‘Earnest’ actually their true-selves, free of social responsibilities - homosexual men hiding within the heterosexual custom of marriage and romance because there is simply no other way to get on without vilification? Wilde himself was married with children after all. Certainly, marriage is mercilessly mocked and disparaged at the every turn in the play – husbands are sickly or violent, engagements are childishly imagined between people who have not even met or resolved within one afternoon of meeting, commitment is hinged upon whether the name of the man fulfils the childhood fantasy of the woman, proposals are offered purely for practice, widows grow 20 years younger and have their hair “turn gold from grief”, marriage demoralises people of taste into drinkers of second-rate champagne, babies are left in dark railway cloak rooms, and even the butler’s marriage was simply a terrible misunderstanding. In summary, marriage is made as trivial and superficial as possible. It is divorce that Wilde says is “made in heaven”. He was not alone in condemning marriage, Mona Caird has caused a serious stir in the Westminster Review in 1888 declaring, “the present form of marriage” to be “a vexatious failure”.

There is compelling evidence in the play of deep subliminal anger and a much more political sentiment than its delicate coating suggests. The ending sees first cousins fated to marriage, and Wilde even speculated on worse forms of incest in his first draft of the play, toying with making Bracknell the ‘mother’ of Earnest and Algernon, and thereby leaving Gwendolen and Ernest in a revelation of romantic attachment between brother and sister. He obviously pulled back from that bleak brink but in Bracknell’s final speeches the possibility still seems to hang in the air – “in families of high birth, strange coincidences are not supposed to occur…it is hardly considered the thing”. “There is the lady who can tell you who you really are”, says the play late in Act 3.

All of these fun theories are exactly that, fun. Wilde is careful not to exercise them with any real energy, probably recognising that pushing the homoerotic angle in the men would only undermine the heterosexual romantic attachments that the play rests on and make the story precisely what it wasn’t, a didactic moral time-bomb.

Is the ‘earnest’  = ‘gay’ theory correct? Actors from the original production denied it and said no such revelation was discussed with the playwright. John Gielgud and Edith Evans, famed actors of the play, strongly refute it. The point seems to be that it doesn’t matter, it is what it represents that matters. Wilde is writing a play in which people live in a society where happiness and freedom are found only in secrecy and deceit, or in the imagination, and where hiding is a way of life, lying a necessity, and protection of your social status everything. Homosexuality, in a systemically prejudiced society with an intolerant justice system, is just one example of such a secret life, one of many that one might lead in such a world.

‘Earnestness’ – using its most accurate definition as ‘seriousness’, ‘honesty’ etc - was one of the over-riding societal values of Victorian life, written about, talked about, and aimed at reforming the lower social orders, those lesser people who are so given to sin and vice. Wilde has a great deal of fun with the word – writing a play where all genuinely serious things (child-rearing, marriage, education, morality, christening, religion) are treated with complete triviality, while trivial things (food, names, buttonholes, neckties, cigarette cases, diaries etc) are treated with the highest stakes of seriousness possible. Food in this play is a carnal pleasure and the main conflict zone for both sexes – cucumber sandwiches, bread and butter, tea and sugar, tea cake and muffins, champagne and sherry. These harmless vices take on bitter proportions and become a battlefield for the repressed sensuality of the characters, always hungry, famished, insatiable and competitive over the rituals of eating and drinking.

Wilde debunks earnestness completely in his final triumph at the end of the play when Jack realises quite “suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth”. He says he has never “been reduced to such a painful position” and asks the forgiveness of his fiancé for doing so now. She forgives him, because he “is sure to change” – another note of raw cynicism. Wilde bursts the hypocritical bubble of Victorian earnestness and honesty at every turn, knowing as he does that Victorian morality is like a smooth blister covering a festering social sore that is seething with vice, deception and real, flawed human impulses. Wilde may, knowingly or purely instinctively, have spoken far more personal truth through this play than he realised, both hiding and revealing himself in the process.

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Reviews

"Sport For Jove have delivered another immensely entertaining night out. The entire ensemble has wholeheartedly embraced Ryan’s vision for the show. They’ve managed to translate a sitting-room Victorian comedy into a sophisticated farce, which, were he living, Wilde would surely be proud of."
"A delight to watch, The Importance of Being Earnest encapsulates the farcical hypocrisy of societal standards and impresses upon its audience a wit and comedic presence so often sought after, but rarely achieved in theatrical adaptations."
"The entire cast give luminous performances, with each member attuned to the comic dexterity and deeper insight of Ryan’s vision."

Cast & Crew

Cast

Algernon Moncrieff
Dr. Frederick Chasuble
Gwendolen Fairfax
Lady Bracknell
Cecily Cardew
Merriman
John 'Jack' Worthing
Miss Letitia Prism

Crew

Costume Designer and Festival Set Co-designer
Stage Manager
Director and Festival Set Co-designer
Sound Design / Videography
Original Scores
Festival Production Manager
Scenic Artist
Lighting Designer
Assistant Director

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