Today is of course Valentine’s Day, but the title of this post doesn’t refer to a romantic gift. Today is also the 118th anniversary of the first performance of Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest, which premiered in 1895. I love Wilde’s work in general, but I particularly love this – it’s funny in such a simple, effortless way that at some points I’m actually left wondering what it was I found so amusing.
The play tells the story of two men who invent fictitious identities for themselves in order to escape certain boring social situations (and to meet women), which subsequently leads to them getting tangled up in all sorts of lies, with amusing consequences. At the time, reviewers were wary of the play because it broke from the conventions of the time in that it didn’t tackle important social or political issues. But before long it was praised for its wit and cleverness as a satire that poked fun at Victorian traditions, and for the fact that Wilde had refused to play the game and write something that was just like everything else. HG Wells wondered in his review of the play, “How serious people will take this trivial comedy intended for their learning remains to be seen. No doubt incredibly seriously.”
The irony of the popularity of this play came to light only weeks after this first performance, as details of Wilde’s homosexual double life were revealed in court. Three months after Earnest was first viewed by audiences, Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labour for gross indecency. There were only 86 performances of the play before it was forced to close because of the scandal, and it wasn’t until more than a decade after Wilde’s death in 1900 that there was a revival of his work, when his novel and plays started to become acceptable again.
And how fortunate for us that they did. Just reading some of these quotes has made me laugh out loud, and I have to admit, there aren’t many modern comedies that make me do that. Plus, where would we be today without the wisdom of Jack, Algernon and of course, Lady Bracknell?
“To be born, or at any rate bred, in a hand-bag, whether it had handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution.”