The Importance of Being Earnest
comic play by Oscar Wilde
. It premiered
on 14 February 1895
at the St. James's Theatre
England during the late Victorian
era, the play's humour derives in part from characters
maintaining fictitious identities to escape unwelcome social
It is replete with witty dialogue and satirizes
some of the foibles and hypocrisy of late
Victorian society. It has proved Wilde's most enduringly popular
The successful opening night of this play marked the climax
of Wilde's career but also heralded his
impending downfall. The Marquess of
, father of Wilde's lover Lord Alfred Douglas
, attempted to enter
the theatre, intending to throw vegetables at the playwright when
he took his bow at the end of the show. Wilde was tipped off and
Queensberry was refused admission. Nonetheless, Queensberry's
hostility to Wilde was soon to trigger the latter's legal travails
and eventual imprisonment. Wilde's notoriety caused the play,
despite its success, to be closed after only 83 performances. He
never wrote another play.
Moncrieff, an aristocratic young Londoner, is visited
by his best friend, whom he knows as Ernest Worthing.
arrives from the country with the intention of proposing to
Algernon's cousin, Gwendolen. Algernon refuses to grant Ernest his
permission until he explains why the cigarette case he left in
Algernon's flat bears the inscription, "From little Cecily, with
her fondest love to her dear Uncle Jack." "Ernest" is thus forced
to disclose that he is leading a double life: in the country, he
goes by the name of John (or Jack), pretending that he has a
wastrel brother named Ernest living in London and requiring his
frequent attention. He assumes a serious attitude for the benefit
of his ward, Cecily, the granddaughter of Jack's late adoptive
father, but in the city, he assumes the name and behaviour of the
libertine Ernest. Algernon reveals that he engages in a similar
deception: he pretends to have an invalid friend named Bunbury in
the country; whenever Algernon wants to avoid unwelcome social
obligations, he "goes Bunburying" instead.
Lady Bracknell arrives with Gwendolen, her daughter, and invites
Algernon to dine with them, but he uses his Bunbury excuse to get
out of the situation. As he distracts Lady Bracknell in another
room, Jack proposes to Gwendolen, who accepts, but seems to love
him only for his professed name of Ernest; Jack decides to be
as Ernest. Lady Bracknell walks
in on them and insists on thoroughly questioning Jack as a suitor.
horrified to learn that he was adopted as a baby after being
discovered in a handbag at a railway
She refuses him and forbids her daughter
from ever seeing him. Gwendolen, however, sneaks back to the house
to tell Jack that she will always love him, and asks his address in
the country. When Jack gives it to her, Algernon writes it on the
cuff of his sleeve; Jack's description of his pretty young ward has
so appealed to him that he is resolved to meet her.
At Jack's country house, Cecily's governess, Miss Prism, is going
over her German lesson
However, the rector Dr. Chasuble, an admirer of Miss Prism,
arrives, and Cecily manages to get out of her work by setting up a
romantic walk between Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism. Algernon
arrives, announcing himself as Ernest Worthing. Cecily has for some
time imagined herself in love with her Uncle Jack's "wicked"
younger brother (even fantasising that they are engaged), and
Algernon easily sweeps her off her feet. Like Gwendolen, though,
Cecily loves her "Ernest" at least in part for his name, and thus
Algernon asks Dr. Chasuble to christen him.
Jack, meanwhile, has decided to put his life as Ernest behind him.
He arrives at his country house in mourning clothes claiming that
Ernest has died in Paris of a "severe chill", but is forced to
abandon this claim by the presence of Algernon in the role of
Gwendolen arrives, having fled London and her mother to be with her
love. When she and Cecily meet, in the temporary absence of the two
men, each indignantly insists that she
is the one engaged
to "Ernest". When Jack and Algernon reappear, their deceptions are
exposed. When the men explain themselves, they are forgiven, and
the women agree not to break off the engagements when each man
announces his intention to be re-christened.
Now Lady Bracknell arrives in pursuit of her daughter. She is
surprised to find Algernon there instead of with "Bunbury", but is
distracted when she learns that Algernon and Cecily are engaged.
Any initial doubts over Cecily's suitability as a wife for her
nephew are dispelled when the size of Cecily's trust fund is
revealed. However, stalemate transpires when Jack denies his
consent to the marriage of his ward to Algernon until Lady
Bracknell consents to his own marriage to Gwendolen.
The impasse is broken by the appearance of Cecily's governess, Miss
Prism. Lady Bracknell recognizes Miss Prism, who twenty-eight years
earlier had been a family nursemaid. One day she left Lord
Bracknell's house with a baby boy in a perambulator
returned. Miss Prism explains that, in a moment of "mental
abstraction", she had put the manuscript of a novel she was writing
in the perambulator, and put the baby in a handbag, which she had
left at Victoria Station. Jack produces the very same handbag,
showing that he is the lost baby, the elder son of Lady Bracknell's
late sister, and thus Algernon's elder brother. Lady Bracknell
informs Jack that, as the firstborn son, he must have been named
after his father, General Moncrieff, but cannot remember the
general's first name. Jack looks in the Army Lists and discovers
that his father's name - and hence his - was in fact Ernest after
all. As the happy couples embrace - Ernest and Gwendolen, Algernon
and Cecily, and Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism - Lady Bracknell
complains to her new-found relative: "My nephew, you seem to be
displaying signs of triviality."
"On the contrary, Aunt Augusta," he replies, "I've now realized for
the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being
- John ("Jack") Worthing: In love with Gwendolen. Bachelor.
Adopted when very young by Thomas Cardew.
- Algernon ("Algy") Moncrieff: First cousin of Gwendolen.
Bachelor. Nephew of Lady Bracknell.
- Lady Bracknell (Augusta Fairfax):Mother of Gwendolen, very
controlling of her daughter.
- Hon. Gwendolen Fairfax: daughter of Lady Bracknell. Engaged to
- Cecily Cardew: granddaughter of Thomas Cardew and ward of Jack
Worthing. Lives at Jack's country house in Hertfordshire.
- Miss Laetitia Prism: Cecily's governess.
- Reverend Canon Frederick Chasuble, D.D.: Rector of the church
near Jack’s country house.
- Lane: Algernon's manservant.
- Merriman: Jack's butler.
- Gribsby: a solicitor (only present in the variant four act
version of the play).
When Wilde handed his final draft of the play over to theatrical
impresario George Alexander it was complete in four acts. The actor
manager of the St. James' Theatre soon began a reworking of the
play (whether to provide space for a 'warmer' or for a musical
interlude, as was often the bill, is not entirely clear). Wilde
agreed to the cuts and various elements of the second and third
acts were combined. The ensuing three act play is the version that
opened in London and also the version usually performed and
published ever since.
The "missing" extra act, coming between the current second and
third, was heavily cut. The greatest impact was the loss of the
character Mr. Gribsby, a solicitor who turns up from London to
arrest the profligate "Ernest" (i.e. Jack) for his unpaid dining
bills. Algernon — who is going by the name "Ernest"
at this point — is about to be led away to Holloway
Jail unless he settles his accounts immediately.
Jack finally agrees to pay for Ernest — everyone thinking that it
is Algy's bill when in fact it is his own.
The four-act version was first played on the radio in a BBC
production and is still sometimes performed. The
2002 film includes the Gribsby scene from the missing act.
The Importance of Being Earnest
has been translated into
many different languages. However, in most languages its title is
untranslatable, since it relies on the fact that "Ernest" and
"earnest" are homophones
Translators have found various solutions to this problem, and the
play is sometimes staged under the title Bunbury
In some languages, the translator removes the pun from the title;
it is rendered as
Hvem er Ernest?
("Who is Ernest?") In Spanish
-speaking countries, the title is
translated as La importancia de llamarse Ernesto
Importance of Calling Yourself Ernest).
Several languages — German
— offer equivalent puns. In Germany
the play and the 2002 movie are called Ernst sein ist
("Being Ernst is everything", Ernst
a first name and the German word for serious). The Italian
L'importanza di essere Ernesto
, or L'importanza di
("The Importance of Being Frank"), similarly
preserves punning with a slight twist. In Catalan it is also, as in
Italian, "La importància de ser Franc" ("The Importance of Being
Frank"). In Dutch it has been translated as Het belang van
, in which the pun is also fully functional. In French,
the play is commonly known as De l'importance d'être
being both a (mildly uncommon)
first name and also the quality of steadfastness; the pun is thus
preserved but with a slightly different meaning. However, French
dramatist Jean Anouilh
play under an alternative title: Il est important d'être
(Aimé is both a name and the French for "beloved").
The same approach has been used in Hungarian: the title has been
translated as Szilárdnak kell lenni
("One Must Be
being also an uncommon first name
meaning "steadfast". In Czech, the title is translated as Jak
je důležité míti Filipa
("The Importance of Having Phillip"),
which is an idiom for being clever, and Filip
is a quite
common name. Similarly, in Basque it has been titled Fidel izan
("On the need to be Fidel"), fidel
both the Basque word for "faithful" and a first name. Likewise, in
Esperanto, the play is called La Graveco de la Fideliĝo
(the importance of becoming faithful/becoming Fidel).
, however, the title is
("The Prodigal Brother"), an allusion to
the parable of the Prodigal Son
Polish: Syn Marnotrawny). In Hebrew
known as Hashivuta shel retsinut
("The Importance of
Possible inside jokes
his relationship with Lord Alfred
Douglas, Wilde and his wife visited Douglas' mother, Lady
Queensberry, who wanted to talk to them about her son's lack of
academic achievements (he left Oxford without a degree) and extravagant habits.
has been suggested that for Wilde the visit "had all the
embarrassment associated with meeting one's beloved's mother".
Queensberry lived in Bracknell.
Some have implied that Wilde's use of the name Ernest
might possibly be an inside joke. John Gambril Nicholson
in his poem
"Of Boy's Names"
(Love in Earnest: Sonnets, Ballades,
(1892)) contains the lines: "Though Frank may ring
like silver bell, And Cecil softer music claim, They cannot work
the miracle, –'Tis Ernest sets my heart a-flame." The poem was
promoted by John Addington
and Nicholson and Wilde contributed pieces to the same
issue of The
magazine. Theo Aronson has suggested that the
word "earnest" became a code-word for homosexual, as in: "Is he
earnest?", in the same way that "Is he so?" and "Is he musical?"
were also employed.
The words bunbury
which are used to imply double lives and as excuses for absences,
are—according to a letter from Aleister
to Sir R. H. Bruce Lockhart
—an inside joke that came
about after Wilde boarded a train at Banbury on which he met a
schoolboy. They got into conversation and subsequently arranged to
meet again at Sunbury.
Contrary to claims of homosexual terminology, the actor Sir
, who in the 1940s had
met two of the play's original participants (Irene Vanbrugh
, the first Gwendolen, and
, the first Algy),
as well as Wilde's lover Lord Alfred Douglas, wrote to The
to dispute suggestions that 'Earnest' held any sexual
connotations: "Although they had ample opportunity, at no time did
any of them even hint that Earnest was a synonym for homosexual, or
that Bunburying may have implied homosexual sex. The first time I
heard it mentioned was in the 1980s and I immediately consulted Sir
whose own performance of
Jack Worthing in the same play was legendary and whose knowledge of
theatrical lore was encyclopaedic. He replied in his ringing tones:
"No-No! Nonsense, absolute nonsense: I would have known." Gielgud's
comment carries added weight given that he was himself well-known
in theatrical circles to be gay.
- John Gielgud was possibly the most
famous Jack Worthing of the twentieth century, performing the role
in several different productions on the English stage, and also in
two sound recordings with Dame Edith Evans, certainly the
best-remembered Lady Bracknell (see below). His 1947 Broadway production
won the only Tony Award ever given for
Best Foreign Production.
- Lady Bracknell's line, "A handbag?" has been claimed to be the
single line in English drama that has given rise to the most varied
interpretations, ranging from
incredulous through scandalized to just plain baffled. There is
scarcely an actress who has not tried to put her own personal stamp
on it, but the most famous is that of Edith
Evans, seen both on stage and in the 1952 film The Importance of
Being Earnest, who delivered the line loudly in a mixture
of horror, incredulity and condescension.
- The name 'Miss Prism' is a pun on 'misprision', which has two definitions. The older
is very dark, involving the concealment of official neglect, crime
or possibly treason. The more modern meaning closely resembles the
character's multiple misunderstandings.
- At the
time the play was written Victoria Station in London was actually two adjacent terminal
stations sharing the same name. To the east was the terminal
of the decidedly ramshackle London, Chatham and Dover
Railway and to the west, the much more fashionable London, Brighton and
South Coast Railway—the Brighton Line. Although the two
stations shared a dividing wall, there was no interconnection: it
was necessary to walk out into the street to pass from one station
to the other. Jack explains that he was found in a handbag in the
cloakroom at Victoria Station and tries to mitigate the
circumstance by assuring Lady Bracknell that it was the more
socially acceptable "Brighton line".
- Wilde's plays had reached a pinnacle of success, and anything
new from the playwright was eagerly awaited. The press were always
hungry for details and would pursue stories about new plots and
characters with a vengeance. To combat this Wilde gave the play a
working title, Lady Lancing.
The use of
seaside town names for leading characters, or the locations of
their inception, can be recognised in all four of Wilde's society
plays (the surname of the play's leading character, Worthing, is itself
taken from the town where Wilde was staying when he wrote the
- Based on his own research, Michael Feingold claims that Wilde
drew inspiration for his plot from W.
S. Gilbert's Engaged.
- Tom Stoppard's 1974 comedy play
Travesties, set in Zurich during
the First World War, takes as the starting point for its fictional
embellishments a troubled production of The Importance of Being
Earnest that was historically undertaken by an amateur company
whose business manager was the writer James
Spanish singer, Enrique
Bunbury, named himself after Algernon's imaginary friend
- The names of Cecily and Gwendolyn Pigeon in Neil Simon's comedy
The Odd Couple were inspired
by the characters Cecily and Gwendolen in Wilde's play.
- The play has been previously performed at the Stratford Shakespeare
Festival five times beginning in 1975 with William Hutt playing "Lady Bracknell"
in both the 1975 and 1976 productions. In the current 2009
production, Brian Bedford plays "Lady
19 October, 2007, a
rare first edition of the play was discovered in a branch of
Oxfam in Nantwich, Cheshire, coincidentally in a handbag; ironically mimicking
the discovery of Jack Worthing as an infant. Staff at the
shop said they had no idea who donated the items. The book has a
mark on the inside cover stating that it was numbered 349 out of
1,000 copies and was sold for £650.
Importance of Being Earnest was directed by Anthony Asquith and stars Michael Denison (Algernon), Michael Redgrave (Jack), Dame Edith Evans (Lady Bracknell), Dorothy Tutin (Cecily), Joan Greenwood (Gwendolen), and Margaret Rutherford (Miss Prism).
Importance of Being Earnest was directed by Kurt Baker.
Importance of Being Earnest stars Colin Firth (Jack), Rupert Everett (Algy), Dame Judi Dench (Lady Bracknell), Reese Witherspoon (Cecily), Frances O'Connor (Gwendolen), Anna Massey (Miss Prism), and Tom Wilkinson (Dr. Chasuble) and was directed
by Oliver Parker.
- In 1963, Erik
Chisholm completed his opera based on the
play with Wilde's text as the libretto.
- A musical based on the play called Ernest in Love opened off-Broadway in
1960 to glowing reviews. It starred John Irving as Jack and
Louis Edmonds as Algernon.
was later revived and translated into Japanese in 2005 for the
Revue in Japan.
- A play, The
Importance of Being Frank (first professional performance:
Bristol, 1991) by Tom Holland,
relates Oscar Wilde's trial, imprisonment and exile, using
quotation and pastiche of this play, with Lord Alfred Douglas as Algernon, Wilde
as Ernest, his wife Constance as
Gwendolen and the Marquess of
Queensberry as Lady Bracknell. (Note: Tom Holland is
not related to Wilde's descendants.)
- The Telugu film Ashta Chamma was based on this play.
- On 13 February 1995 to commemorate the centenary of the first performance of The
Importance of Being Earnest, BBC Radio
4 broadcast a radio adaptation directed by Glyn Dearman starring Dame Judi Dench as "Lady Bracknell",
Sir Michael Hordern as "Lane",
Michael Sheen as "Jack Worthing",
Martin Clunes as "Algernon Moncrieff",
John Moffatt as "Rev. Canon
Chasuble", Miriam Margolyes as
"Miss Prism", Samantha Bond as
"Gwendolen" and Amanda Root as "Cecily".
The production was released on audio cassette by Hodder Headline
Audiobooks by arrangement with BBC
Enterprises (ISBN 1-85998-218-2).
- In 1997, Penguin Audiobooks
released a recording of the play directed by Shaun MacLoughlin starring Miriam Margolyes as "Lady Bracknell",
Greg Wise as "Jack Worthing", Richard Pearce as "Algernon Moncrieff",
Bill Wallis as "Rev. Canon Chasuble",
June Barrie as "Miss Prism", Jane Slavin as "Gwendolen" and Anna Mountford as "Cecily", with music
composed by Mark Barton-Hill. (ISBN
- On 13 December 2000, BBC Radio 3
broadcast a new radio adaptation directed by Howard Davies starring Geraldine McEwan as "Lady Bracknell",
Simon Russell Beale as "Jack
Worthing", Julian Wadham as "Algernon
Moncrieff", Geoffrey Palmer as "Rev.
Canon Chasuble", Celia Imrie as "Miss
Prism", Victoria Hamilton as
"Gwendolen" and Emma Fielding as
"Cecily", with music composed by Dominic Muldowney. The production was
released on audio cassette by the BBC Radio Collection (ISBN
- In 2005, Naxos Audiobooks released
a recording of a 1952 BBC radio production of the play starring
Dame Edith Evans as "Lady
Bracknell", Sir John Gielgud as
"John Worthing", Ronald Ward as
"Algernon Moncrieff", Gwen
Ffrangcon-Davies as "Gwendolen", Angela Baddeley as "Cecily", David Horne as "The Rev. Canon Chasuble",
Betty Hardy as "Miss Prism" and Roger Delgado as "Merriman". According to the
liner notes, this "was almost certainly taken from a live
transmission, as almost all radio plays were broadcast live in
those days." (ISBN 9-62634-342-7)
- In 2009, the play The Importance of being Earnestina
transposed the genders of all the roles.
- Oscar Wilde by Richard Ellman, published in 1987
- D'arch Smith, Timothy: Love In Earnest: Some Notes on the
Lives and Writings of English "Uranian" Poets from 1889 to
- Aronson, Theo: Prince Eddy and the Homosexual
- D'arch Smith, Timothy: Bunbury - Two Notes on Oscar
- The Times, 2 February 2001
- See, e.g.,
- Feingold, Michael, "Engaging the Past" (Note the last paragraph,
where Feingold writes, "Wilde pillaged this piece for ideas.")
- BBC NEWS | England | Staffordshire | Rare book
found in charity shop
- Louis Edmonds in Ernest in Love
Importance of being Earnestina