The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy

Oscar Wilde's madcap farce about mistaken identities, secret engagements, and lovers entanglements still delights readers more than a century after its 1895 publication and premiere performance. The rapid-fire wit and eccentric characters of The Importance of Being Earnest have made it a mainstay of the high school curriculum for decades.

Cecily Cardew and Gwendolen Fairfax are both in love with the same mythical suitor. Jack Worthing has wooed Gwendolen as Ernest while Algernon has also posed as Ernest to win the heart of Jack's ward, Cecily. When all four arrive at Jack's country home on the same weekend the "rivals" to fight for Ernest's undivided attention and the "Ernests" to claim their beloveds pandemonium breaks loose. Only a senile nursemaid and an old, discarded hand-bag can save the day!

This Prestwick House Literary Touchstone Edition includes a glossary and reader's notes to help the modern reader appreciate Wilde's wry wit and elaborate plot twists

 

The Importance of Being Earnest, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People is a play by Oscar Wilde. First performed on 14 February 1895 at the St James's Theatre in London, it is a farcical comedy in which the protagonists maintain fictitious personae to escape burdensome social obligations. Working within the social conventions of late Victorian London, the play's major themes are the triviality with which it treats institutions as serious as marriage, and the resulting satire of Victorian ways. Some contemporary reviews praised the play's humour and the culmination of Wilde's artistic career, while others were cautious about its lack of social messages. Its high farce and witty dialogue have helped make The Importance of Being Earnest Wilde's most enduringly popular play.

The successful opening night marked the climax of Wilde's career but also heralded his downfall. The Marquess of Queensberry, whose son Lord Alfred Douglas was Wilde's lover, planned to present the writer with a bouquet of rotten vegetables and disrupt the show. Wilde was tipped off and Queensberry was refused admission. Their feud came to a climax in court, where Wilde's homosexuality was revealed to the Victorian public and he was sentenced to imprisonment. Despite the play's early success, Wilde's notoriety caused the play to be closed after 86 performances. After his release from prison, he published the play from exile in Paris, but he wrote no further comic or dramatic work.

The Importance of Being Earnest has been revived many times since its premiere. It has been adapted for the cinema on three occasions. In The Importance of Being Earnest (1952), Dame Edith Evans reprised her celebrated interpretation of Lady Bracknell; The Importance of Being Earnest (1992) by Kurt Baker used an all-black cast; and Oliver Parker's The Importance of Being Earnest (2002) incorporated some of Wilde's original material cut during the preparation of the original stage production.

 

The Importance of Being Earnest and Wilde's three other society plays were performed in Britain during the author's imprisonment and exile, albeit by small touring companies. A. B. Tapping's company toured Earnest between October 1895 and March 1899 (their performance at the Theatre Royal, Limerick, in the last week of October 1895 was almost certainly the first production of the play in Ireland). Elsie Lanham's company also toured 'Earnest' between November 1899 and April 1900.Alexander revived Earnest in a small theatre in Notting Hill, outside the West End, in 1901;] in the same year he presented the piece on tour, playing Jack Worthing with a cast including the young Lilian Braithwaite as Cecily. The play returned to the West End when Alexander presented a revival at the St James's in 1902. Broadway revivals were mounted in 1902 and again in 1910, each production running for six weeks.

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