ABOUT THE PLAY
The most brilliant theatrical production of I have seen was John Gielgud’s
1947 The Importance of Being Earnest with Gielgud directing and playing
Jack Worthing, Robert Flemyng as Algy, Pamela Brown as Gwendolen,
Margaret Rutherford as Lady Bracknell, and Jean Cadell as Miss Prism. I
still remember Gielgud as he entered from stage rear in Act Two, “dressed in
deepest mourning, with crepe hatband and black gloves”, and meticulously
and slowly removed the gloves. That little bit is my definition of style.
Of course the play is worthy of that production. Earnest is one of the most
brilliant of English comedies. Jack and Gwendolen rank with Shakespeare’s
Benedict and Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing) and Congreve’s Mirabell
and Millamant (The Way of the World). Lady Bracknell is a great comic
creation right up there with Chaucer’s the Wife of Bath and Sheridan’s Mrs.
Malaprop (The Rivals).
Earnest was the last of Wilde’s plays, preceded by An Ideal Husband, A
Woman of No Importance, and Lady Windermere’s Fan. These three plays
still sparkle with epigrammatic wit, but are also burdened by melodrama and Victorian social criticism. They are very much “problem” plays. Earnest
rises above them. It is complete farcical nonsense, all glittering surface. No
moral, no message, no meaning, and very little plot. It is all manner, all wit.
The characters are not real people – if they were they would be insufferable-speaking realistic dialogue. But they are very much alive.
Gielgud wrote that Earnest has “to be played very strictly; it is like chamber
music …. you must play it with your tongue in your cheek, like a solemn
chorale.” Wilde himself got to the nub of the play when he wrote “that we
should treat all trivial things very seriously, and all the serious things of life
with sincere and studied triviality.”
Richard Gidez for SCCT