Background, production and design
Directed by John Gielgud at the Globe Theatre London (now the Gielgud Theatre), this version has been described as the definitive production of the 20th Century. As well as having a cast packed full of famous names, the creative team was made up of newly found companies growing in their success. The production company HM Tennent LTD produced it and became known for working on stylish, exuberant shows. They had an office at the top of the Globe Theatre which made working on the production extremely convenient. Just three years before the show, The London Theatre Studio opened in Islington and was the first to have a dedicated theatre design course. The three women in charge of the syllabus formed the theatre design company Motley, and were responsible for the elegant set for The Importance of Being Earnest in 1939. Earlier productions in the 1920s and early 1930s had a minimalist design but Motley, under Gielgud’s direction, wanted to produce the play in the lavish Edwardian style that Wilde had intended.
Gielgud was equally loyal to the text and famously brought out Wilde’s lines in the best way, filling his cast with famous British actors of the time. This included Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell, Joyce Carey as Gwendolen, Angela Baddeley as Cecily and Margaret Rutherford as Miss Prism. Edith Evans’ famous delivery of Lady Bracknell’s line ‘a handbag’ is remembered today, and she went on to star in the 1952 film adaptation which cemented the character’s infamy.
It has been noted that Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, called on Gielgud following one performance to congratulate him on its success. He couldn’t comment on the original 1895 production, but interestingly claimed that he had been with Wilde as he wrote the play and had contributed some of the best lines.