Category Archives: Past Productions

1895 The First Production

The 1895 production of The Importance of Being Earnest was at the St James’s Theatre, London, on a really cold Valentine’s Day. Wilde had already had three successful plays in the West End, with The Ideal Husband still playing round the corner at the Haymarket Theatre. 

The 1895 production of The Importance of Being Earnest

The original programme, courtesy of the V&A www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles

Cast

George Alexander starred in the show and also ran the theatre as actor-manager; he was a popular figure on the London theatre scene and was knighted in 1911 for his dedication to the St James’s. The rest of the cast were as follows:

Allan Aynesworth and George Alexander

Allan Aynesworth as Algernon (L) & George Alexander as Jack (R)

George Alexander as John Worthing
Allan Aynesworth as Algernon Moncrieff
Rose Leclerco as Lady Bracknell
Irene Vanbrugh as Gwendolen
Violet Lyster as Cecily
George Canninge as Miss Prism
H. H. Vincent as Dr Chasuble
Frank Dyall as Harriman (John’s butler)
F. Kinsey Peile as Lane 

Reception

The play’s tone was farcical and lighthearted, unlike most theatre of its time, and received mixed reviews. The audience was famously full of ministers, academics and writers; W.H.Auden described the performance as ‘pure verbal Opera’, reviewing it among other writers such as Bernard Shaw and H.G.Wells.

The performance didn’t come without its objections however. There was one notable disruption from The Marquess of Queensberry, the father of Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas, who planned to throw rotten vegetables at Wilde after the show. The police heard of the plan and barred him from entering the theatre.

Aftermath

The Marquess continued to intimidate Wilde over the coming days, eventually demanding to speak to him at the Albemarle Club where he was socialising. The porter refused the Marquess entry, so he sent a malicious note addressed to ‘Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite’ (a mispelling of ‘sodomite’). Wilde took the Marquess to trial for harassment but the proceedings were turned around to investigate his own homosexual affairs and allegations of sodomy; you can read more about the trial on our About Oscar Wilde page. At the time homosexuality was illegal in Britain and the trial became a huge public scandal, damaging the reputation of The Importance of Being Earnest. George Alexander removed Wilde’s name from the poster in an attempt to save the show, but Wilde’s reputation disgraced the performance and it ran for a mere 86 days. Wilde was imprisoned for two years following the trial and lived the rest of his life in exile. The play was only revived after his death in 1900, with the first performance in 1901.

1939 Globe Theatre London

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.

The cast

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.

1982 National Theatre London

About Sir Peter Hall

The National Theatre lit up at night

The National Theatre lit up at night

Sir Peter Hall is arguably the most notable director to have worked on The Importance of Being Earnest. His illustrious career took off in his early twenties when he directed the English premiere of Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece Waiting for Godot. He quickly established himself as a talented director at various theatres including the Arts Theatre and the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, working with actors such as Laurence Olivier and Peggy Ashcroft. Hall then founded the Royal Shakespeare Company at the young age of 29 and stayed there until the late 1960s, further proving himself to be a cornerstone of Britian’s cultural heritage. He is perhaps most known for his leadership of the National Theatre, where he was director from 1973 to 1988, and for his turbulent resignation over public funding cuts to the arts.  During his time at the National Theatre he directed many original plays and adaptations, including the 1982 production of The Importance of Being Earnest.

1982 National Theatre London production of The Importance of Being Earnest

In Sir Peter Hall’s production, Martin Jarvis played Jack and Nigel Havers played Algernon; both actors return to the current production at the Harold Pinter Theatre. We’re perhaps encouraged to imagine that the actors have never left their roles and the Bunbury Company of Players have joined them in their never-ending performance. The 1982 cast also included Judi Dench as Lady Bracknell, who went on to play the same role in the 2002 film, as well as Zoë Wanamaker and Anna Massey. Dench played Lady Bracknell as a purse, uptight character which gave her another dynamic following the braying tones of Edith Evans.

Anna Massey, Zoë Wanamaker and Judi Dench

Anna Massey as Miss Prism (left), Zoë Wanamaker as Gwendolen (centre) and Judi Dench as Lady Bracknell (right)

The full cast listing:

Martin Jarvis as John Worthing
Nigel Havers as Algernon Moncrieff
Judi Dench as Lady Bracknell
Zoë Wanamaker as Gwendolen
Elizabeth Garvie as Cecily Cardew
Anna Massey as Miss Prism
Paul Rogers as Canon Chasuble
Alan Haywood as the Footman
Brian Kent as Lane
John Gill as Merriman

2011 Broadway Revival

About the American Airlines Theater

The Roundabout Theatre Company produced a the 2011 Broadway revival of The Importance of Being Earnest, based on Brian Bedford’s 2009 production at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. It was performed at the company’s permanent home, the American Airlines Theater in New York, an Italian Renaissance theatre on 42nd Street. The auditorium was beautifully renovated when it changed its name from the Selwyn Theatre in 2000 and has since hosted numerous Broadway revivals.

The director and cast

Brian Bedford directed the show as well as playing the strict Lady Bracknell; the role is often played by men, most recently by actors such as Geoffrey Rush and Ray Dooley. Bedford was praised for his strangely believable portrayal and his reluctance to play his gender for laughs. The production was nominated for three Tony Awards and was so successful that it was filmed and released on DVD.

Alongside Brian Bedford the cast were as follows:

The renovated American Airlines auditorium

The renovated American Airlines auditorium

Santino Fontana as Algernon Moncrieff
David Furr as John Worthing
Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell
Sara Topham as Gwendolen Fairfax
Charlotte Parry as Cecily Cardew
Dana Ivey as Miss Prism
Paxton Whitehead as Canon Chasuble
Paul O’Brien as Lane
Tim MacDonald as Merriman
Amanda Leigh Cobb as the servant

Film adaptations

Many directors have conquered stage versions of the play, but there have also been several film adaptations of The Importance of Being Earnest. Here we have a brief look at the 1952 and 2002 films.

The 1952 film directed by Anthony Asquith

This star studded production is mostly recognised for Edith Evan’s performance as Lady Bracknell. Many actors, including Ian McKellen, have noted the legacy of ‘a handbag?’, saying it has hindered performers even years later. Actors are often criticised for mimicking her barking tones and yet condemned if they don’t; it can be one of modern drama’s elephants in the room.

The rest of the cast were as follows:

Michael Redgrave as John Worthing
Michael Denison as Algernon Moncrieff
Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell
Joan Greenwood as Gwendolen Fairfax
Dorothy Tutin as Cecily Cardew
Margaret Rutherford as Miss Prism
Miles Malleson as Canon Chasuble
Aubrey Mather as Merriman
Walter Hudd as Lane
Richard Wattis as Seton

 

The 2002 film, directed by Oliver Parker

It would be foolish to discuss The Importance of Being Earnest without mentioning the 2002 film, which introduced a whole new audience to the staged play despite splitting the critics. The film was relatively true to the script with few embellishments, proving that Wilde’s writing is as humorous today as it was in the 19th Century. Judi Dench and Anna Massey returned from the 1982 stage version in their original roles as part of a star studded cast:

Colin Firth as John Worthing
Rupert Everett as Algernon Moncrieff
Frances O’Connor as Gwendolen
Reese Witherspoons as Cecily Cardew
Judi Dench as Lady Bracknell
Anna Massey as Miss Prism
Tom Wilkinson as Canon Chasuble
Patrick Godfrey as Merriman
Edward Fox as Lane
Charles Kay as Gribsby

What do you think of Dench’s delivery of ‘a handbag?’ in this clip from the interview scene?