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.
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:
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
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.
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.