Lloyd Evans believes that Wilde’s comedy is the best play ever written. The Importance of Being Earnest with Penelope Keith is at the Vaudeville Theatre from 22 January.
My favourite play is on its way to the West End and I fully expect to be disappointed. It’s not that Peter Gill’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest hasn’t been widely praised. It has. But I prefer to see the play done by amateurs because with the sheen of professionalism stripped away the brilliance of the script becomes all the more evident. The Importance has been called the best comedy ever written. I’d say it’s the best play ever written. Its structure is flawless. Every theatrical effect it aims for it carries off effortlessly, and there’s an integrity to the whole that spreads to every component part. Wilde wrote the play in just three weeks while holidaying in Worthing with his wife and children in 1894. He gave it the subtitle ‘A Trivial Comedy for Serious People’, which neatly signals the play’s governing motif — paradox.
Everything operates on two levels. The storyline is both perfectly ridiculous and completely sincere. It uses the artifices of sentimental melodrama — a lost heir, mistaken identities, predatory lovers, a faked death, a final reconciliation and three marriages — and deploys them with a degree of panache that is without parallel in the theatrical repertoire.
The play’s satirical ethos is itself a brilliant intellectual contradiction. Set amid the Victorian upper classes it mocks all their most cherished values. Its ruthlessness is light-hearted, its cruelty innocent. Jack and Algy are frivolous gadabouts and yet there’s genuine depth and sincerity about their approach to life. Their reflections on romance, marriage, education and idleness aren’t just superficially amusing, they are also touched with profundity and truth.
All the characters, by some miracle, seem to be both caricatures and real people at once. Lady Bracknell constantly makes daft remarks (‘I dislike arguments of any kind. They are always vulgar and often convincing’), and yet she’s a recognisable type with serious motives. Finding a rich and well-connected husband for Gwendolen is the gravest responsibility of her life. The delicate balance of opposites appears even in minor narrative twists such as the final disclosure that the moralising spinster Miss Prism (a pun on ‘misprision’) has a shameful past.
The plot’s numerous duplicities are said to be a reflection of Wilde’s covert romantic life and his taste for ‘feasting with panthers’ as trysts with rent boys were called. Those in the know will tell you that the script is studded with secret symbolism. ‘Earnest’ is a codeword for ‘gay’. Cecily means a male prostitute. Silver cigarette cases were used by wealthy homosexuals to pay off their boyfriends. Numerous myths cluster around the word Bunbury. It’s supposed to be an in-joke coined by Wilde after he boarded a train at Banbury, met an attractive schoolboy and arranged a further meeting at Sunbury. Others will tell you Bunbury is a well-known Victorian term for a married homosexual. It’s equally possible that the notion of a gay code embedded in the text is the fantasy of a later age. According to Donald Sinden the encryption rumours started only in the 1980s. He consulted John Gielgud, an authority on the play, who dismissed the whole idea. ‘Absolute nonsense. I would have known.’
Contrary to one well-nurtured myth, the play wasn’t universally shunned after Wilde’s disgrace and imprisonment. In 1902, just two years after the author’s death, the first revival was praised as ‘an exhilarating champagne farce’. In 1909 a second revival was planned as a stopgap and ran for eight months. When Charles Laughton took the smallish role of Dr Chasuble in 1934, his ‘devastating, brilliant and outrageous lampoon’ created the impression that his was the leading part. In 1939 Edith Evans followed suit and upstaged not just the cast but also the entire play with her infamous shrieking delivery of ‘a handbag’. Unintentionally, she bequeathed a lasting problem. The scene in which the line appears is perhaps the funniest piece of stage comedy ever written. Certainly, it contains the best-known joke in the English language, ‘To lose one parent may be considered a misfortune, etc.’ as well as a handful of other scintillating wisecracks. ‘Land has ceased to be either a profit or a pleasure. It gives one position but prevents one from keeping it up.’ But the ‘handbag’ line is neither witty nor funny, and Edith Evans probably felt under pressure to do something absurd to provoke yet another big laugh. Once her performance had been filmed in 1952, the line passed into legend and it now represents a terrible crash barrier that every new Lady Bracknell must discover some elegant way to negotiate.
I like the play so much that I’ve now seen it too many times and its best moments have staled with familiarity. Still, there are plenty of underappreciated lines brimming with humour and psychological truth. A favourite comes in Act Three after Jack has discovered that he’s Algy’s brother. Lady Bracknell can’t remember his real name but suggests that he was probably named after his father, a general. Jack turns to the Army Lists which by some absurd yet perfectly plausible coincidence happen to be on display in his drawing-room. Searching frantically for the right volume he blurts out, ‘These delightful records should have been my constant study.’ A small but wonderfully silly moment. That a fun-loving aesthete should chastise himself for not poring over the world’s most tedious almanac is exquisitely absurd. It’s also spot-on psychologically. The secret of his Christian name will determine his future happiness with Gwendolen, so his anxious self-castigation is perfectly in tune with his state of mind.
Another favourite line pops up when Algy is playing the piano off-stage. He enters and asks the butler if he heard what he was playing. ‘I didn’t think it polite to listen, sir.’ This sly dig sounds perfectly deferential and its innocuous tone disguises its subtle sophistication. It draws on a very fine semantic distinction between ‘to listen’ (intentional action) and ‘to hear’ (unintentional action). And it’s the second line of the play. In fact, now I come to think of it, I can’t wait to see the whole thing again. Even done by professionals.