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Definition: Importance of Being Earnest, The from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Romantic stage comedy by Oscar Wilde, first performed in 1895. The courtships of two couples are comically complicated by confusions of identity and by the overpowering Lady Bracknell.


Summary Article: The Importance of Being Earnest from Broadway Plays and Musicals: Descriptions and Essential Facts of More Than 14,000 Shows through 2007

[22 April 1895] comedy by Oscar Wilde [Empire Thea; 16p]. John Worthing (Henry Miller) goes by the name Earnest in the city but when in the country he is Jack and pretends to have a troublesome brother named Earnest, using the false sibling as an excuse any time he needs to get away. His friend Algernon Moncrieff (William Faversham) pretends to have an ill friend named Bunbury whom he uses in the same way. Jack wishes to marry Gwendolyn Fairfax (Viola Allen) but she only loves him because his name is Earnest. In addition, her mother Lady Bracknell (Ida Vernon) is against the match when she finds that he is an orphan who was left in a handbag. In the country, Jack's young and impressionable ward Cecily Cardew (Agnes Miller) is in love with the wicked brother Earnest though she has never seen him. Algernon uses the name Earnest when he seeks out Cecily and the two are smitten with each other. When Gwendolyn arrives in the country, the pretense of both men being named Earnest falls apart and the arrival of Lady Bracknell puts an end to both romances. But the discovery that Cecily's tutor Miss Prism (May Robson) is a former nurse in the Bracknell house and is the person who mistakenly left a baby in a handbag brings to light that Jack is of aristocratic blood, can marry Gwendolyn, and is actually named Earnest. Also cast: W. H. Compton (Rev. Chasuble). The British play was not well received by the New York critics, most of them finding the comedy silly and pretentious so it did not repeat its London success. A 1902 revival produced by Charles Frohman fared much better, running six weeks. Frohman's 1910 production ran just as long.

REVIVALS: 3 May 1926 [Comedy Thea; 70p]. The Actors' Theatre mounting was so successful it was held over for nine weeks. Dudley Digges directed and played the Rev. Chasuble. Also cast: Reginald Owen (Algernon), Vernon Steele (Jack), Lucile Watson (Lady Bracknell), Patricia Collinge (Cecily), Haroldine Humphreys (Gwendolyn), Catherine Proctor (Miss Prism).

12 January 1939 [Vanderbilt Thea; 61p]. Estelle Winwood played Lady Bracknell and staged the production which met with mixed reviews despite a superior cast. Also cast: Clifton Webb (Jack), Derek Williams (Algernon), Helen Trenholme (Gwendolyn), Florence McGee (Cecily), Hope Williams (Miss Prism).

3 March 1947 [Royale Thea; 81p]. This highly-lauded production was produced and directed by John Gielgud who also played Jack. The outstanding cast also featured Margaret Rutherford (Lady Bracknell), Robert Flemyng (Algernon), Pamela Brown (Gwendolen), Jane Baxter (Cecily), and Jean Cadell (Prism). The offering was so popular its limited engagement was held over for ten weeks.

16 June 1977 [Circle in the Square Thea; 108p]. Stephen Porter directed what critics felt was a first-rate production that boasted a fine ensemble cast. Audiences agreed and the revival was held over for three months. Cast included: James Valentine (John), John Glover (Algernon), Elizabeth Wilson (Lady Bracknell), Patricia Conolly (Gwendolen), Kathleen Widdoes (Cecily), Mary Louise Wilson (Miss Prism).

© 2009 McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers

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