Few plays have stood the test of time in the way that The Importance of Being Earnest has. Written in 1895, this "Serious Comedy for Trivial People," as playwright Oscar Wilde termed it, offers situations and comedy that remain timeless and fresh. The characters are memorable, from the careless and self-centered Jack to the innocent and impressionable Cecily. Wilde skewers Victorian society in a manner that leaves audiences laughing from start to finish.
The Importance of Being Earnest, written by Oscar Wilde and directed by Carol Dunne, runs live on stage at Northern Stage at the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction, VT, from tonight, February 6 - 24, 2013. For tickets and information, call 802-296-7000 or visit www.northernstage.org.
Performances are Tuesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 5:00 p.m., except for the Opening Night performance on Friday, Feb. 8 at 7:00 p.m., with a 2:00 p.m. matinee on Thursday, Feb. 14.
The show stars Catherine Doherty as Lady Bracknell, the comically haughty and self-righteous arbiter of good manners. Doherty has entertained and fascinated local audiences in such iconic roles as the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz and the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, as well as portraying multiple parts in Parallel Lives and The Search for Intelligent Life in the UniversE. Northern Stage newcomers Brough Hansen and Matthew Cohn, both Dartmouth graduates, portray the wastrel Jack Worthing and his sensible friend Algernon Moncrieff, romancing the eminently practical Gwendolen Fairfax (Alexis Hyatt) and the stars-in-her-eyes Cecily Cardew (Talene Monahon).
The Importance of Being Earnest-which Oscar Wilde subtitled "A Trivial Comedy for Serious People"-stands as one of the most clever and quotable plays ever written. It was also the last play ever by a remarkable and controversial writer who died at the age of 46.
Following the success of his stage plays Lady Windermere's Fan and A Woman of No Importance, Wilde was asked to write another; Wilde insisted that he was asked to write a play "with no real serious interest." The play, written quickly over the course of a month but revised meticulously over the coming months, was reduced by Wilde from four acts to three, largely by eliminating the character of Mr. Gribsby, a London solicitor who arrives to arrest "Ernest" for unpaid restaurant bills. Wilde used several names from his own life; for example, Lady Queensbury, the mother of Wilde's lover Lord AlFred Douglas, lived at Bracknell, and Wilde wrote the play at his summer home at Worthing.
The Importance of Being Earnest was first performed on February 14, 1895 at the St. James' Theatre in London, even though his previous play, An Ideal Husband, was still playing to packed houses at the Haymarket Theatre a few streets away. A plan by the Marquess of Queensbury to disrupt the show with rotten vegetables was foiled when Wilde instructed the theater owner not to let him in. After that first performance, Wilde said to George Alexander (who played Jack in addition to managing the theater), "Charming, quite charming. And, do you know, from time to time it reminded me of a play I once wrote called The Importance of Being Earnest."
Unfortunately, on April 5, Wilde was arrested on a charge of "gross indecency" because of his affair with Lord AlFred Douglas. Wilde's name was removed from the program, and the production shut down on May 8 after only 83 performances. Ironically, the next production at the theater was The Triumph of the Philistines.
The play premiered on Broadway at the Empire Theatre in 1895, but that production closed after only 12 performances. It popped up in Australia in 1896, but soon Wilde's arrest and disgrace rendered his work impossible to produce. The play briefly returned to Broadway in 1902, 1910, 1921, with a slightly longer run in 1926 (about 70 performances) and 1939 (61 performances). Sir John Gielgud directed and portrayed Jack in the 1947 production, with Margaret Rutherford (best known as Miss Marple in the early 1960s Agatha Christie films) as Lady Bracknell and Stringer Davis-later Rutherford's husband-as Merriman. Rutherford later played Miss Prism in the 1952 film. Following a brief revival in 1997, the best-known Broadway production, in 2011, which transferred from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, earned Tony nominations for Best Revival, among others. The six-month run included Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell, one of several times that the venerable lady was played by a man. A 1992 film featured an all-black cast and was set in the U.S.; the 2002 film includes Colin Firth as Jack, Rupert Everett as Algernon, Judi Dench as Bracknell, Reese Witherspoon as Cecily and Frances O'Connor as Gwendolen and restores the Gribsby subplot.