‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, the play, is the last and probably the most popular of Oscar Wilde’s comedies. It was first performed on 14 February 1895 at St James’ Theatre in London and there’s a reason why it’s still hugely loved – it’s absolutely brilliant!
(Incidentally, if Nic managed to convince you back in March to watch 'A Good Woman' you've already seen a movie version of one of Wilde's plays - Lady Windermere's Fan.)
Seeing 'The Importance of Being Earnest' as a piece of theatre is fun but it's wonderful from the comfort of your sofa. There are two DVD possibilities and I can’t for the life of me decide which one I prefer. I own both and it rather depends on my mood which one I choose.
I suppose if modern-day production values are important to you then you should go for Oliver Parker’s 2002 version but the 1956 version is a gem.
The story is quite convoluted so I’ll probably get hopelessly confused if I don’t concentrate on one – so, on the basis that it’s far easier to find photographs of the more recent version I’ll refer to that.
The story revolves around two friends, Algernon Moncrief (played by a beautifully on form Rupert Everett) and Jack Worthing (Colin Firth) and a whole lot of lies.
Whenever Algernon wishes to avoid something in town he feigns a visit to his fictitious sick friend ‘Bunbury’, a practise he calls ‘bunburying’. Much to his delight he discovers his great friend, Ernest, is also an exponent of the art.
Jack Worthing lives in the country and is the worthy guardian of Cecily Cardew (Reese Witherspoon) but has created a wastrel brother, Ernest, who lives in London and whose profligate behaviour gives him the excuse to come up to town whenever he chooses.
In London Jack assumes the identity of the fun-loving Ernest and has fallen in love with Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolyn Moncrief (Frances O’Connor).
Jack’s secret is exposed when Algy reads the inscription written inside his silver cigarette case.
Algy: But why does your aunt call you her uncle? [Reading cigarette case]
Algy: "From little Cecily, with her fondest love to her dear Uncle Jack." There is no objection, I admit, to an aunt being a small aunt, but why an aunt, no matter what her size may be, should call her own nephew her uncle, I can't quite make out.
Jack is forced to admit the existence of his beautiful and wealthy ward but, knowing Algy well, refuses to tell him the whereabouts of his country home. Only Algy overhears it when Jack is being interrogated by Gwendolyn’s mother, the fearsome Lady Bracknell (Dame Judi Dench), as to his suitability to be included in her list of potential suitors.
Lady Bracknell: I have always been of the opinion that a man who desires to get married should know either everything or nothing. Which do you know?
Jack: I know nothing, Lady Bracknell.
Lady Bracknell: I am pleased to hear it. I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a very delicate exotic fruit. Touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately, in England at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor's Square.
Lady Bracknell, however, finally decides against him when he’s obliged to confess he was adopted by the philanthropic Thomas Cardew after being discovered abandoned in a large, capacious handbag at Victoria Station with a ticket to Worthing in his pocket. Gwendolyn remains determined to accept him because the name Ernest inspires confidence.
Armed with the address of Jack’s country residence, Algernon makes a visit to his infirm friend, Bunbury, and introduces himself to Cecily as Jack’s profligate brother Ernest and quickly falls in love.
Algy: I don't seem to care about anything anymore... I only care for you. I love you Cecily. Will you marry me?
Cecily: Why, of course! We've been engaged for the past 3 months!
Algy: ...3 months?
Their romance is carefully recorded in her diary and his letters, which owing to his ignorance of her existence she’d had to write herself, wrapped in ribbon. Her ambition, you see, has always been to marry a man of the name 'Ernest' ...
Algy: Do you mean you couldn't love me if I had a different name?
Cecily: But what name?
Algy: Well... Algy, for instance.
Cecily: I might respect you, Ernest, I might admire your character, but I feel that I could never give you my undivided attention.
Only then Jack arrives home having decided it’s time to put an end to his double life and announces Ernest is dead.
Gwendolyn arrives and discovers her ‘Ernest’ is Uncle Jack. She's not happy! :)
Jack: How you can sit there eating muffins when we're in this terrible trouble, I can't make out! It seems to me to be perfectly heartless...
Algy: I can hardly eat muffins in an agitated manner. The butter would probably get on my cuffs.
Lady Bracknell’s arrival changes everything when she recognises Cecily’s governess, Miss Prism (Anna Massey). It’s all a delightful muddle and I’ll let you discover for yourself how it’s resolved.
The 1952 version really is worth a look. One of the reasons I love it is because it happened to be the film debut of the late Dorothy Tutin who sponsored me into the British Actors’ Union, Equity, but it’s simply charming.
Here’s an interesting piece of nonsense – the initial run of ‘The Importance of Being Ernest’ was hugely popular but cut short because Herbert Asquith brought a charge of immorality against the homosexual Wilde. In a fun twist of fate, Asquith’s son Anthony made the first film version.
As to my Pink Heart fuzzy rating … Well, it’s more comedy than romance so I’ll have to give it a 7 out of 10. If we scored for watchability (and, yes, I know that’s not a word) I’d give 10 out of 10 for both versions. I love it!
This July sees the start of a brand-new series - The Royal House of Niroli.
These 8 wonderful titles are written by some of your favourite Modern™ and Romance authors, including Penny Jordan and Natasha Oakley.
The Mediterranean island of Niroli has prospered for centuries under the Fierezza men. But now, as the King’s health declines, and his 2 sons have been tragically killed, the crown is in jeopardy. Who will rule?
Natasha's book, 'The Tycoon's Princess Bride' will be in the shops in October but if you don't want to wait it's possible to buy the entire set right now by clicking here.