When one is in town, one amuses oneself; when one is in the country,one amuses other people.
Oscar Wilde, from The Importance of Being Earnest
It was with this truthful witticism in mind that I withdrew myself from the unpleasant drudgery of a Wednesday evening to “Bunbury” along to Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest at the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh.
The production is brilliantly cast, with Penelope Keith as the perfectly pompous Lady Bracknell, William Ellis as the insatiable Algernon Moncrieff, and Harry Hadden-Paton as Jack Worthing in the country, Earnest in town. The secondary actors were likewise impressive, assuming their roles with unmitigated excellence,conveying commendably the wit and satire of the play. The production was directed by Peter Gill whose vast dramatic experience was made clear by his management of the production.
The role of Lady Bracknell seems to have been tailored with Penelope Keith in mind. “Lady Bracknell,” as John Gielgud comments, “is envisaged as approaching as approaching like the heroine of one of Wagner’s epics.” Keith succeeded in bringing out the grandiloquence of Lady Bracknell, as one might very well expect from her previous roles, most notably in the popular television series, The Good Life.
Much can be learned from The Importance of Being Earnest regarding the social and political concerns of Britain’s aristocracy in the latter part of the 19th century. “What between the duties expected of one in one’s lifetime, and the duties exacted from one after one’s death, land has ceased to become either a profit or a pleasure.” Death duties, or taxes to be paid out of an inherited estate, became a serious issue for the aristocracy following the legislation introduced by Sir William Harcourt in 1894. The numerous political reform acts passed after 1832 left the power of Britain’s nobility vulnerable by the turn of the last century. Parliament, therefore, no longer always looked into protecting their interests. There are too, some peculiar advantages of our 19th century counterparts that the play reveals to its modern viewers, such as the convenience of starched cuffs for note-taking.
A critical history of the play. While The Importance of Being Earnest is commonly regarded today as being among the best comedies ever written, some critics have unfairly, in my view, attacked the play as a trivial satire, lacking any real significance, “Its tone is that of satire, but a satire which, for lack of a moral point of view, has lost its sting and degenerated into the almost approving banter of a P.G. Wodehouse,” (Edouard Roditi). If one is looking for moral guidance, I suggest attending a reading of scripture. The trivial tone employed by Wilde is certainly intentional. Otto Reinert more convincingly argues in “Satiric Strategy in The Importance of Being Earnest:” “The farce is indeed meaningful. Tone and plot have been successfully integrated, and the whole is more truly comic—because normative—than a well-made play to end all well-made plays, a vehicle for the utterance of witty nonsense.” It is the light, witty nature of the play – call it trivial, if you like – that makes Earnest so amusing and popular to audiences of the past and present.
It is a treat to see The Importance of Being Earnest. One that is enhanced, here, by such a great cast. It is a production not to have be missed and a testement to Edinburgh’s perennial excellence as a centre of culture, not limited to Festival month.