The Art of Bunburying

The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde’s classic in a polished revival at the Vienna English Theatre

Tom Micklem as John Worthing and James Cawood as Algernon | Photo: Reinhard Reidinger

It’s a brave theater that takes on a legend, and skillful one that can make it a success. But this is exactly what Vienna’s English Theatre has done with its current production of Oscar Wilde’s most beloved and most performed comedy, The Importance of Being Earnest, playing through Dec. 22.

Rich in witty dialogue and satiric one-liners, the Irish playwright turns Victorian social conventions into delicious farce, unmasking its obsession with social status and the resulting obligations as empty, and even frivolous. And great fun.

Accompanied by the soft tunes of an English waltz, the lights come up on the intimate stage to reveal a Victorian parlor, lovingly furnished in wall coverings of dark red and brown, wood paneling and a fireplace center-stage that will become the setting for drinks and talks about the essence of love (“uncertainty”), the significance of marriage (“Divorces are made in heaven”) and the nature of truth (“rarely pure and never simple!)

First performed on Valentine’s Day 1895 in St. James’s Theatre in London, The Importance of Being Earnest not only marked the peak of Wilde’s career but would also bring his subsequent downfall. At the opening night, a scandal could only be evaded because Wilde was tipped off about the plans of the Marquis of Queensbury, father of his lover Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, to disrupt the play with a bouquet of rotting vegetables.

The play had to be closed after only 86 performances, and Wilde, his reputation badly tarnished following a series of libel lawsuits and subsequent sentencing to two years imprisonment and hard labor, stopped writing comedy. After his release, his health ruined, he lived out his last three years in penniless exile in Paris. His reputation as a playwright was restored only when an edition of his collected works was published in 1908, leading to the first re-staging of the play in 1912. Since then, The Importance of Being Earnest has seen a revival with numerous performances worldwide and cinema adaptations in 1952, 1992 and 2002.

As the title of the play suggests, the importance lies in “being E(a)rnest” – which is what the two main protagonists of the play, Algernon (James Cawood) and John (Tom Micklem) yet have to learn, as they entangle themselves into an intricate webs of lies. Two gentlemen of the British upper class, they enjoy a glass of Sherry, a cigarette and cucumber sandwiches. But to escape their obligations and to woo the women they love, Algernon and John invent alter egos.  In town, people know John as Ernest who courts Gwendolen (Olivia Wright), daughter of the formidable Lady Bracknell (Kate Dove) who is going to considerable lengths to find her a suitable husband. In the country in Hertfordshire, he is Jack, who looks after his ward Cecile.

Algernon too, has a double life, having invented an invalid friend, Bunbury, whose constant health problems give him an excuse to visit the country more often. Self-absorbed and amoral, a font of paradoxical, comic pronouncements, Algie outperforms the rational, respectable John, who appeared just a tad too glib, perhaps too one dimensional, especially in the first act.

His performance, however, picked up in the second act when the action became more lively, the situations increasingly complex and twisted. The chronic duplicity of the protagonists – “Bunburying,” as Algernon calls it – which initially allows them to lead a comfortable double life is gradually unmasked as the play progresses.

First, however, Wilde dedicates a whole scene to Gwendolen’s obsession with the name Ernest, unmasking and ridiculing the triviality of the Victorian upper class life. Pretentious but highly fashionable sporting a pink dress with black-and white stripes, a pink hat with a ribbon and holding an umbrella in the same color, Gwendolen has decided that only a man with the name of Ernest could be ideal for her. Sophisticated and cosmopolitan (she thinks), she speaks with absolute authority about matters of moral decency.

“We live in an age of ideals,” she asserts. “And my ideal is to love someone of the name of Ernest,” making it seemingly impossible for Ernest to abandon his fake identity. Wishing to be someone else as a matter of convenience, has, for Ernest, turned into an act of disguising who he really is to the woman of his affections, namely Jack from the countryside, not the noble Ernest from town.

“What if my name was not Ernest?” he asks Gwendolen cautiously.

“This would be a metaphysical speculation…with very little reference to the actual facts of real life. Your name suits you perfectly,” she replies. The name Jack, according to her infallible judgment, “ has very little music in it. It doesn’t thrill… It produces no vibrations.”

For John, however, Gwendolen is perfect. This, she won’t allow, however, as it  “would leave no room for developments…”

But before John can call Gwendolen his wife, he has to have his background investigated by Lady Bracknell and for once in his life, he has no other chance but to speak the truth.

“I don’t actually know who I am by birth. I was… well, I was found!” and from this savior he received the name of Worthing, “because he happened to have a first-class ticket for Worthing in his pocket at the time.”

John’s tragic life story leads Lady Bracknell to refuse his request to marry Gwendolen, leaving Jack disappointed – and even more entangled in his web of lies.

Written and first performed over 110 years ago, The Importance of Being Earnest reflects the societal struggle with who-is-who and who belongs where in the social strata. Although criticized for lacking deeper meaning, the grand themes of honesty, loyalty and unconditional love slowly start emerging when reading between Wilde’s satirical, ridiculing lines – which the actors at Vienna’s English Theatre succeed in bringing across with sparkling clarity and nearly flawless timing. Indicating that the human being is far from perfect, nor should wish to be, they truly allow the audience to discover “the vital importance of being Earnest.”

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