Article · Review

Time: The Present

I live in terror of not being misunderstood

If Oscar Wilde really did live in terror of not being misunderstood—as he wrote in The Critic as Artist in 1891, he need not have worried. At least not so far as his plays are concerned, because there are parts of the texts now so arcane that they are almost bound to be misunderstood—if they are understood at all.

Take Wilde’s most famous play The Importance of Being Earnest. 

As many appreciate, Earnest still resonates today in everything from the fact that sugar is no longer fashionable to the facade of human shallowness.

But we should not allow the play’s continuing relevance to distract us from its many period, regional or topical allusions, many of which had an esoteric meaning when Wilde wrote them, but which are now elusive—especially for young or non-British audiences.

George Alexander in an early production of The Importance of Being Earnest.

In its original production, many contemporary, social or political allusions in Earnest either informed the plot or decorated the text. Many of these knowing asides would have amused a London audience in 1895, but are passed over by the modern director and audience. And perhaps to the international ear they are just white noise.

To introduce the point, here is a selection from the text of Earnest [in bold] and their explanations.

♦ the University Extension Scheme: a form of higher education for women;

♦ Radical newspapers: which were known for their anti-government sentiment;

♦ The Empire theatre: which was a hangout for prostitutes;

♦ German literature: which Miss Prism would have known was the realm of female translators;

♦ the three volume novels that Mudie sends us: Mudie’s being a long-defunct lending library for books employing clichéd language.

Contemporary view of the three-volume novel, Punch, 1885.

♦ temperance
 beverage: meaning nonalcoholic;

♦ Leamington Spa and Tunbridge Wells: English places of retirement;

Evensong: evening prayer in the Anglican Church;

♦ acts of violence in Grosvenor Square: an exclusive area of London where one would not expect rough characters;

♦ Oxonian: meaning from Oxford, used in the sense of educated or gentlemanly;

♦ duties exacted from one after one’s death: inheritance tax.

This list is not exhaustive, indeed, it omits the following four outmoded but key references that are worth examining in detail:

1) provincial pulpits

2)  Wagnerian manner

3) Anabaptists

4) agricultural depression

I Don’t Wish To Preach

In the play Gwendolen talk of ideals saying that the subject is mentioned in expensive magazines, before condescending to say that it has also reached what she calls the provincial pulpits.

This term ‘provincial pulpits’ is Wilde’s epithet for the pontificating editorials of the regional press—something which would have amused audiences in the 1890s who knew of Wilde’s ongoing spat with the provincial Scots Observer over what that Presbyterian organ called the “foul” and “unnatural” elements in his homoerotic novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. Lacking this background, however, the anti-puritan dig inherent in the word “pulpit” has only a vague meaning, and the whole expression possibly none at all.


Or, take Lady Bracknell’s doorbell remark that only relatives, or creditors, ever ring in that Wagnerian manner.

Audiences will usually appreciate this as a reference to Wagner’s robust style—although I’m not convinced whether some students whom I’ve heard pronounce the Wag in Wagnerian actually do. And before latter-day Gwendolens demand some “old-fashioned respect for the young”, I hastily add that there is probably more to this Wagner jest for us all to appreciate.

The point is that if the seriousness of Richard Wagner symbolized mid-Victorian values, then it contrasted with Wilde’s late 19th century superficiality of championing the frivolous, who, like Lane, perhaps “didn’t think it polite to listen”.

But what modern audiences may miss, at least on one hearing, is that the remark alludes to the loucheness of the creditor as much as the loudness of the composer. Thus Lady Bracknell is inviting us to mock her snooty relatives in society by lumping them in with the commercial classes.

André Gill suggesting that Wagner’s music was ear-splitting. Cover of L’Éclipse, April 18, 1869. (Wikipedia)
Font of Knowledge

Some examples in the text would be difficult to update because they have a direct bearing on the plot of Earnest: one such is the word Anabaptists.

In a play in which two grown men wish to be christened, it would be beneficial to know that the Anabaptists were a religious cult who believed in adult re-baptism:

Chasuble.  Am I to understand then that there are to be no christenings at all this afternoon?

Jack.  I don’t think that, as things are now, it would be of much practical value to either of us, Dr. Chasuble.

Chasuble.  I am grieved to hear such sentiments from you, Mr. Worthing. They savour of the heretical views of the Anabaptists, views that I have completely refuted in four of my unpublished sermons. However, as your present mood seems to be one peculiarly secular, I will return to the church at once. Indeed, I have just been informed by the pew-opener that for the last hour and a half Miss Prism has been waiting for me in the vestry.

By understanding, as Victorians did, that the Anabaptists opposed infant baptism (as it was thought to be a form of indoctrination), we see that Wilde is siding with the humanist aspects of a nontraditional approach to religion.

Wilde ironically has Canon Chasuble condemn himself as a man of repeatedly unpublished (i.e. deservedly unpopular) opinions, cowed by Jack’s secularism into a retreat to the Church, literally and figuratively. There, symbolically waiting in the vestry, is the spinster Prism—a woman he cannot marry despite her hope that “celibacy leads weaker vessels astray”. This passage is Wilde’s attack on piety but it is better appreciated within the secular context of the arcane Anabaptist heresy where it begins.

Land Line

Similarly, Wilde knew his audience in 1895 would understand what Cecily meant in her girlish rivalry with Gwendolen with her punning suggestion that the agricultural depression has become a psychological disorder:

Gwendolen.  Personally I cannot understand how anybody manages to exist in the country, if anybody who is anybody does. The country always bores me to death.

Cecily.  Ah! This is what the newspapers call agricultural depression, is it not?  I believe the aristocracy are suffering very much from it just at present.  It is almost an epidemic amongst them, I have been told.

Most modern audiences, however, would have to learn that the agricultural depression was the name given to the c.1873—1896 rural exodus that led to a decline in land values. This is something which Jack has telegraphed when he says:

“I have a country house with some land, of course…but… as far as I can make out, the poachers are the only people who make anything out of it.”

Wilde had good reason to mock this as he himself had experienced the same problem with property he owned in the west of Ireland.

The exchange by Gwendolen and Cecily is another Wildean dig at the country set. The ladies compare and conflate the economic depression in Society with the society of depressing people.

Novel Idea

If The Importance of Being Earnest were a novel (and it has been novelized) I would not engage in this exercise of explanation. Novels are meant to be read, and readers can pause to conduct their own research.

But plays are meant to be played—and listened to—and often they are never read. The audience has to rely on the ephemeral medium of the theatre, which is always a first-time experience, and possibly an only-time experience if the performance is bad: or, as someone once put it: poor players strutting and fretting for a couple of hours upon the stage and then being heard no more.

I was particularly motivated to this article by my group of Wildeans who recently saw the production of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest in Philadelphia—although, on that occasion, the usually intelligible language was rendered just as meaningless as the unintelligible we are now discussing. For that see my review here.

The point is that not one of those budding Wildeans enjoyed Wilde’s play. This fact disappointed me even more than the play had done. And it annoyed me: only Wilde should be the spendthrift of his genius.


So this is a plea Dorothy directors to put the audience first and consider adapting the text. I know this is done all the time in movies—even movies of Wilde plays—but in film there is more money and the adapted screenplay is well established.

Of course, theatre is meant to be the more authentic medium—and it is important perhaps that Shakespeare is performed in its original text; sometimes even in its original dialect.

But Shakespeare is meant to be timeless. With Earnest, we should recall several factors: that its first producer, George Alexander, lopped off a whole fourth act; Oscar himself rewrote many passages four years after the original; and the work is translated into dozens of languages that do not even have a homophonic equivalent for Ernest/ Earnest. So surely it is not blasphemy to change a word or two into modern English?

In this connection, I went last year to see Sheridan’s The Critic in Washington, DC. It was not in the original text, but rather an adaptation which I noted in my review was, “enhanced, by Jeffrey Hatcher’s judicial excisions, additions, and tweaking for the modern ear”. Nobody cared, much less knew, about those changes, because the play was thoroughly enjoyable. Moreover, ironically, appreciation of the original was enhanced.

About 120 years, give or take, separates us from Wilde, and Wilde from Sheridan, and, arguably the language has changed more in the latter period than the former. So if no one complained about losing one or two archaic references from one Dublin-born exponent of the comedy of manners, why not another?

After all—do not the stage directions for Earnest say Time: The Present?

EPILOGUE: Politics as Usual

Vis-à-vis the 2017 British general election.

If there is one dated context in Earnest that has become even more susceptible to change, it is Jack’s excuse that he has no politics because he is a Liberal Unionist.

The Liberal Unionists were a short-lived Victorian political faction now so entirely obscure that the point of the joke has been lost. I once thought that a suitable updating might be Wilde’s own rejoinder that he had no religion because he was an Irish protestant.

But there is now a better Irish candidate.

Politics has intervened with the perfect corollary to prop up this realignment in comedy and thus fill up more seats in the House:

Lady Bracknell.  What are your politics?

Jack.  Well, I am afraid I really have none.  I’m a Democratic Unionist.

Lady Bracknell.  Oh, the DUP? They count as Tories.

© John Cooper, June, 2017

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