The Importance of Being Earnest

Written by Oscar Wilde

Thursday 15th July to Saturday 17th July and Tuesday 20th July to Saturday 24th July 1999

Directed by Mark Wakeman

Algernon and Jack are two rich layabout Victorian young men with love on their minds. In order to propose to Algernon's cousin Gwendolyn, Jack is forced to expose his bizarre family secret that leads Algernon to the countryside where he falls in love with Jack's ward Cecily. Unfortunately both young ladies are in love with the mysterious Ernest. The only problem is that Ernest doesn't exist. Or does he? Just when they thought they had enough to deal with, their search for love brings them into conflict with the formidable Lady Bracknell. Join the Bench as they perform Wilde's trademark play of life, love, appallingly good manners and handbags.

AuthorOscar Wilde

Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde (1854 - 1900)

Wilde was born in Dublin and following extensive education under personal tutors, attended Trinity College, Dublin and Magdalen College, Oxford. A highly intelligent student, he won several prizes and scholarships.

Drawn by the opportunity to construct aesthetic details precisely, combined with larger social themes drew Wilde to writing drama. He wrote 'Salomé' in French, in Paris in 1891, but it was refused a licence. Unperturbed, Wilde produced four society comedies in the early 1890s, which made him one of the most successful playwrights of late Victorian London, culminating in his masterpiece 'The Importance of Being Earnest' in 1895.

At the height of his fame and success and with two comedies on stage in London, Wilde sued his lover's father for libel, although the case was later dropped at trial. After two subsequent trials, Wilde was imprisoned for two years' hard labour, having been convicted of "gross indecency" with other men. In prison he wrote 'De Profundis', a long letter which discusses his spiritual journey through his trials, forming a dark counterpoint to his earlier philosophy of pleasure. Upon his release he left immediately for France, never to return to Ireland or Britain. There he wrote his last work, 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol', a long poem commemorating the harsh rhythms of prison life. He died destitute in Paris at the age of forty-six.

PlayThe Importance of Being Earnest

The Importance of Being Earnest (subtitled 'A Trivial Comedy for Serious People') was written in 1895 and received its premiere at the St. James's Theatre in London. The play's humour derives in part from characters maintaining fictitious identities to escape unwelcome social obligations and it is replete with witty dialogue. It satirises some of the foibles and hypocrisy of late Victorian society and is Wilde's most enduringly popular play - the last he ever wrote.

Set in London, in the 1890s, the plot is complicated and contrived in the extreme. Algernon Moncrieff, an idle young gentleman, receives a visit from his best friend, whom he knows as Ernest Worthing and who intends to propose to Algernon's cousin, Gwendolen. During the course of their discussion "Ernest" is forced to disclose that he is leading a double life. In the country, he goes by the name of John (or Jack), with "Ernest" being an invention he uses to allow him to come and go as he pleases from town to country and vice versa. Algernon reveals that he engages in a similar deception in that he pretends to have an invalid friend named Bunbury. Whenever Algernon wants to avoid unwelcome social obligations, he "goes Bunburying" instead.

When Algernon's Aunt, Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen, her daughter arrive, Algernon uses his Bunbury excuse to avoid an invitation to dine with them and Jack uses the distraction to propose to Gwendolen. She accepts, but seems to love him only for his professed name of Ernest - so Jack decides to be rechristened as such. However, when Lady Bracknell learns that Jack was adopted as a baby, she refuses to allow the marriage.

Undeterred, Jack invites Gwendolen to his house in the country. Algernon also secretly notes the address and later visits there (unasked), further complicating matters by pretending that he is Mr. Ernest Worthing. Under that persona, he woos and proposes to Jack's ward, Miss Cecily Cardew. Also at his country house, Jack announces Ernest's "death" however, he is later forced to abandon this claim due to the appearance of Algernon in that pretend role. Gwendolen also arrives, having fled London and accidentally meets Cecily, Jack's ward. Each indignantly insists that she is the one engaged to "Ernest". When Jack and Algernon appear, their identities are exposed. However, the men admit their deceptions and when each announces his intention to be christened as Ernest, the women are placated.

Lady Bracknell arrives in pursuit of her daughter and on hearing about Algernon's engagement, approves when the size of Cecily's trust fund is revealed. However, stalemate transpires when Jack denies his consent to that union until Lady Bracknell consents to his own marriage to her daughter Gwendolen (which she earlier forbade). The impasse is only broken when it is revealed that Jack was in fact the elder son of General Moncrieff, and Lady Bracknell's late sister, and thus is in fact Algernon's older brother.

All that stands in the way of Jack and Gwendolen's happiness, it seems, is the question of his first name. After Jack examines Army Lists he discovers that his father's name - and hence his - was in fact Ernest all along.

The Bench Production

The Importance of Being Earnest poster image

This play was staged at Havant Arts Centre, East Street Havant - Bench Theatre's home since 1977.


John Worthing (Jack)Mike Hickman
Algernon MoncrieffNathan Chapman
Lady BracknellJanet Simpson
Rev. Canon ChasubleDavid Hill
Merriman (Butler)Alan Welton
Lane (Manservant)Alan Welton
Gwendolen FairfaxSam Emery
Cecily CardewAlice Corrigan
Miss PrismRuth Prior


Director Mark Wakeman
Assistant Director Naomi Smyth
Stage Manager Stuart Monk
Assistant Stage Managers Claire Kendall
Liam Penny
Zoe Corrigan
Naomi Smyth
Lighting Design Chris Ryan
Lighting Operation Paul Davies
Sound Operation Tom Hudson
Poster Design Pete Woodward
Programme Mike Hickman
Set Design David Penrose
Front of House Tim Taylor

Director's Notes

"Never again"
I remember saying it at the time. Everyone in the cast remembers me saying it at the time. So what happened?

I am referring to my decision to direct once more. Once was enough, I thought. There was no need to put myself through the drama of rehearsals again.

But somehow I am here again. Why? Partly because of the passing of time. We forget the trials; we remember the good times. We forget just how much work goes into directing a play; we remember the fun and camaraderie. Because it's hard to resist when people are urging you on.

The other reason? The play itself. Like most of the Western world, I had heard of "Earnest" but I only read it at University when I was approached by a director as a possible Lady Bracknell. (Yes, I know what a production that would have been!) But sadly, it wasn't to be. But the play had sunk hooks in me that I didn't know where there until the play selection where I put it forward. The Bench had never done it. I thought they should. So here we are.

Once again all I can say is well done to a fabulous cast and crew. These plays really are a team effort no matter who is supposed to be in charge. Without a good team you don't just capture that magic. I hope we've managed to capture a little for you tonight.

All that's left is to say I hope you enjoy this great classic from a great writer.
Here we go again.

Mark Wakeman

Production Photographs