ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Oscar Wilde skewered Victorian England’s social structure of fainting corset queens and mustachioed dandies and still manages to provoke laughter today.
“The Importance of Being Earnest” asks audience members to laugh at what they think is serious and ponder the trivial.
The play opens Friday, April 21, at the Vortex Theatre.
“I don’t think anybody’s ever written a funnier play than this,” director Peter Shea Kierst said. “Every night in rehearsal, we just laugh and laugh.”
There is nothing “earnest” about this play, at least on the surface. It’s a satire of the Victorian era, when an intricate code of behavior governed everything from communication to sexuality. The most important rules applied to the farce of Victorian marriage – a topic that hit home for playwright Oscar Wilde, who was married to a woman but sexually involved with men.
Marriage was about protecting your resources and keeping socially unacceptable impulses under control.
The play opens with Algernon, an idle young man, receiving his best friend John, whom he knows as Earnest. Earnest has traveled from the country to propose to Algernon’s cousin Gwendolyn. Algernon, however, refuses his consent until Earnest explains why his cigarette case bears the inscription “From little Cecily, with her fondest love to her dear Uncle Jack.” “Earnest” is forced to admit to a double life. In the country, he assumes a serious attitude for the benefit of his ward Cecily and goes by the name John, while pretending he must worry about a wastrel brother named Earnest in London. In the city, he assumes the identity of the libertine Earnest.
In Victorian times, “earnestness” was considered the overriding social value, originating in religious attempts to reform the lower classes.
When Lady Bracknell interviews Jack about his fitness for marriage, she asks him questions like, “Do you smoke?”
Jack says “yes.”
“She answers, ‘Good, because a man should have an occupation of some kind,’ ” Kierst said.
Similarly, when a mother discovers her accidentally abandoned baby sleeping in her bag, “Her response is how inconvenient it’s been for her to go without the bag.
“It’s the exact opposite of what social custom says we should care about,” Kierst said.
Jack and Algernon spend one 5-minute scene exchanging thoughts about the proper way to consume a muffin.
“Wilde said the message of the play is that all the trivial things in life should be taken seriously and all the serious things should be considered with sincere and studied triviality,” Kierst said.