Oscar Wilde's celebrated masterpiece is a comedy on three levels. First there is the denotative level, one might say, the level in which the bourgeois are entertained après dîner. It is on this level that Oscar Wilde follows the great theatrical tradition of comedy from the time of the Greeks through Shakespeare and French farce into the twentieth century to the musical comedy of the London and New York stage. His play on this level is a comedy of manners, pleasant, charming and very clever. The class conscious jokes about the lower orders and the servants are double-edged and add just a touch of squirm to the laughter of the not completely discerning audience. It is on the second level that The Importance of Being Earnest becomes one of the greatest plays ever written. On this level, the comedy is a full blown satire of Victorian society, and in particular of its audience. Wilde had the very great pleasure of flattering and making fun of the audience while being applauded for doing so. His subtitle for the play, "A Trivial Comedy for Serious People" is an allusion to these two levels. It is on this second level that Wilde speaks through the voice of Lady Bracknell (and sometimes Algernon), whose ironic and unself-conscious cynicism is so like his own. It is on this level that all the fun is made of the hypocrisy of marriage and its mercenary nature, at least as practiced by the petite bourgeoisie of London town, circa 1895. But there is a third level, a level known of course to the cognoscenti of the time and to modern audiences, but for the most part never dreamed of by the London theater-goers of the day. In this regard I have recently read that "Earnest" was a slang euphemism for being gay, and I suspect this is true. Indeed, I can imagine a whole world of witticism based on being "earnest" and being "Ernest," a world now (perhaps charitably) forgotten. Certainly this knowledge sheds some light on Algernon's invention of his invalid friend "Bunbury," whom he finds he must visit to escape unwanted social engagements.
One of the best things about this great play is one can appreciate it on any one of the three levels and find delight on that level alone. One can see Worthing as John Worthing, or as Jack Worthing, or as Ernest Worthing, however one likes. This adaptation, starring the incomparable Dame Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell, and Michael Redgrave (father of Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave) as John Worthing is of course the justly celebrated, clearly definitive screen adaptation. It should be noted, however, that Lady Bracknell is the real star of the show, and when she enters a scene, she steals it. Edith Evans was brilliant and unforgettable and obviously having a wonderful time. Margaret Rutherford is a scream as Miss Prism and Miles Malleson as Chasuble is just, shall I say, darling. I should note that both the male leads were a touch too old for their parts. Redgrave was 42 and Michael Denison, who played Algernon, was 37 when the movie was released in 1952. Yet I think Oscar Wilde would have approved of the casting, probably finding it admirable and fitting that these two men about town would have avoided marriage for so many years. (I won't mention the ages of the actresses.) Joan Greenwood as Gwendolyn achieves just the right amount of flaky innocence and calculated whimsy, while Dorothy Tutin is the very definition of the spoiled, sweet and adorable, man-hunting Cecily Cardew. The direction by Anthony Asquith is unnecessarily directive in the sense that he moved some scenes around, but is essentially without harm.
The best way to appreciate this play, and to pick up all the nuances, and there are nuances aplenty--and jokes upon jokes, sharp social and political observations, and witticisms within prevarications, and lies that are truths and vice-versa--is to view the video, just appreciating it on one level, then read the script, and then view the video again. You're in for a treat.
--Dennis Littrell, author of "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!"