The Importance of Being Earnest
by Oscar Wilde
artwork by CAP Designs

November 18-20 at 8 PM
November 21 at 2 PM
Mendelssohn Theatre

press release | program | photographs

Press Release
The University of Michigan Department of Theatre and Drama will present a very modern, all-American production of Oscar Wilde's tour de force "The Importance of Being Earnest," from November 18 through 21, at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre in Ann Arbor. The U-M production will place this perennial comedy favorite inside the swank, modern apartments and estates of America's moneyed class during the early 1960s.

The original setting for Wilde's three-act 1895 play was the drawing rooms of the aristocracy in Victorian England. The shift to a near present day setting (the action takes place in Manhattan and in the Hamptons) seemed only natural. Director Robert Knopf explains: ""The Importance of Being Earnest" was never intended to be a museum piece and its satirical target is still present today. By placing the comedy within the context of early 1960s New-York-high-society 'cocktail culture,' the play's humor comes alive for today's audiences. The Kennedy Era seems to be a perfect setting for the story Wilde wishes to tell." Knopf continues, "It was the closest America ever came to having an aristocracy. Our new president, John F. Kennedy, along with his beautiful, fashion-conscious wife, Jackie, gave us a window into high society. The presidential couple's optimism, glamour and easy-going elegance became part of the nation's life. "The Importance of Being Earnest,"" Knopf says, "has a biting satirical edge to it. The play contains elements of both high comedy and farce; it is, perhaps, the most literate farce ever written." Another singular feature of this production is its "environmental staging" conceived by Jennifer Schlueter, a Ph. D. candidate in Theatre Practice at the U-of-M. Before the production and during intermissions, Schleuter has re-created the world of a 1960s high society cocktail party in the Mendelssohn lobby: "We will have butlers and maids serving champagne (non-alcoholic, of course, and only for those in formal attire) and other confections. Butlers will announce audience members' names as they arrive, and our audience is earnestly encouraged to dress the part and join the fun! The director," she notes incidentally, "has promised to attend the opening night festivities in full regalia - black tie and tails."

The first staging of "The Importance of Being Earnest" occurred at the St. James Theatre in London, in February, 1895. It was an immediate popular success, and the critics wrote glowing reviews (with one notable exception, George Bernard Shaw, who sourly grumped - perhaps jealously - that, rather than being "moved to laughter", he was "tickled and bustled into it..."). In describing the comedy to a reviewer with the St. James Gazette, Oscar Wilde (in his typically paradoxical manner) commented: "It is exquisitely trivial, a delicate bubble of fancy, and it has a philosophyÉ That we should treat all the trivial things of life very seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality."

"The Importance of Being Earnest" is a play built upon a pun over the name "Ernest." John Worthing is "Jack" in the country and "Ernest" in the city. He has met his true love, Gwendolyn, in the city, which he thinks will work out very well for she will only marry a man named Ernest. But what happens when Gwendolyn unexpectedly visits him in the country and finds out who he really is? As Oscar Wilde wrote, "The truth is rarely pure and never simple."

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was a prolific writer, a brilliant satirist and a celebrated public figure. His collected works - which are filled to capacity with his trademark epigrams, paradoxes, and puns - represent some of the finest literature in the English language to have been written during the 19th century. He was the first and greatest proponent of the new philosophy of "art for art's sake," and his life was a vivid testimony to his beliefs. He led the life of a "bohemian," wearing his hair long and his velvet breeches to the knee. His rooms were filled with various objects 'd'art, flowers, and other extravagances (he once claimed to aspire to the perfection of his china), and he loved nothing more than to tweak the noses of the cultured and complaisant. In 1895 (later in the same year of "Earnest's" premiere), Wilde became the center of one of the most sensational trials of the century. Convicted on moral grounds for sodomy, he was sentenced to two years of hard labor in prison. "Earnest" ran for another month with Wilde's name removed from the playbills and programs. Having served his time, he emerged financially bankrupt and spiritually downcast. He spent the rest of his short life in Paris, where he was received into the Roman Catholic Church shortly before he died of meningitis at the age of 46. Some of his better known works include: "The Picture of Dorian Gray" (1891), "Lady Windermere's Fan" (1892), "A Woman of No Importance" (1893), "An Ideal Husband" (1895), "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" (1898), and the posthumously published "De Profundis" (1905).

Director Robert Knopf is an Assistant Professor with the Theatre Department. He directed last season's production of Garcia Lorca's "Blood Wedding," and is the author of the recently released "The Theater and Cinema of Buster Keaton" (Princeton University Press). He just finished directing a radio docudrama entitled "Hidden Dragons" for the series "The Archeology of Lost Voices," which will air on NPR Playhouse in the fall of 2000.

Click here to view the Importance of Being Earnest program as a PDF file

Production Photographs

Charlie Jett as Algernon and
Courtney Wright as Cecily
Matthew Urban as Jack/Ernest and
Sandra Abrevaya as Gwendolen
Krista Braun as Mrs. Bracknell

Courtney Wright and
Aral Gribble as Rev. Chasuble
Jennifer Lima as Miss Prism Charlie Jett and Krista Braun

Algernon's NY Central Park Flat Matthew Urban Sandra Abrevaya