Teachers' resource: Exploring 'The Importance of Being Earnest'
The Importance of Being Earnest
This resource created by the V&A Theatre and Performance Department's education team provides support for the teaching of Drama and English in schools from Key Stage 3 and above, and draws on the V&A's unique collections relating to theatre in the United Kingdom.
It covers specific themes within the play with support information, original source material, commentary on the historical and theatrical contexts of the play and information on notable revivals.
Introduction to 'The Importance of Being Earnest'
Arguably, one of the most challenging aspects of introducing 'The Importance of Being Earnest' to students of this age group for the first time, is to make the remote and rarefied world of upper-class society of 1890s Victorian England connect to the students’ own world. It will be a world they are either wholly unfamiliar with, or one they may be tempted to make fun of or dismiss. The following warm-up exercises are therefore designed to help break this barrier down before work on the play starts properly.
Discuss with students the phrase/theme: ‘Doing the Right Thing’. And collect the responses on large sheets of paper. Ask the students get together in groups of 4 or 5, each group taking one of the responses and making it the title for a short piece of polished improvisation.
Share and evaluate the work, asking the question: Who decides what 'the Right Thing' is?
Explain to the students that during the time that the play is set, the importance of manners, of ‘doing the right thing’ in terms of how English society expected people to behave, was very important, and that the writer Oscar Wilde, who was himself a part of this world, was, at the same time, parodying it. The title of the play itself, of course, is a pun on the value of being Ernest/earnest/truthful.
Status exploration: Discuss the concept of Status and how this may manifest itself in posture and movement. Introduce a pack of playing cards using just the numbered cards. Decide if aces are ‘high’ or ‘low’ status. Ask the group to walk around the space in any direction and call out/hold up playing cards at random. Students should adopt the walk and posture that demonstrates this status position.
As an extension to this exercise, individual improvised scenes can be set up with students given different numbered cards to explore how different status level roles may interact. (In a rehearsal situation, this can also be used to explore scenes from the play, experimenting with what happens if characters are given the ‘wrong’ or an inappropriate status, on purpose for example…)
To explore this further, the following pair-work parallel improvisation can be set up. Ask each pair to label themselves A and B. They are to have a conversation about, for example, the weather (something fairly bland). A is to begin each sentence with the word ‘However’ and B with the word ‘But.’
In effect, the pair will be contradicting each other and creating a form of antithesis, such as Wilde uses throughout the play.
Exploring the text
Introduce the group to a section of the play: Act l, from line 238 (New Mermaids version) or from Jack’s line:
‘You had much better dine with your Aunt Augusta’…up to line 287,
or Algernon’s line:
‘I do hate people who are not serious about meals. It is so shallow of them.’
After a group read-through, ask the students to rehearse the scene, allocating status numbers for each of the characters. These can vary throughout the exercise to explore the dramatic effect.
Next, discuss the pattern of contradiction throughout the scene - each character responding negatively to the words and ideas of the other. Note the play’s subtitle: ‘A Trivial Comedy for Serious People.’
In order to physically explore this contradiction, ask pairs to demonstrate the scene by moving and changing direction each time a contradictory statement is made by a character. There are also statements within speeches that set up the opposite of what might be expected, e.g:
‘The amount of women in London who flirt with their own husbands is perfectly scandalous.’
This, of course, creates much of the humour of the play and keeps the pace of the scenes moving quickly as each character acts as a kind of tennis player to the other, bouncing ideas back in different directions.
Finish the session by recapping the lesson’s learning.
Status and power in 'The Importance of Being Earnest'
Recap the introductory session's objectives and discoveries (particularly the use of the playing cards exercises) which will be revisited in this lesson.
Part 1: Ask the group to divide into pairs, A and B. Ask each pair to devise an overly polite conversation of about two minutes in length, based at (for example) a party, exaggerating the positive qualities of the other character - the more sickeningly pleasant the better!
Part 2: Give each pair a long sheet or cloth and ask them to hold it out between them. They are to have a tug-of-war whilst speaking the lines they have devised to see how the delivery changes with this increase in physical action.
An alternative approach is to ask for two volunteers to do this part of the exercise in front of the group. The pair could even arm-wrestle! The point is to show the struggle for control and status being explored ‘under’ the lines within this scene.
Exploring the text
Ask the group to look at the exchange between Cecily and Gwendolen towards the end of Act II, from:
Cecily: ‘Ah, this is what the newspapers call depression... May I offer you some tea Miss Fairfax’
Cecily: ‘No doubt you have many other calls of a similar character to make in the neighbourhood.’
Rehearse the scene, bearing in mind the above two exercises. If need be, give each of the students a status number as in the previous lesson.
It might be useful to do this with a number of pairs, with the rest of the group watching, as it links in with the next lesson on different ways of interpreting character.
Now approach the scene again, this time focusing on the physicality of the characters. Establish this first by asking group members to stand in a tableau that they think best demonstrates the characters. Ask them to exaggerate this (it can be toned down later in rehearsals) and repeat the scene maintaining this heightened physicality.
Explore what happens if the characters mirror each others’ movements, or do the opposite movements, at the moments of greatest antagonism between the characters.
Finish by recapping the lesson's key points.
Character Interpretation in 'The Importance of Being Earnest'
There have been many performances of 'The Importance of Being Earnest' since the first production in 1895. The character of Lady Bracknell is particularly challenging for actresses as it has come to be seen as something of a test of their ability. The delivery of the line ‘A handbag?’ in particular is often seen as a measure of how successful the characterisation has been.
The Theatre Collections' files of reviews are particularly revealing of how actresses over the years have approached the role and they offer students tips and ideas on how they might explore it for themselves.
Perhaps the most famous actress in the role of Lady Bracknell of the early half of the 20th century was (Dame) Edith Evans in the 1939 production at The Globe Theatre with John Gielgud as John Worthing. Various reviews attest to the power of her performance, e.g:
'Miss Evans gives the law to the young suitors with all the clang and finality of a last trump'. (Ivor Brown)
'The depth of horror she gets into her voice when she learns that John was found in a cloakroom at Victoria Station (the Brighton line) was so funny it made one regret that nowadays few actresses dare to play with their voices...Her voice is upholstered so that any phrase, harsh or drawling, comes from the comfortable heart of Lady Bracknell’s arrogance.' (Unknown source).
There are some key words in these reviews that can be used as the basis of character explorations, such as ‘horror’, ‘harsh’, ‘drawling’ and ‘arrogant’. Isabel Janes toned the role down somewhat in the 1968 production at the Haymarket emoting ‘startled dignity ’ with ‘a growling drawl.’ (Eric Shorter, Daily Telegraph, 9 February 1968.)
Try scenes with these words in mind and explore how the emotions and effects can be conveyed to the audience. Vary the speed of line delivery (‘drawling’) to explore the character’s arrogance.
Jonathan Miller directed Irene Handl as the character in the 1975 production at Greenwich. The result was rather startling to some reviewers:
'Miss Handl adopts a German accent and some very bad manners…she resembles nothing so much as a bothersome Yiddish mama.' (Jack Tinker, Daily Mail, 21 March 1975.)
Other reviewers were more accepting:
'Irene Handl is not in loveable cockney mode but instead is playing a formidable German Jewess …Nothing in the text denies this: there is no reason why (by marriage) Lady Bracknell should not be a German lady inclined to throw up her hands in mild despair.' (Sheridan Morley, Punch, 21 April 1975.)
Another review described how:
'Before the famous ‘A handbag?’ Miss Handl slowly makes the sound ‘phutt. ’ Jews will recognise that this Semitic noise speaks volumes: that’s a real problem, how can we get over it? It is the essence of practicality.' (Nicholas de Jongh, The Guardian, 21 March 1975)
These reviews indicate to students how a different approach to the text can be revealing of character. Students can try their own approaches to using different accents - as long as they can be justified by the text.
(Dame) Judi Dench tackled the role at the National Theatre in 1982 at the relatively young age of 47.
'Physically, she makes no concessions to gorgondom; she is trim, and immaculately preserved. What terrifies is her vocal manner, which is hard and fast and dismissive … Really, we were there to hear how she said ‘A handbag?’ She does it quietly, as if morally outraged, thoughts on the French Revolution already fermenting.' (Robert Cushman, The Observer, 18 September 1982.)
'Whereas Edith Evans brayed the famous "A handbag?" Miss Dench, hands trembling, can hardly get it out in the horror of the revelation just made to her.' (Francis King. The Sunday Telegraph, 19 September 1982.)
'In place of Edith Evans’s bitonal croak, she slowly removed disapproving spectacles. The question came as a whisper of horror. She then tore up her satisfied notes about the foundling’s wealth and position.' (John Barber, The Daily Telegraph, 17 September 1982.)
Again, the reviews show how different approaches to vocalising the text affect the audience.
Dame Maggie Smith played the role at the Aldwych Theatre in 1993.
'The lips are set in a grim, thin line. The eyes forever swivel, flit and speak wordless, disapproving volumes…her head held high and to one side, rains down contempt. ‘A handbag?’ Dame Maggie murmurs, not in outrage, but the tones of a gentlewoman discovering a condom within church precincts.' (Nicholas de Jongh, The Evening Standard, 10 March, 1993)
Another reviewer described:
'Lips pursed in permanent disapproval, voice sweeping on each perfectly crafted nuance, she builds it with a miracle of timing and a masterclass in the serious business of high comedy.' (Jack Tinker, The Daily Mail, 10 March 1993)
'Her Lady Bracknell legislates with her chin: pointing it in grandeur, dropping it in calculation and withdrawing it in indignation'.(John Lahr, The New Yorker, 4 March 1993)
Students can experiment with characterisation in leading with different parts of the body.
Other reviewers of the time give interesting overviews generally about approaching the play, and can be useful to share with students:
'The necessary qualities are: that the impression be given that this fantastic language is the language naturally used by the ladies and gentlemen who utter it, that the wit needs no barrage of grins to prepare for its coming.' (Unsigned.)
Good advice – don’t overplay the comedy!
Finish with a recap of the lesson’s learning.
Themes within 'The Importance of Being Earnest'
Some of the major themes of the play may be summarised as explorations of:
the hypocrisy of social etiquette of the time (particularly of the upper classes)
ambivalent views on marriage (linked to the first theme)
the layers of deceit between the characters and its effects on their relationships
These subjects were handled with a flippant charm that initially endeared Wilde to English society, but this same society would go on to shun and vilify him within months of the play’s first performance.
A good way of exploring these themes is through a tracing exercise:
Lay out 3 x A1 size sheets of paper in the studio/classroom, each corresponding to an act of the play. Divide the students into groups.
Ask each group to focus on a specific act and, armed with different coloured pens, to ‘trace’ the themes through each act, highlighting quotes and line and page references on the paper.
Themes can be simplified into (for example): ‘Good Manners or How to Behave’, ‘ Marriage/Relationships’, ‘Deception/Lying.’
Alternatively, groups can be given responsibility for a character, and trace the themes in the same way throughout the play. This is a particularly good way of building detailed character notes and exploring character development.
The notes should be examined and discussed by the whole group through putting the play together again at the end of the lesson.
Finish by recapping the lesson's learning.
Staging 'The Importance of Being Earnest'
When Wilde’s play was first staged in 1895, it was played on a proscenium-arch stage which, by that point in theatre design history, had become the most popular mode of theatrical presentation in England.
Drama students in particular need to be aware of the challenges and opportunities involved in staging in other ways such as in-the-round, traverse (sometimes called ‘catwalk’ staging), promenade and, increasingly, in ‘found’ spaces that have not traditionally been used as performance spaces, such as warehouses.
If possible, pre-set the room up with chairs to simulate proscenium-arch staging, in-the-round, traverse, and promenade staging. Ask the group to split into fours/ fives. Each group takes the same section of text and explores how each form of staging can best ‘work’ for the audience and performers.
Questions to consider may include:
Are straight or diagonal lines the best way to move for this staging to work?
Do the actors have to move frequently and if so, why?
How best can the audience be involved or affected in this form of staging?
What are the advantages and disadvantages of each?
Swap the groups round with different sections of text so that each group can explore the different ways of staging the same scene.
As an extension exercise, find an area either in or outside the school that is not normally used for performances and explore how it could be utilised. Questions to consider here might include:
Where could the audience be?
Where are the ‘powerful’ parts of the space?
Are there different levels we could use?
How could it be dressed or furnished to change it?
Is this space best used as a proscenium-arch space or another of the ones we have explored?
Finish by recapping the key points in the lesson.
Set, lighting and costume design for 'The Importance of Being Earnest'
The play describes the time it is set in as ‘The Present.’ In the play, the present is 1895, and students need to be aware of how set and costume design can add to the mood and atmosphere of the play. The set and costume design can also indicate time, status, and relationships between characters and indicate themes of the play.
Wilde describes the opening to Act l:
'Scene: Morning-room in Algernon’s flat in Half Moon Street. The room is luxuriously and artistically furnished. The sound of a piano is heard in the adjoining room. Lane is arranging afternoon tea on the table, and after the music has ceased, Algernon enters.'
Ask the students to try to visualise this scene, taking the following questions into account:
How large is the room?
What colour is the room?
What makes the room look luxurious?
What does the table look like?
What else, if anything, is in the room?
Use the answers to these questions as a starting point for the students to produce drawings demonstrating their own designs, or to build up a selection of photographs and images from magazines and books to create a montage of a 'look and feel'.
Designers gather as much visual material as they can to visualise the world of the play. What other Victorian artists can the students discover, whose work could be applied to 'The Importance of Being Earnest'?
An extension exercise could look at the practicalities of mounting a touring production with only one set that needs to be simple and can be changed quickly. How could this one set accommodate all three of the play's locations?
'The Importance of Being Earnest' is set partly in town and partly in the country. Interiors are lit differently to exteriors.
'Act ll: The Garden at the Manor House, Woolton
It is July and the leaves on the trees and shrubs are looking very green in the sunlight. The garden, an old-fashioned one, is full of roses.'
'Act lll: The Drawing-room at the Manor House, Woolton
It is a light and airy room'
Students need to address the issues of moving from an interior scene to an exterior scene. Theatre designer often have to resolve these issues when they are not apparent in the text. Discuss lighting design and how to reflect these locations and times of day, using the following questions as starting points:
What are the scenic practicalities?
What part would lighting play in the scene change?
Would colour add atmosphere and a sense of time and place to the lighting?
Would certain scenes/ moments of the play require different lighting levels?
Accessories play an important role in the play, parasols, lorgnettes, gloves, top hats, walking sticks, and handbags all create character and greatly add to the characterisation.
Costume will also impact on the way that characters hold themselves - the heavily starched and boned female costumes for example will help students to move in a slower and more formal manner.
Ask the students to think carefully about style, colour, fabric, and accessories that might help to indicate time, status of character and themes of the play. If they have been working in separate groups ask the students to present their findings to the wider group.
Finish by recapping the lesson's key points.