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'The Importance of Being Earnest': The first stage production, 1895

Irene Vanbrugh as Gwendolen Fairfax and George Alexander as Jack Worthing in the 1895 production of 'The Importance of Being Earnest', from The Sketch magazine, London, March 1895. NAL 131655

Irene Vanbrugh as Gwendolen Fairfax and George Alexander as Jack Worthing in the 1895 production of 'The Importance of Being Earnest', from The Sketch magazine, London, March 1895. NAL 131655

Programme for the first production of 'The Importance of Being Earnest' by Oscar Wilde, St James's Theatre, London, 1895.

Programme for the first production of 'The Importance of Being Earnest' by Oscar Wilde, St James's Theatre, London, 1895.

'The Importance of Being Earnest' premiered on St Valentine's Day 1895 at the St James's Theatre, London. It was Oscar Wilde’s fourth West End hit in only three years. His earlier play, 'An Ideal Husband' had only opened a month before and was still playing to packed houses at the Haymarket Theatre a few streets away.

The first night was a glittering occasion, with audiences in evening wear. Wilde himself was in attendance, wearing what one biographer called ‘the depth of fashion’ - his coat had a black velvet collar, he wore a green scarab ring on his finger and carried white gloves. The production was a huge success. Allan Aynesworth, who played Algernon Moncrieff said ‘I never remembered a greater triumph, the audience rose to their seats and cheered and cheered again’.

At the final curtain, Wilde was called for but he refused to take a bow. He was avoiding the Marquess of Queensberry, the father of Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde had issued a libel charge to the Marquess because he had implied that Wilde was conducting an illicit relationship with his son. At the time, homosexuality was regarded as a serious criminal offence.

However, on 5 April 1895, Wilde was arrested on a charge of gross indecency. On 6 April his name was removed from the programme and all advertising for the play. The box office collapsed immediately and the play closed on 8 May, having run for 83 performances.

The programme

Programmes provides an interesting insight into elements of the production itself, and also into customs of theatre-going at the time. This programme dates from some time after the first night - after Oscar’s trial, George Alexander, manager of the St James’s, who was also playing John Worthing, removed the author’s name from the programmes, ashamed of the connection, but not too ashamed to keep making money out of it for himself and Wilde’s family.

‘Sole Lessee and Proprietor…’
George Alexander (born George Alexander Gibb Samson) had run the St. James’s Theatre since 1891. Alexander was one of the last great actor-managers, and the original 'John Worthing'. With his flair for management and discipline he made the St James’s one of London’s most fashionable and successful theatres.

'Thursday, February 14th, 1895'
This was the date of the opening night and not the date the programme was issued.

'To-night at 9'
Although ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ started at 9pm, the evening began at 8.30pm with the one-act play ‘In The Season’ by Langdon Mitchell. The Victorian theatre generally presented more than one play in an evening, opening with a short, often comical play known as a ‘curtain-raiser’. This often meant that the evening finished very late, much later than we expect the theatre to finish today. In this case however, the main play was expected to run for no more than an hour and three-quarters.

‘Last nights of the Importance of Being Earnest’
This programme probably dates from early May 1895. Since it doesn’t credit Oscar Wilde as the author it was certainly printed after 6th April, the day after Wilde was arrested, and before May 8th when George Alexander took the play off, after 83 performances. George Alexander’s immediate response to Wilde’s disgrace was not to close the successful play but to remove his name from the programme.

'Scenic Artists'
The notes for Acts I and II mentions a ‘H.P. Hall’ and Act III, ‘Walter Hann’. H.P. Hall was a scenic artist in Manchester in 1890 but by the mid 1890s was working for the St James ’s Theatre, where he remained for a decade.  Walter Hann began his career in London at Her Majesty’s Theatre and worked for many of the most important theatres of the day, combining his stage work with work as an easel painter.

'Programme of Music'
The music would have been played on the piano by Walter Slaughter, the musical director for George Alexander at the St James’s Theatre.

'Furniture by Frank Giles & Co...'
George Alexander wanted his sets to look as realistic as possible. He borrowed furniture for his productions in return for the advertising, and even used some from his own home.

'The Wigs by W. Clarkson'
Willie Clarkson was a famous theatrical wigmaker whose shop in Soho’s Wardour Street provided wigs for hundreds of plays, operas and balls right up until the 1920s.

‘NO FEES. The Theatre is Lighted by Electricity’
The smartest theatres in the late 19th century prided themselves on giving their programmes away free, and not charging for cloakroom facilities. Richard D’Oyly Carte had set this trend in 1881 at his newly-built Savoy Theatre, where he was the first to introduce electric lighting instead of gas lighting. 14 years later it was still unusual enough to warrant this note on the programme.

‘Etchings and Engravings’
To make his theatre as elegant as possible, George Alexander borrowed prints from a nearby printmaker, ordered flower arrangements from a local florist and exhibited photographs of the cast from Alfred Ellis, the famous theatrical photographer.

‘The Triumph of the Philistines’
This was the play which George Alexander opened three days after he closed 'The Importance of Being Earnest'. The irony of its title and subject would not have been lost on Wilde, given the circumstances surrounding the end of the run of his play.

'Prices and Seating'
Although these prices look very cheap today, the Private Boxes and Stalls were actually very expensive for the time. At matinee performances ladies were only allowed to wear bonnets in the Upper Boxes where they would not obstruct the view of patrons sitting behind (hats were not worn in the evening). George Alexander was well-known at the time for banning large picture-hats from other parts of his theatre.

'Carriages at 10.45'
Theatre programmes often indicated the time the evening was due to finish by printing the time at which the more affluent patrons could order their horse-drawn carriages to come and collect them.

'Box Office'
The box office was open all day until 5pm, and again in the evening. Telephones were a recent enough invention for the theatre’s telephone number to be printed, without the prefix letters that came later.

St James's Theatre, 1896 (click image for larger version)

St James's Theatre, 1896

George Alexander as Lord Windermere, Alfred Ellis, 1892

George Alexander as Lord Windermere, Alfred Ellis, 1892

St James's Theatre

St James's Theatre was designed by Samuel Beazley and built in 1835, then remodelled in 1879, retaining seating for 1,200 patrons in a relatively intimate space.

Many leaseholders had tried their luck during its first fifty years, frequently unsuccessfully, but when the actor-manager George Alexander (1858-1918) took it in 1891 he made the St James’s one of London’s most elegant and fashionable playhouses.

In contrast to the contemporary fashion for staging the work of foreign playwrights, Alexander deliberately encouraged home-grown talent including Oscar Wilde and Arthur Pinero, and made his name at the St James’s through producing and acting in elegant ‘drawing-room’ comedies.

He persuaded Wilde to write 'Lady Windermere’s Fan', for the St James’s Theatre in 1892, with Alexander playing Lord Windermere. ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ later opened on the 14 February 1895 with Alexander appearing as John Worthing.

At this time Oscar Wilde was at the height of his success as  one of London’s most acclaimed authors, playwrights and celebrities. In April 1895, however, the scandal of his arrest for gross indecency , caused Alexander to take the ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ off the stage and remove Wilde’s name from the playbills. Despite this setback, and having a good head for business, Alexander secured the rights for 'Lady Windermere’s Fan' and 'The Importance of Being Earnest' when Wilde was subsequently declared bankrupt. Only in the1909 revival of the play did Alexander return Wilde’s name to the programme. Nevertheless, he made voluntary payments to Wilde later, and bequeathed the rights to Wilde’s sons.

George Alexander was knighted in 1911 and ran the St James's Theatre successfully until his death. The theatre finally closed in 1957, when it was converted into an office building.

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