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Length: c. 90 minutes
Orchestration: flute (= piccolo and alto flute), oboe (= English horn), 2 clarinets (2nd = bass clarinet), 2 bassoons (2nd = contrabassoon), 2 horns, 2 trumpets, trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion (side drum, bass drum, cymbals, marimba, vibraphone, chimes, wind machine, lion’s roar, flexatone, grosse hammer, white dinner plates, telephone, stiletto boots, gun [starting pistol]), piano, 2 violins, viola, cello, bass, pre-recorded male chorus, and solo voices
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances (world premiere). Commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Barbican Centre.
I know of nothing like The Importance of Being Earnest. The text revels in anarchy, and a delight in the absurd – to the point of ecstasy.
Algernon is playing “Auld Lang Syne” off stage while Lane is arranging afternoon tea on the table. Algernon enters and talks to Lane about his piano playing and cucumber sandwiches.
Algernon’s friend Ernest [John Worthing in his city identity] enters and declares his love for Gwendolen, Algernon’s cousin. They argue about food and Gwendolen’s love of bread and butter. Algernon has found Ernest’s cigarette case, which has written on it: “From little Cecily, with her fondest love to her dear Uncle Jack.” He forbids Ernest to marry Gwendolen until he reveals the identity of Cecily, and says that Ernest’s name isn’t Jack at all, but Ernest. Jack says that Cecily is his ward, and in order to escape to town for amusement, he pretends to have a wicked younger brother called Ernest, who is always in trouble and in need of rescue. He has two identities, Ernest in town and Jack in the country. Algernon accuses Jack of being a Bunburyist. Algernon also leads a double life by pretending to have an invalid friend called Bunbury whom he “visits” when he wants to escape the world. He says, “A man who marries without knowing Bunbury has a very tedious time of it.”
Lady Bracknell and her daughter Gwendolen enter. Lady Bracknell speaks of cucumber sandwiches and her hatred of French and her love of German music. She sings her own setting of “Freude, schöner Götterfunken.”
While Lady Bracknell and Algernon are in another room, Jack proposes to Gwendolen and is accepted. She loves him because she thinks his real name is Ernest. It is the only name that vibrates with her. Jack privately resolves to be rechristened “Ernest.”
Lady Bracknell discovers them and interrogates Jack as a prospective suitor. Horrified that he was adopted after being discovered as a baby in a handbag at Victoria Station, she refuses him and forbids further contact. Gwendolen, however, manages covertly to swear her undying love. As Jack gives her his address in the country, Algernon notes it on the cuff of his sleeve; Jack’s revelation of his pretty young ward has motivated Algernon to meet her.
Algernon tells Lane he’s going Bunburying and to put out all his Bunbury suits.
In Jack’s country house, Cecily is found studying German with her governess, Miss Prism. She dislikes German, as speaking it makes her look plain. Miss Prism counters with her own setting of “Freude, schöner Götterfunken.”
Algernon arrives pretending to be Ernest and soon charms Cecily. She falls in loves with him and tells him she loves him because he is wicked and bad and is called Ernest. She says it was always her dream to marry someone called Ernest. Algernon plans for the rector, Dr. Chasuble, to rechristen him “Ernest.” Jack, meanwhile, has decided to put his double life behind him. He arrives in full mourning and announces Ernest’s death in Paris, a story undermined by Algernon’s presence in the guise of Ernest.
Gwendolen now arrives. She meets Cecily in the temporary absence of the two men, and each indignantly declares that she is the one engaged to “Ernest.” When Jack and Algernon reappear, their deceptions are exposed. The girls exit and Jack berates Algernon for Bunburying in his house. The men quarrel over the remaining muffins and tea-cake, with Algernon triumphantly eating the last muffin.
Cecily notes that Jack and Algernon have been eating muffins. She and Gwendolen tell them that their Christian names are an insuperable barrier to their marrying. The men vow to be rechristened Ernest.
Lady Bracknell arrives and is surprised to be told that Algernon and Cecily are engaged. The size of Cecily’s trust fund soon dispels her initial doubts over Cecily’s suitability as a wife for her nephew. However, stalemate develops when Jack refuses his consent to the marriage of his ward to Algernon until Lady Bracknell consents to his own union with Gwendolen.
The impasse is broken by the return of Miss Prism. Lady Bracknell recognizes the governess: 28 years earlier, as a family nursemaid, she took a baby boy for a walk in a perambulator and never returned. Miss Prism explains that she had distractedly put the manuscript of a novel she was writing in the perambulator, and the baby in a handbag, which she had left at Victoria Station. Jack produces the very same handbag, showing that he is the lost baby, the elder son of Lady Bracknell’s late sister, and thus indeed Algernon’s older brother – and suddenly eligible as a suitor for Gwendolen. Gwendolen remains firm that she can only love a man named Ernest. What is her fiancé’s real first name? Lady Bracknell informs Jack that, as the first-born, he would have been named after his father, General Moncrieff. Jack examines army lists and discovers that his father’s name – and hence his own real name – was in fact Ernest. As the happy couples embrace – Jack and Gwendolen, Algernon and Cecily, Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism – Lady Bracknell complains to her new-found relative: “My nephew, you seem to be displaying signs of triviality.” “On the contrary, Aunt Augusta,” he replies, “I’ve now realized for the first time in my life the vital Importance of being Earnest.”
The participation of Gerald Barry is supported by a grant from Imagine Ireland, an initiative of Culture Ireland.