Style, Not Sincerity, Is The Vital Thing

In my high school days, I was an avid theatre fan and managed to attend plays regularly, whether it was through school or with my friends. Nowadays, I find myself rarely able to check out new plays so, naturally, I jumped at the chance to attend The Importance of Being Earnest at the National Arts Centre.

The Importance of Being Earnest is one of Oscar Wilde’s most-loved pieces, and for good reason. Witty and filled with double entendres, this play is a must-see for lit-heads, but the quick comedy and subtle innuendos are sure to please theatre-goers of all types. The story, a satirical representation of Victorian high society, is about two friends who are in love with one another’s female relations; however, the ladies of interest believe them both to be someone they are not. Using the pseudonym “Ernest,” they both win the women’s affections until the truth of their identities is revealed and hilarity ensues.

Oscar Wilde’s classic play comments on the value of style over substance (“In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing”) and the virtues of high society: “Never speak disrespectfully of Society, Algernon. Only people who can’t get into it do that.” While clearly a period piece, its theme remains timeless, as the plot also illustrates the classic games that men and women play with one another. As the four lead characters find themselves in a mess of love and lies, it is revealed that the complexities of dating were as relevant in 1895 as they are today. Furthermore, the banter between the two female leads mirrors today’s reality: Upon meeting, they are fast friends, only to discover (mistakenly) that they are in love with the same man, thus leading to a sequence of passive-aggressive banter tied together with tinges of jealousy. When realizing their mistake and that they do, in fact, love different men, they can resume their friendship (though never condemning the men for toying with them).

On top of the timelessness of Wilde’s plot, the play is full of famous quotations that one might never have known were even his. My favourites include: “If you are not too long, I will wait here for you my whole life,” “Even before I met you, I was far from indifferent to you,” and “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.” The cast portrayed the classic characters sensationally. They have all mastered the art of physical comedy, with perfectly timed appearances, subtle movements, and, in the case of Alex McCooeye’s Algernon, sneaky glances to the audience following every cheeky quip. While Herbie Barnes and David Warburton had smaller roles as butlers, both actors managed to grab some spotlight, without stealing it, by incorporating comedic movements and facial expressions while casually passing by. Lois Anderson’s Miss Prism was at times overbearingly shrill, though perhaps that was her intention. The other women were perfectly enjoyable while portraying the over-dramatic, clueless lead females. Whether this is a character choice made by Wilde or a statement on the depiction of women at that time, or both, I’m still unsure.

The three-act play made for an excellent night out. Running two hours and forty-five minutes, including two intermissions, it was lengthy but enjoyable.  It was an evening of laughter with a deep, moral undertone that left the audience questioning the complexities of both modern and historic society. Wilde’s masterpiece is a must-see. It will leave you thinking, and you’ll never forget: “The truth is rarely pure, and never simple.”


Kyla Clarke is a Sagittarius from small-town Alberta. She enjoys travel, outdoor concerts, and not eating meat. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Linguistics from Carleton University and aspires to work as a writer or editor in the magazine industry.

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