The Topicality of Earnestby Al Senter
Having delivered a scenario for the play to his regular colleague, the actor-manager George Alexander, who would go on to create the role of Jack in the subsequent production, Wilde travelled with the family to Worthing to spend August 1894 on a traditional seaside holiday. While Constance and the boys presumably enjoyed the usual pastimes, Wilde was confined to No 5, The Esplanade, writing the initial four-act version of Earnest. His sojourn in East Sussex obviously inspired him - at least as far as the names of his characters are concerned, since Worthing, Shoreham and Lancing are all stations on the line between Brighton and Chichester and are attached to Jack and a brace of off-stage aristocrats.
The beau monde who had flocked to see Wilde's previous plays at the St James's Theatre had become accustomed to Oscar's habit of inserting barbed references to the great issues of the day. And they would not be disappointed when The Importance of Being Earnest opened on 14 February 1895. As the older representative of the ruling classes, Lady Bracknell has the bulk of the commentary on the political and social issues of the moment. When she quizzes Jack on his merits in Act One, she seems satisfied with his declaration that he is a Liberal Unionist, graciously observing that: 'Oh, they count as Tories. They dine with us. Or come in the evening, at any rate.'
The most famous of the Liberal Unionists was Joseph Chamberlain, father of the ill-starred Neville, and a successful businessman who held the city of Birmingham in his thrall. He had led an exodus of like-minded men out of the Liberal Party in 1886, when Gladstone made the first of his attempts to gain Parliamentary approval for the cause of Home Rule for Ireland. Paradoxically for a self-confessed radical, Chamberlain then joined his Liberal Unionists to the first of Lord Salisbury's Conservative administrations. In 1892, the octogenarian Gladstone was back in Downing Street at the head of a Liberal government and once again he attempted to drive Home Rule through Parliament - with no greater success. On his resignation in March 1894, he was succeeded by Lord Rosebery, who clung to office during the period Wilde was writing the play.They were connected through the Queensberry family, since Rosebery's close association with Lord Drumlanrig, the elder brother of Lord Alfred Douglas, gave rise to scandalous rumours, rumours which grew louder when Drumlanrig was found dead in suspicious circumstances in October 1894. Some have asserted that the subsequent vindictive campaign against Wilde was part of an elaborate smokescreen to protect Rosebery from exposure. For a man who had served, however briefly, as Prime Minister, he certainly disappeared from public life with unusual haste when the Liberals were defeated in the General Election of July 1895.
The Rosebery administration, which historians have judged harshly, did contribute one notable achievement that found its way into the play. We return to Act One and Lady Bracknell's investigation into Jack's suitability as a son-in-law: 'What between the duties expected of one in one's lifetime, and the duties exacted from one after one's death, land has ceased to become either a profit or a pleasure. It gives one position and prevents one from keeping it up. That's all that can be said about land.'
Jack then replies: 'I have a country house with some land, of course, attached to it, about fifteen hundred acres I believe; but I don't depend on that for my real income. In fact, as far as I can make out, the poachers are the only people who make anything out of it.'
Lady Bracknell is complaining about death duties, a new tax which had been introduced by the Liberal Chancellor, Sir William Harcourt, in his budget of 1894. In what was an unashamedly redistributive measure, Harcourt took on the Opposition, ignoring the howls of indignation from the major aristocratic landowners, and for the first time put landed estates in the same category as personal property. He wryly predicted that those politicians who protested most vociferously against the new-fangled tax would not repeal it once they were in charge of the nation's finances - a prediction which has proved uncannily accurate. The propertied classes had the last laugh, however, when depriving Sir William of his parliamentary seat at the 1895 General Election.
The dialogue also reflects an idea that Cecily takes up during her war of words with Gwendolen in Act Two: 'Ah! This is what the newspapers call agricultural depression, is it not? I believe the aristocracy are suffering very much from it at present. It is almost an epidemic amongst them, I have been told.'
Wilde's audience would have been well aware of the parlous state of the rural economy. Due mainly to much cheaper imports from the American Midwest, cereal prices had fallen through the floor. By 1894, wheat languished at 22s 10d a quarter, less than half its price 20 years earlier. As a consequence, there was a slew of bankruptcies and a steady drift of agricultural labourers to either the city or to a new life in a far-flung corner of the Empire. With fewer land workers available, wages began to rise while land values plummeted and the aristocratic landowners had to look elsewhere for sources of income. Arable land was often turned over to game for the nouveau riche with a taste for country sports. Alternatively, an Old Master had to be sold or a rich American heiress such as Consuelo Vanderbilt brought in to shore up the family fortunes, Miss Vanderbilt becoming the Duchess of Marlborough in 1895. Other landowning peers kept the wolf from the door by selling their acres to one of the railway companies or investing in coal production. Nevertheless, between falling land values, higher labour costs and death duties, there must have been considerable discontent in the shires and in the gentlemen's clubs of St James's. For all this well-bred grumbling, however, the ruling class was still very much in charge. The Liberal Lord Rosebery was succeeded after the 1895 general election by the Conservative Lord Salisbury, after all.
Concerns about land are reflected in the various pieces of related legislation passed during the 1880s. Through a series of Land Purchase Acts relating to Ireland, Gladstone's government transferred ownership from landowners to sitting tenants, who then repaid the loans in the form of state annuities. And the Settled Land Acts of 1882 and 1884 brought a more commercial edge to what had hitherto been the protected hereditary estates of rural England.
When Lady Bracknell refers to 'acts of violence in Grosvenor Square' in Act One and later enquires of Algy if his mythical friend Bunbury has been 'the victim of a revolutionary outrage', she is reflecting the unease felt in London in the 1890s. Not only was there industrial unrest through 1888 and 1889 but London's role as a haven for political refugees from vengeful regimes all over Europe also increased the chances of civil disobedience on the streets of the capital. Memories were still fresh of a first Bloody Sunday -13 November 1887, when a party of demonstrators, 10,000 strong, organised by the Radical Federation to protest against coercion in Ireland, was prevented from gathering in Trafalgar Square by a force of 2,000 policemen and 400 soldiers. In the resultant melee there were two deaths and more than 100 casualties, while the Radical MP Cunningham Grahame was arrested and subsequently jailed. And in an episode later used by Conrad for his novel The Secret Agent, a French anarchist named Martial Bourdin blew himself up with his own bomb in Greenwich Park in February 1894. Lady Bracknell's remark would have struck an immediate chord with the first night audience at the St James's Theatre, almost exactly a year later.© John Good
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