The play was first produced at the St James's Theatre on Valentine's Day 1895. It was freezing cold but Wilde arrived dressed in "florid sobriety", wearing a green carnation. The audience, according to one report, "included many members of the great and good, former cabinet ministers and privy councillors, as well as actors, writers, academics, and enthusiasts". Allan Aynesworth, who played Algernon Moncrieff, recalled to Hesketh Pearson that "In my fifty-three years of acting, I never remember a greater triumph than [that] first night". Aynesworth was himself "debonair and stylish", and Alexander, who played Jack Worthing, "demure".
The cast was:
- John Worthing, J.P.—George Alexander
- Algernon Moncrieff—Allan Aynesworth
- Rev. Canon Chasuble, D.D.—H. H. Vincent
- Merriman—Frank Dyall
- Lane—F. Kinsey Peile
- Lady Bracknell—Rose Leclercq
- Hon. Gwendolen Fairfax—Irene Vanbrugh
- Cecily Cardew—Evelyn Millard
- Miss Prism—Mrs. George Canninge
The Marquess of Queensberry, the father of Wilde's lover Lord Alfred Douglas (who was on holiday in Algiers at the time), had planned to disrupt the play by throwing a bouquet of rotten vegetables at the playwright when he took his bow at the end of the show. Wilde and Alexander learned of the plan, and the latter cancelled Queensberry's ticket and arranged for policemen to bar his entrance. Nevertheless, he continued harassing Wilde, who eventually launched a private prosecution against the peer for criminal libel, triggering a series of trials ending in Wilde's imprisonment for gross indecency. Alexander tried, unsuccessfully, to save the production by removing Wilde's name from the billing,[n 2] but the play had to close after only 86 performances.
The play's original Broadway production opened at the Empire Theatre on 22 April 1895, but closed after sixteen performances. Its cast included William Faversham as Algy, Henry Miller as Jack, Viola Allen as Gwendolen, and Ida Vernon as Lady Bracknell. The Australian premiere was in Melbourne on 10 August 1895, presented by Dion Boucicault, Jr. and Robert Brough, and the play was an immediate success. Wilde's downfall in England did not affect the popularity of his plays in Australia.[n 3]
In contrast to much theatre of the time, The Importance of Being Earnest's light plot does not tackle serious social and political issues, something of which contemporary reviewers were wary. Though unsure of Wilde's seriousness as a dramatist, they recognised the play's cleverness, humour and popularity with audiences. Bernard Shaw, for example, reviewed the play in the Saturday Review, arguing that comedy should touch as well as amuse, "I go to the theatre to be moved to laughter." Later in a letter he said, the play, though "extremely funny", was Wilde's "first really heartless [one]". In The World, William Archer wrote that he had enjoyed watching the play but found it to be empty of meaning, "What can a poor critic do with a play which raises no principle, whether of art or morals, creates its own canons and conventions, and is nothing but an absolutely wilful expression of an irrepressibly witty personality?"
In The Speaker, A. B. Walkley admired the play and was one of few to see it as the culmination of Wilde's dramatic career. He denied the term "farce" was derogatory, or even lacking in seriousness, and said "It is of nonsense all compact, and better nonsense, I think, our stage has not seen." H. G. Wells, in an unsigned review for the Pall Mall Gazette, called Earnest one of the freshest comedies of the year, saying "More humorous dealing with theatrical conventions it would be difficult to imagine." He also questioned whether people would fully see its message, "...how Serious People will take this Trivial Comedy intended for their learning remains to be seen. No doubt seriously." The play was so light-hearted that many reviewers compared it to comic opera rather than drama. W. H. Auden later called it "a pure verbal opera", and The Times commented, "The story is almost too preposterous to go without music." Mary McCarthy, in Sights and Spectacles (1959), however, and despite thinking the play extremely funny, would call it "a ferocious idyll"; "depravity is the hero and the only character."
The Importance of Being Earnest is Wilde's most popular work and is continually revived. Max Beerbohm called the play Wilde's "finest, most undeniably his own", saying that in his other comedies—Lady Windermere's Fan, A Woman of No Importance and An Ideal Husband—the plot, following the manner of Victorien Sardou, is unrelated to the theme of the work, while in Earnest the story is "dissolved" into the form of the play.[n 4]
Until after Wilde's death in 1900 his name remained disgraced, and few discussed, let alone performed, his work in Britain. Alexander revived The Importance in a small theatre in Notting Hill, outside the West End, in 1901; in the same year he presented the piece on tour, playing Jack Worthing with a cast including the young Lilian Braithwaite as Cecily. The play returned to the West End when Alexander presented a revival at the St James's in 1902. Broadway revivals were mounted in 1902 and again in 1910, each production running for six weeks.
A collected edition of Wilde's works, published in 1908 and edited by Robert Ross, helped to restore his reputation as an author. Alexander presented another revival of The Importance at the St James's in 1909, when he and Aynesworth reprised their original roles; the revival ran for 316 performances. Max Beerbohm said that the play was sure to become a classic of the English repertory, and that its humour was as fresh then as when it had been written, adding that the actors had "worn as well as the play".
For a 1913 revival at the same theatre the young actors Gerald Ames and A. E. Matthews succeeded the creators as Jack and Algy. John Deverell as Jack and Margaret Scudamore as Lady Bracknell headed the cast in a 1923 production at the Haymarket Theatre. Many revivals in the first decades of the 20th century treated "the present" as the current year. It was not until the 1920s that the case for 1890s costumes was established; as a critic in The Manchester Guardian put it, "Thirty years on, one begins to feel that Wilde should be done in the costume of his period—that his wit today needs the backing of the atmosphere that gave it life and truth. … Wilde's glittering and complex verbal felicities go ill with the shingle and the short skirt."
In Sir Nigel Playfair's 1930 production at the Lyric, Hammersmith, John Gielgud played Jack to the Lady Bracknell of his aunt, Mabel Terry-Lewis. Gielgud produced and starred in a production at the Globe (now the Gielgud) Theatre in 1939, in a cast that included Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell, Joyce Carey as Gwendolen, Angela Baddeley as Cecily and Margaret Rutherford as Miss Prism. The Times considered the production the best since the original, and praised it for its fidelity to Wilde's conception, its "airy, responsive ball-playing quality." Later in the same year Gielgud presented the work again, with Jack Hawkins as Algy, Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies as Gwendolen and Peggy Ashcroft as Cecily, with Evans and Rutherford in their previous roles. The production was presented in several seasons during and after the Second World War, with mostly the same main players. During a 1946 season at the Haymarket the King and Queen attended a performance, which, as the journalist Geoffrey Wheatcroft put it, gave the play "a final accolade of respectability."[n 5] The production toured North America, and was successfully staged on Broadway in 1947.[n 6]
As Wilde's work came to be read and performed again, it was The Importance of Being Earnest that received the most productions. By the time of its centenary the journalist Mark Lawson described it as "the second most known and quoted play in English after Hamlet."
For Sir Peter Hall's 1982 production at the National Theatre the cast included Judi Dench as Lady Bracknell,[n 7] Martin Jarvis as Jack, Nigel Havers as Algy, Zoë Wanamaker as Gwendolen and Anna Massey as Miss Prism. Nicholas Hytner's 1993 production at the Aldwych Theatre, starring Maggie Smith, had occasional references to the supposed gay subtext.
In 2005 the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, produced the play with an all-male cast; it also featured Wilde as a character—the play opens with him drinking in a Parisian café, dreaming of his play. The Melbourne Theatre Company staged a production in December 2011 with Geoffrey Rush as Lady Bracknell.
In 2011 the Roundabout Theatre Company produced a Broadway revival based on the 2009 Stratford Shakespeare Festival production featuring Brian Bedford as director and as Lady Bracknell. It opened at the American Airlines Theatre on 13 January and ran until 3 July 2011. The cast also included Dana Ivey as Miss Prism, Paxton Whitehead as Canon Chasuble, Santino Fontana as Algernon, Paul O'Brien as Lane, Charlotte Parry as Cecily, David Furr as Jack and Sara Topham as Gwendolen. It was nominated for three Tony Awards.[n 8]