The influence Worthing had on Oscar Wilde’s greatest work
PUBLISHED: 15:01 09 September 2019 | UPDATED: 15:01 09 September 2019
It was 125 years ago that Oscar Wilde came to Sussex. Steve Roberts looks at the influence Worthing had on his greatest work
Oscar Wilde wrote The Importance of Being Earnest (A Trivial Comedy for Serious People) in 1894, while living in Worthing.
There's a plaque on apartment block Esplanade Court, in The Esplanade, marking the location of a house where Wilde lodged and wrote the play, the one that he regarded as his finest. He came to Worthing in the summer of 1894, escaping from his London-based creditors. Inspiration came via a piece in the Worthing Gazette about a foundling baby, discovered in a hamper at King's Cross railway station. Wilde's composition took him just 21 days. He gave Worthing full credit: his lead character was one Jack Worthing. The play was first performed the following February.
Wilde seems to have enjoyed his time in Worthing. At the annual regatta, he presented the prizes for best-dressed vessels and went on to compliment the town for its beautiful surroundings, excellent water supply (certainly not a given in those days), and bags of opportunities for experiencing pleasure.
Trouble lay ahead. A botched libel action against the Marquess of Queensberry, who had objected to the writer's association with his son, Lord Alfred Douglas 'Bosie', led to Wilde being sentenced to two years' hard labour in Reading Gaol. Once released, Wilde left for France and would never see Britain or Ireland again.
Worthing has long been proud of its association with the famous wordsmith. But in 2009 historian Chris Hare's book Worthing, a History: Riots and Respectability in a Seaside Town highlighted Wilde's predilection for young men, one of whom was a 14-year-old newspaper boy. In the book he suggested the scandal surrounding Wilde's trial for homosexuality may have helped tarnish Worthing's reputation, so that it would always suffer in the shadow of its neighbour Brighton. In light of the revelations in January 2009 both The Telegraph and The Guardian reported suggestions made by town morality campaigner Steven Stevens that Wilde's blue plaque should come down.
On the 125th anniversary of Wilde's time in Worthing, the town plays host to a new drama inspired by his original. The Odds of Being Earnest, by Sussex writer Greg Mosse, looks at what happened after the curtain fell on The Importance of Being Earnest. In particular it focuses on two of its characters, Lady Bracknell and Reverend Chasuble, who we find 20 years on in Monte Carlo.
"Wilde teases us in The Importance of Being Earnest by leaving us wondering what happens to his characters," says Greg, a Chichester resident today. "Does the redoubtable Lady Bracknell soften with age? Does the Reverend Chasuble take the correct path (for him) by rejecting celibacy? I decided to write something that attempts to shed light on some of these unanswered questions.
"What's nice about the story is that it has that element of local history. The amazing thing about that is that he finished the play as quickly as he did, given all of the distractions that were crowding in on him. What I've hopefully been able to do is to give those characters added nuance and depth within a more than decent plot. The play's premise is that the two decades that have elapsed see us looking at the characters differently, with their relative simplicity allowed to develop with time.
"It's a challenge, of course, to follow Oscar, one of the theatre's most gifted playwrights, but I look upon it as a privilege. Hopefully theatregoers will appreciate what is a respectful dedication, and will leave thinking about some of the characters in a different way. We certainly hope that it will go down well: the intention is then to take the play around other Sussex theatres, followed by around the country."
Greg is also working on a two-act play, Oscar's Scandalous Summer, inspired by Wilde's stay in Worthing in 1894, and by the book of the same name by Antony Edmonds.
"I suppose the one regret is the strong feeling that Wilde could have achieved so much more," says Greg. "The self-destruct button was never far away in his life. I hope that if he's looking down on The Odds of Being Earnest he will be interested in my interpretation. I wonder if he would want to write his own sequel and put me straight!"
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