Hear Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest Performed by Sir John Gielgud & Other Legends (1953)

importance of being earnest

We here at Open Cul­ture hard­ly have to tell you that, when a play often called the wit­ti­est com­e­dy in the Eng­lish lan­guage meets the Eng­lish actor often called the great­est of his gen­er­a­tion, you won’t want to miss the result­ing per­for­mance. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, if you want­ed to catch Sir John Giel­gud’s turn as Jack Wor­thing in Oscar Wilde’s The Impor­tance of Being Earnest, you’d have had to do so in the 1930s or 1940s. Though it came decades after the Vic­to­ri­an-era play’s 1895 debut in Lon­don (as well as Wilde’s own death), it defined the sen­si­bil­i­ty of this “Triv­ial Com­e­dy for Seri­ous Peo­ple” for gen­er­a­tions to come.

That owes not just to Giel­gud’s Jack Wor­thing, but to Dame Edith Evans’ Lady Brack­nell. Look­ing back at The Impor­tance of Being Earnest’s 1939 revival at the Globe, the Guardian’s Saman­tha Ellis quotes a con­tem­po­rary Times crit­ic describ­ing Evans as “born to play the part … Her appear­ance is mas­ter­ly — per­fect­ly uphol­stered, with a fem­i­nine art now lost, before and behind; and her voice is cor­re­spond­ing­ly uphol­stered so that every phrase, harsh or drawl­ing, comes from the com­fort­able heart of Lady Brack­nel­l’s arro­gance.” The two togeth­er gave full life to the dynam­ic Wilde wrote for the char­ac­ters, seem­ing­ly under­stand­ing well the pains he took to craft a per­fect union of form and sub­stance, rais­ing social triv­i­al­i­ty to a kind of artis­tic sub­lim­i­ty.

But while the win­dow to see Giel­gud and Evans per­form live on stage has long since closed, you can still savor their mas­ter­ful exchange of these seri­ous­ly light lines — in this piece of the­ater where words are all — through this 1953 record­ing avail­able on Spo­ti­fy. (If you don’t have Spo­ti­fy’s free soft­ware, you can down­load it here. You can also hear the play on Youtube: Act 1 above, Act 2 here, Act 3 here.) Before these two mas­ter thes­pi­ans took it on, some crit­ics won­dered whether Wilde’s sig­na­ture work as a play­wright had grown dat­ed, the years hav­ing exposed its emp­ty friv­o­li­ty. But now that even more years have passed, The Impor­tance of Being Earnest has under­gone count­less new pro­duc­tions, adap­ta­tions, and inter­pre­ta­tions, becom­ing the most quot­ed Eng­lish-lan­guage play after the works of Shake­speare and, in a way, prov­ing one of its most oft-quot­ed lines: “In mat­ters of grave impor­tance, style, not sin­cer­i­ty, is the vital thing.”

You can find works by Oscar Wilde in our col­lec­tions of Free eBooks and Free Audio Books.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Alice’s Adven­tures in Won­der­land Read by Sir John Giel­gud: A Great Way to Cel­e­brate the Novel’s 150th Anniver­sary

A 68 Hour Playlist of Shakespeare’s Plays Being Per­formed by Great Actors: Giel­gud, McK­ellen & More

Stephen Fry Reads Oscar Wilde’s Children’s Sto­ry “The Hap­py Prince”

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.