Like oppressed minorities throughout the centuries, gay Victorians used a coded language to communicate privately with one another, a code designed to be undetectable by members of mainstream society.
In the hands of the sophisticated and witty Irish playwright Oscar Wilde, that secret cipher became a weapon so powerful it undermined traditional notions of love and marriage.
No wonder 19th-century Englishmen considered him a threat.
“Most scholars believe Wilde was writing for two audiences: an upper-middle class heterosexual audience and members of an underground gay audience who were out about their sexuality,” said Joseph W. Ritsch, who has directed a Pop Art-inflected production of “The Importance of Being Earnest” running at Everyman Theatre through Dec. 30.
On its surface, the plot of Wilde’s masterpiece seems irreproachable: Two bachelor pals, Jack and Algernon, pose as men named “Ernest” to woo the women of their dreams. But beneath its scrubbed and squeaky surface, Wilde’s play is permeated with barely concealed allusions to gay acquaintances, practices and locales. To help theater lovers crack the cipher, Ritsch and production dramaturge Lindsey Barr compiled a cheat sheet of the coded language below.
Wilde himself seems to have been struck by the risks he took in writing the script. After his release from prison in 1897 (he served two years on a conviction of “gross indecency” for having had sex with men), he took a fresh look at “Earnest.”
"It was extraordinary reading the play over,” he wrote in his “Complete Letters.” “How I used to toy with that Tiger Life."
JACK. Do you mean to say you have had my cigarette case all this time? I wish to goodness you had let me know. I have been writing frantic letters to Scotland Yard about it. I was very nearly offering a large reward. ...
ALGERNON. Now that I look at the inscription inside, I find that the thing isn't yours after all.
JACK. Of course it's mine. You have seen me with it a hundred times, and you have no right whatsoever to read what is written inside. It is a very ungentlemanly thing to read a private cigarette case.
Significance: Wilde often made presents of engraved cigarette cases to young men — a telling quirk brought up during his indecency trial. Wilde himself received a silver holder inscribed with a love poem from Lord Alfred Douglas (known as “Bosie”)
- Ernest vs. Earnest:
ALGERNON: Besides, your name isn't Jack at all. It is Ernest.
JACK. It isn't Ernest; it's Jack. ...
ALGERNON. You have always told me it was Ernest. I have introduced you to everyone as Ernest. You answer to the name of Ernest. You look as if your name was Ernest. You are the most earnest looking person I ever saw in my life.
Significance: The play’s title, in which “earnest” is spelled with an “a,” plays with the word’s double function as both a man’s name and an adjective. To describe a person as “earnest” means he or she is genuine and sincere, so the title of Wilde’s play could be interpreted “the importance of being your authentic self.”
And at the time Wilde was penning his comedy, “earnest” had become a catch phrase in London for being gay, Barr said.
“ALGERNON. It is perfectly absurd your saying that your name isn't Ernest. It's on your cards. Here is one of them, "Mr. Ernest Worthing, E 4, The Albany."
Significance: Jack’s card lists the actual address at the time of George Ives, a gay activist who later founded the secret homosexual society The Order of Chaeronea. Wilde apparently became nervous that the reference was a little too obvious and in later versions of the script, changed it to “B4, The Albany,” according to Ritsch, who reverted to the original address for Everyman’s production.
In addition, the stage directions locate Algernon’s flat on the happily named “Half Moon Street,” which in the late 1880s was a haven for confirmed bachelors, Barr said. The neighborhood was anchored by the Half Moon Public House, a popular hangout for many of Wilde’s acquaintances.
JACK. Cecily is not a silly, romantic girl, I am glad to say. She has got a capital appetite, goes on long walks, and pays no attention at all to her lessons.
ALGERNON. I would rather like to see Cecily.
JACK. I will take very good care you never do. She is excessively pretty and she is just eighteen.
Significance: Cecily, the ingenue in “Earnest,” is the object of desire for Algernon, the character thought to be Wilde’s stand-in. “In Victorian England, ‘Cecily’ was slang for a young male prostitute,” Ritsch said.
ALGERNON. Nothing will induce me to part with Bunbury, and if you ever get married, which seems to me extremely problematic, you will be very glad to know Bunbury. A man who marries without knowing Bunbury has a very tedious time of it.
JACK. That is nonsense. If I marry a charming girl like Gwendolen, and she is the only girl I ever saw in my life that I would marry, I certainly won't want to know Bunbury. ...
ALGERNON. You don't seem to realize that in married life three is company and two is none.
Significance: In the play, Algernon invents a chronic invalid friend named “Bunbury” whom he “visits” in the country when he wants to skip out of social responsibilities. Algernon deduces that Jack has adopted the same ruse, telling him: “I may mention that I have always suspected you of being a confirmed and secret Bunburyist; and I am quite sure of it now.”
Several different and wholly innocent origins of that phrase have been suggested by Wilde scholars.
Regardless, it’s hard to deny that the word evokes sexually tinged images.
“It’s a pun that combines ‘bun’ and ‘burying,’ ” Barr said, “and it has strong connotations of sex between two men.”
- Cucumber sandwiches:
LADY BRACKNELL. And now I'll have a cup of tea, and one of those nice cucumber sandwiches you promised me.
ALGERNON. [to his manservant] Good heavens! Lane! Why are there no cucumber sandwiches? I ordered them specially.
LANE. There were no cucumbers in the market this morning, sir. I went down twice.
ALGERNON. No cucumbers!
LANE No, sir. Not even for ready money. ...
ALGERNON. I am greatly distressed, Aunt Augusta, about there being no cucumbers, not even for ready money.
Significance: Wilde doesn’t merely drop coded references about ordinary household objects into “Earnest”; he makes them the basis for extended comic riffs. The eating of cucumber sandwiches, for example, becomes a visual joke running through much of the play’s first act.
Then and now, cucumber sandwiches are a traditional staple of fancy teas. A mainstream Victorian audience wouldn’t have blinked at the reference. But cucumbers have a phallic shape and their association with “ready money” makes the double entendre even more suggestive.
Barr notes that though the cucumber sandwiches are prepared for the female characters (Lady Bracknell has specifically requested them), they are consumed exclusively by Algernon. He eats one after another until they’re gone. When Lane is confronted by the empty plate of sandwiches that he had brought into the room a short time earlier, he pivots instantly with a fib that covers up his master’s bad behavior — exactly as the insatiable Algernon would have desired him to do.