The opening performance of The Importance of Being Earnest took place at the St. James’s Theatre on 14 February 1895. Oscar Wilde’s great friend Ada Leverson was among the ‘distinguished audience’ that attended. Her lovely tribute to that brilliant occasion, contained in her memoir Letters to the Sphinx, shows that she saw no reason to believe that:
‘the gaiety was not to last, that his life was to become dark, cold, sinister as the atmosphere outside’.
There had been a ferocious snowstorm that day and the street was blocked with carriages depositing patrons who stepped down into a bitterly cold wind. Yet, such inclement conditions did nothing to deter the ‘Wilde fanatics’ who treated the arrival of his audience as an essential part of any performance. Describing how they ‘shouted and cheered the best known people,’ Leverson recalled that:
‘the loudest cheers were for the author who was as well-known as the Bank of England’.
Oscar, recently returned from Algiers where he had holidayed with Lord Alfred Douglas, appeared suntanned and prosperous, and had dressed with what Leverson described as ‘elaborate dandyism and a sort of florid sobriety’. He wore: a coat with a black velvet collar, a green carnation blooming at the buttonhole; a white waistcoat, from which he had hung a large bunch of seals on a black moiré ribbon watch-chain; and white gloves, which he held in his hand, leaving his beloved large green scarab ring visible to all. On any other man, Leverson admitted, this ensemble might be taken for fancy dress, but Oscar, she thought:
‘seemed at ease and to have the look of the last gentleman in Europe’.
Flamboyant as ever, Oscar had declared lily-of-the-valley to be the flower of the evening ‘as a souvenir of an absent friend’ – Lord Alfred Douglas that was and not his wife Constance, also absent – and those gathered sported delicate sprays of that lovely flower: ‘What a rippling, glittering, chattering crowd was that!’ Ada declared, adding:
‘They were certain of some amusement, for if, by exception they did not care for the play, was not Oscar himself sure to do something to amuse them?’
The play did not disappoint. Irene Vanbrugh, who played Gwendolen Fairfax, wrote in To Tell My Story that it ‘went with a delightful ripple of laughter from start to finish’. During the short time she knew Oscar she admired his ‘charm of manner and his elegance’ and the fact that ‘no one was too insignificant for him to take trouble to please’. Years later, she recalled how she:
‘felt tremendously flattered when he congratulated me at one of the rehearsals’.
As the curtain fell at the end of the performance that night, Oscar stepped forward and was greeted with an ovation. He stood smoking while he waited for the applause to subside; the evening was a triumph. Yet, a dangerous drama was unfolding in the vicinity of the theatre that night. The Marquess of Queensberry, father of Lord Alfred Douglas, had grown increasingly frantic in his efforts to stop his son seeing Oscar and had planned to make a public protest by throwing a grotesque tribute, a bouquet of rotting vegetables, onstage.
Oscar was tipped off and foiled his nemesis by persuading the theatre manager, George Alexander, to revoke Queensberry’s ticket and to organise for a cordon of policemen to surround the building. Thwarted, Queensberry hung around outside for hours, muttering with fury, before delivering his monstrous bouquet to the stage door. This was the beginning of the end for Oscar.