Following last month’s John Keats experience day for 6.2 students, it was the turn of 6.1 English Literature students to be transported back in time on Monday as they marked the end of their study of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest by taking part in an experience day designed to cement their understanding of the play.
One of Wilde’s most renowned comedies, The Importance of Being Earnest tells the story of two bachelors and friends, John ‘Jack’ Worthing and Algernon ‘Algy’ Moncrieff, who create alter egos named Ernest to escape their everyday lives and win the hearts of two women who claim they are only able to love men called Ernest. As the play progresses and the pair struggle to keep up with their yarns, they become embroiled in a tale of duplicity that ridicules the sensibilities of the Victorian era in which it is set.
In preparation for the day, students were asked to research the costume of the era and enlist the help of Joanne Greenwood in the Drama department to find suitable clothing to wear for the experience. They then took part in a range of practical exercises, organised by Head of English David Anson and English teacher Julia Bevan to bring the play to life and add another dimension to their study.
Exercises included making cucumber sandwiches, which fans of the play will recall Algy devours throughout, as well as toasting and buttering tea cakes and bread; writing and leaving ‘calling cards’ from one character to another; identifying a selection of items from the Victorian era, including a fish knife and cake fork; and sitting down in their costumes, including gloves and hats, to drink from cups and saucers and tuck into the spread they had prepared and brought along.
In an exercise which met all three of the A Level assessment objectives, students were also asked to identify quotations from the play that relate to food and write them on cardboard slices of cucumber, which they placed on cardboard slices of bread along with the relevant context, before coming up with a line of argument to fit the quote and writing it on cardboard plates.
Finally, the group listened to a short lecture Julia delivered on Wilde’s use of food in The Importance of Being Earnest. Used as a symbol of excess or overindulgence, Julia and David agreed that food plays such an important role in the play because Wilde uses it to satirise the farcical nature of Victorian aristocratic society, which has excessively strict codes of conduct.
Julia said: “Wilde was affiliated with the aesthetic movement of the late Victorian era; a movement that rejected moralising in the name of beauty. One of his characters in The Importance of Being Earnest, Gwendolen, neatly captures some of his central ideas when she says ‘style, not sincerity is the vital thing’. It was with grace and style – and a great sense of humour – that our 6.1s dressed up, taking great care to produce and display sumptuous food. When they come to revise the play next year, the memory of our sunny garden tea party might also remind them of the importance the Victorians placed on mealtimes, and how Wilde gently satirises these restrictive codes of conduct without lecturing, making our experience of watching his play pleasurable.”
After the event, two students wrote a poem inspired by the experience:
Symphony in 6.1 English
An omnibus of students along Church Road
Crawls like the Victorian upper class
And, here and there a driver-by
Frowns like a confused Bedalian parent.
Big plates full of English muffins
Are placed quaintly in Mr. Anson’s abode,
And, like a Victorian tea party,
Guests nibble on cucumber quotes and context crusts.
The Wilde-ian group begins to fade
And ghostly gloves flutter from buttery fingers.
I look down at my exam desk, and for lack of content,
I remember this 6.1 symphony.
By Freya Leonard and Alexander Lunn