Long-lost letter from Wilde proves that it could have been `The Importance of Being Bertram'

A PRIVATE letter written by Oscar Wilde, probably in the summer of 1894, to George Alexander, an old friend and fan of the theatre, exposes the inspiration for the Irish-born playwright and aesthete's last comedic masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest - a desperate shortage of cash.

The 16-page, hand-written letter is to be sold at Sotheby's in New York on Tuesday. In it, Wilde tells Alexander of a new play in progress. "The plot is slight, but I think adequate," he begins. "The real charm of the play, if it is to have charm, must be in the dialogue". He tries to sell the play to Alexander, pleading: "I am so pressed for money that I don't know what to do."

The letter, never before seen in its entirety, is certain to excite Wilde scholars if only because the largest part of it is given over to an outline of the play's plot. "It is the very kernel of the play," remarked Kimball Higgs, a manuscript expert at Sotheby's. "And you can see that Wilde already had it fairly well worked out."

Differences between the plot as described in the letter and the play that opened to a rapturous reception in the West End on 14 February in 1895 have mostly to do with names. The two male leads, Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff, are called, respectively, Bertram Ashton and Lord Alfred Rufford.

And while Wilde had already settled upon the main comedic premise of his work - the invention by Ashton (later Worthing) of an imaginary brother on whom his own rakish behaviour in London can be transposed - he had not, apparently, settled on the right name for him. In the letter the phantom sibling is George Ashton, not Earnest. Thus, he almost gave us a play called The Importance of Being George.

Wilde, however, might also have given it another title - The Importance of Being Solvent. Pitching it to Alexander, he offers: "I think an amusing thing with lots of fun and wit might be made. If you think so too, and care to have the refusal of it - do let me know - and send me pounds 150."

Wilde extends a money-back guarantee to Alexander. "If, when the play is finished, you think it is too slight - not serious enough - of course you can have the pounds 150 back." Alexander, in the event, bought the play, managed its opening and played the part of Worthing.

The missive concludes with an explanation of Wilde's pecuniary crisis. "Of course, I am extravagant, but a great deal of my worries come from the fact that I have had for 3 years to keep up 2 establishments, my dear mother's as well as my own". He continues: "This is, of course, quite private, but for these years I have had 2 houses on my shoulders - and, of course, an extravagant besides." This "extravagant", presumably, was a reference to Lord Alfred Douglas, with whom Wilde was then famously involved.

The first night of The Importance of Being Earnest nearly ended in disaster when the outraged father of Douglas, the Marquess of Queensberry, attempted to disrupt the play and protest over Wilde's affair with his son. The Marquess, however, was stopped at the theatre door by the police.

Later in 1895 the Marquess engineered the sudden disgrace and downfall of Wilde, who was tried on charges of homosexual offences and briefly jailed. The Importance of Being Earnest was his last work for the theatre before his death in 1900.

Sotheby's declined to identify the owner of the letter, which it estimated would sell for between pounds 35,000 (pounds 22,000) and $45,000.

The letter also reveals that the famous cigarette case scene nearly wasn't. In the finished play, Worthing's disguise as Earnest is revealed by the case, which bears a monogram with his true initials. However, describing the scene as he saw it then to Alexander, Wilde wrote: "The disclosure of the guardian of his double life is occasioned by Lord Alfred saying to him, `you left your handkerchief here the last time you were up' (or cigarette case)."

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