Oscar Wilde’s most popular play, which opened in 1895 to great success and has appeared regularly in theatres around the world ever since, has also been made into a film several times, most recently starring Rupert Everett and Colin Firth. Now Macmillan has made it accessible to learners of upper intermediate (B2) level with their Graded Reader, which comes with accompanying audio. Treat your students to a fun and enjoyable listening and learning experience with the latest from the Serialized Macmillan Readers on onestopenglish.

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde was a poet, novelist, short story writer and playwright whose lifestyle was as famous as his works. He found success as a writer with such timeless classics as The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Happy Prince, but he also wrote pieces that were very much a mirror of their time, such as Lady Windermere’s Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest. At the height of his time it was said that he was ‘as famous as the Bank of England’, but he was almost as well-known in the United States, where he lectured on fashion and interior design. He was an object of interest for the press and much gossip within high society. In 1895, he gave society even more reason to talk about him when he went to court over accusations about his sexuality and was imprisoned. His time in jail ruined him, and he left prison two years later penniless and moved to France. He died there in 1900, aged 46.

The world of The Importance of Being Earnest

The Importance of Being Earnest - thumbnail

The play transports us to a past where an English gentleman was a man of leisure, with an apartment in the city and a house in the country, where one didn’t need to be serious and could concentrate on the more important things in life, like having fun! Our main characters are surrounded by pretty gardens, loyal servants, rich aunts and charming women. It is the Victorian world of the English upper class, whose main worry is who they will be forced to talk to at dinner that evening.

The plot

Two young gentlemen friends use false names to live double lives: one is serious and responsible, the other full of fun and adventure. However, these convenient secret identities become a problem when they happen to fall in love. As their new relationships develop, keeping up their double lives becomes more and more complicated for these fun-loving men. Only the most unlikely of coincidences could resolve this impossibly convoluted situation.

The lessons

The aim of the lessons is for your students to enjoy listening to the play, understand its language, grasp the themes and appreciate the humour. The key features of each lesson are:

  • a strong listening focus
  • a variety of tasks designed to encourage gist and detailed listening
  • guidance towards key plot points and concepts
  • audio divided into chunks of no more than ten minutes
  • before- and after-listening activities to ensure that vocabulary and main ideas are explored and developed
  • further activities to ensure students practise speaking and enjoy using English
  • a phonology focus designed to aid a natural reading of the characters’ lines
  • suggestions of follow-up activities for students to do at home.

The audio play is available for download in MP3 format along with a lesson plan, student worksheet and a full transcript and glossary.

The next step

This play not only provides your students with well supported listening practice, a great story and important cultural knowledge, it could also be an opportunity to take your classes to a new level. The play format of this work makes it an ideal starting point for a unique class project - a production of The Importance of Being Earnest. Just imagine the scene: students on stage acting in front of the school, their fellow students, parents or even the public. Other members of the class backstage involved in all aspects of production, from costumes and make-up to lighting and direction.

Putting on a play can be a rewarding experience for all involved, from the leading actors to the set designers, and there is a role for everyone. The satisfaction of performing in front of an audience in English can be a game changer for learners, helping them adopt English as a part of their identity and making them feel an ownership of the language. This simplified version of The Importance of Being Earnest is the ideal play: accessible, light-hearted and easy to understand.

See our guide to putting on a play to learn about some of the important practicalities of producing a play in ELT, from casting and finding roles for the whole class to publicizing the show.

Of course, you don’t have to make such a big commitment; your students can enjoy performing single scenes in the privacy of their own classes or be content to just listen to the play, it’s up to you and them.

Daniel Barber