There is a rather unknown fragment in The Importance of Being Earnest which George Alexander, the producer, ordered to be cut because he considered that the play was too long. I am talking about the “Gribsby episode”, so called before the character introduced in that scene: Mr Gribsby, a Solicitor who is looking for “Ernest Worthing” in order to escort him to Holloway Prison because of a debt to the Savoy.
That debt was contracted by the character that is known as Ernest in the city, this is to say, Jack Worthing; but as the scene takes place in his house in the country, it is Algernon that Mr Gribsby tries to detain, since Algernon pretends to be Ernest there. Jack takes advantage of this opportunity to try to get rid of his inopportune friend, who has turned up in his house to meet Cecily, Jack’s ward, being his guardian not apprised of the facts.
As it happens with the whole play, the fragment is plenty of hilarious comments, especially on the part of Algernon. Wilde probably conceived this scene with his brother Willie and himself as models: in spite of having a bright future in the journalistic world, Willie preferred to devote himself to idle life, lazing around from club to club and allowing his younger brother Oscar to pay his debts with the money he sent to their mother from time to time (even though he criticised Oscar harshly, and mocked him with his club fellows). Nonetheless it was him who pretended to be a good citizen, and during Oscar’s trials he did his best to humiliate his brother.
Leaving this aside, there is something remarkable in this scene. The excesses of which “Ernest” is accused were also typical of the author, who wrote to the governor of Reading Prison just before his release: “I am not a scrap ashamed of having been in prison. I am horribly ashamed of the materialism of the life that brought me there”. Algernon’s ideas concerning the behaviour of a gentleman were defended by Wilde as well: while his character asserts that “No gentleman ever takes exercise”, Wilde, when questioned about an alleged site for a meeting with a young man that was ten minutes’ walk from Tite Street –where he resided-, he answered: “I don’t know. I never walk”. Apart from that, Holloway Prison, where Algernon is to be shut, was the place where Wilde was imprisoned during his trials (and he was to realize that the description he put on the lips of Gribsby was far from accurate, in comparison with the unhealthy cell he was locked in).
Furthermore, as Algernon is at the edge of disaster because of an unpaid bill, his creator would later recall in ‘De Profundis’ the “fatal Friday”, two weeks after The Importance of Being Earnest opened, when he was in his lawyer’s office, Lord Alfred Douglas at his side urging him to sue Lord Queensberry, his father. In the letter, Wilde remembers a curious anecdote:
“On that fatal Friday instead of being in Humphreys’ office weakly consenting to my own ruin, I would have been happy and free in France, away from you and your father, unconscious of his loathsome card, and indifferent to your letters, if I had been able to leave the Avondale Hotel. But […] the proprietor said he could not allow my luggage to be removed from the hotel till I had paid the account [£140] in full. That is what kept me in London. Had it not been for the hotel bill I would have gone to Paris on Thursday morning.”
There is therefore a good deal of dramatic irony within the fragment, which mocks Wilde himself at the time it seems to prove he is right when he wrote, in The Decay of Lying, one of his most famous epigrams:
“Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life”.
And now for something completely different… the Gribsby episode:
MERRIMAN: I have put Mr. Ernest’s things in the room next to yours, sir. I suppose that is all right?
MERRIMAN: Mr. Ernest’s luggage, sir. I have unpacked it and put it in the room next to your own.
JACK: His luggage?
MERRIMAN: Yes, sir. Three portmanteaus, a dressing case, two hat-boxes, and a large luncheon-basket.
ALGERNON: I am afraid I can’t stay more than a week this time.
MERRIMAN (to ALGERNON): I beg your pardon, sir, there is an elderly gentleman wishes to see you. He has just come in a cab from the station (Hands card on salver.)
ALGERNON: To see me?
MERRIMAN: Yes, sir.
ALGERNON (reads card): Parker and Gribsby, Solicitors. I don’t know anything about them. Who are they?
JACK (takes card): Parker and Gribsby. I wonder who they can be. I expect, Ernest, they have come about some business for your friend Bunbury. Perhaps Bunbury wants to make his will and wishes you to be executor. (To MERRIMAN.) Show the gentleman in at once.
MERRIMAN: Very good, sir.
MERRIMAN goes out.
JACK: I hope, Ernest, that I may rely on the statement you made to me last week when I finally settled all your bills for you. I hope you have no outstanding accounts of any kind.
ALGERNON: I haven’t any debts at all, dear Jack. Thanks to your generosity I don’t owe a penny, except for a few neckties, I believe.
JACK: I am sincerely glad to hear it.
MERRIMAN: Mr. Gribsby.
MERRIMAN goes out. Enter GRIBSBY.
GRIBSBY (to Dr. CHASUBLE): Mr. Ernest Worthing?
MISS PRISM: This is Mr. Ernest Worthing.
GRIBSBY: Mr. Ernest Worthing?
GRIBSBY: Of B.4., The Albany?
ALGERNON: Yes, that is my address.
GRIBSBY: I am very sorry, sir, but we have a writ of attachment for twenty days against you at the suit of the Savoy Hotel Co. Limited for £762 14s. 2d.
ALGERNON: Against me?
GRIBSBY: Yes, sir.
ALGERNON: What a perfect nonsense! I never dine at the Savoy at my own expense. I always dine at Willis’s. It is far more expensive. I don’t owe a penny to the Savoy.
GRIBSBY: The writ is marked as having been served on you personally at The Albany on May the 27th. Judgement was given in default against you on the fifth of June. Since then we have written to you no less than fifteen times, without receiving any reply. In the interest of our clients we had no option but to obtain an order for committal of your person.
ALGERNON: Committal! What on earth do you mean by committal? I haven’t the smallest intention of going away. I am staying here for a week. I am staying with my brother. If you imagine I am going up to town the moment I arrive you are extremely mistaken.
GRIBSBY: I am merely a Solicitor myself. I do not employ personal violence of any kind. The Officer of the Court, whose function it is to seize the person of the debtor, is waiting in the fly outside. He has considerable experience in these matters. That is why we always employ him. But no doubt you will prefer to pay the bill.
ALGERNON: Pay it? How on earth am I going to do that? You don’t suppose I have got any money? How perfectly silly you are. No gentleman ever has any money.
GRIBSBY: My experience is that it is usually relations who pay.
ALGERNON: Jack, you really must settle this bill.
JACK: Kindly allow me to see the particular items, Mr. Gribsby… (turns over immense folio)… £762 14s. 2d. since the last October. I am bound to say I never saw such reckless extravagance in all my life. (Hands it to Dr. CHASUBLE.)
MISS PRISM: £762 for eating! There can be little good in any young man who eats so much, and so often.
CHASUBLE: We are far away from Wordsworth’s plain living and high thinking.
JACK: Now, Dr. Chasuble, do you consider that I am in any way called upon to pay this monstrous account of my brother.
CHASUBLE: I am bound to say that I do not think so. It would be encouraging his profligacy.
MISS PRISM: As a man sows, so let him reap. This proposed incarceration might be most salutary. It is to be regretted that it is only for twenty days.
JACK: I am quite of your opinion.
ALGERNON: My dear fellow, how ridiculous you are! You know perfectly well that this bill is really yours.
ALGERNON: Yes, you know it is.
CHASUBLE: Mr. Worthing, if this is a jest, it is out of place.
MISS PRISM: It is gross effrontery. Just what I expected from him.
CECILY: And it is ingratitude. I didn’t expect that.
JACK: Never mind what he says. This is the way he always goes on. You mean now to say that you are not Ernest Worthing, residing at B.4., The Albany. I wonder, as you are at it, that you don’t deny being my brother at all. Why don’t you?
ALGERNON: Oh! I am not going to do that, my dear fellow. It would be absurd. Of course I’m your brother. And that is why you should pay this bill for me.
JACK: I will tell you quite candidly that I have not the smallest intention of doing anything of the kind. Dr. Chasuble, the worthy Rector of this parish, and Miss Prism, in whose admirable and sound judgement I place great reliance, are both of the opinion that incarceration would do you a great deal of good. And I think so, too.
GRIBSBY (pulls out watch): I am sorry to disturb this pleasant family meeting, but time presses. We have to be at Holloway not later than four o’clock; otherwise it is difficult to obtain admission. The rules are very strict.
GRIBSBY: It is at Holloway that detentions of this character take place always.
ALGERNON: Well, I really am not going to be imprisoned in the suburbs for having dined in the West End.
GRIBSBY: The bill is for suppers, not for dinners.
ALGERNON: I really don’t care. All I say is that I am not going to be imprisoned in the suburbs.
GRIBSBY: The surroundings I admit are middle class; but the gaol itself is fashionable and well-aired; and there are ample opportunities of taking exercise at certain stated hours of the day. In the case of a medical certificate, which is always easy to obtain, the hours can be extended.
ALGERNON: Exercise! Good God! No gentleman ever takes exercise. You don’t seem to understand what a gentleman is.
GRIBSBY: I have met so many of them, sir, that I am afraid I don’t. There are the most curious varieties of them. The result of cultivation, no doubt. Will you kindly come now, sir, if it will not be inconvenient to you.
ALGERNON (appealingly): Jack!
MISS PRISM: Pray be firm, Mr. Worthing.
CHASUBLE: This is an occasion on which any weakness would be out of place. It would be a form of self-deception.
JACK: I am quite firm, and I don’t know what weakness or deception of any kind is.
CECILY: Uncle Jack! I think you have a little money of mine, haven’t you? Let me pay this bill. I wouldn’t like your own brother to be in prison.
JACK: Oh! I couldn’t possibly let you pay it, Cecily. That would be absurd.
CECILY: Then you will, won’t you? I think you would be sorry if you thought your own brother was shut up. Of course, I am quite disappointed with him.
JACK: You won’t speak to him again, Cecily, will you?
CECILY: Certainly not, unless, of course, he speaks to me first. It would be very rude not to answer him.
JACK: Well, I’ll take care he doesn’t speak to you. I’ll take care he doesn’t speak to anybody in this house. The man should be cut. Mr. Gribsby…
GRIBSBY: Yes, sir.
JACK: I’ll pay this bill for my brother. It is the last bill I shall ever pay for him, too. How much is it?
GRIBSBY: £762 14s. 2d. Ah! The cab will be five-and-ninepence extra: hired for the convenience of the client.
JACK: All right.
MISS PRISM: I must say that I think such generosity quite foolish.
CHASUBLE (with a wave of the hand): The heart has its wisdom as well as the head, Miss Prism.
JACK: Payable to Parker and Gribsby, I suppose?
GRIBSBY: Yes, sir. Kindly don’t cross the cheque. Thank you. (To Dr. CHASUBLE.) Good day. (Dr. CHASUBLE bows coldly.) Good day. (MISS PRISM bows coldly.) (To ALGERNON.) I hope I shall have the pleasure of meeting you again.
ALGERNON: I sincerely hope not. What ideas you have of the sort of society a gentleman wants to mix in. No gentleman ever wants to know a Solicitor who wants to imprison one in the suburbs.
GRIBSBY: Quite so, quite so.
ALGERNON: By the way, Gribsby: Gribsby, you are not to go back to the station in that cab. That is my cab. It was taken for my convenience. You have got to walk to the station. And a very good thing, too. Solicitors don’t walk nearly enough. I don’t know any Solicitor who takes sufficient exercise. As a rule they sit in stuffy offices all day long neglecting their business.
JACK: You can take the cab, Mr. Gribsby.
GRIBSBY: Thank you, sir.
GRIBSBY goes out.
A 1986 TV version of the play, where the director decided to introduce the fragment.