On Being A Handbag

“To be born, or at any rate bred, in a hand-bag, whether it had handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution.” – Lady Bracknell, The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde


My mother and I made an outing to the theatre the other day to see The Importance of Being Earnest. Probably Oscar Wilde’s most famous play, it is the source of many of his best-known zingers. It never ceases to make me laugh. Even a line that this time gave me a twinge still had me laughing as I mouthed the line along with the actor:

“To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose both looks like carelessness.” – Lady Bracknell

Lady Bracknell – that rich and rewarding role – was performed by Nancye Hayes, a dame of Australian theatre. In Australia, the best-loved Lady Bracknell was played by Ruth Cracknell. (Yes, she probably was destined to play the role with that name.) Geoffrey Rush got the gig a few years ago to the delight of audiences and critics alike.

Geoffrey Rush as Lady BRacknell Melbourne Theatre Company 2011 Photo: Jeff Busby

Geoffrey Rush as Lady Bracknell
Melbourne Theatre Company 2011
Photo: Jeff Busby

The most famous Lady Bracknell of all, of course, would be Dame Edith Evans. There’s a funny story about her I have always remembered.

The story was told on the radio program My Word! that always followed The Goon Show on ABC Radio on the weekend – compulsory listening all through my childhood.

Now, I am pulling this story out of very old memory banks so if you are familiar with it and I have not got it quite right, please forgive me (and provide corrections in the comments).

During rehearsals for a production of The Importance of Being Earnest, the director was putting some of the cast through improvisation exercises. Dame Edith was sitting and watching from the stalls. The director asked the actors to imagine they were a tree or some other object and to act accordingly. As the actors went through the exercise, the director suddenly heard peculiar noises coming from the stalls.

“Are you all right, Dame Edith?” he inquired.

That imperious voice came from out of the darkness. “I am being a handbag.”

Dame Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell The Importance of Being Earnest (1952)

Dame Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell
The Importance of Being Earnest (1952)


“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.” – Gwendolyn



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15 thoughts on “On Being A Handbag

  1. My parents – who you might recall were temporarily misplaced a week or two back – were so unsettled by their handbag episode they’ve run away from home. Yes, it’s true. They phoned a few nights back and announced they’ve bought a new house and are vacating the family home once settlement takes place. Downsizing. Good decision 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “Earnest” always makes me reflect on the sadness of humanity – that a man of Wilde’s wonderful wit could be cast into Reading Gaol, there to languish for what was once considered ‘a crime’. How many more of our cultural standards are going to be destroyed as time goes by ?
    Not only did we adore The Goons (and drive our parents mad by constantly quoting them) but also My Word ! – the quite startling difference between Muir’s confident Mr Personality and Norden’s quiet humour never ceased to cause me to wonder that they actually got on …


    • Yes, it doesn’t bear thinking about, does it?

      I recall being seen as very strange when I was in Year 9 as I would quote whole tracts of dialogue from the Goons. When I took a bus tour in Europe in my early 20s, there was a man on the bus who also loved the Goons. We called ourselves Henry and Minnie long after the trip had ended until we lost touch just a few years ago. 🙂

      I have been suddenly reminded that I saw an episode of either My Word or My Music being recorded on that same trip. (I tried to track down the details in my diaries and letters but I haven’t a hope of remembering exactly when it was and there’s too much to go through.) I’d forgotten all about it until now.


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