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Manners for Manors

An orientation for Victorian Era social calls.

Social room setup:

Act One is set in the morning room of Algernon’s flat. Similar to a modern day living room, morning rooms were used only during daylight hours, for breakfasts and impromptu social calls. At the top of the play we hear Algernon playing a piano. This was probably coming from …

The drawing room, a more formal room, used to receive and entertain guests before dinner parties and like occurrences. For the less wealthy, drawing rooms often served as the lone sitting room in the house. A drawing room of appropriate size and grandeur was called a salon. A smaller drawing room was known as a parlor. All of them served the same purpose; to formally entertain guests.

The Importance of Being Earnest set rendering by Simon Higlett.

City :

  • Parties and social rounds were much more common in the city: easier to both arrange and attend. One could attend around five different events over the course of a day. A breakfast in one home, another social call before lunch, some shopping before afternoon tea, and then dinner and a night out.

At the end of Act One, Jack and Algernon discuss all of their options for the evening after dinner: the theatre, the social club, or enjoying the sights around the city.

Dinner:

  • Dinner parties were planned with guests assigned to one another by rank. Each bite of food and drop of tea was carefully choreographed over the course of the night.
  • A three course meal was the smallest of meals served at dinner parties. For large affairs, the course count could reach as many as ten, not including dessert. It was understood that one could refrain from eating every course.

In Act One, Lady Bracknell informs Algernon of her plan to sit him with Mary Farquhar and her husband. Algernon’s refusal causes Lady Bracknell to uninvite guests to maintain decorum.

The Importance of Being Earnest set rendering by Simon Higlett.

Country:

  • Social gatherings in the country often lasted a full day if not longer. Some travels could last weeks because of how cumbersome travel tended to be. In the country, men would often hunt whereas women passed the time by going on walks or lounging in the garden to pass the time until tea and dinner.

“ALGERNON. Tomorrow, Lane, I’m going Bunburying. . . I shall probably not be back till Monday. You can put up my dress clothes, my smoking jacket, and all the Bunbury suits …”

“GWENDOLEN. Personally I cannot understand how anybody manages to exist in the country, if anybody who is anybody does. The country always bores me to death.”

Tea:

  • The tea party wasn’t a social staple until the 1840’s. Over the course of the following twenty years, afternoon tea became a ritual of varying forms; from the unceremonious family affair to the ornate, invite only to-do.
  • By the 1870’s tea had become a social standard. Women wore tea gowns, elaborate dresses similar to dinner clothes.
  • Afternoon tea was a smaller affair. Specific food items such as cucumber sandwiches, cakes, and bread and butter were arranged beforehand.

“ALGERNON. Jack, you are at the muffins again! I wish you wouldn’t. There are only two left. I told you I was particularly fond of muffins.

JACK. But I hate tea-cake.

ALGERNON. Why on earth then do you allow tea-cake to be served up for your guests? What ideas you have of hospitality!”

“GWENDOLEN. You have filled my tea with lumps of sugar, and though I asked most distinctly for bread and butter, you have given me cake.”

Garrett Anderson is STC’s 2013-2014 Artistic Fellow. He has interned at Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago and Bret Adams Talent Agency in New York. Garrett holds a B.A. in Theatre Arts from The University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas.

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