One of the most famous lines in theatre is just two words long: “A handbag?”

It comes early in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, a masterpiece of comic wordplay and barbed social satire.

(For review of The Importance of Being Earnest at the Gaiety, see here.)

And yet the line isn’t particularly funny, or obviously satirical.

Jack Worthing is determined to marry Gwendolen, but first has to survive an interrogation by her mother, the formidable Lady Bracknell.

“Do you smoke?” Lady Bracknell asks him. Yes, he admits.

“I am glad to hear it,” she replies. “A man should always have an occupation of some kind.”

Then she asks him about his parents. He has lost both of them, he tells her.

“To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune,” she replies, “to lose both looks like carelessness.”

Jack didn’t quite lose his parents, however: they lost him. He was a foundling, he tells Lady Bracknell.

Where was he found, she asks. In a cloakroom at Victoria Station, he says. In a handbag.

“A handbag?” she exclaims. She is, to put it mildly, unimpressed. As she says, she doesn’t intend to let her only daughter “marry into a cloak-room, and form an alliance with a parcel.”

Jack is dismissed, and with that, the drama is set: Jack’s pursuit of Gwendolen will have to overcome the obstacle of Lady Bracknell’s objections.

The interrogation scene is comedy gold: almost every line contains a joke, and many of them live on in their own right as comic aphorisms.

But there is nothing aphoristic, or even witty, about the line, “A handbag?” So why is it the most famous?

There is a dramatic reason. Wilde, like Shakespeare, knew that a play couldn’t consist merely of memorable lines. Jokes, like philosophy, rarely serve the drama of a play; mostly, they’re enjoyed in their own right. And sometimes they go over people’s heads. So the writer has to insert simple lines amongst them that make it crystal clear what’s happening.

“To be or not to be,” says Hamlet, at the start of a long and complex soliloquy: even if you miss the meaning of some of his subsequent musings, it’s obvious what the dramatic point is.

Lady Bracknell and Jack Worthing enjoy a repartee that is dazzling but too quick to be fully appreciated at one hearing. But at the turning point of the scene, Lady Bracknell gives vent to her astonishment at Jack’s apparent unsuitability in those two, simple words.

It was the English actress Edith Evans who made the line immortal, however. Playing opposite John Gielgud’s Jack Worthing in the late 1930s in London, her high-farce delivery of “handbag” soared across octaves. (Search YouTube for “Edith Evans handbag” to hear a wonderful, crackly recording of it.)

Since then, every great actress has been measured against Evans. Penelope Keith described the line as sitting “like a monkey on your shoulder.”

And it’s not just the actress’s shoulder: the director, too, struggles under its weight. If half your audience expects to hear a line delivered a certain way, it cuts down your options badly.

That’s why these two words are at the heart of the challenge facing Rough Magic. As producer Diego Fasciati puts it, “Lady Bracknell has become a caricature rather than a character.” So how could they “refresh” the character of this quintessential English lady? Their solution was counter-intuitive: cast an American.

The American in question has star power, but couldn’t be glibly dismissed as a celebrity. Stockard Channing is famous here for her two previous roles as ladies: as the First Lady of the US in the TV series The West Wing; and as Betty Rizzo, the leader of the Pink Ladies, in the original film of Grease.

Channing is an Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning screen actress, but she has been yet more successful on Broadway. She won a Tony award in 1985, and has been nominated many times since, most recently last year.

Channing should “bring a different sensibility” to Lady Bracknell, as Fasciati puts it. But she should also help bring a different, larger audience to the play.

Rough Magic has taken the 1200-seat Gaiety for three weeks, and needs to achieve 55 per cent occupancy to break even.

This is an audacious move by the company at a time when most theatre companies are retrenching.

Hit by a 9.5 per cent cut in Arts Council funding this year, down to €615,000, their response has been to scale up their ambition, to commercial levels.

Rough Magic typically stage their shows at Dublin’s Project Arts Centre, which has a capacity of just 220. That means that even a show that sells out loses money, says Fasciati, restricting them to short runs.

“We’re not a commercial organisation but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to reach large audiences.”

This may be an auspicious time for such ambition. The new Grand Canal Theatre is currently creating and serving an audience for large-scale commercial theatre, largely in the form of West-End touring spin-offs.

That audience is unlikely to start checking the listings for the Project Arts Centre any time soon. But a billboard featuring an American TV star in a classic comedy may just bring them into the Gaiety. And they may then coming looking for more Rough Magic.

Assuming, of course, that Stockard Channing isn’t handbagged by Lady Bracknell.

Published in the Irish Independent, June 5.