The play was first performed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 29 February 1892. It was produced by former D'Oyly Carte Opera Company actor, W. S. Penley, a friend of Thomas's, who appeared in the principal role of Lord Fancourt Babberly. Thomas himself played Sir Francis Chesney. The piece was a success, and it then opened in London at the Royalty Theatre on 21 December 1892 and quickly transferred to the larger Globe Theatre on 30 January 1893 to complete its record-breaking run.
It opened on Broadway at the Standard Theatre on 2 October 1893, where it ran for another historic long run of four years. The play also toured internationally (with long runs in Paris and elsewhere) and was revived extensively.
A "talkie" film version starring Charles Ruggles was released in 1930, and is one of the earliest "talkie" comedies. Arthur Askey took the leading role in a 1940 British film Charley's (Big-Hearted) Aunt that developed themes from the original play. Perhaps the best known film version was released in 1941, directed by Archie Mayo and starring Jack Benny in the principal role.
A Broadway musical version, Where's Charley? written by Frank Loesser and starring Ray Bolger, ran between 1948 and 1950 at the St. James Theatre, was made into a 1952 film (with Bolger repeating his stage role), and began a successful run in London in 1958.
A Soviet version was made for television in 1975, entitled Hello, I'm Your Aunt!. It was also a musical, but had nothing to do with the Broadway version. The film's title is a Russian figure of speech, exclaimed when somebody receives some shocking news that he or she can hardly believe (akin to the English phrase, "Well I'll be a monkey's uncle!"). The film was an immense hit; many lines of dialogue subsequently became catch phrases themselves.
The Danish version was a 1959 theatrical movie release starring notable comedy actor Dirch Passer in the principal role. Other notable Danish actors in the production were Ove Sprogøe, Ghita Nørby and Susse Wold. In the film, Passer sings the song "Det er svært at være en kvinde nu til dags" (English: "It is hard to be a woman nowadays"). Passer premiered his role in Charley's Tante in 1958 at the ABC Theatre where it was a gigantic hit, and played for 1½ years.
The play's story also proved to be popular in Germany, with at least 4 different versions being released in 1934, 1956 (starring the immensely popular Heinz Ruehmann), 1963 (this one from Austria and starring Peter Alexander) and a television version in 1976.
In Spain, there's a well known version starring famous Spanish comedian Paco Martínez Soria. Filmed in 1981 titled La Tía de Carlos.
Charley Wykeham and Jack Chesney are undergraduates at Oxford University. They need a chaperon so they can entertain Amy Spettigue and Kitty Verdun, respectively the niece and ward of Stephen Spettigue, an Oxford solicitor. Charley receives word from his guardian that his Aunt whom he has never met or spoken to in his life is coming to visit him and that she is coming by train any time now. The boys grab this opportunity and send a note to Amy & Kitty saying that they are invited for lunch to meet Charley's Aunt, Donna Lucia d’Alvadorez, who is a rich and widowed aunt from Brazil ("where the nuts come from"). All is going well until Charley's Aunt sends a telegram to say that she has been detained on business, and not to expect her for a few days. The boys start to panic and persuade their friend, Lord Fancourt Babberly ("Babbs"), to masquerade as Charley's aunt. This leads to amusement as the audience sees him transformed into the "aunt".
Jack arranges luncheon with their lady friends, as if it were really Charley's Aunt whom they were introducing to their girls; as Charley and Jack intend to declare their love to their sweethearts at some convenient point during the lunch appointment, they want Lord Fancourt right out of the way, so they invite Jack's unsuspecting father to lunch as well. The problem is that Lord Fancourt isn't interested in Jack's father and he flirts with the girls, which leads to outrageous comedy as the boys struggle to contain themselves from beating the "confounded fool" to a pulp themselves in front of the girls.
Just when everything is going well, the real Charley's Aunt, with her adopted 'niece' Miss Ela Delahay, arrives. The story takes a twist as Ela is an orphan and her father died a little while ago, but before he did, he played cards. Ela's father, who was never any good at cards, amazingly won enough money to "make her independent for life". The name of the man from whom he won the money was none other than Lord Fancourt Babberly!
Ela recollects the short romance that the two of them had to her embarrassment. Then Donna Lucia recollects a memory of her own, about a romance she had 20 years ago, at a ball, with a man named Francis Chesney, Jack's father. Whilst Francis, or Frank as he is later referred to, is hung up on the fake Donna Lucia, he realizes that the real Donna Lucia, or Lucy as she was pre-marriage, is the woman he met overseas 20 years before at a dance a day before he was shipped out with his regiment.
Yet, when Frank tells the real Donna Lucia, not knowing that she is Donna Lucia, that she is 'already here and she should come and meet her' Donna Lucia does not give her real name but gives the name of Mrs. Beverley-Smythe.
When Stephen Spettigue enters he is introduced to the fake Donnia Lucia, the "millionaire". He instantly falls for her. Lord Fancourt's job is to get letters of consent from Spettigue for the boys' marriages, but in the process Spettigue ends up engaged to "Donna Lucia". In the end it all comes out as Spettigue tells everyone he is marrying "Donna Lucia" and the boys are getting married.
However, Charley says he can't lie anymore, and tells all to Spettigue. Jack tries to help, but Spettigue is unstoppable and goes into an embarrassed rage and demands the letter back from the uncovered Fancourt, this is where the real Donna Lucia reveals herself. She takes the letter and clearly states "this letter is addressed to and has been delivered to Donna Lucia d’Alvadorez", Spettigue storms off after a momentary shock, saying he'll dispute it.
Then Amy, being his niece, is upset at everyone for making a fool of him but Donna Lucia reassures her that everything will be fine, and gives the girls the letters. Lord Fancourt also ends up talking to Ela and in the end, Sir Francis & Donna Lucia are engaged, Jack is with Kitty, and Charley with Amy, and Ela ends up with Lord Fancourt, who resigns to Sir Francis Chesney
"All Claims to Charley's Aunt!"