The Importance of Being Earnest
- AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY
- PLOT SUMMARY
- HISTORICAL CONTEXT
- CRITICAL OVERVIEW
- FURTHER READING
OSCAR WILDE 1895
Oscar Wilde’s most successful play, The Importance of Being Earnest became an instant hit when it opened in London, England, in February, 1895, running for eighty-six performances. The play has remained popular with audiences ever since, vying with Wilde’s 1890 novel The Portrait of Dorian Gray as his most recognized work. The play proves vexing to critics, though, for it resists categorization, seeming to some merely a flimsy plot which serves as an excuse for Wilde’s witty epigrams (terse, often paradoxical, sayings or catch-phrases). To others it is a penetratingly humorous and insightful social comedy.
When Earnest opened, Wilde was already familiar to readers for Dorian Gray, as well as for collections of fairy tales, stories, and literary criticism. Theatre-goers knew him for his earlier dramatic works, including three previous successes, Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892), A Women of No Importance (1893), and An Ideal Husband (1895), as well as for his more controversial play, Salome (1896), which was banned in Britain for its racy (by nineteenth century standards) sexual content.
The Importance of Being Earnest has been favorably compared with William Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night and Restoration plays like Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s School for Scandal and Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer. While it is generally acknowledged that Wilde’s play owes a debt to these works, critics have contended that the Page 138 | Top of Articleplaywright captures something unique about his era, reworking the late Victorian melodramas and stage romances to present a farcical, highly satiric work—though audiences generally appraise the play as simply great fun.
Tragically, as The Importance of Being Earnest, his fourth and most successful play, received acclaim in London, Wilde himself became embroiled in the legal actions against his homosexuality that would end his career and lead to imprisonment, bankruptcy, divorce, and exile.
Oscar (Fingal O’Flahertie Wills) Wilde was born on October 15 (though some sources cite October 16), 1854 (some sources cite 1856) in Dublin, Ireland, where he would spend his youth. His father was a celebrated eye and ear surgeon who was knighted by Queen Victoria for founding a hospital and writing an influential medical textbook. Wilde’s mother, Jane Francesca Elgee Wilde, came to be called “Speranza,” writing poems, stories, essays, and folklore meant to give hope to advocates of rights for women and Ireland.
Wilde won prizes in the classics at Portora Royal School in Ulster, and his continued success in classic studies at Dublin’s Trinity College won him a scholarship to attend Magdalen College, Oxford, where he earned a B.A. In 1878, the undergraduate Wilde won the Newdigate Prize for his poem “Ravenna.”
While at Oxford, the ideas of Walter Pater and John Ruskin shaped Wilde’s thinking about art. He became known for flamboyance in dress (his trademark became wearing a green carnation in his lapel), collecting peacock feathers, and blue china; he came to personify the term “Dandy” used to describe men who paid excessive attention to their appearance. He also became a spokesman for Aestheticism, a belief in the supreme importance of “Art for Art’s sake,” without regard for its practical, ethical, or social purpose. (“The object of Art is not simple truth but complex beauty,” Wilde wrote later in his 1889 essay “The Decay of Lying.”) Following publication of the first volume of his Poems in 1881, which included “The Harlot’s House” and “Impression du Matin,” Wilde spent ten months giving 125 lectures throughout the United States. The Aesthetics movement and Wilde were satirized in the magazine Punch and in W. S. Gilbert’s Patience (1881).
After the disappointing reception of his first play, Vera, in 1883, Wilde returned to Britain to spend eighteen months lecturing on “Impressions of America.” In 1884, he married Constance Lloyd and began working as a reviewer and editor. The Happy Prince and Other Tales, a volume of fairy tales originally written for his sons appeared in 1888, followed two years later by Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Success eluded Wilde’s second play, The Duchess of Padua (1891), but his subsequent theatrical efforts received increasing acclaim: Lady Windermere’s Fan in 1892, A Women of No Importance in 1893, An Ideal Husband in 1895, and, that same year, his greatest theatrical success, The Importance of Being Earnest.
While in Paris, Wilde wrote Salome in French, but the play was refused a license for performance in England, though the 1896 Paris production starred noted actress Sara Bernhardt. An English translation of Salome appeared in 1894 with illustrations by famed illustrator Aubrey Beardsley and the play provided the libretto for Richard Strauss’s successful 1905 opera of the same name.
Social criticism of Wilde’s openly homosexual behavior (though married with children, he professed a deep passion for young men) led to the end of his career. Wilde’s relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas led Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, to publicly accuse Wilde of sodomy. Encouraged by Lord Alfred, Wilde sued the Marquess for slander, losing his suit when the Marquess offered evidence of Wilde’s homosexuality. Wilde refused the advice of friends to flee to the Continent and in subsequent trials was convicted of “public indecency” and sentenced to two years of hard labor. With the scandal, Wilde’s plays ceased production.
Two major works written in prison were published following Wilde’s release. De Profundus appeared in 1905, offering an apologetic confession of Wilde’s conduct, while The Ballad of Reading Gaol, published initially in 1898, indicts England’s prison system and tells of his experiences there. Upon his release, Wilde, divorced and bankrupt, adopted the name Sebastian Melmouth and moved to Paris, France, where he died in 1900.
Wilde’s literary reputation enjoyed a considerable resurgence in the years following his death. He Page 139 | Top of Articleis now regarded as one of modern literature’s major figures. His skill and diversity within multiple genres has earned him respect as a poet, novelist, essayist, and playwright. His works are still widely studied and his plays enjoy frequent revivals.
The play opens in the fashionable London residence of Algernon Moncrieff. His friend Jack (who goes by the name “Earnest”) Worthing arrives, revealing his intention to propose matrimony to Algernon’s cousin Gwendolen Fairfax. In the course of their conversation, Jack admits that he is the ward to a young woman, Cecily Cardew. Also, he admits to leading a double life, stating that his “name is Earnest in town and Jack in the country.” In the country, he pretends to have a brother in London named Earnest whose wicked ways necessitate frequent trips to the city to rescue him.
Algernon’s aunt Lady Augusta Bracknell arrives with his cousin Gwendolen Fairfax. While Algernon and his aunt discuss the music for her next party, Jack—claiming his name is Earnest—confesses his love for Gwendolen and proposes marriage. She is delighted, because her “ideal has always been to love someone of the name Earnest.” When the lovers tell Lady Bracknell their news, she responds frostily, forbidding marriage outright after learning that while Jack has an occupation—he smokes—and money, he has no lineage to boast of—in fact, he has no knowledge of his real family at all. He was discovered as an infant, abandoned in a handbag in Victoria Station.
Because Cecily seems too interested in Jack’s imaginary brother, Earnest, Jack decides to “kill” him. Gwendolen informs Jack that while Lady Bracknell forbids their marriage and that she “may marry someone else, and marry often,” she will retain her “eternal devotion” to him.
July in the garden of Jack’s Manor House in Hertfordshire. Miss Prism, Cecily’s governess, chides her for not attending to her German lesson, as Jack has requested. Prism informs Cecily that when younger, she had written a novel. The Rector, Canon Frederick Chasuble enters, suggesting that a stroll in the garden may cure Miss Prism’s headache.
She feels fine but a headache develops soon after his suggestion, and they walk off together.
Algernon arrives, and, finding Cecily alone, introduces himself as Jack’s “wicked” city brother, Earnest. Cecily and Algernon (as Earnest) walk off. Prism and Chasuble return as Jack shows up unexpectedly. Hoping to end his double-life, Jack informs them that his brother Earnest has died in Paris of a “severe chill.” They console him, until Cecily enters with Earnest (Algernon), who seems very much alive. Jack is bewildered, but Cecily, thinking Jack’s coolness is resentment at his brother’s dissipated lifestyle, insists that the “brothers” mend their relationship.
Left alone, Algernon proposes to Cecily, only to discover that—according to Cecily—they have already been engaged for three months. It seems that since Cecily heard from Jack about his wicked brother, Earnest, she fell in love with him. She entered in her diary their entire romance, complete with proposal, acceptance, break-up, and reconciliation.
Gwendolen arrives and chats with Cecily, until both women realize they are engaged to a man named Earnest. When Algernon and Jack return, their true identities—and the fact that neither of Page 140 | Top of Articlethem is actually named Earnest—are revealed. As the scene ends, both men admit to having arranged for Chasuble to re-christen them with the name Earnest.
Later the same day at the Manor house, Gwendolen and Cecily prepare to forgive the men, though they are disappointed that neither is named Earnest. Lady Bracknell arrives, in pursuit of Gwendolen. She learns from Jack that his ward Cecily is quite wealthy and therefore a desirable match for her nephew Algernon. When she hears of Miss Prism, Lady Bracknell recognizes her as a former family servant. Prism and Lady Bracknell’s infant nephew had disappeared at the same time under mysterious circumstances.
Miss Prism confesses that she had left the house with her novel manuscript in one hand and the baby in the other. In her confusion, however, she had put the book in the baby carriage and the baby in the handbag at the train station. The baby, Jack, turns out to be Lady Bracknell’s lost nephew and Algernon’s older brother. Lady Bracknell now gives her permission for Algernon to wed Cecily, but Jack, as Cecily’s guardian, refuses his permission unless Lady Bracknell consents to his marriage to Gwendolen. She does, and as the act closes, they learn that Jack was named after his father, General Earnest John Moncrieff—Earnest for short.
See Algernon Moncrieff
Lady Augusta Bracknell
Algernon’s aunt and the sister of Jack’s mother. She opposes Jack’s marriage with her daughter Gwendolen, though relents when she learns that Jack is actually her nephew. More accurately, she wants Algernon to be able to marry the very wealthy Cecily, but that match cannot take place without Jack’s permission, which he refuses to give unless Lady Bracknell approves his marriage with Gwendolen. Overall, she is realistic, hard-nosed, and an upholder of convention—though not entirely conventional herself.
Jack’s pretty, young ward, whom Algernon woos but who remains determined to marry a man named Earnest. Not quite as naive as she may appear, Cecily keeps a diary, which “is simply a very young girl’s record of her own thoughts and impressions and consequently meant for publication.” Tutored by Miss Prism, Cecily fails to attend to her studies and marries Algernon at the play’s conclusion.
Canon Frederick Chasuble
Canon Chasuble is the rather foolish, pedantic Rector attracted to Miss Prism. Both Jack and Algernon ask Chasuble to christen them Earnest, though no christening actually takes place. As Cecily says, “He has never written a single book, so you can imagine how much he knows.”
See John Worthing
Algernon’s cousin, with whom Jack—as Earnest—is in love and to whom he proposes marriage. She accepts, believing him to be Algy’s friend Earnest. As she explains to Jack, her “ideal has always been to love someone of the name Earnest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence.” Her mother, Lady Augusta Bracknell, initially forbids their marriage, because while Jack seems an otherwise eligible bachelor, he cannot identify his parents, as he was found abandoned in a handbag. The play’s end, however, establishes Jack’s identity; Lady Bracknell grants permission, and the lovers are united.
The self-deprecating butler who serves Algernon in his London residence.
The servant at Jack’s country manor house in Hertfordshire.
Jack (Earnest) Worthing’s friend, Lady Bracknell’s nephew, and Gwendolen’s cousin. In order to free himself from unwanted social and family responsibilities, Algy has invented an invalid friend, Bunbury, whose ailing health frequently—and conveniently—requires Algernon’s attention, Page 141 | Top of Articleenabling him to skip dinners with boring guests and tiresome relatives.
Ostentatiously cynical and constantly hungry, Algernon pretends to be Jack’s brother Earnest and visits Jack’s ward Cecily Cardew. He falls in love with her and proposes matrimony. Jack refuses his permission for Algernon to marry Cecily unless Lady Bracknell gives her permission for Jack to marry Gwendolen, which, at the play’s end, she does. The mystery of Jack’s parentage reveals that Jack and Algy are actually brothers.
Miss Laetitia Prism
Cecily’s absentminded governess who is wooed by Chasuble. Formerly, while working for Lady Bracknell, she wrote a novel then lost Jack in the railway station. She “deposited the manuscript in the bassinet, and placed the baby in the handbag,” which was lost in the cloak room of Victoria Station.
John “Jack” Worthing (Earnest) begins the play of unknown parentage, an orphaned infant found in a handbag in a cloak room at London’s Victoria Station. Discovered and raised by Thomas Cardew, Jack becomes guardian of Cardew’s granddaughter, Cecily. Though he calls himself Jack in the country, he identifies himself as Earnest when in the city. In order to excuse himself when he leaves for the city, he tells Cecily that he must get his wicked citified brother, Earnest, out of various scrapes. In time, Cecily becomes infatuated with this imaginary brother Earnest. By the play’s end, it is revealed that Miss Prism had left Jack at the station, that Lady Bracknell’s sister Mrs. Moncrieff is his mother, and that Jack is Algy’s elder brother. Also, significantly, Jack, who has been named after his father General Earnest John Moncrieff, actually is named Earnest.
Morals and Morality
Much of The Importance of Being Earnest’s comedy stems from the ways various characters flaunt the moral strictures of the day, without ever behaving beyond the pale of acceptable society. The use of the social lie is pervasive, sometimes carried to great lengths as when Algernon goes “Bunburying” or Jack invents his rakish brother Earnest so that he may escape to the city. Another
example is Miss Prism’s sudden headache when the opportunity to go walking (and possibly indulge in some form of sexual activity) with Canon Chasuble presents itself.
Love and Passion
One of Wilde’s satiric targets is romantic and sentimental love, which he ridicules by having the women fall in love with a man because of his name rather than more personal attributes. Wilde carries parody of romantic love to an extreme in the relationship between Algernon and Cecily, for she has fallen in love with him—and in fact charted their entire relationship—before ever meeting him. She writes of their love in her diary, noting the ups and downs of their affair, including authoring love letters to and from herself.
The play’s action is divided between the city and the country, London and the pastoral county of Hertfordshire. Traditionally, locations like these symbolize different attitudes toward life, contrasting, for example, the corruption of urban living with the simple bucolic pleasures of rural farm life. As Jack says, “when one is in town one amuses oneself. When one is in the country one amuses other people. It is excessively boring.” Wilde’s symbolism does not adhere rigidly to audience expectations, however. Though Jack is more sedate while in the country and more festive when in London, Cecily is far from the innocent she appears (and pretends to be around her guardian). Her handling of her “affair” with Algernon/Earnest shows her to be as competent in romance as any city woman. The
trait is seen again when Gwendolen visits. During their tiff over just who gets Earnest (who they believe to be one man), Cecily holds her own and then some against her sophisticated city guest.
Language and Meaning
Those familiar with semiotic theory (signs and symbols) will notice the ways various characters in the play obsess over the signifier. The best example is the desire of both Gwendolen and Cecily to love men named Earnest. They see something mystical in the processing of naming and assume some connection between the word (the signifier) and the person (the signified), that one who is named Earnest will naturally behave earnestly.
Both Jack and Algernon struggle to remain free of the restrictions of Victorian convention. Jack does so by maintaining a double identity, being Jack in the country and Earnest in the city. Algernon achieves similar results by inventing an invalid named Bunbury who constantly requires his attentions. This similarity in Algernon and Jack’s behavior also offers a clue to the men’s true relationship as brothers (further duality is indicated by their respective attractions to very similar women, Gwendolen and Cecily).
Most commonly seen in Shakespeare’s romance plays like As You Like It or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the plot of a typical romantic comedy involves an idealized pair of lovers who the circumstances of daily life or social convention seem destined to keep apart. Along the way, the lovers escape their troubles, at least for a while, entering an ideal world (like the Garden of Eden) where conflicts Page 143 | Top of Articleresolve and the lovers ultimately come together. The plots of such comedies contain pairs of characters and conclude happily, often exhibiting poetic justice, with the good rewarded and the evil punished.
While The Importance of Being Earnest certainly fits this description, it is a play that is appraised beyond simple romantic comedy. In fact, part of the play’s wide and lasting appeal is that it so competently fits into any number of comedy genres, including comedies of manners, farces, and parodies.
Comedy of Manners
Generally set in sophisticated society, this type of intellectual comedy privileges witty dialogue over plot, though social intrigue involving the problems of lovers—faithful and unfaithful—can be complicated. The comedy arises from the critique of the fashions, manners, and behavior of elevated society. While often featuring standard characters such as fools, fops, conniving servants, and jealous husbands, the action itself is largely realistic. At least one character, like the audience, accurately comprehends the foolish nature of the people and their situations. In addition to Restoration Comedies like William Congreve’s The Way of the World, other examples would be Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, Sheridan’s School for Scandal, and Noel Coward’s Private Lives.
This type of low comedy relies on physical gags, coarse wit, and generally broad humor. Laughter arises as exaggerated characters, sometimes caricatures of social types, extricate themselves from improbable situations. Farce occasionally involves disguise or the confusion of gender roles. Algernon’s indulgence with food and his short attention span qualify him as a farcical character, as does Miss Prism’s bumbling mix-up with her novel and the infant Jack.
A work which, for comic or satiric effect, imitates another, familiar, usually serious work, mocking the recognizable trademarks of an individual author, style, or genre. Successful parody assumes an informed audience, with knowledge of the parodied target. For example, one of the most parodied works today is the “Mona Lisa” painting which shows up in cartoons, advertisements, and fine art. In Earnest, Wilde parodies, among other things, love at first sight by having his characters fall in love before they ever see each other.
As the nineteenth century drew to a close, England witnessed a cultural and artistic turn against the values of Queen Victoria’s reign (1837-1901). These earlier virtues, such as self-help and respectability, were widely touted during the boom years of the 1860s and 1870s. However, people were less able to help themselves and raise their social standing in the late 1870s, when farming practices underwent a change which affected society as a whole.
Wheat-fields were converted to cattle pastures on a sweeping scale, and farmers suffered. While farmers were struggling, industrialists were profiting from their factories which employed workers at cheap wages. Factory owners and other businessmen formed the new middle class in England, and as they rose on the social ladder, they desired to imitate the aristocracy by owning houses in the countryside and becoming patrons of art.
As people began questioning the values of the mid-nineteenth century, artists responded in their own way by reacting against the mass-produced goods which were made possible by the Industrial Revolution and technological advances. Artists such as William Morris desired a return to simpler times when handmade furniture, for example, was valued for its craftsmanship. Morris despised the mass-produced objects which filled the Victorian home, fearing that traditional crafts such as woodworking and bookbinding would be lost in an era that overlooked the beauty of handmade objects in favor of high quantity. The term “Arts and Crafts,” coined in 1888, refers to Morris’s revival of traditional crafts, which he considered to be equal to any form of so-called “high art.”
Morris argued that in earlier times, such as the Middle Ages (of which he held a decidedly romantic view), art was all around, in everyday life, in the form of beautifully worked tapestries, furniture, and books, which were not just admired as art objects but had a practical function as well.
Another way in which artists reacted against earlier Victorian values was by challenging the view that art had to be didactic or morally instructive. The leading critic of the time, John Ruskin, had earlier written that art’s highest purpose was to instruct and enlighten. Ruskin was shocked when he saw a sketchy, impressionistic painting by James Abbot McNeill Whistler which had paint spattered on it; he claimed that Whistler had “flung a pot of paint in the public’s face.” Whistler sued Ruskin for libel, winning the case and bringing the debate over the purpose of art into the public.
Supporters of Whistler approved of “art for art’s sake,” meaning that paintings like Whistler’s need not have a purpose other than to be aesthetically pleasing. Even if it was pleasing to see paint spattered on the canvas. The public could now decide for themselves what was “good” art; they did not need to rely on the views of critics like Ruskin to instruct them in the meaning of a painting.
This new movement in art came to be known as Aestheticism, as art could now be appreciated on purely aesthetic terms. Wilde followed Whistler as the chief spokesperson for the movement, writing and lecturing on the beauty of art for art’s sake and became known for his own desire to have life imitate art, not the other way around. Aesthetes such as Wilde were mocked in the popular British magazine Punch as foppish, unrealistic individuals who strove to live up to the beauty of their home furnishings.
Two major issues predominate much of The Importance of Being Earnest’s criticism. First, while audiences from the play’s opening have warmly received it, Wilde’s contemporaries questioned its seeming amorality. Playwright George Bernard Shaw (Major Barbara), after seeing the original London production, attacked the play’s “real degeneracy” Page 145 | Top of Articlein an article reprinted in Oscar Wilde: A Collection of Critical Essays. Shaw described Wilde’s repartee as “hateful” and “sinister.” A second and related concern arises about Earnest’s dramatic structure, which exhibits elements of the farce, comedy of manners, and parody. Critics often disagree as to how the play should be categorized.
On the play’s morality, critical opinion remains divided. In his book Oscar Wilde, Edouard Roditi, for example, believed that Wilde’s comedy never rises above “the incomplete or the trivial.” Because none of the characters see through the others or critique their values, Roditi believed the play lacks an ethical point of view. Eric Bentley, in The Playwright As Thinker, raised similar issues, concluding that because of its “ridiculous action,” the play fails to “break . . . into bitter criticism” of serious issues.
For Otto Reinert, writing in College English, Wilde’s comedy results in “an exposure both of hypocrisy and of the unnatural convention that necessitates hypocrisy.” As a consequence, “bunburying,” the reliance on white lies that keeps polite society polite, “gives the plot moral significance.” For example, when Lady Bracknell criticizes Algernon for caring for his imaginary friend, Bunbury, who should decide “whether he was going to live or to die,” she voices the conventional belief that “illness in others is always faked [and] . . . consequently sympathy with invalids is faked also.”
Though Lady Bracknell respects convention, Reinert wrote, “she has no illusions about the reality her professed convention is supposed to conceal.” She assumes that both Algernon and Bunbury are “bunburying,” and her behavior “exposes the polite cynicism that negates all values save personal convenience and salon decorum.”
Nor is Lady Bracknell immune from her own lapses in earnestness. Stating her disapproval of mercenary marriages, she admits, “When I married Lord Bracknell I had no fortune of any kind.” That is, though she opposes marrying for money, she had no money when she married a wealthy lord. For her, according to Reinert, this position “is neither cynical nor funny. It represents . . . [a] compromise between practical hardheadedness and conventional morality.”
Overall, the play does not endorse social dishonesty, for while the plot ridicules respectability, “it also repudiates Bunburyism.” Wilde’s use of “paradoxical morality” serves as a critique of “the problem of manners,” for “Bunburying Algernon, in escaping the hypocrisy of convention, becomes a hypocrite himself by pretending to be somebody he is not.” Wilde sees that Victorian respectability forces people to lead “double lives, one respectable, one frivolous, neither earnest.”
The second critical issue concerns the play’s categorization. Reinert unapologetically describes the play as a farce “that represents the reality that Victorian convention pretends to ignore.” The characters themselves are not being ironic, i.e. saying one thing and meaning another. They actually mean what they say. For example, Algernon despairs of attending Lady Bracknell’s dinner party because she will sit him beside “Mary Farquhar, who always flirts with her own husband.” As Reinert wrote, “Algernon is indignant with a woman who spoils the fun of extramarital flirtation and who parades her virtue. He is shocked at convention. And his tone implies that he is elevating break of convention into a moral norm,” that is, making the unconventional conventional.
Characters like Algernon, who resemble those in works by Alexander Pope (The Rape of the Lock) and Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels), “derive their ideals for conduct from the actual practice of their societies, their standards are the standards of common corruption, they are literal-minded victims of their environments, realists with a vengeance.”
For Richard Foster, writing in College English, Wilde’s comedy works through parody, by transforming “stock comedic techniques, plot devices, and characters.” Foster defended the play against charges that it is merely farce, because farce “depends for its effects upon extremely simplified characters tangling themselves up in incongruous situations,” as in Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors or Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer. Instead, “the comedy of Earnest subsists, for the most part, not in action or situation but in dialogue” which is too witty and intellectual “to be described simply as a farce.”
Nor is Earnest actually a comedy of manners, according to Foster, though it does use verbal wit to expose and ridicule “the vanities, the hypocrisies, and the idleness of the upper classes.” After all, a
“comedy of manners is fundamentally realistic,” requiring the audience to see the stage world as real or possible, if exaggerated. To assist in this recognition, some characters and the audience recognize the fools. In a comedy of manners, folly is recognized by some characters and the audience, while in Earnest, according to Rosemary Pountney in The International Dictionary of Theatre, Wilde creates “a world of deliberately reversed values” in which the wicked are charming and the good, boring.
Rather than a farce or comedy of manners, then, Foster saw Wilde using familiar plot devices and characters to satirize Victorian society. Jack’s relationship with Gwendolen evidences a stock problem of lovers prevented from marriage by class differences. Wilde’s solution: establishing the true patrimony of Jack, the railway station infant. Another commonplace of romantic literature is love at first sight, but in Earnest, Cecily has fallen in love with Algernon before first sight, solely because she Page 147 | Top of Articlebelieves his name to be Earnest. And while Algernon is cynical, there is evidence that his cynicism is superficial, for immediately on meeting Cecily, “Algernon is engaged to be married and reconciled to getting christened.”
Cecily, seemingly sheltered and innocent, suggests it would be hypocritical for Algernon to actually be good while presenting to be wicked. “The moral of Wilde’s parody: the rake is a fake, girlish innocence is the bait of a monstrous mantrap, the wages of sin in matrimony.” What some critics identify as dramatic problems, then, are perceived by others as the play’s strengths. “Nothing in the play,” wrote Foster, “is quite what it seems. . . . The play’s ‘flaws’—the contrivances of plot, the convenience of its coincidences, and the neatness of its resolution—are,” according to Foster, “of course, its whole point.”
Schmidt holds a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University and specializes in literature and drama. In this essay, he examines Wilde’s play in the context of Victorian concepts of “earnestness.”
To modern theatre audiences, the title of Oscar Wilde’s most popular play, The Importance of Being Earnest, seems a clever play on words. After all, the plot hinges on the telling of little—and not so little—white lies, while the title suggests that honesty (earnestness) will be the rule of the day. The title also implies a connection between the name and the concept, between a person named Earnest and that person being earnest. The narrative action does not bear out this assumption but rather its opposite. Audiences who saw the play when it opened in London in 1895 would have brought to it more complex associations with “earnestness,” a word which historians, sociologists, and literary critics alike see as, at least in part, typifying the Victorian mindset.
The word “earnest” has three related meanings: to be eager or zealous; to be sincere, serious, and determined; and to be important, not trivial. During Queen Victoria’s more than half-century reign, tremendous economic, social, and political changes rocked Great Britain. These were caused by earnest actions and their consequences required, indeed demanded, earnest responses. The Agricultural Revolution dislocated rural populations, forcing people to leave the countryside for cities. There, those people became workers in the factories created by the Industrial Revolution. While, over the long term, the British nation as a whole benefited from these changes, individuals often suffered greatly.
Even the wealthy were not immune to the changing economy’s negative impact on land values. In The Importance of Being Earnest, this becomes clear when Lady Bracknell inquires into the finances of Jack Worthing, Gwendolen’s choice for a husband. When Jack indicates that he has suitable income, she is pleased it comes from stock rather than land, for the declining value of “land. . . gives one position, and prevents one from keeping it up.”
By the mid-nineteenth century, discussions concerning issues of economic disparity came to be known as the “two Englands” debate. People considered what would happen to Britain if economic trends continued to enrich the few while the majority of the population worked long hours in dangerous factories, underpaid and living in squalor.
Writers and intellectuals as well as evangelicals and politicians earnestly engaged in this debate. Poets and novelists such as Elizabeth Barrett, Charles Dickens, and Elizabeth Gaskell, created literary works which portrayed the lives of the underprivileged. Writings such as these ultimately contributed to changing public attitudes—and more importantly—public policy toward practices like child labor and public executions. Reforms in hospitals and orphanages, prisons and workhouses, schools and factories can all be traced to debates initiated or fueled by writers. The earnestness of all these reformers—artistic, intellectual, religious, and political—improved the quality of the life in Victorian Britain.
Earnestness did not characterize only those who addressed social evils, however, but also those whose activities created social problems in the first place. The farmers, investors, and manufacturers whose actions dislocated rural populations and resulted in the squalor of factory towns like Manchester, were also “earnest” about their actions. They believed they were improving the quality of peoples’ lives and, in some ways, they were.
Overall, the country produced more abundant, cheaper food and better quality, affordable mass produced goods like clothing. Indeed, historian Asa
Briggs termed the middle of the nineteenth century “The Age of Improvement” (a phrase he employed as the title of his book on the subject), because of the rising living conditions but also because of the concern to improve the quality of life, to ensure that each generation lived better than the last.
Like British farmers and industrialists, British colonial administrators also justified the nation’s imperial ambitions because they “improved” the lives of “uncivilized” peoples, giving them Christianity, British cultural values, and higher living standards. This attitude came to be know as, in author Rudyard Kipling’s words, “the white man’s burden.”
Many of those enriching themselves in this way would acknowledge that their actions caused suffering as well as benefits. They justified their actions based on the utilitarianism of thinkers like John Stewart Mill. Utilitarians determine the rightness of an action by asking if certain actions produce the most good for the most people. If people in general benefited, the suffering of a few specific people could be tolerated as the price paid for progress. While this approach may seem callous and self-serving, these thinkers and tycoons were also “earnest” in their actions.
Yet the characters in Wilde’s play are not earnest in this sense. Their actions satirize popular notions of the idle rich but also poke fun at Utilitarianism as well. When Jack admits to Lady Bracknell that he smokes, she replies that “a man should have an occupation.” Later, Algernon admits that he doesn’t “mind hard work where there is no definite object of any kind.” Jack and Algernon have no real occupations or professions; their purposelessness critiques the “earnest” nature of Utilitarian activities.
Now we can see that Wilde’s use of “earnestness” is more complex than it may first appear to modern audiences. Indeed, his play offers rather biting, if understated, criticism of the institutions and values that had, by the end of the nineteenth century, made Britain the world’s greatest colonial power. Ironically, it is exactly the earnestness exhibited by Britain’s exploitative class, industrial, and colonial systems that enables the life of leisure enjoyed by the play’s main characters. When asked about his politics, Jack replies, “Well, I am afraid I really have none,” though the Liberal Unionist party with which he identifies supports the continued colonial status of Ireland.
Britain’s colonial system comes up again when Algernon jokes about sending Jack to Australia, emigration then being a common way to prevent excess population from causing unemployment and lower wages. Investment in stocks—the source of Jack’s wealth—provided economic support for Britain’s expanding economy, and by the play’s end, we learn that his father served as a general in colonial India, a common road to personal enrichment during the Victorian age.
The rich are not the only targets of Wilde’s wit, for the playwright satirizes earnestness and reformers of all kinds, in morality, education, women’s rights, and marriage.
Reformers religious and secular alike expended much energy on improving the morals of the working Page 149 | Top of Articleclasses, particularly in regard to family life, procreation, and child-rearing. In this regard reformers often emphasized the importance of the positive example to be set by upper class behavior. The servant Lane tells Algernon he had “only been married once. That was in consequence of a misunderstanding between myself and a young person.” Algernon turns the reformers’ ideas on their heads, observing “Lane’s views on marriage seem somewhat lax. Really if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them.” The comedy comes by satirizing the serious ideas of earnest critics of the class system (particularly communist thinkers such as Karl Marx), who wondered exactly what the purpose of the wealthy might be. Finally, Miss Prism’s conversation about christening the poor reveals an underlying anxiety about the sexuality and population growth of the working classes.
Earnest reformers engaged in the public debate about education, which expected to “improve” the middle and working classes and enhance the “culture,” as Matthew Arnold wrote, of the country in general. One forum for popular education, begun during the eighteenth century, was public lectures, and Wilde satirizes the earnest, if misdirected, efforts of educational societies whose talks have titles like “Society for the Prevention of Discontent among the Upper Orders” and a “Lecture by the University Extension Scheme on the Influence of a Permanent Income on Thought.”
Wilde also satirizes the ineffectiveness of the education for the privileged in the scenes between Miss Prism and her reluctant student Cecily. More generally, though, Lady Bracknell proclaims: “The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes and probably lead to acts of violence.” Lady Bracknell links education of the poor with social unrest, fearing that the educated masses might forget their place and reject hierarchical class structure.
The independence and audacity of Wilde’s female characters reflects the changing status of Victorian women, part of a public debate known as “The Women Question.” It was only with the passage of a series of Married Women’s Property Acts (1870-1908) that women could hold property in their own names. The opinions of Queen Victoria herself, who opposed women’s suffrage but advocated women’s education, including college, exemplified
the ambiguous situation of women in England during this period.
Cecily and Gwendolen discuss changing gender roles in their conversation about male domesticity, indicating their belief that “home seems to me to be the proper sphere for the man.” Marriage, however, remained most women’s primary goal and occupation. Arranged marriages had been on the decline since the late-eighteenth century but were not unknown among the Victorian era’s upper classes. This may have made economic sense, but it did not always create domestic harmony. Consider Algernon’s lament about the low quality of champagne in the homes of married men and his belief in the necessity of adultery, “for in marriage, three is company and two is none.” Both comments highlight the lack of companionship resulting from marriage without compatibility and love, suggesting that the Victorian husband requires alcohol and a mistress to be happy.
Wilde describes the situation for married women in equally depressing terms. When Lady Bracknell tells of her visit with the recently widowed Lady Harbury, Algernon remarks that he’s heard that “her hair has turned quite gold from grief.” The audience anticipates the cliched response, that her hair turned gray or white from sorrow, but Wilde turns the phrase around.
Why might her hair have turned gold instead? Like many Victorian women, Lady Harbury seems to have been trapped in a loveless marriage, the kind Lady Bracknell proposes to arrange for Gwendolen. Now that Lady Harbury’s husband is dead, she is finally free to become who and do what she wants. She feels younger, more attractive and changes her hair color. While the joke requires that we associate Page 150 | Top of Articleaging and grief, Wilde turns that around, associating widowhood instead with gold hair and joy. Algernon’s statement could also be an indication of the new wealth and independence Lady Harbury gained in inheriting her husband’s money. The simple turn of a phrase communicates a complex reality, in this case, about economic, social, and sexual politics.
The status of the nineteenth century’s educated women remained grim, however, with few occupational outlets other than teaching. Miss Prism, Cecily’s governess, combines two common female occupations, teaching and novel writing, another activity at which women flourished (and for which they were criticized). Prism’s confusion between a baby and a manuscript pokes fun at changing ideas about parenthood and child-rearing. The misplaced baby symbolizes what critics saw as a confusion of gender roles, when women entered the traditionally masculine world of the mind. The plight of orphaned baby Jack illustrates the destabilization of family ties, which in his case are sequentially lost, invented, changed, and discovered.
As Lady Bracknell says, “we live, I regret to say, in an age of surfaces,” a position echoed by her daughter’s comment that “in matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing.” To many, Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest may seem a work of “surface” and “style,” but further examination shows it to have depth and substance as well as humor.
Source: Arnold Schmidt, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998.
In a review that was originally published on March 4, 1947, Atkinson offers words of praise for a production of Wilde’s play starring John Geilgud.
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Source: Brooks Atkinson, review of The Importance of Being Earnest (1947) in On Stage: Selected Theater Reviews from the New York Times, 1920-70, edited by Bernard Beckerman and Howard Siegman, Arno Press, 1973, p. 277.
In this chapter from his book, Beerbohm appraises The Importance of Being Earnest, finding it to be that rare play that stands the test of time and continues to appeal to audiences of numerous generations.
Of a play representing actual life there can be, I think, no test more severe than its revival after seven or eight years of abeyance. For that period is enough to make it untrue to the surface of the present, yet not enough to enable us to unswitch it from the present. How seldom is the test passed! There is a better chance, naturally, for plays that weave life into fantastic forms; but even for them not a very good chance; for the fashion in fantasy itself changes.
Fashions form a cycle, and we, steadily moving in that cycle, are farther from whatever fashion we have just passed than from any other. The things which once pleased our grandfathers are tolerable in comparison with the things which once pleased us. If in the lumber of the latter we find something that still pleases us, pleases us as much as ever it did, then, surely, we may preen ourselves on the possession of a classic, and congratulate posterity. Last week, at the St. James’, was revived “The Importance of Being Earnest,” after an abeyance of exactly seven years—those seven years which, according to scientists, change every molecule in the human body, leaving nothing of what was there before. And yet to me the play came out fresh and exquisite as ever, and over the whole house almost every line was sending ripples of laughter—cumulative ripples that became waves, and receded only for fear of drowning the next line. In kind the play always was unlike any other, and in its kind it still seems perfect. I do not wonder that now the critics boldly call it a classic, and predict immortality. And (timorous though I am apt to be in prophecy) I join gladly in their chorus.
A classic must be guarded jealously. Nothing should be added to, or detracted from, a classic. In the revival at the St. James’, I noted several faults of textual omission. When Lady Bracknell is told by Mr. Worthing that he was originally found in a handbag in the cloak room of Victoria Station, she echoes “The cloak-room at Victoria Station?” “Yes,” he replies; “the Brighton Line.” “The line is immaterial,” she rejoins; “Mr. Worthing, I confess I am somewhat bewildered,” &c. &c. Now, in the present revival “the line is immaterial” is omitted. Perhaps Mr. Alexander regarded it as an
immaterial line. So it is, as far as the plot is concerned. But it is not the less deliciously funny. To skip it is inexcusable. Again, Mr. Wilde was a master in selection of words, and his words must not be amended. “Cecily,” says Miss Prism, “you will read your Political Economy in my absence. The chapter on the Fall of the Rupee you may omit. It is somewhat too sensational.” For “sensational” Miss Laverton substitutes “exciting”—a very poor substitute for that mot juste. Thus may the edge of magnificent absurdity be blunted. In the last act, again, Miss Laverton killed a vital point by inaccuracy. In the whole play there is no more delicious speech than Miss Prism’s rhapsody over the restored hand-bag. This is a speech quintessential of the whole play’s spirit. “It seems to be mine,” says Miss Prism calmly. “Yes here is the injury it received through the upsetting of a Gower Street omnibus in younger and happier days. There is the stain on the lining caused by the explosion of a temperance beverage—an incident that occurred at Leamington. And here, on the lock, are my initials. I had forgotten that in an extravagant moment I had had them placed there. The bag is undoubtedly mine. I am delighted to have it so unexpectedly restored to me. It has been a great inconvenience being without it all these years.” The overturning of a Gower Street omnibus in younger and happier days! Miss Laverton omitted “and happier”. What a point to miss! Moreover, she gabbled the whole speech, paying no heed to those well-balanced cadences whose dignity contributes so much to the fun—without whose dignity, indeed, the fun evaporates. In such a play as this good acting is peculiarly important. It is, also, peculiarly difficult to obtain. The play is unique in kind, and thus most of the mimes, having trained themselves for ordinary purposes, are bewildered in approaching it.
Before we try to define how it should be acted, let us try to define its character. In scheme, of course, it is a hackneyed farce—the story of a young man coming up to London “on the spree,” and of another young man going down conversely to the country, and of the complications that ensue. In treatment, also, it is farcical, in so far as some of the fun depends on absurd “situations,” “stage-business,” and so forth. Thus one might assume that the best way to act it would be to rattle through it. That were a gross error. For, despite the scheme of the play, the fun depends mainly on what the characters say, rather than on what they do. They speak a kind of beautiful nonsense—the language of high comedy, twisted into fantasy. Throughout the dialogue is the horse-play of a distinguished intellect and a distinguished imagination—a horseplay among words and ideas, conducted with poetic dignity. What differentiates this farce from any other, and makes it funnier than any other, is the humorous contrast between its style and matter. To preserve its style fully, the dialogue must be spoken with grave unction. The sound and the sense of the words must be taken seriously, treated beautifully. If mimes rattle through the play and anyhow, they manage to obscure much of its style, and much, therefore, of its fun. They lower it towards the plane of ordinary farce. This was what the mimes of the St. James’ were doing on the first night. The play triumphed not by their help but in their despite. I must except Miss Lilian Braithwaite, who acted in precisely the right key of grace and dignity. She alone, in seeming to take her part quite seriously, showed that she had realised the full extent of its fun. Miss Margaret Halstan acted prettily, but in the direction of burlesque. By displaying a sense of humour she betrayed its limitations. Mr. Lyall Swete played the part of Doctor Chasuble as though it were a minutely realistic character study of a typical country clergyman. Instead of taking the part seriously for what it is, he tried to make it a serious part. He slurred over all the majestic utterances of the Canon, as though he feared that if he spoke them with proper unction he would be accused of forgetting that he was no longer in the Benson Company. I sighed for Mr. Henry Kemble, who “created” the part. I sighed, also, for the late Miss Rose Leclerq, who “created” the part of Lady Bracknell. Miss M. Talbot plays it in the conventional stage-dowager fashion. Miss Leclerq but no! I will not sink without a struggle into that period when a man begins to bore young people by raving to them about the mimes whom they never saw. Both Mr. George Alexander and Mr. Graham Browne rattled through Page 153 | Top of Articletheir parts. Even in the second act, when not only the situation, but also the necessity for letting the audience realise the situation, demands that John Worthing should make the slowest of entries, Mr. Alexander came bustling on at break-neck speed. I wish he would reconsider his theory of the play, call some rehearsals, and have his curtain rung up not at 8.45 but at 8.15. He may argue that this would not be worth his while, as “Paolo and Francesca” is to be produced so soon. I hope he is not going to have “Paolo and Francesca” rattled through. The effect on it would be quite as bad as on The Importance of Being Earnest—though not, I assure him, worse.
Source: Max Beerbohm, review of The Importance of Being Earnest in his Around Theatres Volume 1, Knopf, 1930, pp. 240-43.
Beckson, Karl. “Oscar Wilde” in Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, Volume 4: Victorian Writers, 1832-1890, Gale, 1991, pp. 340-55.
Bentley, Eric. The Playwright As Thinker, Reynal & Hitchcock, 1946.
Foster, Richard. “Wilde As Parodist: A Second Look at ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’” in College English, Vol. 18, no. 1, October, 1956, pp. 18-23.
Pountney, Rosemary. “The Importance of Being Earnest” in The International Dictionary of Theatre, Volume 1: Plays, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady, St. James Press, 1992.
Reinert, Otto. “Satiric Strategy in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’” in College English, Vol. 18, no. 1, October, 1956, pp. 14-18.
Roditi, Edourd. Oscar Wilde, New Directions, 1986.
Beckson, Karl, Editor. Oscar Wilde: The Critical Heritage, Routlege, 1970.
Focusing on the years 1881 to 1927, this book offers particular insight into Wilde’s theatrical writings.
Briggs, Asa. The Age of Improvement, Longman, 1988.
A readable, comprehensive history of the mid-Victorian years in England. Useful for understanding the nineteenth century generally, including social history.
Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde, 1988.
This is the standard literary biography of Wilde, providing a wealth of detail about his personal life as well as insight into the composition of his works.
Ellmann, Richard, Editor. Oscar Wilde: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1969.
Most helpful for exploring the thinking about Wilde by his contemporaries such as W. B. Yeats and George Bernard Shaw.
Hobsbawm, Eric. The Age of Capital, 1848-1875, McKay, 1975.
Although this history concentrates on the middle of the nineteenth century, Hobsbawm usefully situates the roots of social trends that would influence British society in the 1890s.
Holland, Vyvyan B. Oscar Wilde: A Pictorial Biography, Viking, 1961.
Holland is Wilde’s son. While this book contains a brief biography, the highlights are the fine photographs of Wilde and many of the people in his life, public and private.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2692900019