Generally regarded as Wilde’s finest play,The Importance of Being Ernest has proved perennially popular with audiences and provided a rich seam for critics concerned with various aspects of Wilde’s life and aesthetic philosophy. His friendship with Sir Alfred Douglas, whom he met in 1891, resulted in an increasingly lavish lifestyle that left him constantly short of money. In 1894, the playwright sent an outline of a new comedy to George Alexander, who had successfully staged Lady Windermere’s Fan at St James’s Theatre in 1892, requesting a fee of £150 and undertaking to have the proposed work completed by October (Holland and Hart-Davis, 2000: 595-7). The outline contains the seeds of the three-act play as it was eventually staged, but differs from it in several details, most significantly in the naming of the two male leads, who were originally Sir Bertram Ashton JP and his friend Lord Alfred Rufford, and consequently in the absence of the pun on earnestness that underpins the dramatic action and social satire of the finished piece. Over the course of a summer spent largely in the seaside resort of Worthing, Wilde developed a four-act play, which was accepted for production by Charles Wyndham at the Criterion Theatre. Following the disastrous failure of Henry James’s Guy Domville at St. James’s in January 1895, George Alexander was under pressure to stage a new play at short notice. Wyndham agreed to cede his rights to The Importance of Being Earnest, leading Wilde and Alexander into extensive and somewhat fraught negotiation about modifying the script for production, with the impresario insisting inter alia that Acts II and III be conflated. Wilde agreed, and effected this and a number of other revisions over the next few weeks. The three-act play which was first staged on 14 February 1895 met with a mixed but generally very favourable reception. It closed after just 83 performances, when Wilde was arrested and charged with “acts of gross indecency with other male persons” under the terms of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885.
The Importance of Being Earnest draws on a number of dramatic forms, including the comedy of manners and the sentimental comedy, but it is primarily a farce. In its Victorian incarnation, this genre aimed to entertain by placing exaggerated characters in unlikely and ludicrous situations over the course of a fast-moving and improbable plot. Here, though, the typical physicality and horseplay of the genre are replaced by sparkling dialogue and epigrammatic wit. The comic effects of Wilde’s play depend not on broad humour and bustling action, but on misunderstandings, coincidences, surprise revelations, and, most importantly, dextrous wordplay. Consequently, the plot summary that follows reflects little of the flavour of a play which W. H. Auden described as “the only purely verbal opera in English” (cited in Raby, 1988, 120).
The action centres on the attempts of two young men, Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff, to woo two young women, Gwendolyn Fairfax (Algernon’s cousin), and Cecily Cardew (Jack’s ward). To explain his frequent trips to London to family and friends in Hertfordshire, Jack invents a disreputable brother named Ernest whose affairs need constant attention, and while in London he himself goes under the name of Ernest. This turns out to be both lucky and problematic as Gwendolyn, daughter of the imperious Lady Bracknell, declares that she can only love a man named Ernest. To escape unappealing social engagements, Jack’s friend, Algernon, invents an ailing friend named Bunbury whom he frequently pretends to visit. Having discovered the secret of Jack’s double life, Algernon goes to Hertfordshire pretending to be the wayward Ernest. There, he falls in love with Cecily, who reciprocates while insisting that she can only love a man named Ernest. When the two young women meet, mayhem ensues as they both believe they are engaged to be married to Ernest Worthing. Both Jack and Algernon make frantic attempts to be rechristened as “Ernest”, and consequent misunderstandings add to the confusion. Meanwhile, the courtship of Miss Prism, Cecily’s very correct but amorous governess, and the pedantic but romantic clergyman, Canon Chasuble, adds to the comedy. All eventually ends well, as Jack discovers that he was christened Ernest, and all other obstacles to the marriage of the two young couples fade away.
The subtitle – A Trivial Comedy For Serious People – points to the type of subversive inversion that characterises the play. Trifling activities such as choosing a buttonhole and eating cucumber sandwiches are treated with the utmost solemnity, while grave topics such as illegitimacy and death are handled with comic insouciance. Throughout, Wilde caricatures the conventions of social etiquette and parodies the plots and stock characters of popular dramas, including his own previous comedies. Here, Miss Prism represents the figure of the woman with a secret, but unlike Mrs Arbuthnot in A Woman of no Importance, the governess has not borne an illegitimate child but instead has mistaken a baby for a book which she deposits in a cloakroom at Victoria station. In An Ideal Husband, the revelation of Sir Robert Chiltern’s dishonourable behaviour threatens his social standing, but in The Importance of Being Earnest, Jack and Algernon’s deceptions oil the wheels of social interaction. Here, the resolution of the plot points not only to the artificiality of social conventions but also to the ways in which moral proprieties can be invoked to mask and justify self-interest. As Walter E. Houghton (1957: 218) notes, the defining characteristic of Victorian propriety was earnestness, a concept which Wilde’s play shows to be a hollow sham as being Ernest (for both Algernon and Jack) means nothing more than adopting a convenient persona to pursue one’s own agenda.
The play opens in Algernon’s flat in fashionable London, where Algernon and his servant, Lane, prepare for the arrival of his aunt, Lady Bracknell. This scene sets the tone for the play by introducing the type of comic inversion of the serious and trivial that underpins Wilde’s subversion of conventional attitudes and platitudes. Provoked by Lane’s apparently deferential assertion that he did not think it polite to listen to his employer playing the piano, Algernon excuses his poor performance by asserting that he sees expression rather than accuracy as the index of excellence in music: “As far as the piano is concerned, sentiment is my forte. I keep science for Life” (Wilde, 1995, 253). For the suave young man about town, though, the science of life is not concerned with such weighty matters as evolutionary theory or the effects of industrialisation but with the preparation of cucumber sandwiches. The topic of marriage is introduced through a reference to the superiority of champagne in bachelor establishments, leading Algernon to ponder on the demoralising effects of wedlock, which Lane’s describes as “a very pleasant state”, despite his own single, less than satisfactory, experience of matrimony: “I have been married only once. That was in consequence of a misunderstanding between myself and a young person” (ibid.). Lane’s refusal to flatter his employer and ability to speak his mind while remaining superficially respectful unsettles conventional attitudes to social hierarchy, prompting Algernon to muse: “Really, if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them? They seem, as a class, to have absolutely no sense of moral responsibility” (254). That the upper class is in need of some moral guidance is evidenced by Algernon’s boast that self-gratification directs all his activities: “My duty as a gentleman has never interfered with my pleasures in the smallest degree” (281).
This is not to say that the play provides a serious critique of existing class relations or of aristocratic self-indulgence. Instead, it creates a stylised world where trivial values predominate. As a result, the artificiality of social divisions, the hollowness of conventional attitudes to work and responsibility, and the attractions of hedonistic leisure become the source of mirth, not satire. Hence, Lady Bracknell approves Jack’s admission that he smokes: “I am glad to hear it. A man should always have an occupation of some kind. There are far too many idle men in London as it is” (265). Algernon, too, enjoys a life of unrepentant idleness: “It is awfully hard work doing nothing. However, I don’t mind hard work where there is no definite object of any kind” (270). These apparently flippant rebuttals of the moral value attaching to hard work and personal responsibility constitute an anarchic attack on social restraints and a consequently serious defence of the type of individualism that Wilde had previously advocated in The Soul of Man under Socialism. In that essay, Wilde argued that an ideal society would allow individuals to express their own unique personalities and satisfy their own desires “without exercising restraint on others, or suffering it ever” (Wilde, 2001, 160). The characters in The Importance of Being Earnest uphold this ideal, as each pursues their own agenda, fashioning their own realities without regard to external influence or example, or even to what Gwendolyn describes as “the actual facts of real life, as we know them” (Wilde, 1995, 263). As Jack turns out to have been Ernest all along, and Cecily’s record of her imagined love affair with Algernon proves prescient, fiction assumes the authority of fact, deception leads to the triumph of truth, and desire leads to its own fulfilment.
That the characters succeed in achieving their various desires while ostensibly observing the conventions of social etiquette contributes much to the play’s humorous exposé of the hypocrisies attaching to the ordinary decencies of Victorian life. Visiting his imaginary, frequently ill, friend, Bunbury, allows Algernon to escape unwelcome social obligations while appearing to uphold accepted standards of duty and responsibility. Given that the ploy involves visiting a male friend, it could be (and has been) argued that Bunburying was Wilde’s euphemistic way of sympathetically presenting the double life of a practising, late-Victorian homosexual. In more general terms, the emphasis on food and its consumption throughout the play undermines the Victorian culture of self-denial and facilitates a covert exploration of sexual desire. As Algernon and Jack scoff the cucumber sandwiches intended for Lady Bracknell, they challenge her authority while discussing the attractions of both Gwendolyn and Cecily. Later, as Cecily laces Gwendolyn’s tea with four lumps of sugar and the two young women clash over the fashionable credentials of cake as against bread and butter, their polite conversation masks a vicious enmity sparked by what they believe to be their mutual entanglement with Ernest Worthing. Their youthful ideal of romantic love allows for blatant competition but is not marked by the financial perspicuity that characterises the older generation’s approach to marriage. While proudly acknowledging that she refused to let humble birth and lack of fortune stand in the way of her own nuptials, the formidable Lady Bracknell is aghast at the thought that Gwendolyn, her beloved daughter, “might marry into a cloak-room, and form an alliance with a parcel” (267), and only consents to Algernon’s alliance with Cecily when she learns that the young woman has “a hundred and thirty thousand pounds! And in the Funds!” (299). Marriage is presented throughout as both a romantic aspiration and a business transaction, so that the play’s conventionally happy ending is as much a parodic endorsement of pragmatic materialism as of idealistic love.
Through the focus on doubling and deception, The Importance of Being Earnest plays with the concept of an authentic, stable identity. Within the play, identity has little to do with upbringing or experience, something to do with heredity, but even more to do with performance and aspiration. Jack pretends to have a brother named Ernest whose identity he assumes on visits to the city, while Algernon pretends to be Ernest on his visit to Jack’s country house. In the final Act, Wilde conveys existential angst in characteristically insouciant fashion as Jack politely enquires: “Lady Bracknell, I hate to seem inquisitive, but would you kindly inform me who I am?” (305). The revelation that Jack was christened Ernest and that the two young men are indeed brothers points to the protean nature of personal identity, while their independent assumption of a false identity highlights the restrictive nature of the roles in which society has cast them. That their deceptions are not in any way morally reprehensible is evidenced by the play’s happy ending. Cecily avers that leading a double life, “pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time ... would be hypocrisy”. Leading a double life, the play suggests, is the only way of being true to oneself and to pretend otherwise is hypocritical.
Fittingly for a text that witnesses a proliferation of Ernests and so queries the notion of stable, unified identity, The Importance of Being Earnest exists in multiple print forms. Following his release from prison, Wilde, from memory and without access to his original notes or manuscripts, produced a three-act version of the play, which was published in 1899 by his friend, Lionel Smithers. Although this version is reproduced in most modern editions, The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, first published by Collins in 1948, presents a four-act version of the play, reconstructed from surviving manuscript and typescript drafts. Finally, drawing on theatrical typescripts, including the Lord Chamberlain's licensing copy and Charles Frohman's script for the American premiere, Joseph Donohue and Ruth Berggren reconstructed the text of the first performance of the play at the St James Theatre in 1895. As Josephine Guy and Ian Small (2006, 135-6) observe, each of these texts “possesses a different kind of authority”, but none can be regarded as completely authentic or authoritative.
Reviewing the original 1895 production, William Archer (in Beckson, 1970,190) asked: “What can a poor critic do with a play which raises no principle, whether of art or morals, creates its own canons and conventions, and is nothing but an absolutely wilful expression of an irrepressibly witty personality?”. Commenting on how characters in The Importance of being Earnest manipulate reality to suit their own requirements, Michael Gillespie (1996, 126) remarks: “As different individuals go beyond conventional limitations of duality, earnestly attempting to invent or imagine Ernest, their own actions open the discourse of multiple interpretations” (126). The effervescent wit; the irreverent refutation of aesthetic and ethical standards; the celebration of trivial artifice; and the embrace of multiplicity ensure that the play marks the climax of Wilde’s career as a Victorian dramatist and go some way towards accounting for its ongoing fascination for later audiences and readers.
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__________. 2001. The Soul of Man under Socialism & Selected Critical Prose, ed. by Linda Dowling. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Citation: Markey, Anne. "The Importance of Being Earnest". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 04 July 2012 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=565, accessed 06 July 2022.]