Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Plays

The Importance Of Being Earnest – Oscar Wilde

I am dipping, once again, into my Complete Works Of Oscar Wilde collection. The first time, I read and reviewed The Picture Of Dorian Gray, and this time I’m taking a stab at one of his plays: The Importance Of Being Earnest. I didn’t realise until after I’d read it that it is subtitled A Trivial Comedy for Serious People – though, as a rather unserious person, I can tell you that didn’t inhibit my enjoyment of this ridiculous romp at all.

The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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At the time of writing The Importance Of Being Earnest, Wilde was coming off the back of wild success (pun definitely intended) of his plays An Ideal Husband, and A Woman Of No Importance. He was stuck with his family on a summer holiday in 1894 when he began work on this new venture, borrowing names and places from people and places he knew in real life. The play was finished in time for its first performance at St James’s Theatre in London, on 14 February 1895.

The play is set in “The Present” (i.e., 1895), and revolves around two young men who create fictional excuses to escape tedious social obligations (relatable content!). Act I opens with Algernon receiving Jack (whom he calls “Ernest”) at his home. Jack is planning to propose to Algernon’s cousin Gwendolen, but Algernon discovers his secret – that his name isn’t Ernest at all (spoiler, it’s Jack), and Ernest is a rapscallion “brother” that Jack has invented as a reason to visit the city and a cover for his own bad behaviour.

But, plot twist, Algernon has a similar deception of his own. Whenever he needs an excuse to get out of something, he says that his friend Bunbury is very unwell and he must attend to the invalid’s bedside. He calls this Bunburying, the old-timey equivalent of “my mum says no”.

When Gwendolen shows up – with her mother, the formidable Lady Bracknell, in tow – Jack forges ahead with the proposal, and to his delight she accepts… because his name is Ernest (as far as she knows). She says she had always planned to marry a man by that name, and Jack resolves to have himself re-christened immediately, so that she never need know he’s deceived her.

In Act II, Algernon heads to Jack’s home in the country to meet his ward, an attractive young lady called Cecily. The devious rake presents himself as Ernest, Jack’s troubled brother, and in that guise himself proposes to Cecily. She, too, is particularly fond of the name Ernest, so Algernon also arranges to have himself christened accordingly.

Naturally, their deceptions are exposed and it takes some fancy footwork for Algernon and Jack to dance their way out of trouble. This collection has the full four-act version of The Importance Of Being Earnest, which includes the solicitor who comes to arrest “Ernest” for unpaid bills back in London. Apparently, the manager of the first production asked Wilde to cut it down, and some critics argue that “the three-act structure is more effective and theatrically resonant”… but I disagree.

Wilde’s wit and insight shines at full strength throughout The Importance Of Being Earnest. Take, for instance, this surprisingly timely gem:

ALGERNON: Oh! It is absurd to have a hard and fast rule about what one should read and one shouldn’t. One should read everything. More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.

The Importance Of Being Earnest (Page 360)

That’s something that U.S. governing bodies and school boards would do well to remember, eh?

And while the plot satires and skewers the social conventions of the time and Victorian propriety (the name Earnest might have been an in-joke, suggesting that a man might be gay in the same way that being “musical” did at the time), Wilde steers away from the more serious political matters and sinful behaviour in his earlier plays. The most sinful scene of The Importance Of Being Earnest involved Algernon gluttonously gobbling a platter of cucumber sandwiches intended for his guest.

The farcical premise and witty dialogue have made The Importance Of Being Earnest Wilde’s most enduringly popular play. It’s still beloved by critics, readers, and theatre-goers alike, and I’m happy to join them in singing its praises. It’s a quick read, remarkably clever, and delightfully ridiculous.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Importance Of Being Earnest:

  • ” The book is good and the movie with Colin Firth is about as good but cant be used in class as reference.” – Mads Stokes
  • “Got it but never wanted to read it” – chelsey
  • “The cover’s gross. In England they break their necks and hang em. That’s against constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment. That’s nutty.” J. Kim
  • “Terrible play. Pretentious characters. Predictable plot.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I got 5 pages into this before I gave up.
    I dislike plays at the best of times; with shakespeare you can’t understand it, with this you’re bored to death!
    Cumber sandwiches and tea? “Oh how dreadfully spiffing!” This just fuels the negative snooty-tooty stereotype of us Brits!
    Tell me what is funny about some cagey weirdo with two names and a secret relationship/aunt having his cigarette box stolen and then somehow not knowing what is inscribed on his own property?” – Girlie

Waiting For Godot – Samuel Beckett

According to the blurb, in Waiting For Godot “nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful”. That’s a strange way to sell a story, don’t you think? But what else would we expect from Samuel Beckett? After reading and reviewing his novel Murphy a while back (that was a bonkers reading experience if I’ve ever had one), I wasn’t sure I’d ever return to his work – but Waiting For Godot, the “tragicomedy in two acts”, piqued my interest. So, here we are!

Waiting For Godot - Samuel Beckett - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Waiting For Godot here.
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Fun fact: Waiting For Godot was originally a French-language play (En attendant Godot), and Beckett did his own translation to bring us the English version. How often does that happen?

I swore out loud when I opened my copy, to discover that it was annotated all to hell. Some previous owner (clearly a drama student, or arty-farty equivalent) had underlined and scribbled and highlighted all up on every page. So, consider this a timely reminder to flip all the way through your secondhand books before you purchase them, people! I thought I could look past it to read Waiting For Godot, but despite my best efforts, it was really distracting.

But let’s get to it: just about everyone is already familiar with the premise of Waiting For Godot, right? Two blokes (Vladimir and Estragon) stand around in front of a tree, waiting for a bloke named – you guessed it! – Godot, who – spoiler alert! – never shows up. To be honest, I could probably end the review right here, you know everything you need to know now.

But if you insist, I’ll go on.

Vladimir and Estragon are a couple of clowns, really. They shoot the shit, they repeat themselves, they trip over stuff, they eat turnips. It’s all very Laurel and Hardy. While they’re waiting, they’re joined briefly by another bloke – Pozzo – and his slave – Lucky. Oh, and a kid comes around a couple of times, to tell them that Godot may or may not show up eventually, which is a big help.

The thing about writing such a stripped-down bare-bones play is that everyone wants to project their own meanings onto it (which seems to have shit Beckett up the wall). “Because the play is so stripped down, so elemental, it invites all kinds of social and political and religious interpretation”, wrote Normand Berlin in a tribute to the play in Autumn 1999. “Less” forces us to look for “more”.

The identity of Godot, in particular, has been the topic of hot debate ever since the play was first performed. Beckett insisted – time and time again – that he literally just meant for the character to be a regular old bloke named Godot, but everyone kept hounding him about whether it was a metaphor for God or war or whatever the fuck. He told Ralph Richardson that “if by Godot I had meant God, I would [have] said God, and not Godot,” which he noted “seemed to disappoint [Richardson] greatly”.

To be honest, I’m not that interested in detailing all of the possible meanings and interpretations of Waiting For Godot – you could write a thesis on it (in fact, people have, and you can read them all elsewhere). I was happy to simply read the play on the surface level, and on the surface level it was okay. A good gimmick. Waiting for a bloke that never shows up! Classic! Well done, Beckett. Now, we can all move on.

One aspect of the play’s history I did find particularly interesting, however, was its popularity in prisons. In 1953, a prisoner in Germany’s Lüttringhausen prison found a copy of the French edition, translated it himself into German, and sought permission to stage it himself behind bars. He later wrote to Beckett: “You will be surprised to be receiving a letter about your play Waiting for Godot, from a prison where so many thieves, forgers, toughs, homos, crazy men and killers spend this bitch of a life waiting … and waiting … and waiting. Waiting for what? Godot? Perhaps.” Beckett was intensely moved by the story, and he took “tremendous interest” in prison productions of Waiting For Godot from then on. He was generally reluctant to grant permission or rights for film and television adaptations, but for prisons and prisoners he made an exception.

I don’t read a lot of plays, so I’m not sure if this is a universal feeling for the format or specific to Waiting For Godot, but I couldn’t help feeling it would be better to see it played out on stage than to read it. Beckett writes in a lot of visual gags and slapstick humour as stage directions, and rhythmically it just seems like it would be better read aloud. I’m sure I could find a filmed version online somewhere, you might be better off looking for one as opposed to reading the paper-and-ink version.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Waiting For Godot:

  • “I must admit that I find myself lucky to not have been assigned this incredible waste of time and human intellect as a student. Even now,many years later, I find it one of the most godawful wastes of time I have encountered, on a level with a group of pseudointellectuals who stand, glasses of dry French Chardonney in hand, discussing the inner meanings of an “artist” who makes his works by throwing buckets of paint at a canvas, or a Matisse which certainly had to have been made as a great cosmic joke.” – David L. Schoon
  • “I would rather have open heart surgery with no anesthtic than to ensure this play in any form again.” – AlphaKid42
  • “If you thought reading books was fun,then you’ve never seen this dull book.This is a real tragedy,alright-the tragedy is the book was written and plublished.You wade through pages of meaningless drudgery,trying desperately to find ANYTHING exciting.You keep reading,hoping and praying it will get better.But no.It just keeps getting worse with every sentence.I finally gave an utter scream from frustration and set fire to this dud,mentally kicking myself for wasting money on it.If you want an actaul BOOK,read Charles Dickens or Mark Twain instead.” – M L Smith