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.
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