Importance Of Being Earnest (The)
John Worthing, a carefree young gentleman, uses his fictitious brother "Ernest" as an excuse to leave his home and responsibility to go to the big city of London, where he masquerades as Ernest. John reluctantly admits his deceptive, secret life to his friend and confidant, Algernon Moncrieff, with whom he visits during his trips to London. John is deeply in love with Algernon's cousin, Gwendolyn Fairfax. Under the name of Ernest, John has won Gwendolyn's love. Unfortunately, her reason for wanting to marry him stems from her intense infatuation with the name of Ernest. There is, however, a formidable wall which separates the young lovers: Gwendolyn's mother, Lady Bracknell. She discovers that John was a foundling left in a handbag at Victoria Railroad Station, and therefore does not see John as a suitable husband for her daughter. Returning to the country home where he lives with his ward Cecily Cardew and her governess Miss Prism, John finds that Algernon has also arrived and has presented himself as the nonexistent brother, Ernest. Algernon falls madly in love with the beautiful Cecily. She has long been enthralled with her guardian's fictional brother, Ernest, and wholeheartedly returns Algernon's affection. Problems arise when Gwendolyn, thinking herself engaged to Ernest, arrives at the country home and is informed of Ernest's engagement to Cecily. Chaos erupts with the arrival of Lady Bracknell, who is determined to save her daughter from marriage. As luck would have it, John discovers that he is really Algernon's older brother and was actually named Ernest at birth. Through John's discovery of his true identity, all problems are solved and the play ends with the two couples in a joyous embrace.
"The truth is rarely pure and never simple." Oscar Wilde's witty remark projects a major theme of The Importance of Being Earnest. "Truth" in Victorian England was expressed in stagnant social conventions which suppressed individual expression. Wilde hated this conventional notion of truth because it was used to keep blinders on society and blocked individuals from looking at life from different angles.
WILDE (S)WORDPLAY AND SLASHING WIT Earnest is Wilde's most perfect attempt to fence with Victorian mores. Wilde uses his wit like a sword to slash through rules of etiquette, to poke fun at the aristocracy and academia, and to thrust forward his own philosophy as a committed aesthete (one who finds truth and meaning only in beauty). "You cut life to pieces with your epigrams," exclaims one of Wilde's characters in his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. However, Wilde never makes a direct stab in Earnest. By emphasizing the absurdity of the characters' situation he maintains a comic tone. As is typical of farce, the characters have attitudes, reactions, and customs which defy reason. Indeed, the improbability of this farce provides the necessary distance for the audience to laugh at the situation. This quality explains why the play enjoyed such success with the elite crowd who attended its first performance. Although Wilde was "biting the hand which fed him," Earnest bites in a gentle, playful way, always retaining a joyful quality while avoiding both cynicism and sentimentality. A major theme in Earnest is John Worthing's search for his own identity. John inquires, "Lady Bracknell, I hate to seem inquisitive, but would you kindly inform me who I am?" Both John and Algernon are dandies who seek to escape the restrictive moral mask of Victorian etiquette and be true to their own impulses. The audience cheers their playful schemes as they artfully dodge the conventions of the day. Wilde admires those with the courage to follow their impulses because they have thrown off the shackles of an imposed identity. He proclaims that "disobedience is the first step in the growth of a man or a nation." Wilde's work would, perhaps, have been more appreciated during the reign of Charles II, when witty repartee was the hallmark of Restoration comedies, than during the repressive Victorian era in which he wrote. He utilizes some of the same themes as Restoration comedy and his play is clearly within the tradition of comedy of manners. This type of play is usually focused on an elite social group which relies more on wit and intellectual repartee than on emotional depth or complexity. Gwendolyn states that "in matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing." She is explaining one of Wilde's fundamental beliefs. He does not advocate insincerity, but rather the idea that the aim of art, as well as life, is to seek beauty. Sincerity without style, without a sense of the beautiful, is undesirable. Wilde often ruminated that Nature should copy Art, not vice versa. "Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art." Wilde celebrates artificiality (Art over Nature) because in beauty one finds a truth that is infinitely more intriguing and pleasurable than fact. In order to distance the viewers from their own narrow view of truth, Wilde has turned the real world on its head and "treat(s) all the trivial things of life seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality." Wilde's particular style of wit uses epigrams (a terse, satirical saying) to attack perceptions of fixed truth. He would often substitute key words in a sentence to produce its opposite meaning. For example, "I hear her hair has turned quite gold from grief," "Divorces are made in heaven," "The home seems to me to be the proper sphere for the man," "It is simply washing one's clean linen in public," "All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling." Wilde's deliberate manipulation of epigrams challenged the conventional values and expectations of the period. He created a world which wages war on ordinary speech and mundane everyday life. Farce is the perfect medium for this battle since it uses exaggerated life situations to make its point. By changing the key word of a "moral" tag, Wilde turns the phrase and the sentiment in upon itself, exposing middle class assumptions and biases. In fact, he deliberately distorts expectations by allowing the characters' unexpected thoughts, attitudes and reactions to expose the hypocrisy of social convention. Sense and nonsense, fantasy and reason, triviality and seriousness are jumbled together, forcing new perspectives and offering new possibilities. Wilde's satire jabbed at a world which disdainfully and harshly judged his life. In the end, however, he was destroyed by his foe, Victorian society. Earnest was the last play Wilde wrote before he went to prison on a charge of sexual misconduct. It was, in fact, during the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest and at Wilde's height of fame as a playwright (he had two West End hits in London running simultaneously) that a sequence of events occurred which would bring about his public disgrace. He was accused of having an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas by the Marquess of Queensberry, Douglas' powerful and influential father. Queensberry tried to break into the opening performance of Earnest to publicly humiliate Wilde. He was denied entrance to the theatre, but following the huge success of the opening night he plotted other means to bring about Oscar's downfall. Wilde parried the charge of sexual impropriety in three separate trials but without success. He was publicly disgraced, defeated and sentenced to two years in prison. Wilde ultimately triumphed, however, since his wit has outlived both Victorian mores and his enemies. His legacy continues to challenge our expectations and entertain us. His sparkling epigrams still prick contemporary perceptions of truth and convention. Through The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde continues to poke fun at those who take life too seriously and become far too earnest! John Shillington, Dramaturg The Importance of Being Earnest