Oscar Wilde - The Importance of Being Earnest
“Since we know The Importance of Being Earnest is a trivial play for serious people, our task as serious people is not to be content to say it’s funny, but to be careful when describing the fun”. First staged in February 1895 at the St. James Theatre, people packed the theater to see Oscar Wilde’s new play, The Importance of Being Earnest. The play was an immediate hit . It was a promising time as Wilde’s plays had achieved success just a few years before, and though the scandal of the playwright’s “preferences” had become the talk of gossip, the climax of litigation had not yet soared to the heights it would just a few months later. Generally, Wilde’s plays were serious even when trying to evoke comedy; his previous plays ranged from social satire and criticism to themes that defied propriety and incited some moral indignation. In the play Lady Windermere’s Fan, Wilde had written about a series of misunderstandings and deceptions in the high society world of Victorian London. Lady Windermere considers leaving her husband of two years when she believes he has been unfaithful with a woman who turns out to be her own mother . In reply to criticism printed in the St. James Gazette of February 26, 1892, Wilde wrote a letter to the editor published on February 27th, under the heading “Mr. Oscar Wilde Explains.” In this letter, Wilde claimed that he did not want the play to be viewed as ‘‘a mere question of pantomime and clowning’’ he was interested in the piece as a psychological study.
This new play, The Importance of Being Earnest, therefore, was seen as Wilde reinventing himself, and as both baffling and amusing. His contemporary critics hailed its value of entertainment, though lightly mocked that it was, as H.G. Wells opined, “absolute nonsense.” Hamilton Fyfe, while finding it “slight in structure, devoid in purpose” nevertheless found it extraordinarily funny.
One of the more celebrated playwrights and critics of Victorian England, and a staunch supporter of Wilde’s earlier plays, did not find it in any way amusing. George Bernard Shaw said it was “essentially hateful” and that “it leaves me with a sense of having wasted my evening.” He made a jibe at those who praised the sheer nonsense of Wilde, remarking that “if the public ever becomes intelligent enough to know when it is really enjoying itself and when it is not, there will be an end of farcical comedy.” It can be said that George Bernard Shaw had a reputation for being a harsh critic; and this criticism was characteristic of him. However, after reading the play, one might lean towards agreeing with Shaw’s review. How did it make sense? How could it make sense? What was Wilde hoping to accomplish?
Admittedly, the play does have an understandable plot (“a gross anachronism,” according to Shaw). The main character, Jack Worthing, is courting the affections of Gwendolen Fairfax, but is impeded by her mother, Lady Bracknell, who opposes the match. This part of the plot is serious enough. Wilde then adds a comical component: Jack has been introducing himself as Ernest while in town, and when back at his country estate he refers to a “younger brother” named Ernest . While Wilde tries to lend a sense of seriousness to the comedy, he allows his plot twists to develop into elaborate absurdities. For example, the case of Miss Prism’s losing a child is explained as an absent minded switch between a book and a babe, the latter being placed in a handbag and the former in the pram. Then there is the conduct of Algernon, and his imaginary friend called “Bunbury” , which he afflicts with different maladies as a way of excusing himself from social obligations; eventually, this Bunbury simply explodes.
As ridiculous as Wilde made his plots, is the way he resolved them: Algernon’s way of killing off Bunbury was to calmly say that he “was quite exploded”. When pressed for a better answer, Algernon simply explains that the doctor found that Bunbury was going to die and he expired right then and there. Gwendolen’s (and for that matter Cecily’s) outrage at discovering the absurdity of the fraud of Ernest is won back by the equally absurd attempt by Jack to christen himself Ernest. And the ridiculous predicament of Miss Prism and the lost baby eventually resolved Jack’s impediment with Gwendolen.
Very often when presented with complicated storylines, one can look for relief in the morality that the plot or play tries to instill. The search, in this case, would be in vain. Algernon never gets his due over his continued deceit in Bunburying, and Jack Worthing is redeemed by the discovery of his being “Ernest" all along. Jack’s confession that “it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth.” is simply accepted and forgiven. None of the characters get chastised for their bad behavior or prejudice. Therefore, one is left with no other thought than to think that Wilde, in not condemning these actions, absolutely gives in to them.
In light of these complications it might be said that the plot is only a prop for Wilde’s more implicit messages, hidden within his side notes, his characters, and their situations. The message may not be understood by looking at the play as a whole; but in parts. The gems hidden within the play are the commentaries of Wilde on topics such as medicine, relationships and social norms, with “considerable insight on the human condition, in particular issues of class, gender sexuality and identity”. He places these commentaries either as asides in the dialogue or in the subtlety by which a scene is played. For example, Algernon’s skepticism regarding the success of his friend’s proposal to Gwendolen is laden with the social critique that “girls never marry the men they flirt with…girls don’t think it right…it accounts for the extraordinary number of bachelors that one sees all over the place”. As for the dialogue of the two young ladies towards each other (they will call each other a lot of things before they become friends); Wilde portrays the younger gal as naively idealistic, while portraying the other as an impractical romantic. They are represented as fickle, although Gwendolen’s demeanor towards Cecily ranges from pleasantly amicable to jealous rivalry to fraternal fidelity (all in one scene). At the same time, Lady Bracknell’s impression of Cecily moves from the unacceptable to the idea that she is a trainable member of London High Society .
While Wilde’s contemporaries delighted in this artistry of nonsense within the play, Shaw had expected a serious comedy by the playwright. Instead, he saw it as structure-less and a sad disappointment. The play does begin to make sense though, when we look away from the perspective of the critic and into the author’s mind. If we accept that the plot is a prop, which Wilde used to throw abuse and amusement at his audience, we can then understand that the play was meant as one big commentary on sensibilities, on society, and on theater. Furthermore, if we look at Wilde’s own travails at the time of the play’s fame, we might understand Wilde’s focus.
In the scene where Lady Bracknell is interviewing Jack, and then reacting to Jack’s helpless admission that he has lost his parents, Lady Bracknell merely states that “losing both parents seem an act of carelessness,” and adds that to rectify the situation he should “make a definite effort to produce at any rate one parent, of either sex, before the season is quite over”. As absurd as this may seem, it does have a purpose: Lady Bracknell represents Victorian High Society. As such she is ready to condemn based on some defect in birth or circumstance; yet she makes a complete turnaround in her disapproval of Cecily once she realizes that the girl has good ancestry (namely, her father is rich).
The absurdity of Jack posing as Ernest mirrors the life of the playwright himself. Oscar Wilde, at this time, had begun to scandalize London with his debaucheries and had been largely condemned as a homosexual. Jack Worthing explains that the pressures of leading a “high moral life” in the country does not give him the happiness he needs; rather, that happiness is found in Ernest whose reputation is entirely opposite of Jack’s. In the same way, perhaps Wilde feels somehow trapped in the need to conform to London’s High Society standards.
The lack of a decent plot is an attack of the sensibilities of the audience to a serious play. Oscar Wilde once explained that the play has an underlying philosophy: “that we should treat all the trivial things of life seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality”. The whole point was not the progression of the story, but the progression of the absurdity: it starts out with the truth of “Ernest”, then “Bunburying”, until it is elevated to the ridiculous in Miss Prism. His characters’ savage commentaries, which seemed to offend, were meant to offend; if anything, none of it needed to be taken seriously.
The play is an exercise of triviality. George Bernard Shaw, however, saw only partly through Oscar Wilde’s design. The Importance of Being Earnest was actually a feat of great effort. Wilde worked hard writing and rewriting the script to draw out the perfect blend of visual and literal diversity. It was absolute nonsense, yet it was a masterpiece of nonsense.
There is a lesson to be learned here. Something serious should not be treated to death in seriousness; it must be carried with some form of triviality. Everything has a level of the ridiculous in it, and in the effort of generating triviality one must always be determined and serious about it. Humor delivered carelessly will not gain laughter. These few lines say it best:
Jack: “I am sick to death of cleverness… The thing has become an absolute public nuisance. I wish to goodness we had a few fools left.”
Algernon: “We have.”
Jack: “I should extremely like to meet them. What do they talk about?”
Algernon: “The fools? Oh! About the clever people, of course!”
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