Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde (16 October 1854 - 30 November 1900) was an Irish writer and poet. His parents were successful intellectuals, and from an early age he showed his intelligence, becoming trilingual in French and German, then an outstanding classicist, first at Dublin, then at Oxford. After university, Wilde moved around trying his hand at various literary activities: he published a book of poems, lectured extensively, and wrote journalism prolifically. Known for his biting wit, flamboyant dress, and glittering conversation, Wilde had become one of the most well-known personalities of his day. He became one of the most successful playwrights of the late Victorian era in London with a series of hilarious social satires which continue to be performed, especially his masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest. At the height of his fame and success, he suffered a dramatic downfall in a sensational series of trials. Wilde was imprisoned for two years' hard labour after being convicted of "gross indecency" with other men. After release from prison he set sail for Dieppe by the night ferry, never to return to Ireland or Britain. In France he wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol, a long, terse poem commemorating the harsh rhythms of prison life, but no further creative work. He died, destitute, in Paris aged forty-six years old.
Summary / Main Characters
Algernon Moncrieff, a young aristocrat with financial problems, is awaiting his noble aunt, Lady Bracknell for afternoon tea in his luxurious London apartment, when he gets surprised by the visit of his wealthy friend from the country, Ernest Worthing. Ernest tells 'Algy' that he is visiting the city for one special purpose: he wants to propose to Gwendolen Fairfax, Lady Bracknell's daughter and therewith Algernon's cousin. But before Algy promises Ernest to support him, he asks him to explain the inscription inside Ernest's cigarette case, which he had left behind on a previous visit. His friend explains that he is really named John (or Jack) Worthing and that he only uses the name 'Ernest' when he escapes from the countryside and his duties as the guardian of the young heiress Cecily Cardew. Furthermore, he uses the name 'Ernest' for a fictitious naughty younger brother giving him the opportunity to entertain himself in town under the pretext that he has to put things straight that his younger brother caused. Algy explains that he has exactly the same habit of visiting an imaginary valid called 'Bunbury' to be able to go to the countryside and escape unpleasant family obligations.
When Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen arrive, Algy takes his snobbish aunt off to the music room, giving Jack the opportunity to propose to Gwendolen. When Lady Bracknell returns, she cross-examines Jack to find out if he is eligible as a son-in-law. Despite his sizeable fortune, she rejects him on discovering that he has no known parents, but was adopted by a wealthy old man who found him in a handbag in the cloakroom of Victoria Station in London.
Due to Cecily's profound interest in Jack's imaginary brother Ernest, Jack decides to do away with him. Gwendolen tells Jack that even though Lady Bracknell forbids their marriage, she will maintain her 'eternal devotion' to him and asks him for his country address, which Algy notes quickly since he intends to visit Cecily immediately.
In Act II, the action moves to Jack's country house where the eighteen years old Cecily is studying German grammar, being instructed by Miss Prism, an old spinster . Dr. Chasuble, a withdrawn churchman appears and takes Miss Prism on a walk, leaving Cecily alone. Algy appears and introduces himself as 'Ernest Worthing'. Instantly, Cecily is flattered by the young man's name, appearance and the reports of his wickedness.
Only little later, Jack appears dressed in black and deeply mourning. Unaware of the fact that Algy has made his way to his country house as 'Ernest Worthing', he announces the sudden death of his younger brother Ernest in Paris. When Cecily appears to announce the arrival of his younger brother Ernest, Jack is horrified and unable to explain that this Ernest is actually his friend Algy since Algy could unmask Jack as well.
Later, Algy and Cecily spend some time together and she tells him of her affection for him because of his name 'Ernest' so that Algy decides to get baptised 'Ernest'.
When Gwendolen arrives unexpectedly, she meets Cecily and they discover that they are both engaged to 'Ernest Worthing'. Jack appears and Gwendolen calls him by this imaginary name whereupon Cecily tells her that this is her uncle Jack. Algy enters and the whole secret gets resolved. Subsequently, both girls leave their suitors alone and withdraw as allies.
In Act III, the two men beg the girls' pardon whereupon they forgive them. The reader thinks that a happy ending is close until Lady Bracknell appears. On the one hand, she forbids any further communication between Jack and Gwendolen. On the other hand, when she hears of Cecily's great fortune, she gives her consent to Algy and her to get married. However, Jack, as the guardian of Cecily does not give his consent.
When someone mentions Miss Prism, Lady Bracknell suddenly remembers that a certain Miss Prism had used to work for her 28 years ago and that she had disappeared with a baby boy entrusted to Lady Bracknell. Miss Prism admits that she was totally absentminded at that day and put the baby into a black handbag instead of the pram and left her unfinished novel in the pram instead of the black handbag. Jack produces this black handbag and thinks that Miss Prism is his mother. But Lady Bracknell solves the mystery by announcing that Jack is the elder son of her late sister, Mrs Moncrieff and therefore Algy's elder brother. The riddle is complete when Jack learns that he was named after his father, General Ernest John Moncrieff. The happy ending is perfect and the last sentence of Jack explains the title: 'I've now realised for the first time in my life, the vital Importance of Being Earnest.'