IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST: –
First performed on 14 February 1895 at the St James’s Theatre in London, Oscar Wilde’s “Importance of being Earnest” faithfully and successfully channelled Wilde and the target of his humour – Victorian morality, and English manner.
Defined by Oscar Wilde as a ‘trivial comedy for serious people’ the play is generally categorized as a farce, a genre which is not easily put to serious use. Indeed, it is so consistently farcical in tone, characterization and plot that very few readers care to examine whether it has any kind of meaning or not.
The basic story is about two bachelors, John Worthing and Algernon ‘Moncrieff, who creates fictitious characters named Ernest and Bunbury (respectively) to escape their tiresome lives. John is in love with Gwendolen (Algernon’s cousin) but Gwendolen is unknown about the fact that his name is John and loves him only because of his name; Earnest. On the other hand, Cecily Cardew (John’s cousin) has tremendous fascination about the name Earnest and when she comes to know that her cousin John has a brother named Earnest she decides to marry him (Cecily does not know that Earnest is fictitious). John and Algernon struggle to keep up with their own stories and become tangled in a tale of deception, disguise and misadventure. The elaborate plot ridicules Victorian sensibilities with some of the best loved, and indeed bizarre, characters to be found on the modern stage.
Among the various characters in the play, Jack Worthing, more than any other character, represents conventional Victorian values: he wants others to think that he clings to such notions as duty, honour, and respectability, but he hypocritically ignores those very notions. Through Jack, Wilde satirized general tolerance for hypocrisy in conventional Victorian morality. The character of Algernon makes delightful paradoxical and epigrammatic pronouncements that either make no sense at all or touch on something profound.
Gwendolen suggests the qualities of conventional Victorian womanhood whereas Cecily is not a product of London high society like Gwendolen but its Antithesis.
The play also gives rise to certain questions such as the question of the nature of marriage and there is actually an ongoing debate whether it is “pleasant or unpleasant”.
Wilde also makes fun of the whole Victorian idea of morality as a rigid body of rules about what people should and shouldn’t do. The play’s central plot; the man who both is and isn’t Ernest/earnest presents a moral paradox. Earnestness, which refers to both the quality of being serious and the quality of being sincere, is the play’s primary object of satire.
Jokes about death appear frequently in the play. In one portion of the play when Lady Bracknell interrogates Jack by asking his parents name, Jack replies that both of them died when he was young. To this Lady Bracknell replied, “Both! That’s a matter of carelessness.”
The passions of the characters have been idealized; instead of the lust for flesh they have a childish lust for food. Food and scenes of eating appear quite frequently in the play and they are almost always sources of conflict.
A portion from the play will elucidate it.
Jack: How can you sit there, calmly eating muffins when we are in this horrible trouble, I can’t make out. You seem to me to be perfectly heartless.
Algernon: – Well, I can eat muffins in an agitated manner. The butter would probably get on my cuffs. One should always eat muffins quite calmly. It is the only way to eat them.
In short, Oscar Wilde’s “Importance of Being Earnest” does not bore one for a single moment and the success of the whole play is dependent on the sparkling dialogue, complexities of characters, the twist in the tale and it is the sheer brilliance of Wilde’s writing which holds one till the end.