OLNEY THEATRE INSTITUTE
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNESTby Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde's delightful farce is one of theatre's most enduring comedies. A frothy mix of Victorian mores, hidden lineages, and assumed identities, this is a light -hearted romp filled with dazzling humor and whit. Remember, "In matters of utmost importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing."
Jack Worthing, who lives in the country, pretends to have a younger brother, Ernest, whose escapades frequently call Jack to London. Algernon Moncrieff pretends to have an invalid friend, "Bunbury," whose attacks call Algernon into the country whenever there is a distasteful social function in prospect. Algernon has a cousin, Gwendolen Fairfax, with whom Jack is deeply in love. Jack has managed to hide from Algernon the location of his country place and the existence of an attractive ward, Cecily Cardew. Jack confesses to Algernon that he has come to town to propose to Gwendolyn, who knows him as "Ernest”. Algernon refuses to help Jack unless he explains the inscription on his cigarette case that reveals Cecily’s existence.
Gwendolyn accepts Jack, having always wanted to marry someone with the
confidence-inspiring name of Ernest, but Jack must first get consent for marriage from Gwendloyn’s mother, Lady Bracknell. After discovering that Jack is an orphan, Lady Bracknell refuses her consent until Jack can find out the identity of at least one of his parents by the end of the summer social season. Gwendolen and Jack plan to keep in contact throughout this momentary separation, and when Jack gives Gwendolen his address in the country, Algernon overhears and plans an excursion of his own.
Cecily, alone in the country with her governess, Miss Prism, is pleasantly surprised at the appearance of Algernon in the guise of Jack’s much-discussed younger brother "Ernest." The young couple loses no time in becoming engaged for; Cecily admits she has long been enamored of the mysterious, wicked brother Ernest. When Jack returns unexpectedly to announce "Ernest's" sudden death in Paris, he is shocked to learn that
"Ernest" is at the very moment in the house.
While Jack and Algernon are separately arranging with the rector for a rechristening in order to be given the name required by their fiancées, Gwendolyn arrives. The discovery by Gwendolyn and Cecily that they both seem to be engaged to "Ernest Worthing" results in a strained situation. The appearance of both young men clarifies the matter of engagements, but also reveals that neither is named "Ernest." When the girls learn that their fiancés are being rechristened, they forgive the deception.
With the arrival of Lady Bracknell the question of consent again comes up. Lady Bracknell is quite willing that Algernon shall marry Cecily and her fortune. Jack, however, as Cecily's guardian, refuses his consent unless Lady Bracknell permits his marriage to Gwendolyn. Miss Prism appears and reveals that she is the absent-minded nurse who twenty years ago misplaced the baby of Lady Bracknell's sister in Victoria Station, and Lady Bracknell is in fact Jack's Aunt. Thus it is discovered that Jack is actually Algernon's lost elder brother, Ernest, which settles matters to everyone’s satisfaction.
Written by Wilde as a “trivial comedy for serious people,” The Importance of Being Earnest is generally regarded as the wittiest comedy in the English language. It was first presented at the St. James Theatre in London on February 14, 1895. The play is produced constantly in both England and the United States and has been eight times revived by top-ranking professional companies on Broadway.
The scrambled plot of Wilde’s perennially popular play is mainly concerned with an elegant wastrel named John Worthing who has invented a dissolute younger brother named Ernest whom he impersonates when he goes on a fling. His friend, Algernon Moncrieff, is a thoughtful young man who has invented a sick friend named Bunbury on whom to blame his own indiscretions. The pitfalls accompanying chronic deception are hilariously exemplified when these polite philanderers both pretend to be Ernest to please the ladies in whom they are interested.
For seventy years critics and audiences have agreed that while Wilde was unraveling the comic complications of this absurd situation, he missed no opportunity for caustic comment on the artificial manners, morals and customs of high society, and that every scene of this now classic comedy is liberally spiced with wit and epigrams for which Wilde has always been celebrated.
Theatergoers and artists often find the lives of playwrights as fascinating as their scripts. Never has this been more true than with the Irish writer, Oscar Fingall O’Flahertie Wills Wilde (1854-1900), better known simply as Oscar Wilde. He probably would have relished the honor, for he lived the life of the artist; he wrote more as an afterthought. “I put all my genius into my life,” Wilde says in a statement epitomizing both the man and his work, “I only put my talent into my writing.”
Growing up in Dublin, Ireland, Oscar Wilde experienced many issues that would later materialize in his life and plays. His mother, the poet and essayist Jane Francesca (pseudonym ‘Speranza’), earned a reputation as an Irish Nationalist; her courage in the face of English threats of censure won her respect and fame. His father, Sir William, opened Ireland’s most advanced ophthalmic hospital. He wrote several books, including travel logs, histories, and criticisms. In 1864, at the height of his career—not long after being knighted—a court found him guilty of sexually assaulting a female patient. Though he only paid a small fine, the charge ruined his reputation and practice. A far more tragic fate awaited Oscar Wilde 30 years hence.
In 1874, after winning a scholarship to Magdelene College, Oxford, Oscar Wilde left for England. He immediately began courting English society, relying upon his grace and charm to gain entry into exclusive cultural circles. He fell under the influence of two of Britain’s leading art and social critics, Walter Pater and John Ruskin, both of whom cultivated Wilde’s belief in the significance of beauty. After graduation, he remarked prophetically, “somehow or other I’ll be famous, and if not famous, I’ll be notorious.” Soon afterwards Wilde traveled to London with just such intentions in mind.
The London that Wilde wooed with his wit and wisdom resonated with the dawning of a new century—a century filled with paradox and change. The British Empire touched every corner of the globe, with Queen Victoria being made Empress of India in 1876. Yet, socialism and revolution engaged the thoughts of people everywhere. Darwin’s Origin of the Species, Marx’s Das Kapital, and the French Symbolists were turning established conceptions of human beings, God, and the universe on their respective heads. Moral law was no longer seen as unchangeable and fixed, but subject to social and political forces. The Machine Age revolutionized the way people worked; and, as the streets of London burgeoned with horse-drawn vehicles, the Underground transit ushered an expanding middle class to their places of employment. When city planners discussed London’s traffic problem, they considered Paris’ solution of grand boulevards, yet rejected the idea because many thought such broad streets were immoral, only encouraging people to dawdle and fritter away their time.
Wilde’s fame preceded his writing career. Playing the part of the “Professor of Aestheticism,” he entered London society wearing a sunflower or a lily pinned to his lapel. He became the butt of cartoons and jokes depicting the English dandy. These ostentatious displays of personality earned him a reputation as an artist before he had produced a single artistic product. When, in 1882, producers were working on a way to publicize the United States tour of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience, a comic opera satirizing the aesthete, they asked Wilde to conduct a year-long lecture tour of the States. Passing through customs, he announced in his usual style, “I have nothing to
declare but my genius.”
Upon returning to London in 1882, Oscar Wilde determined to begin anew. He proclaimed his old self dead and decided to become a writer—in earnest. Wilde found his new career a difficult one. Though he had written a book of verse and a play, Vera; or, The Nihilists (1880), neither warranted much attention. Vera received an American premiere in 1883, but closed within a week. His patron rejected his verse play, The Duchess of Padua, soon after.
Wilde married on May 29, 1884, and for a time did his utmost to live conventionally. He had two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan. He became the editor of The Woman World and wrote a collection of fairy tales, The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888).
He found conventionality wanting, however, and began the active pursuit of pleasure. Some critics have suggested that Wilde led a double life during the following years, but he rarely concealed his debauchery. Indeed, he seemed to revel in it. He drank to excess; he experimented with various drugs; and, though homosexuality was a crime in Victorian England (remaining so until 1951), he flaunted his affairs, on occasion even taking his male prostitutes to expensive restaurants. His novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), corresponds to many of his own experiences.
Wilde’s personal life spiraled out of control during the early 1890s. Despite, or perhaps because of, his declining health and extravagant life, that same time marked his most productive as a writer. Besides his critical pieces, such as “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” and “The Critic as Artist,” Wilde wrote four successful comedies: Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895), and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). He also attempted verse-dramas, most notably Salomé (1893), converted by the German composer, Richard Strauss, into the libretto of his opera of the same name.
By 1895 Wilde had established himself as one of the best playwrights living and working in London. Yet, as the curtain rose on The Importance of Being Earnest in February of the year, events that would cause the ruin of Oscar Wilde were also unfolding. Since 1886, Wilde had engaged in a relationship with Lord Alfred Douglass, the son of the Marquis of Queensberry, a boxing enthusiast and founder of the Queensberry rules of boxing. Distraught by his son’s homosexuality and determined to ruin Wilde, the Marquis attempted to disrupt the opening of Earnest. He was refused admission. A short time later he left a note at one of Wilde’s clubs, reading, “For Oscar Wilde posing as a somdomite [sic].” Ignoring the advice of his
friends, Wilde sued for libel and fell into Queensberry’s trap. After the Marquis proved his accusation by ushering before the court Wilde’s entire literary and personal life, the court found Wilde guilty of homosexual conduct, sentencing him to two years of hard labor.
By the time Wilde was released from prison in 1897, he had lost everything. No one would produce his plays. His wife Constance had divorced him and changed the family name to Holland. The court had auctioned all his possession to pay his debts, which at the time of imprisonment were exceedingly large. Worst of all, prison had robbed him of his spirit. Though he wrote several chronicles of his prison experiences, including The Ballad of Reading Goal (1898), his literary energies were spent.
Most of Oscar Wilde’s comedies wrestle with the question of morality, which he situates between the puritanical and the amoral. In Lady Windermere’s Fan he pits Lady Windermere against Lord Darlington. The Lady believes in the certainty of moral laws while the lord takes a relativistic view, believing “life too complex a thing to be settled by these hard and fast rules.” Wilde continues to contrast these views in A Woman of No Importance and An Ideal Husband; both end with the relativist’s position the victor.
Though the nature of morality remains a significant aspect of the structure of The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde leaves behind his dualistic construction of reality. The moralist no longer stands as the key character, providing contrast to the relativist’s point of view. In Earnest all the characters inhabit a world without certainty, a world where the trivial and the serious seem equally important, or unimportant as the case may be. Whether it is Cecily and Gwendolyn’s insistence on their husbands being
named Earnest or Lady Bracknell’s lengthy list of requirements that an acceptable husband should fulfill, the foundation of their beliefs rests on style, social convention, or simply whim. In this way Earnest shifts away from the moral question, alighting instead on the unknown. Jack has no family-tree and, thus, has no claim to England’s cultural heritage. As a result, Lady Bracknell can find no reason to grant him his wish to marry
The version of Earnest that is most widely known by audiences is not the script originally conceived by Wilde. He wrote The Importance of Being Earnest as a four-act play. The London actor and producer, George Alexander, who bought the rights to Earnest, orchestrated the three-act version, partly to satisfy his role as producer and partly to emphasize his role as the leading actor. As manager of the prestigious St. James Theatre, Alexander was accustomed to running three-act plays and a “curtain-
raiser.” The “curtain-raiser” entertained the audience who arrived on time while sparing latecomers the inconvenience of missing the first act of the main attraction. Alexander was also the company’s romantic leading man, and he preferred the part of Jack. Thus, he cut the original script to emphasize his role, reducing the size of most of the other parts. Wilde’s version of Earnest finally received its world premier in November of 1985 at John Carroll University, in Cleveland.
The National Players’ production continues the tradition of altering the act structure of the script to satisfy contemporary theatrical convention. Their production takes place in two acts, essentially placing an intermission half-way through act two.
Oscar Wilde subtitled The Importance of Being Earnest “A Trivial comedy for Serious People.” Written at the pinnacle of his success (and just before his fall from grace) his last play is a soufflé of subversiveness; mixing ingredients drawn from melodrama, farce, Greek tragedy, and Shakespearian comedy (as well as his own Victorian society), Wilde exposes a universe of human follies that a century later seems to have endured as inexorably as his own work.
As Algernon says to Jack, “one must be serious about something, if one wants to have any amusement in life…What on earth you are serious about I haven’t got the remotest idea. About everything, I should fancy. You have such an absolutely trivial nature.” There is a human tendency to inflate to equal degrees of importance almost everything in our lives—be it a marriage, a job, a car, an appliance, a name, status, love, or muffins—and in so doing we ultimately reduce the most valuable things to the level of the most mundane.
But perhaps one should not try to take Wilde too seriously. He would have found the very idea entirely trivial.
A masterpiece of artificial comedy…It is unquestionably a winning and fascinating comedy, if only for its zestful creation of that wonderful Wildeian world of wit, beauty, charm and grace, where every man is debonair and epigrammatic and every woman lovely, save the dowagers, who are witty and greatly enjoy their own paradoxes…
--Richard Watts, Jr., N.Y. Post
The Importance of Being Earnest is a warm relic of escape. Everybody is well off. The younger generation falls in love at first sight. The only problem is to prove that one meets with society’s requirements for the proposed match. Set in a wise mood, the play is gilded with bright touches…
--William Hawkins, N.Y. World Telegram
"There is no sin except stupidity."
“It is very vulgar to talk about one's
business. Only people like stockbrokers do that, and then merely at dinner parties.”
“The General was essentially a man of
peace, except in his domestic life.”
“I never travel without my diary. One
should always have something sensational to read in the train.”
“The amount of women in London who flirt
with their own husbands is perfectly scandalous. It looks so bad. It is simply
washing one's clean linen in public.”
“The good ended happily, and the bad
unhappily. That is what Fiction means.”
“Ignorance is like a delicate flower: touch
it and the bloom is gone.”
“To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be
regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”
“Really, if the lower orders don't set a
good example, what on earth is the use of them?”
“In married life three is company and two
“All women become like their mothers. That
is their tragedy. No man does. That's his.”
“In matters of grave importance, style, not
sincerity, is the vital thing.”
“Never speak disrespectfully of Society.
Only people who can't get into it do that.”
“The truth is rarely pure, and never
”It is a terrible thing for a man to find
out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth.”
“No woman should ever be quite accurate
about her age. It looks so calculating.”
“This suspense is terrible. I hope it will
"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at stars."
- Lady Windermere's Fan (1891).
"The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it."
- Picture of Dorian Gray (1891).
"Art never expresses anything but itself." - The Decay of Lying (1891).
"Discomfort is the first step in the progress of a man or a nation."
- A Woman of No Importance (1893).
"One should always be in love. That is why one should never marry".
- Picture of Dorian Gray (1891).
"The true artist is a man who believes absolutely in himself, because he is absolutely himself."
- The Soul of Man Under Socialism.
"The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast." - Lord Savile's Crime.
Now On Tour!