"Oscar Wilde on Our Cast-Iron Stoves" From Harper's Weekly, 1882
Cartoon illustration by Thomas Nast
In describing the comedy to a reviewer with the St. James Gazette, Oscar Wilde (in his typically paradoxical manner) commented, "It is exquisitely trivial, a delicate bubble of fancy, and it has a philosophy -- that we should treat all the trivial things of life very seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality."1
Oscar Wilde in "aesthetic" costume during his lecture tour of America, 1882.
Photograph by Napoleon Sarony
Earnestness -- that is, a high-minded and serious devotion to duty and virtue -- was a quality advocated by such central Victorian figures as Arnold and Tennyson, but it was mocked as a trait of the rigidly moralistic middle class by other Victorians who found middle-class values self-serving and middle-class tastes dull. Oscar Wilde's play was aimed against the aristocracy, a class on the brink of ruin, clinging absurdly to its artificial forms and standards.
"The Importance of Being Earnest," perhaps Wilde's best-known play, is a comedy of mistaken identity set in English high society in the 1890s. It is a play built upon a pun over the name "Earnest." John Worthing is "Jack" in the country and "Earnest" in the city. He has met his true love, Gwendolyn, in the city, which he thinks will work out very well for she will only marry a man named Earnest. But what happens when Gwendolyn unexpectedly visits him in the country and finds out who he really is? As Oscar Wilde wrote, "The truth is rarely pure and never simple."2
The characters:In this satire, being earnest is made as superficial a trait as possible; it means simply having the name Earnest. The characters are motivated and controlled by a hollow and artificial set of social standards that have little substance but are used to maintain social distinctions and social class privileges. Against this rigid system of controls the young lovers pursue their dreams of romance. The play is structured as a series of verbal fencing matches in which showing the right form is as important as making one's point. The plot is nonsensical, a mere excuse for causing the lovers some temporary setbacks before the inevitable comic happy ending. The tone is brightly serious; none of the characters have any inkling that they are speaking absurdities. Even the self-indulgent Algernon is earnest in his self-indulgence.
John Worthing, J.P.
About the Playwright
Oscar Wilde (1854 to 1900) was born in Dublin. He was a poet, novelist, essayist and playwright. His plays are renowned for their witty exchanges and adroitly contrived plots. Wilde's ability with language extended to the spoken word. George Bernard Shaw called him "The finest talker of his time--perhaps all time." The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) is his most frequently performed work.
Wilde was an early homosexual martyr. In 1895, at the height of his career, he was sentenced to two years hard labor for a homosexual love affair which violated Victorian anti-sodomy laws. "Earnest" ran for another month with Wilde's name removed from the playbills and programs. The conviction ruined his career, and the imprisonment took a heavy toll on him both physically and emotionally. However, in jail he was able to write The Ballad of Reading Goal. After eighteen months he was released and left England. He lived in Paris under an assumed name and died within three years of his release at the age of 46. His only work after he left prison was De Profundis ("From The Depths"). The Importance of Being Earnest was made into a film in 1952. It is ironic that now openly homosexual men are being knighted by the same British government that ruined Wilde less than 100 years ago.
If, on the one hand, the world continues to remember Oscar Wilde for "the love that dares not speak its name," the same world, on the other hand, continues to remember the same Oscar Wilde for his great and penetrating wit. In the long run, one cannot help but to have faith that the latter will be valued more than the former reviled. Revivals of Wilde's plays are performed wherever the English language is spoken and, no doubt, in places where it isn't.3
About the Genre
The Comedy of Manners is a literary genre which humorously examines the customs and foibles of the privileged classes. The stories often concern the romantic entanglements and courtships of fashionable young adults and frequently conclude with an engagement. The characters are often types rather than individualized personalities. Plots are artificially elaborate and very clever but the predominating elements of Comedy of Manners are satire, dialog and atmosphere. The language is witty, polished and, in plays by Oscar Wilde, brilliant. Comedies of Manners are concerned with the gap between reality and the outward conventional appearance of good order which people strive to maintain. This discrepancy can be used to compare society's code of conduct with how people actually live. Comedies of Manners are usually popular during periods of prosperity and moral latitude.4