COMMENTARIES 1–Key Facts
full title · The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People
author · Oscar Wilde
type of work · Play
genre · Social comedy; comedy of manners; satire; intellectual farce
language · English
time and place written · Summer 1894 in Worthing, England
date of first production · February 14, 1895. In part because of Wilde’s disgrace, the play was not published until 1899.
publisher · L. Smithers
tone · Light, scintillating, effervescent, deceptively flippant
setting (time) · 1890s
setting (place) · London (Act I) and Hertfordshire, a rural county not far from London (Acts II and III)
the persons in the play: John Worthing, J.P.,Algernon Moncrieff,Rev. Canon Chasuble, D.D.,Merriman, Butler,Lane, Manservant,Lady Bracknell,Hon. Gwendolen
Fairfax,Cecily Cardew,Miss Prism, Governess
the scenes of the play
Act I. Algernon Moncrieff’s Flat in Half-Moon Street, W.
Act II. The Garden at the Manor House, Woolton.
Act III. Drawing-Room at the Manor House, Woolton.
protagonist · John Worthing, known as “Ernest” by his friends in town (i.e., London) and as “Jack” by his friends and relations in the country
major conflict · Jack faces many obstacles to his romantic union with Gwendolen. One obstacle is presented by Lady Bracknell, who objects to what sherefers to as Jack’s “origins” (i.e. his inability to define his family background). Another obstacle is Gwendolen’s obsession with the name “Ernest,” since shedoes not know Jack’s real name.
rising action · Algernon discovers that Jack is leading a double life and that he has a pretty young ward named Cecily. The revelation of Jack’s origins causes Lady Bracknell to forbid his union with Gwendolen. Identifying himself as “Ernest,” Algernon visits Jack’s house in the country and falls in love with Cecily.
climax · Gwendolen and Cecily discover that both Jack and Algernon have been lying to them and that neither is really named “Ernest.”
falling action · Miss Prism is revealed to be the governess who mistakenly abandoned Jack as a baby and Jack is discovered to be Algernon’s elder brother.
themes · The nature of marriage; the constraints of morality; hypocrisy vs. inventiveness; the importance of not being “earnest”
motifs · Puns; inversion; death; the dandy
symbols · The double life; food; fiction and writing
foreshadowing · In stage comedy and domestic melodrama, foreshadowing often takes the form of objects, ideas, or plot points whose very existence in the play signals to the audience that they will come up again. The fact that Jack was adopted as a baby, for instance, predicates a recognition scene in which Jack’s true identity is revealed and the plot is resolved by means of some incredible coincidence. Miss Prism’s “three-volume novel” is another example: Her very mention of it ensures that it will be important later. An instance of foreshadowing that operates in the more usual way is Jack’s assertion that Cecily and Gwendolen will be “calling each other sister” within half an hour of having met, followed by Algernon’s that “[w]omen only do that when they have called each other a lot of other things first.” This is literally what happens between Cecily and Gwendolen in Act II.
The original production of The Importance of Being Earnest was in 1895 with Allan Aynesworth as Algernon (left) and George Alexander as John (right)
Written by Oscar Wilde
Date premiered 1895
Place premiered St James’s Theatre,London, UK
Original language English
Genre Comedy, farce
Setting London and an estate in Hertfordshire
The Importance of Being Earnest, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People is a play by Oscar Wilde. First performed on 14 February 1895 at the St James’s Theatre in London, it is a farcical comedy in which the protagonistsmaintain fictitious personæ in order to escape burdensome social obligations. Working within the social conventions of late Victorian London, the play’s major themes are the triviality with which it treats institutions as serious as marriage, and the resulting satire of Victorian ways. Contemporary reviews all praised the play’s humour, though some were cautious about its explicit lack of social messages, while others foresaw the modern consensus that it was the culmination of Wilde’s artistic career so far. Its high farce and witty dialogue have helped make The Importance of Being Earnest Wilde’s most enduringly popular play.
The successful opening night marked the climax of Wilde’s career but also heralded his downfall. The Marquess of Queensberry, whose son Lord Alfred Douglas was Wilde’s lover, planned to present the writer with a bouquet of rotten vegetables and disrupt the show. Wilde was tipped off and Queensberry was refused admission. Soon afterwards their feud came to a climax in court, where Wilde’s homosexual double life was revealed to the Victorian public and he was eventually sentenced to imprisonment. His notoriety caused the play, despite its early success, to be closed after 86 performances. After his release, he published the play from exile in Paris, but he wrote no further comic or dramatic work.
The Importance of Being Earnest has been revived many times since its premiere. It has been adapted for the cinema on three occasions. In The Importance of Being Earnest (1952), Dame Edith Evans reprised her celebrated interpretation of Lady Bracknell; The Importance of Being Earnest (1992) by Kurt Baker used an all-black cast; and Oliver Parker‘s The Importance of Being Earnest (2002) incorporated some of Wilde’s original material cut during the preparation of the original stage production.
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COMMENTARY 2 (a)-Historical Background to The Importance of Being Earnest
The Importance of Being Earnest is first and foremost a farce, a comedy of manners whose main goal is to amuse the audience, rather than to make them think. As a comedy, it is rooted much less in a specific history or place than many plays. Nevertheless, the play does contain a few references to contemporary historical events, which suggest a troubled society underneath the glossiness of the characters that Wilde portrays. One of the primary critiques of Wilde’s play is that it is form without content, and does not deal seriously with any social issues (this, of course, is consistent with Wilde’s doctrine of Aestheticism). In a contemporary review, the socialist playwright George Bernard Shaw reacted to The Importance of Being Earnest’s seeming heartlessness–he would prefer to think that people are capable of speaking something other than nonsense.
However, some of the topics mentioned briefly in the play indicate larger political issues that were the subject of heated debate at the time that it was produced. One such subject was the issue of Home Rule for Ireland. William Gladstone created a controversy in 1886 when he committed the British Liberal party to support Home Rule–self-governance for Ireland within the framework of the British Empire. A contentious Home Rule Bill was suppressed by the House of Lords only two years before the production of the Importance of Being Earnest. As Lady Bracknell examines Jack’s suitability as a partner for Gwendolen, she inquires about his politics. Jack is a Liberal Unionist, meaning that he is a Liberal who does not support Home Rule. Lady Bracknell appears relieved, saying: “Oh, they count as Tories. They dine with us.” The political distinction matters only insomuch as it affects Lady Bracknell’s social engagements, rather than having to do with the right or wrong of Home Rule for Ireland.
The only reason for Wilde’s characters to get incensed about politics is if politics threaten to disturb their hedonistic lifestyle or the social hierarchy that they have grown comfortable with. The threat of a revolution like the French revolution continuously hangs over British society. Lady Bracknell is exceedingly alarmed to hear that the imaginary Bunbury died by explosion. “Exploded! Was he the victim of a revolutionary outrage? I was not aware that Mr. Bunbury was interested in social legislation. If so, he is well punished for his morbidity.” Her unease reflects a general feeling of fear regarding social unrest in the 1890s, particularly after a working-class riot in Trafalgar Square in 1885. The word morbidity does well to describe Wilde’s characters’ attitudes toward politics. It is difficult for them to understand an interest in something that is so far removed from their daily pleasures.
It is unfair to suggest that The Importance of Being Earnest is a shallow, universal farce which has no ties to the historical context in which it was created; however, Wilde’s references to the crucial issues of his time are usually overshadowed by his characters’ own petty concerns.
COMMENTARY 2(b)-Introductory Summary
The play begins in the flat of wealthy Algernon Moncrieff (Algy) in London’s fashionable West End. Algernon’s aunt (Lady Bracknell) and her daughter (Gwendolen Fairfax) are coming for a visit, but Mr. Jack Worthing (a friend of Algy’s) arrives first. Algernon finds it curious that Jack has announced himself as “Ernest.” When Jack explains that he plans to propose marriage to Gwendolen, Algy demands to know why Jack has a cigarette case with the inscription, “From little Cecily with her fondest love.” Jack explains that his real name is Jack Worthing, squire, in the country, but he assumes the name “Ernest” when he ventures to the city for fun. Cecily is his ward. While devouring all the cucumber sandwiches, Algernon confesses that he, too, employs deception when it’s convenient. He visits an imaginary invalid friend named Bunbury when he needs an excuse to leave the city.
Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen arrive. Algernon explains that he cannot attend Lady Bracknell’s reception because he must visit his invalid friend, Bunbury, but he offers to arrange the music for her party. While Algernon distracts Lady Bracknell in another room, Jack proposes to Gwendolen. Unfortunately, she explains that she really wants to marry someone named Ernest because it sounds so solidly aristocratic. However, she accepts his proposal, and he makes a mental note to be rechristened Ernest. Lady Bracknell returns and refutes the engagement. She interrogates Jack and finds him lacking in social status. On her way out, Lady Bracknell tells Jack that he must find some acceptable parents. Gwendolen returns for Jack’s address in the country. Algernon overhears and writes the address on his shirt cuff. He is curious about Cecily and decides to go “bunburying” in the country.
In the second act, the scene shifts to Jack Worthing’s country estate where Miss Prism, Cecily Cardew’s governess, is teaching Cecily in the garden. Miss Prism sings Jack’s praises as a sensible and responsible man, unlike his brother Ernest, who is wicked and has a weak character. She teaches Cecily that good people end happily, and bad people end unhappily, according to the romantic novel Miss Prism wrote when she was young. The local vicar, Canon Chasuble, arrives and, sensing an opportunity for romance, takes Miss Prism for a walk in the garden. While they are gone, Algy shows up pretending to be Jack’s wicked brother Ernest. He is overcome by Cecily’s beauty. Determined to learn more about Cecily while Jack is absent, Algernon plans to stay for the weekend, then make a fast getaway before Jack arrives on Monday. However, Jack returns early in mourning clothes claiming that his brother Ernest has died in Paris. He is shocked to find Algy there posing as Ernest. He orders a dogcart — a small horse-drawn carriage — to send Algy back to London, but it is too late. Algernon is in love with Cecily and plans to stay there. When Jack goes out, Algernon proposes to Cecily, who gets out a diary and letters that she has already written, explaining that she had already imagined their engagement. She has always wanted to marry someone named Ernest, so Algy, like Jack, needs to arrange a rechristening.
Just when it seems that Jack and Algernon couldn’t get into worse trouble, Gwendolen arrives, pursuing Jack, and discovers that his ward, Cecily, is unpleasantly beautiful. In conversation, they discover that they are both engaged to Ernest Worthing. A battle follows, cleverly carried out during the British tea ceremony. The situation is tense. Jack and Algernon arrive, and, in attempting to straighten out the Ernest problem, they alienate both women. The two men follow, explaining that they are going to be rechristened Ernest, and the women relent and agree to stay engaged.
Lady Bracknell shows up demanding an explanation for the couples’ plans. When she discovers the extent of Cecily’s fortune, she gives her consent to her engagement to Algernon; however, Jack’s parentage is still a stumbling block to her blessings. Jack tells Lady Bracknell that he will not agree to Cecily’s engagement until she is of age (35) unless he can marry Gwendolen. Dr. Chasuble arrives and announces that all is ready for the christenings. Jack explains that the christenings will no longer be necessary. Noting that Jack’s present concerns are secular, the minister states that he will return to the church where Miss Prism is waiting to see him. Shocked at hearing the name “Prism,” Lady Bracknell immediately calls for Prism and reveals her as the governess who lost Lady Bracknell’s nephew 28 years earlier on a walk with the baby carriage. She demands to know where the baby is. Miss Prism explains that in a moment of distraction she placed the baby in her handbag and left him in Victoria Station, confusing him with her three-volume novel, which was placed in the baby carriage. After Jack asks for details, he quickly runs to his room and retrieves the handbag. Miss Prism identifies it, and Lady Bracknell reveals that Jack is Algernon’s older brother, son of Ernest John Moncrieff, who died years ago in India. Jack now truly is Ernest, and Algernon/Cecily, Jack/Gwendolen, and Chasuble/Prism fall into each others’ arms as Jack realizes the importance of being earnest.
COMMENTARY 2(c)-Introductory Summary
Algernon Moncrieff welcomes his friend Ernest Worthing in for a visit. Through an incident with a cigarette case and an unlucky inscription, Ernest is forced to confess that his name is really Jack. The story goes like this: in the country, Jack must lead the boring life of responsible guardian for his pretty, young ward Cecily. So he made up a seedy younger brother named Ernest, who is the urban socialite.
Cecily, we learn, is a bit too interested in Ernest for her own good. Whenever Jack feels like it, he visits London on the pretense that he’s cleaning up Ernest’s messes. After all, as the older brother he must be responsible for getting his younger brother out of trouble. Instead, Jack takes on the name Ernest and goes partying around town. Algernon is amused by this discovery and reveals that he has a similar nonexistent friend. Algernon’s friend is a perpetual invalid named Bunbury, who allows Algernon to visit the country whenever he likes.
We learn that Jack is in love with Gwendolen Fairfax, who is Algernon’s cousin and coincidentally scheduled to visit that day. (Both Algernon and Gwendolen think that Jack’s name is Ernest.) Jack cuts a deal with Algernon; if Algernon can get Gwendolen’s mother, Lady Bracknell, out of the room, then Jack can propose to Gwendolen. In return, Jack will dine with Algernon tonight so that Algernon will avoid dining with his Aunt Augusta (a.k.a. Lady Bracknell).
The plan works. We learn that Gwendolen is smitten by the name, Ernest. She is just accepting Ernest’s proposal when Lady Bracknell re-enters the room, discovers them, and furiously sends Gwendolen down to the carriage. Lady Bracknell gives Ernest a chance to prove his worthiness by interviewing him. Once she decides that he is not fit for her daughter, she makes it clear that Gwendolen is not engaged to Ernest.
In a way, it is ironic that Lady Bracknell doesn’t approve of the engagement to Ernest. Ernest is rich, has a good reputation around town, and seems to be perfectly suitable for Gwendolen. Except for one thing: he’s an orphan, abandoned at birth for unknown reasons, and found in a handbag at Victoria train station. This doesn’t fly with Lady Bracknell, who tells him to find his parents ASAP and then dismisses him. Furious, Jack and Algernon concoct a scheme for getting rid of Ernest. They decide that he’ll die in Paris of a severe chill.
In the meantime, Gwendolen has found an opportunity to slip back into the room and confess her undying love for Ernest. Having heard her mother’s furious remarks, she’s fascinated about his mysterious background and asks for his country address. As Ernest gives it, Algernon discreetly copies it down and later announces to his servant that he’s going Bunburying tomorrow.
At Jack’s country estate, young Cecily does everything she can to avoid studying her German grammar. She lies to get her governess, Miss Prism, to take a break. Miss Prism allows this only because she’s distracted by Dr. Chasuble, the local reverend. Just as Miss Prism leaves, the arrival of Ernest Worthing is announced. It turns out to be Algernon. Algernon and Cecily flirt outrageously. Cecily reveals that she’s been fantasizing about Earnest for quite some time, and has even imagined that she’s engaged to him. She invites him in for dinner.
At that moment, Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble return from their walk, only to meet Jack dressed in black mourning clothes. He’s come home early to announce that his brother, Ernest, has died tragically in Paris, of a severe chill.
Right on cue, Cecily comes out to tell her Uncle Jack that Ernest has come to visit. When Jack sees it’s Algernon, he is furious and arranges for Ernest to leave via the dog-cart. When the cart comes, Algernon promptly sends it away. Cecily pays Algernon a visit and they engage in more flirtation, where we learn that Cecily is obsessed with the name, “Ernest.”
When Algernon leaves (to arrange a baptism), Gwendolen arrives. Cecily entertains her. When each lady learns that the other is supposedly engaged to Ernest Worthing, they immediately start fighting. Luckily, both Jack and Algernon show up in time to clear up any doubt. Their true identities are revealed, as well as the fact that there is no Ernest. The women, realizing they’ve been tricked, suddenly become as close as sisters and go up to the house arm-in-arm, turning their backs on the men. Meanwhile, the men take out their frustration on the remaining tea items, fighting over the muffins, while they figure out what to do.
Eventually, they enter the house, and confess to the women. The Ernest business, they say, was done only so that they could see their beloved ladies as often as possible. The women forgive them. But their joy is interrupted by the arrival of Lady Bracknell. She has come to bring Gwendolen home. When she sees Cecily holding Algernon’s hand, she gives her an icy glare, but politely asks Jack how big this girl’s inheritance is. When she finds out that the girl is extremely wealthy, Lady Bracknell’s attitude toward Cecily changes and she gives consent for her and Algernon to marry. But Jack, as Cecily’s guardian, refuses to give his consent unless Lady Bracknell allows him to marry Gwendolen. Lady Bracknell wants nothing to do with it.
Dr. Chasuble shows up to tell Jack and Algernon that everything is ready for their baptisms and happens to mention Miss Prism. Lady Bracknell’s ears prick up at the name. Miss Prism is brought before her and shamefacedly confesses the truth: she was once Lady Bracknell’s servant and was in charge of a certain child. One day, she took the baby out in his stroller for a walk and brought along some leisure reading– a three-volume novel that she had written – and kept in a handbag. Distracted, she switched the two – putting the novel in the stroller and the baby into the hand bag. She dropped the handbag off at Victoria train station.
At this discovery, Jack freaks out and runs upstairs to find something. When he comes back down, he’s holding the handbag (remember, Jack is an orphan who was found in a handbag). Jack mistakenly thinks Miss Prism is his mother, but is corrected by Lady Bracknell, who tells him that a Mrs. Moncrieff is his mother. That makes Jack Algernon’s older brother.
Then, they all wonder what Jack’s real name is. Remember, Gwendolen will only love him if his name is Ernest. Lady Bracknell tells Jack he was named after his father, but nobody can remember what the General’s name was. Jack looks up “Moncrieff” in his book of Army Lists. The results? His father’s name was Ernest. So he’s been telling the truth all along. His name really is Ernest. And now he can marry Gwendolen. There’s general rejoicing. Gwendolen hugs Ernest. Cecily hugs Algernon. Miss Prism hugs Dr. Chasuble. And Ernest closes the play by insisting that he’s now learned the “importance of being earnest.”
COMMENTARY 2(d)-Introductory Summar
Algernon Moncrieff is visited by best friend Jack Worthing, who is on his way to propose to Algernon’s cousin Gwendolen. Algernon refuses to grant Ernest his permission until he explains a strange cigarette case he left behind on last visit. Ernest is thus forced to reveal that he leads a double life: in the country, he is Jack, and Ernest is his brother who lives in the city and requires constant attention, but in the city he goes as Ernest. Algernon abruptly reveals that he carries on a similar deception: he pretends to have an invalid friend named Bunbury that lives in the country, whom he visits whenever he wishes to avoid an obligation.
Gwendolen’s mother invites the couple over, and Jack proposes to Gwendolen. She accepts, but seems to love him only for the name Ernest – so he plans to get rechristened as Ernest Worthing. Nevertheless, his background is questionable and Gewn’s mother refuses the marriage. Gwendolen sneaks back in and asks Jack for his address in the country, and, listening in, Algernon writes it down as well, for Jack is rumored to have a pretty young ward (Cecily) living with him.
At Jack’s country house, Algernon announces himself as Ernest Worthing. Cecily has for some reason decided she is in love with Jack’s ‘wicked’ brother, so Algernon easily sweeps her off of her feet. Like Gwen, Cecily is more in love with the name than the person, so Algernon also plans to gets rechristened under the same name – Ernest Worthing. Jack has decided to put the past behind him, and when he arrives, he announces that Ernest has died — a claim he abandons when he discovered Algernon in his house living under the name.
Gwendolen flees her mother to be with her suitor, and when she meets Cecily, they both insist that they are engaged to Ernest Worthing. Both deceptions are exposed, but the men are forgiven, and the women agree not to break off the engagements if the men agree to get re-christened as planned. Gwen’s mother arrives and questions Algernon’s desire to marry Cecily until she learns of the young lady’s wealth — at which point Jack uses her desire for the money to force her to allow Jack to marry Gwendolen.
It comes out that Jack is in fact Algernon’s older brother, abandoned by his governess years ago. Gewndolen’s mother insists that Jack be renamed after his father, but no one can remember his name. They look it up, and find out that is, in fact, Ernest! The happy couples’ fates complete, they embrace. Gwendolen’s mother complains to Jack: “My nephew, you seem to be displaying signs of triviality.”
“On the contrary, Aunt Augusta,” he responds, “I’ve now realized for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest.”