The Importance of Being Earnest is a clever little play that’s bound to cause more than a few laughs. It does, however, sacrifice depth to stay light and charming.
Before Oscar Wilde wrote his only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (click here for review), he made his name as a playwright having written several plays as well as a short story or poem here and there. The Importance of Being Earnest is his last completed play (two unfinished plays were published posthumously) published in 1895 and considered to be one of his best.
In The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde does he loves best: make fun of the Victorian nobility. It chronicles John Worthing, adopted son of an English Nobleman and guardian to his adopted niece Cecily Cardew. In order to enjoy the good life in London while also remaining a role model to Cecily, John invents the fictional character of Ernest, his wicked brother. While in London, John pretends to be Ernest and catches up to mischief and while in the countryside with Cecily, he lives as upstanding gentleman John and complains about all the trouble his ‘brother’ causes him. This is until he falls in love with a noblewoman in London and proposes to her as Ernest Worthing. Meanwhile, his mischievous friend Algernon heads out to the countryside and also pretends to be John’s ‘brother’: Ernest. Which starts out as a joke until Algernon falls in love with Cecily and proposes to her, also as Ernest Worthing.
So you can see the conundrum here: you have two noblewomen both engaged to Ernest Worthing, a man who doesn’t actually exist, and two people pretending to be him. What follows is a classic Shakespearean-style comedy full of Wilde’s trademark wit.
The Importance of Being Earnest is as funny it sounds. While there are a few sub-plots and plenty of Wilde’s sardonic commentary sprinkled throughout the play, there’s no moral lesson or deeper insight that we usually find in a play of this nature. To me this isn’t much of a problem; it keeps the play light and neat without demanding too much from the audience. It’s certainly lighter than his other plays so if you were expecting something a bit meatier from Wilde you might be disappointed.
That being said, the play does have a few interesting themes, many of which it shares with The Picture of Dorian Gray (which came next). Both John Worthing and Dorian Gray lead double lives to maintain their social standing and both Algernon and Lord Henry provide mocking commentary on Victorian society; ironically, Wilde too led a double life (as a homosexual) and was a known mocker of Victorian society. Although Earnest and Dorian are polar opposites in tone – the former being bright and sunny and the latter being dark as sin – when read together, the two help to explore Wilde’s theme of the hypocrisy and shallowness of Victorian society in the late 1800s.
In conclusion, The Importance of Being Earnest is a clever little play that’s bound to cause more than a few laughs. However, it does sacrifice depth to stay light and charming.
See you next week