Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

The Importance of Being Earnest was Wilde's final play: it opened on Valentine's day in 1895 at St. James's theater in the West End. Having achieved much success with previous plays, Earnest was an immediate hit. Its success, however, was interrupted by Wilde's conviction, brought on by Lord Alfred Douglas's father, of homosexual offenses. The play stopped running prematurely as a result of the scandal caused by Wide's trial.

Act I: It is morning in Algernon Moncrieff's flat in the West End. His manservant, Lane, allows him to eat cucumber sandwiches that have been prepared for Lady Augusta Bracknell, his aunt. Jack Worthing appears, whom Algernon knows as Ernest. Jack has come to propose to Gwedolyn, Augusta's niece. Algernon makes some critical remarks on marriage, and then tells Jack that he needs to clear up some issue about one Cecily. Algernon brings out the cigarette case which Jack has left there, and demands to know why it says "From little Cecily with her fondest love to her uncle Jack." Jack confesses that she is the granddaughter of Mr. Thomas Cardew, the man who adopted him. She is his charge, and because one has to adopt a "high moral tone" when a guardian, Jack has invented a brother named Ernest as an excuse for him to visit town. Algernon says that he is a "Bunburyist," which refers to his own similar ruse to get out of unpleasant engagements--"Bunbury" is his fake invalid country friend, whom Algernon uses when Lady Bracknell comes in and asks him to dinner. Lane lies to Augusta about the cucumber sandwiches, saying that there were none at the market. While Augusta and Alberta go to the music room, Jack propose to Gwendolyn, who agrees to marry him because she likes the name Ernest. Lady Bracknell quizzes Jack on his background to determine if he is an worthy match for her niece. She is horrified when he tells her that he was left in a handbag at Victoria station and then taken up by Thomas Cardew. Gwendolyn tells Jack that she may not be able to marry him, but that she is eternally devoted. She asks for his country address, which Algernon takes down.

Act II: This act opens with Cecily in conversation with Miss Prism, her governess. Miss Prism acts prim, strict, and proper, but it is clear that she is interested in one Dr. Chasuble, the rector, as she talks to him about the ills of celibate life, encouraging him to marry. Cecily suggests that the two take a walk together. As Cecily is alone, Mr. Ernest Worthing (who is actually Algernon) arrives. They are taken up with each other. Meanwhile, Jack has come back and encounters Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism outside. Jack tells the two of them that Ernest as died of a severe chill while in Paris. Cecily emerges from the house, announcing that Jack's brother, Ernest, has come. Cecily makes Jack and Algernon reconcile, and when the two shake hands, she is pleased. Though Jack wants him to leave, Algernon stays on and proposes to Cecily. Cecily lets him know that they are actually already engaged--prior to their even meeting, she has written fantasy love letters and made records in her diary of their engagement. Realizing that she, like Gwendolyn, is in love with the name Ernest, decides to leave to get christened as Ernest. While he is gone, Gwendolyn arrives, seeking Jack (whom she thinks is Ernest). At first the women take well to each other, until there is the misunderstanding that they are both engaged to Ernest Worthing. At that point, the women view each other with barely veiled hatred over tea and cake, until Jack and Algernon both come in. At this point, the men have to admit that neither of them are named Ernest. The women immediately run to each others' side and leave the men. Algernon begins to eat muffins in his distress, while Jack looks on, disgusted.

Act III: Gwendolyn and Cecily decide to confront Algernon and Jack. They decide to forgive the men, who say that they will make the sacrifice of christening themselves Ernest. Lady Bracknell suddenly arrives at the country manor, causing problems because she will not sanction a marriage between Jack and Gwendolyn. After finding out that Cecily is well off, she does encourage Algernon to marry Cecily, however. Jack counters Lady Bracknell by saying that he will only countenance the marriage of Algernon and Cecily if she will countenance his marriage to Gwendolyn. They are at an impasse until Miss Prism's name comes up. Lady Bracknell demands to see her. It is revealed that Miss Prism, twenty-eight years ago, accidentally put her three-volume novel into a baby carriage, and a baby into a handbag, which she left at Victoria station. That baby was Jack, and belonged to Mrs. Moncrieff, Lady Bracknell's sister. It turns out then, that Algernon and Jack are brothers. Jack additionally finds out that his name is indeed Ernest (which is also the name of Jack and Algernon's biological father). The play ends with reconciliation: Jack will marry his cousin Gwendolyn, and Algernon will marry Cecily. Chasuble and Miss Prism also finally reveal their attachments to one another.

Like many of Wilde's other works, the characters in Earnest challenge traditional notions of morality with sayings that turn traditional morality on its head. The women marry not for love, for romance, or for sentiment, but for a name. Each of the characters spout witticisms which say the opposite of what is to be expected. There are countless examples, but here are just a few:

-Algernon on the lower classes: "Really, if the lower orders don't set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?"
-Jack on truth and courtship: "My dear fellow, the truth isn't quite the sort of thing one tells to a nice sweet refined girl."
-Gwendolyn to Jack: "The simplicity of your character makes you exquisitely incomprehensible to me."
-Cecily regarding her diary: "It is simply a very young girl's record of her own thoughts and impressions, and consequently meant for publication."

All of these examples are certainly humorous, but they also do the work of revealing the traditional morality which they refer to to be equally absurd. In the first quotation, the traditional morality being mocked is the notion that the upper classes ought to set an example for the lower classes. The second quotation mocks the hypocrisy of the "sweet" and "refined"; indeed, these are rather social "lies" themselves and so ought to be treated in kind. The third quotation reverses the notion that those who are simple, frank, and candid are comprehensible, again revealing potential hypocrisies in those who like to pose as "simple." Finally, the fourth quotation critiques traditional notions of what ought to be private and public. Cecily is by no means a young, innocent girl whose thoughts and impressions ought to be protected from the vulgar public eye--in fact, she desires that these thoughts to be widely seen.

Thus, the "serious" work (the play was subtitled "A Trivial Comedy for Serious People") that Earnest does is to explode myths of traditional morality, and in doing so, level a charge against hypocrisy. The main characters in the play may be liars and primarily concerned with money, their names, eating well, and other aspects of life that are generally considered "superficial" but they are not hypocrites like many who espouse traditional morality. Even those that adopt more traditionally "moral" stances, Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble, come around in the end. The importance of being "earnest," then, is the importance of not being a hypocrite.

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