The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde.

1899 edition.
Last week's Deal Me In Challenge brought me Salomé by Oscar Wilde, this week another Wilde play of an altogether different though more recognisable genre - The Importance of Being Earnest. This is a comedy and was first performed on the 14th February 1895. The play also marked Oscar Wilde's downfall: though very successful, on the opening night Marquess of Queensberry (the father of Wilde's lover Lord Alfred Douglas) accused Wilde of being homosexual, leaving a calling card that read "For Oscar Wilde posing Somdomite" (meaning 'sodomite'). Wilde sued him for libel, however it was ascertained during the trial that Wilde was indeed gay, and he was thus sentenced to two years in prison (he was sent to several prisons including, most famously, Reading Gaol, where he wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol, first published anonymously as "by C. 3. 3." in 1898). Because of this the play was eventually cancelled, and it would be Oscar Wilde's last play, not published until a few years later in 1898 in Paris.

The Importance of Being Earnest, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People is a satire on the Victorian approach to marriage and, compared with the little background I've just given, it's very light, very sparkling, very Wilde. It begins with Algernon "Algy" Moncrieff in his flat in London, a cynical, fashionable wit who is planning on entertaining his aunt Lady Bracknell and her daughter Gwendolen Fairfax, but before they arrive Algy's friend Jack Worthing appears, announced as "Mr. Ernest Worthing". To add more mystery, whilst Jack tells Algy of his plans to propose to Gwendoline, Algy notices an inscription on his cigarette case, "From little Cecily with her fondest love". It is soon revealed that Jack is adopted, taken in by Thomas Cardew as a baby, his lack of social standing and parentage making it difficult to marry Gwendolen as he had wished: she had even accepted his proposal, though with some regret that he wasn't called "Ernest". As for "Ernest Worthing", Ernest, Jack claims, is his brother. But all is not what it seems. Just who is Ernest is the question of the play, how will Jack and Algernon secure the women they love, Gwendoline and Cecily, and how will Jack overcome his lack of parents?

Dame Judy Dench as Lady Bracknell (2002).
It is quite a bizarre play, I must admit. It's not to say I didn't enjoy it, but it was rather confusing. The highlight, for me, was Lady Bracknell, a snobbish, acerbic, domineering, and extremely funny character determined to see her daughter marry well, approaching the business of suitors as one might approach the subject of financial investments. Her one-liners and the humour in other characters make this play a must-read, but I did feel as though the plot and circumstances were what they were to facilitate these witty remarks. Dialogue aside, the play was almost farcical but not quite enough to enjoy it as a farce, and had the almost Shakespearean approach to comedy - the more confusing, the funnier it is (not something I enjoy, personally!). Even so I did like the poking fun at the superficiality and self-absorption of late Victorian life when keeping up appearances was everything and nothing else must be allowed to get in the way. For that, underneath the sparkling wit it was very clearly a cut-throat world, and Wilde makes fun of it beautifully. It is a very funny play indeed, and sometimes one does just need something to laugh along with. 

And that was my 34th Deal Me In title. Next week - Isabella, or the Pot of Basil by John Keats.

Comments

  1. Reading comedy is difficult; so you must see a production of the play, and you will be converted to being a fan of Wilde's comedy. Seeing even a mediocre amateur production can be a better experience than merely reading the play. Film versions simply do not succeed; the audience reactions are essential to the experience. Find a production, and enjoy yourself!

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    Replies
    1. i think so, too. seen in a theater, the play is a total riot! i've always felt sorry about Wilde's troubles; if i could travel back in time, i'd advise him not to prod the caged lion with a stick...

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    2. I feel like that too, Mudpuddle - his friends did as well from what I've read. Ah, poor Wilde. So very unfair.

      And yes, one day I'll try and see it performed. I think I'd probably like it better. That said I've never had a problem before *reading* Wilde's plays rather than seeing them. Well, we'll see. If I ever get to see it I'll let you know!

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  2. Well, I guess I felt the same way you did. I'm glad I'm not alone! ;-)

    Lady Bracknell was my favourite character. :-)

    I do think Tim's point of seeing a performance is a good one. The play might appear to much greater advantage, although I can't say that I liked the movie any more than reading the play.

    Bravo for producing a great review; mine is still sitting as a draft on Blogger. :-Z

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    1. No, you're not alone! When I started it, I loved it - the first Act was great and I did think of you and wondered why you weren't so keen. But then it seemed to get rather less enjoyable, so yes, I see why it's not a favourite of yours! :)

      Looking forward to reading your review! I've said this to you before but I actually find it quite hard to review Wilde plays for some reason...

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