decorated initial 'A'ccording to George Sampson in The Concise Cambridge History of English Literature (1961), The Importance of Being Earnest "is one of the two best comedies written since the time of Sheridan." In 1894 Wilde was living in fashionable Chelsea's Tite Street when he decided upon a seaside holiday for himself and his family. He took rooms at The Haven, 5 The Esplanade, in Worthing, West Sussex. There, between August and September, he wrote most of a new play that broke the mould of his previous society comedies, remarking in a letter at the time, "I find farcical comedies admirable for style, but fatal to handwriting."

Each of his earlier plays Wilde had built around a shameful secret — in his first, for example, the heroine's mother, having deserted her husband and child for a lover twenty years earlier, returns to find her daughter about to make the same mistake. His characters in those three plays conform to popular types: a woman with a past, a distressed wife, a distraught husband, and a society wit. Stage cliches such as a young wife's finding herself trapped in a bachelor's rooms, a compromising letter, and the sensational revelation of parentage abound.

Then, having demonstrated his orthodoxy in these three plays, Wilde showed himself a joyous rebel in a fourth. The Importance of Being Earnest is his exuberant parody of the 'trivial comedies' (his own amongst them) which the 'serious people' had established in the English theatre. It contains all the features of Wilde's earlier plays — the shameful secret (Worthing's origin in a handbag), the mistaken and assumed identities (Bunburying), and the sensational dénouément in which Worthing turns out to be Lady Bracknell's long-lost nephew. It even contains a sally against the dual morality which distinguished male and female infidelity [see the dialogue between Jack and the woman he momentarily takes for his mother, Miss Prism]. (Rowell, p. 111)

Although as Rowell points out the play is indebted to "W. S. Gilbert's exploitation of ludicrous logic," it is very much original — it may be argued that each of the characters is an extension of Wilde himself. The playwright with characteristic wit and tendency towards epigrams satirizes the British nobility in the person of Lady Bracknell and the British clergy in the person of the Reverend Canon Chasuble. The play centres around the aspiration of a Wilde-like young aristocrat named Jack Worthing for the hand of the more obviously blue-blooded Gwendolyn Fairfax. The marriage is opposed by the girl's mother, the imperious Lady Bracknell, because of Worthing's obscure origins: he was found as an infant in a handbag in London's Victoria Railway Station (still the terminus for trains to the south of England), and consequently has no idea as to who his real parents are. Eventually the difficulty is resolved by the discovery that Jack is in fact Ernest Moncrieff, older brother to his scape-grace friend Algernon and nephew to Lady Bracknell.

The play opened at London's St. James's Theatre on 14 February 1895 with actor-manager George Alexander, who had produced Wilde's first stage success in 1892, in the leading role. Ever since, its argument, which Rowell describes as "ridiculous but irresistible," has never failed to convulse audiences throughout the English-speaking world. Wilde said of it, "It is exquisitely trivial, a delicate bubble of fancy, and it has its philosophy . . . that we should treat all the trivial things of life seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality." The duplicity of a respectable gentleman who yearns for the pleasures of life, including the forbidden pleasures enjoyed so openly by the Prince of Wales, Robert Louis Stevenson had treated in a more serious vein in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). The actual and the practical, which Victorians had embraced at Byron's death in Greece, Wilde and his generation now rejected in favour of the worldly-minded, happy-go-lucky code that, in a more extreme form, had characterized the Regency. Striving and enduring, Utilitarianism and pragmatism, puritanism and respectability, joyless abstention from worldly pleasures — Wilde chucked the whole 'Victorian' lot. Ironically, only in the final decade of the century under the genius of Wilde was the drama to rise to the artistic standards of poetry and the novel once again. The playwright was once again a fashionable and well-remunerated professional man of letters, and not a mere drudge or hack. After the disappointing forays of the poets Browning and Tennyson into the theatre, and a Royal Commission decrying the decayed state of this British national institution, in the 1890s the theatre re-emerged as respectable and respected, enlivened by the dramatic masterpieces of Wilde and Shaw; as M. H. Abrams tersely remarks, "no apologies are thereafter required."

The Scenes of the Play

Other Materials of Interest

Selected List of References

Beckson, Karl. "Oscar Wilde." Modern British Dramatists, 1900-1945; Part 2: M- Z. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 10. Stanley Weintraub, ed. Detroit: Gale Research. Pp. 204-218.

Boyle, Robert. "Oscar Wild (1854-1900)." British Novelists, 1890-1929: Traditionalists. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 34. Detroit: Gale Research, 1985. Pp. 315-331.

Magnusson, Magnus, ed. Chambers Biographical Dictionary. New York: W. & R. Chambers, 1990.

Rowell, George. The Victorian Theatre 1792-1913, A Survey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956. Rpt. 1967.

Sampson, George. The Concise Cambridge History of English Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961.


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Last modified 8 December 2005