This review is reproduced here by kind permission of the author and the online inter-disciplinary journal Cercles, where the review was first published. The original text has been reformatted and illustrated for the Victorian Web by Jacqueline Banerjee. The illustrations come, with thanks, from the British Library's album of photographs of the 1895 production of the The Importance of Being Earnest, which is in the public domain. Their colour and size have been slightly modified for clarity.
Oscar Wilde's most famous play, The Importance of Being Earnest, which we will shorten as Earnest, was on the curriculum of the Agrégation in 2015 and 2016. This was the occasion for a number of publications on the subject. Among them is Emily Eells' edition of a series of articles published in 2015 in the series "Intercalaires: agrégation d'anglais." The pun in the title is mirrored by the content of the volume, which is at the same time playful and pleasant to read, but also far-reaching and thorough.
Herself a renowned specialist, Emily Eells introduces this "polyphonic collection of essays" (11) as so many musical variations on the themes that Oscar Wilde dwelt on in his play. Indeed the specialists who contributed, many of them recognised worldwide as authors of a number of books on Wilde and editors of his works (Michael Patrick Gillepsie, Peter Raby, Christopher N. Nassaar, Sos Eltis, Kerry Powel...), come from very different fields and offer a large variety of insights into the play, from linguistics to psychoanalysis, from a study of genres, genders, names, trying to define from various angles this indefinite "bubble of fancy" which defies categories, to quote Wilde himself.
The first article, written by Petra Dierkes-Thrun, very convincingly shows how Wilde not merely borrowed from different well-defined theatrical genres, like the comedy of manners, the well-made play, and farce, but managed to satirise those genres, parodying their characteristics. She ends up suggesting a cogent comparison with models such as Ibsen and Shaw, whose works share some interesting features with Oscar Wilde's play, aptly concluding that it remains impossible to root Earnest in a definite tradition.
A comedy of manners, a farce — among others! Jack Worthington and his friend Algernon at the beginning. Right: Jack and Algernon with Gwendolen, whom Jack loves, and Jack's ward, Cecily, with whom Algernon falls in love.
Michael Patrick Gillepsie then offers a close reading of key passages of the play by focusing on his definition of the figure of the Dandy, thus shedding new light on an article he himself published in the Norton edition of the play. The angle allows him to demonstrate how Wilde's characters counter expectations, and can be recast ad infinitum in different, and sometimes contradictory, roles. Indeed it would be too simple to suggest that all the main characters of the play are variations of the Dandy, as sometimes secondary and inferior characters show their ability to outsmart their masters. This once more tends to illustrate the fact that the play is much more complex than it first appears to be, or appeared to be when put on stage in 1895.
The next article, by Richard A. Kaye, explores more particularly the comparison of Wilde's play with Restoration theatre, more specifically Sheridan's comedy of manners The Rivals (Powell had made a similar comparison with the farce The Foundling in his book Oscar Wilde and the Theatre of the 1890s), concluding along with Petra Dierkes-Thrun that Wilde goes far in transforming the tradition, expanding on the theme of metatheatre at the centre of his work.
Both Peter Raby and Christopher Nassaar write on the links between Wilde and Lewis Carroll, the first showing how Earnest turns upside-down a very faithful picture of Englishness, and concluding that "[w]e are in a subtly different country, a kind of England 'Through the Looking Glass,' in which everything is ... tilted, slanted, distorted" , the second offering a close comparison with the Alice novels. The two articles thus once more demonstrate the complexity of the play, and celebrate the challenge of deciphering it.
David Charles Rose concentrates on names, and draws an impressive and knowledgeable list of all the interpretations and explanations. The list soon turns into a web, or a maze, the intricacy of which dazzles and fascinates.
"The quest of a father and that of a name": Left: Jack asks Dr Chasubel to christen him Ernest, to please Gwendolen. Right: Jack outrages Gwendolen's mother, Lady Bracknell, by telling her that he was found in a handbag at Paddington Station.
Marie-Noëlle Zeender writes in French about filiation in the play. Studying the play's characters and their filial relationships from a psychoanalytical angle might seem paradoxical when we remember Wilde's distrust of this science and when we consider them as so many puppets for Wilde, as types devoid of depth defining themselves through the roles that they take up one after the other rather than as definite individuals. Nevertheless the central themes of the play, the quest of the father and that of a name, the theme of a double life, certainly are rife with meaning when explored with the tools of psychology.
Stefano Evangelista then proposes to explore the play as a mirror of Wilde's artistic theories, which he developed in his essay "The Decay of Lying" and which may be summed up in his well-known motto according to which nature imitates art. This leads him to enlarge the scope of Algernon's paradox: the play as a representative of Aestheticism, and because it is "perfectly phrased," is therefore "quite as true as any observation in civilized life should be."
Gilbert Pham-Thanh writes in French about the motif of repetition and variation in the play. Starting by describing Earnest as yet another repetition of the comedy of manners, and suggesting that, like all comedies, the play ends with a return to social harmony, he then shows how slight differences and variations alter the model, end up demolishing the bases on which society is built, and create anarchy.
Jean-Jacques Lecercle, also in French, studies the very specific humour of Wilde, defining the play as a mix of wit and melodrama. He transposes Feydeau's method of having the most unlikely event actually happen on stage from the level of the plot to that of the word in Wilde's play: if a word is least expected then the characters are going to use it. This is true of all the characters created by Wilde because they are only various images and echoes of Wilde himself on the stage. But the paradox is not only comical and surprising, it also criticises Victorian society very effectively, and the criticism, if compared to that of Shaw or Ibsen, might perhaps be even more effective because it relies on humour.
Virginie Iché develops the same thesis, illustrating her demonstration with a number of precise linguistic analyses, among them that of performative language: along with Stefano Evangelista she shows how telling beautiful lies seems to turn them into truths.
From "beautiful lies," a happy ending.
The volume as a whole can thus be seen as a demonstration that though the play seems playful, light and frivolous, it nevertheless also contains or entails more weighty purposes. This is Sos Eltis' argument, who concentrates on the theatricality at the centre of Earnest, as a theme and as a device: everything is performance, and rituals (baptism, marriage, burial) are only that, devoid as they are of any social or religious significance or consequence. This goes as far as emptying all values, including the notions of right and wrong, of their stable meaning: whereas farce exposes lies and deceptions the better to correct them, Earnest breaks the rules and turns lies into truths.
Xavier Giudicelli writes in French and analyses the language of the body: the body is political in that it represents the rules of Victorian society, and the breaking of those rules, but the body is also poetical, creating art. He concludes about the instability of everything that defines the body (its gender, its age, its appearance...) because the body is constantly performing, and reinventing itself. This once more points to the subversive power of the play, hidden behind its apparent frivolity.
Nikolai Endres reviews the question of inversion in the play. Going beyond the probable puns and innuendoes, he studies how Wilde systematically undermines the bases of Victorian heterosexual norms by contaminating the perfect tableau he offers of it.
Last but not least, Kerry Powell opens up the question of Wilde's legacy, linking him very convincingly with postmodernism. Fittingly, this last article is paradoxically about nothing: "Nothing survives this postmodern wreckage of truth and certainty, and it is this 'nothing' that Wilde's play is about" (191). Exploring at length and in detail the question of identity, and the way character, being and self are presented and discussed in the play, and using the works of Judith Butler and Jacques Derrida, he demonstrates how Earnest can be seen as a study of the postmodern concept of performativity, nearly a hundred years before the very word was invented.
The volume as a whole thus has the drawbacks of its qualities: because it is a collection of essays, it might sometimes be deemed redundant (almost all articles reach a similar conclusion, praising the complexity of a play deceptively hiding as "a bubble of fancy"), sometimes contradictory (some articles dwell on homosexual innuendoes while others refuse to mention them), but it offers a wide variety of viewpoints, some of the articles corresponding to the format of the Agrégation, while others will certainly help developing new research on the subject.
Once more, the quality of the volume as a whole also shows how Wilde's masterpiece resists time and always manages to offer renewed interpretations.
Eells, Emily, ed. Wilde in Earnest. Collection Intercalaires: Agrégation d'anglais Paris: Presses Universitaires de Paris-Ouest, 2015. Broché. 204 pp. ISBN 978-2840162186. 12€.
Last modified 4 August 2016