Oscar Wilde's most successful play, The Importance of Being Earnest, became an instant hit when it opened in London, England, in February, 1895, running for eighty-six performances. The play has remained popular with audiences ever since, vying with Wilde's 1890 novel The Portrait of Dorian Gray as his most recognized work. The play proves vexing to critics, though, for it resists categorization, seeming to some merely a flimsy plot which serves as an excuse for Wilde's witty epigrams (terse, often paradoxical, sayings or catch-phrases). To others it is a penetratingly humorous and insightful social comedy.
When Earnest opened, Wilde was already familiar to readers for Dorian Gray, as well as for collections of fairy tales, stories, and literary criticism. Theatre-goers knew him for his earlier dramatic works, including three previous successes, Lady Windermere's Fan (1892), A Women of No Importance (1893), and An Ideal Husband (1895), as well as for his more controversial play, Salome (1896), which was banned in Britain for its racy (by nineteenth century standards) sexual content.
The Importance of Being Earnest has been favorably compared with William Shakespeare's comedy Twelfth Night and Restoration plays like Richard Brinsley Sheridan's School for Scandal and Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer. While it is generally acknowledged that Wilde's play owes a debt to these works, critics have contended that the playwright captures something unique about his era, reworking the late Victorian melodramas and stage romances to present a farcical, highly satiric work—though audiences generally appraise the play as simply great fun.
Tragically, as The Importance of Being Earnest, his fourth and most successful play, received acclaim in London, Wilde himself became embroiled in the legal actions against his homosexuality that would end his career and lead to imprisonment, bankruptcy, divorce, and exile.