In the entire Wilde canon, no play better exemplifies the author’s art-for-art’s-sake stand than The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People. The play is completely trivial, revolving around the fact that Jack Worthing, who loves Gwendolen Fairfax, cannot marry her, initially because Algernon Moncrieff, her cousin, refuses to sanction the marriage until Worthing resolves the mystery of Cecily, about whom Algernon knows because of an inscription on Worthing’s cigarette case.
Worthing reveals that Mr. Cardew, who adopted him after he had been found in a handbag in the parcel room at Victoria Station, appointed him guardian of Cardew’s granddaughter, Cecily Cardew, who always knew him as Uncle Jack. For Cecily’s benefit, Jack has maintained an air of moral restraint in her presence. To escape from this atmosphere, he has assumed, during his frequent visits to London, the name and generally reprobate behavior of an imaginary brother named Ernest. Worthing’s love for Gwendolen is complicated by the fact that Gwendolen cannot love any man who is not named Ernest.
In an often bewildering plot, in which identities are often difficult to follow, Lady Bracknell refuses to acknowledge Jack’s engagement to Gwendolen because she learns that Jack was found as an infant in a handbag in Victoria Station. Meanwhile, both Jack and Algernon are individually consorting with Dr. Chasuble to have their names changed to “Ernest.” Algernon, too, is in love—with Cecily, who has also revealed a desire to love someone named Ernest.
In the course of the play, the name of Cecily’s tutor, Miss Prism, is introduced. Lady Bracknell knows the name and insists that Miss Prism be brought to her. It is revealed that, years before, Miss Prism had been nurse to a family to which Lady Bracknell was connected. One day, Miss Prism, in a state of confusion, thoughtlessly placed the manuscript of a book that she had written in the bassinet of the baby in her care and absent-mindedly placed the baby in the handbag that should have held the manuscript.
She deposited the handbag in the parcel room of Victoria Station, and the baby was never restored to its rightful family. Jack, now thinking that Miss Prism is his mother, embraces her, but Lady Bracknell reveals that Jack’s mother was really her sister, Algernon’s mother, Mrs. Moncrieff. Algernon and Jack are brothers, but better still, Jack’s real name is Ernest. The play ends with Algernon and Cecily and Jack/Ernest and Gwendolen poised on the brink of happy lives together, in what is really a mock-Dickensian ending.
The play, which opened in London on St. Valentine’s Day, 1895, evoked incessant laughter from the first-night audience and lavish reviews from most critics. A few, such as George Bernard Shaw, found it wanting in meaning and castigated Wilde for the play’s triviality. Yet triviality of the sort that Wilde discussed in “Criticism as Art” was precisely what he sought to achieve in this production.
The Importance of Being Earnest succeeded, not in spite of its unbelievable characters, its improbable situations, its stilted dialogue, and its trivial ideas, but because of them. In this play, Wilde accomplished par excellence what he interpreted as Walter Pater’s credo, denying at the same time that part of John Ruskin’s credo that placed upon art a moral responsibility.
This play has been the most enduring of Wilde’s dramas, still delighting audiences with the sort of childlike unreality found in the stories that constitute The Happy Prince, and Other Tales (1888). There is a real kinship between the two works despite their obvious differences and the differences of their intended audiences.