Oscar Wilde, the literary representative of the so-called Yellow Nineties, stood at the end of the nineteenth century and jeered at the Victorian age. He ridiculed Victorian values most particularly in The Importance of Being Earnest, probably his most popular work. Turning on the play of words in the title, the drama also satirizes the very idea of earnestness, a virtue to which the Victorians attached the utmost significance. To work hard, to be sincere, frank, and open, and to live life earnestly was the Victorian ideal. Wilde not only satirizes hypocrisy and sham virtue, he also mocks its authentic presence.
Wilde mocked the high society of his time, and he paid a high price for it. Within weeks of the first production of The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde’s career came to a scandalous and tragic end. Although Wilde was married and the father of two children, he, like many apparently heterosexual men, also had sex with men, a not unusual situation in late-nineteenth century England. Wilde’s mistake was to be open about his sexuality. When the marquis of Queensbury accused him in public of being a sodomite because of Wilde’s sexual affair with the marquis’s son, Lord Alfred Douglas, the playwright brought a suit of slander against the marquis. The case was dismissed after it was established in civil court that the marquis’s allegations were a matter of fact. However, because British law held homosexual acts to be criminal, once Wilde lost his suit alleging slander, the door opened for criminal proceedings against him. The first trial ended in a hung jury, but Wilde was immediately tried again, found guilty, and sentenced to two years hard labor. After serving the full sentence, he went at once to France. He did not set foot again on English soil, and he died in Paris two years later, a broken man.
These biographical details are closely connected with the art of Wilde and with The Importance of Being Earnest, a play in which a number of the characters lead double lives. The play’s characters, too, let truths slip out while pretending to be engaged in social chitchat. They are adroit at saying and doing two opposing things at once, and they are virtuosic in their use of language. Nearly all the humor in the play depends on these devices.
At times, it is not quite clear if the characters intend to imply another, usually hidden (because socially dangerous) meaning or if they are quite unconscious and even inept. This shimmer between intention and its opposite is constant throughout the play, making the play a parade of cognitive dissonance. Reading or watching the play is to observe the unconscious of the society of Wilde’s day. Indeed, Wilde’s popularity stemmed from the fact that his society loved the experience of watching its own unconscious on display. The Importance of Being Earnest, in particular, was immensely popular, its run cut short only by the real-life scandal that overtook the playwright. The man who exposed secrets so subtly in his writing had exposed his own altogether too explicitly.
The four young characters of the play have an engaging insouciance about them; they are defiant in their frankness and lovable for their vulnerability. At the same time, they represent a very distinct character type. Algernon, Jack, Gwendolen, and Cecily show intelligence, wit, and taste, but they also reveal the shallowness, frivolity, and hypocrisy of their kind. Indeed, they can strike an audience as downright idiotic at times, a reminder of the author’s final joke: a marriage pending between first cousins, the kind of union that society condemns for its possible consequences. The jibe at the inbred nature of polite society remains implicit, but it is all the funnier for being so.
An intellectual glow emanates equally from all the characters. The formidable and overbearing Lady Bracknell is given such wonderful lines that the audience grows fond even of her. The plain, uptight Miss Prism and her pompous lover, Canon Chasuble, would have been two-dimensional characters in anyone’s treatment but Wilde’s. However, he gives them things to say that are every bit as puzzling and funny as what the wittier characters say. Wilde’s humor is so intriguing because it is not clear whether what is said is meant to suggest all that it does suggest. It is the kind of humor that often requires a double take.
The plot of The Importance of Being Earnest hinges on mistaken identity, as many plots do, though not many do so to such comic effect. What is funny about the play is that the audience realizes that the characters could easily be someone quite other than who they seem. It is no wonder that audiences continue to love the play: Its humor is intoxicating, and its critique of society is breathtaking.