Oscar Wilde was a critic, essayist, poet, and novelist, as well as a playwright. He is most remembered for his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and his most popular play, The Importance of Being Earnest. A brilliant comedy, the play was first performed for the British public in 1895, near the end of the Victorian era, the time in British history when Queen Victoria ruled over a powerful country marked by great wealth and great poverty. The age of Queen Victoria is often noted for its especially rigid code of social and moral behavior; today, the term “Victorian” has become synonymous with prudery and social repression. Human nature being what it is, the behavior of Victoria’s subjects frequently fell short of society’s demands; hypocrisy reigned in England, along with the Queen.
In The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde took satirical aim at the hypocrisies of his society and scored a direct hit. Victorian theatergoers—perhaps finding relief in seeing their societal constraints spoofed—loved the play, and it enjoyed great commercial success. The play is a farce; the characters and their ridiculous situations are delightful. It is made even more entertaining by Wilde’s many satirical witticisms that sparkle throughout the dialog. These epigrams show Wilde to be both clever and humorous in his understanding of society and human nature. Sadly, despite the great success of his play, Oscar Wilde would become a victim of the very society it mocked.
Though Wilde was a husband and a father, he also was physically attracted to men—most notably, to his companion of several years, Lord Alfred Douglas. Disgusted by their relationship, Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, publicly accused Wilde of being homosexual. The playwright sued the Marquess for criminal libel soon after Earnest’s opening. Wilde lost his suit; he was then arrested, tried, and convicted of public indecency and sentenced to two years in prison. Upon his release, Wilde moved to France. His reputation in England was tarnished, his plays no longer performed. He died in 1900, just five years after Earnest’s successful premiere.
Glimpses of Wilde’s double life and his struggle to keep up appearances echo in Earnest. At the time he wrote the play, Wilde was in dire need of money, living with his family in Worthing. (The town’s name became his character Jack’s (and Ernest’s) last name.) He kept Douglas nearby at the Grand Hotel in Brighton. In Earnest, main characters Jack and Algernon create alter egos that offer them relief from society’s rigid expectations. From this premise, Wilde created the biting social criticism that distinguishes the play. The futility of the façade is satirized, as the objects of their affection, Gwendolen and Cecily, care little when the men’s deceit is revealed; the women instead focus on the very superficial issue of the name “Ernest,” the name both men claim is theirs. In addition, the central enforcers of the moral code—Lady Bracknell and Miss Prism—prove to be as corrupt in their own behavior as they are righteous about others’. In the end, the hollow, hypocritical society is humorously allowed to remain intact; whether this is a tragedy or not is subject to interpretation.
The Importance of Being Earnest follows a classical dramatic structure, often known as Freytag’s pyramid. It consists of exposition (an introduction to the characters and themes), rising action (plot complications to keep the protagonist from his goal), climax or turning point (the moment that changes the protagonist’s plight—in comedies, for the better), falling action (the unraveling of the conflict), and resolution or dénouement (the release of tension for a satisfying conclusion). Within this structure, Earnest is packed with witticisms, inverted logic, wordplay, and absurdities. Its humor is as funny today as its underlying message is resonant.
Though we no longer live in an era marked by a Victorian moral code, headlines persist of moralizing politicians’ secret double lives—lives filled with the very acts they have criticized to make successful careers. Hypocrisy, it seems, is ageless. Does moralizing, through its suffocating effects, actually lead the righteous to their downfall? The upstanding citizen falling from his moral pedestal predated Victorian England. Earnest’s character Gwendolen remarks that even noble, moral men are susceptible to straying, adding that “Modern, no less than Ancient History, supplies us with many most painful examples of what I refer to. If it were not so, indeed, History would be quite unreadable.” Earnest’s examination of the timeless theme of hypocrisy reveals that society itself always puts on a play—one in which the participants are both entertained and entertaining.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Explain how Wilde uses satire to critique Victorian society.
2. Identify the main arguments the play makes about romantic love.
3. Understand why Jack and Algernon felt it necessary to adopt dual identities.
4. Identify where and how gender identities are reversed.
5. Identify several of the play’s most farcical moments.
6. Identify comic stereotypes in the play, suggesting how these stereotypes contribute to the basic comic plot.
7. Recount the plot, explaining how Wilde has structured the play to conform to classical dramatic structure.