Although The Importance of Being Earnest is now Oscar Wilde 's most famous play, it is not characteristic of his work as a playwright and marked a new departure for him. Wilde's other social comedies contain plenty of epigrams, but they also make an attempt to address social ills directly,...
Although The Importance of Being Earnest is now Oscar Wilde's most famous play, it is not characteristic of his work as a playwright and marked a new departure for him. Wilde's other social comedies contain plenty of epigrams, but they also make an attempt to address social ills directly, in the same vein as the Shavian "problem play." One of his most frequent themes was sexism, particularly the way in which a hypocritical society judged men and women by different standards. In an interview published in the Sketch in January 1895, Wilde indicated the new direction The Importance of Being Earnest was to take:
Several plays have been written lately that deal with the monstrous injustice of the social code of morality at the present time. It is indeed a burning shame that there should be one law for men and another law for women. I think that there should be no law for anybody.
The subtitle of Earnest is a warning of much the same type. The play is trivial in the sense that it does not deal directly with social ills. However, its anarchic wit delivers something that is ultimately more profound: a vision of an ideal society in which people are free to enjoy themselves. Serious people (not solemn people, but those who think deeply) will discover this. An example of the way Wilde simply dismisses burdensome rules as he believes they ought to be dismissed occurs in the short time when Jack believes Miss Prism to have been his mother. He says:
Unmarried! I do not deny that is a serious blow. But after all, who has the right to cast a stone against one who has suffered? Cannot repentance wipe out an act of folly? Why should there be one law for men, and another for women? Mother, I forgive you.
In an earlier play of Wilde's, A Woman of No Importance, this theme is treated seriously and at length, much as George Bernard Shaw would have treated it. In this play, Jack waves it away and a moment later, it turns out not to have been a problem after all. Wilde invites the serious thinkers in his audience to consider what life might be like if everyone behaved as trivially as his characters and refused to be burdened by trivial matters. The subtitle, therefore, is an excellent distillation of one of the play's central themes.