The Importance of Being Earnest was first performed in 1895, near the end of Queen Victoria’s reign. Victorian values such as respectability prevailed during the sixties and seventies, but industrialism soon led to upheaval in England’s class system: upward mobility grew easier for factory owners, while farmers struggled. As the disparity between rich and poor grew ever-wider, a new middle class formed. Amidst the struggle, people began to reject Victorian values.
Victorian values persisted in art as well as life, and so similarly, artists began to turn against the moral overtones so common in nineteenth-century plays. Art was supposed to be morally instructive and enlightening, but the tides turned; aestheticism, which held that a painting need only be beautiful or a play only be clever, grew to become a movement. Oscar Wilde
, of course, was one of the leaders of aestheticism.
The Importance of Being Earnest
is the opposite of a morality play
. The plot itself, in which two men attempt to escape their responsibilities and two women are only willing to marry men named Ernest, is trivial. The characters are absurd—Algernon Moncrieff is a jaded character, serious only about amusements, Cecily Cardew charts her entire relationship with “Ernest” before ever meeting him, Lady Bracknell is an unapologetic snob—and the ending even more so: Jack is revealed to be Algernon’s older brother, named Ernest at birth.
The play mocks marriage (“I hear her hair has turned quite gold from grief,” Algernon says of a recently widowed woman), satirizes shallowness, and reveals as its happy ending an impending marriage between two first cousins—a subtle dig at the inbred nature of the upper class. Innuendo and double meaning are woven into the lines of the play, creating complexity in otherwise superficial characters; hypocrisy and and shallowness are mocked with deadly accuracy. The characters are caricatures, the plot absurd and artificial—and yet the play reveals more about the Victorian social conscious than any morality play could.