The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde is classified as a comedy of manners. What are examples that prove this classification?
[Lane is arranging afternoon tea on the table, and after the music has ceased, Algernon enters.]
Algernon. Did you hear what I was playing, Lane?
Lane. I didn’t think it polite to listen, sir.
Algernon. I’m sorry for that, for your sake. I don’t play accurately—any one can play accurately—but I play with wonderful expression. As far as the piano is concerned, sentiment is my forte. I keep science for Life. (Act I, scene i)
The opening lines, Act I, scene i (above), are richly demonstrative of a comedy of manners. These lines represent a true-to-life picture of England's upper class manners and ideas: one is paramountly polite; science and sentiment may be kept separate from each other.
A quick definition of drama that is comedy of manners is that it is theater that displays an honest representation of contemporaneous upper class life while revealing the artificiality that underpins it through satire. Satire is the attempt to use pointed ridicule and humor to uncover an error of society, a group, or an individual. The sole aim of satire is to break the comfortable disregard of social agreement on what is right behavior and provoke a change for the better.
The quote above reveals upper class artificiality and pretense through brilliantly witty humor in order to provoke a renewal of sincerity and integrity.
Cecily. ... You know German, and geology, and things of that kind influence a man very much. [Cecily begins to write in her diary.]
Miss Prism. [Shaking her head.] I do not think that even I could produce any effect .... Indeed I am not sure that I would desire to reclaim him. I am not in favour of this modern mania for turning bad people into good people at a moment’s notice. As a man sows so let him reap. You must put away your diary, Cecily. I really don’t see why you should keep a diary at all.
Cecily. I keep a diary in order to enter the wonderful secrets of my life. If I didn’t write them down, I should probably forget all about them. (Act II, Scene i)
The above quote from Act II, scene i, reveals the social artifice and false superiority that may be attached to upper class education and the popular trend for "reclaiming" young men who have adopted lives of vice instead of virtue. In this scene, Cecily's governess denounces the practice of "turning bad people into good people at a moment’s notice," while Cecily records moments and ideas so trivial that, were they not recorded in her ever so fashionable diary, they would vanish from thought. Satire in this element of the comedy of manners is aimed at exposing the false values in what was then upper class education with the aim of reclaiming it to its former virtue of seriousness and thoughtfulness.
A comedy of manners is a satire of the mannerisms and behaviors of contemporary society. The joke behind the comedy of manners is the characters' preoccupation with the proper social behavior expected of them. Think of a play where everyone exaggerates the way they talk and conduct themselves in order to "look the part" of being rich and sophisticated. This is the humor that Wilde and his contemporaries wanted to achieve, and it is what makes the comedy of manners so popular, especially during the Victorian times.
In The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde expertly mocks the self-absorbed upper-middle classes of his generation. In Lady Bracknell, for example, we find a woman with a questionable past whose very convenient marriage has rendered her not only a "lady" but also an arrogant, thoughtless creature who only focuses on appearance and money.
The things she says are evidence of such behavior:
“To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”
Algernon, her nephew, is a bon vivant and a dandy who lives above his means, is deeply in debt, and couldn't care less about morality. His words, like the rest of the characters' in this type of comedy, appear to have been intended as socially suave—but they are the exact opposite.
I love hearing my relations abused. It is the only thing that makes me put up with them at all. Relations are simply a tedious pack of people, who haven't got the remotest knowledge of how to live, nor the smallest instinct about when to die.
The characters of Cecily and Gwendolen are particularly interesting because, during their first meeting, they go through the very British ritual of afternoon tea. During tea, Cecily and Gwendolen follow every rule of decorum when it comes to their manners. However, the mean and ugly things they say to one another under the guise of "politeness" make us realize that they can be just as daring and heartless as anyone else, despite of their delicate and sophisticated looks.
Then, there is Jack Worthing, alias "Ernest." He is a man who, like Algernon, leads a double life, lies about himself, and yet embraces the persona of a gentleman and guardian of Cecily when needed. All of these are indicators of the hypocrisy and double standards of this class of people. They cover up their ugly natures with polite talk and over-the-top manners. This is what the comedy of manner is, and Oscar Wilde's is perhaps one of the most influential names in the genre.