"A trivial comedy for serious people"—how appropriate is this subtitle for the play?
Oscar Wilde gave his play The Importance of Being Earnest the apt subtitle "A Trivial Play for Serious People." This subtitle sets the tone for the play in the sense that its seemingly paradoxical combination of words employs a technique that Wilde has his characters use repeatedly in their dialogue. The mix of verbal irony, epigrammatic expressions, and hyperbole reverse our expectations and aid Wilde in poking fun at his shallow upper class characters.
Further, the play's subtitle is appropriate because it describes Wilde's comedy of manners perfectly. The play is a satire, and as such, it proves to be a sharp critique of the values and the marriage practices of the Victorian elite. However, the characters are extremely superficial and silly, as is the marriage plot of the play. Two men, Jack and Algernon, decide they want to marry two women, Gwendolen and Cecily, whom they do not know very well, and both men want to be baptized under the new name Ernest, because the women both prefer that name and can't imagine marrying a man of any other name. The women come across as shallow in their insistence that they marry a man named Ernest, and the men seem childish in their insistence on becoming Ernest to please the women (who apparently cannot love them for who they really are). Wilde is satirizing the requirements the upper class sets when considering marriageable partners. Much of the humor in the play comes from the foolishness of the characters, but the play as a whole focuses a critical lens on the superficiality of the upper class and their desperate desire to hold on to their positions at the top of society.
Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest displays his prescience perhaps better than any of his other works. Indeed, his subtitle is extremely appropriate to the purpose of his play; it points to his intent to expose the triviality of the upper class of Victorian society, which considered itself of great importance to Britain (serious people), and its hypocrisy and absurdity as it squanders its time and undermines the institutions that form civilized society. This subtitle also befits Wilde's penchant for combining the serious with the trivial. For example, in Act I the decadent Algernon remarks that his servant Lane's perspective on marriage is "somewhat lax," commenting also that if the
...lower orders don't set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them? They seem, as a class, to have absolutely no sense of moral responsibility.
The irony here is that Lane has actually been married, and has told Algernon that it is "a very pleasant state." Furthermore, it has long been the responsibility of the ruling class to set standards of moral conduct, rather than the lower classes, whom few regarded seriously. But Jack as Ernest and Algernon are spendthrifts and superficial men who speak frivolously.
Because Wilde's play revolves around the imperative of telling falsehoods so that polite society can remain polite, it is "a trivial play," a play about trivialities that point out to "serious people" the ills of Victorian society.
"A trivial comedy for serious people" is an apt subtitle for this play because its plot is largely trivial. For example, Gwendolen, who is about to become engaged to Jack (who she thinks is named Ernest), says that "my ideal has always been to marry someone of the name of Ernest." Lady Bracknell, Gwendolen's mother, opposes the marriage because the man they think is named Ernest was found by his charitable adoptive father as a baby who had been placed in a handbag. The events in the play are rather silly and superficial, leading the play to be trivial in nature.
However, despite its surface frivolity, the play deals with some serious themes. The snobbishness of Lady Bracknell is one way in which Wilde satirizes the values of his society, and Gwendolen's insistence about the importance of her husband-to-be's name is symbolic of Victorian women's childish hopes and innocence about marriage. These themes are part of the drama that serious people might enjoy.