"A trivial comedy for serious people"—how appropriate is this subtitle for the play?
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.