In the entire Wilde canon, no play better exemplifies the author’s art-for-art’s-sake stand than The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People. The play is completely trivial, revolving around the fact that Jack Worthing, who loves Gwendolen Fairfax, cannot marry her, initially because Algernon Moncrieff, her cousin, refuses to sanction the marriage until Worthing resolves the mystery of Cecily, about whom Algernon knows because of an inscription on Worthing’s cigarette case.
Worthing reveals that Mr. Cardew, who adopted him after he had been found in a handbag in the parcel room at Victoria Station, appointed him guardian of Cardew’s granddaughter, Cecily Cardew, who always knew him as Uncle Jack. For Cecily’s benefit, Jack has maintained an air of moral restraint in her presence. To escape from this atmosphere, he has assumed, during his frequent visits to London, the name and generally reprobate behavior of an imaginary brother named Ernest. Worthing’s love for Gwendolen is complicated by the fact that Gwendolen cannot love any man who is not named Ernest.
In an often bewildering plot, in which identities are often difficult to follow, Lady Bracknell refuses to acknowledge Jack’s engagement to Gwendolen because she learns that Jack was found as an infant in a handbag in Victoria Station. Meanwhile, both Jack and Algernon are individually consorting with Dr. Chasuble to have their names changed to “Ernest.” Algernon, too, is in love—with Cecily, who has also revealed a desire to love someone named Ernest.
In the course of the play, the name of Cecily’s tutor, Miss Prism, is introduced. Lady Bracknell knows the name and insists that Miss Prism be brought to her. It is revealed that, years before, Miss Prism had been nurse to a family to which Lady Bracknell was connected. One day, Miss Prism, in a state of confusion, thoughtlessly placed the manuscript of a book that she had written in the bassinet of the baby in her care and absent-mindedly placed the baby in the handbag that should have held the manuscript.
She deposited the handbag in the parcel room of Victoria Station, and the baby was never restored to its rightful family. Jack, now thinking that Miss Prism is his mother, embraces her, but Lady Bracknell reveals that Jack’s mother was really her sister, Algernon’s mother, Mrs. Moncrieff. Algernon and Jack are brothers, but better still, Jack’s real name is Ernest. The play ends with Algernon and Cecily and Jack/Ernest and Gwendolen poised on the brink of happy lives together, in what is really a mock-Dickensian ending.
The play, which opened in London on St. Valentine’s Day, 1895, evoked incessant laughter from the first-night audience and lavish reviews from most critics. A few, such as George Bernard Shaw, found it wanting in meaning and castigated Wilde for the play’s triviality. Yet triviality of the sort that Wilde discussed in “Criticism as Art” was precisely what he sought to achieve in this production.
The Importance of Being Earnest succeeded, not in spite of its unbelievable characters, its improbable situations, its stilted dialogue, and its trivial ideas, but because of them. In this play, Wilde accomplished par excellence what he interpreted as Walter Pater’s credo, denying at the same time that part of John Ruskin’s credo that placed upon art a moral responsibility.
This play has been the most enduring of Wilde’s dramas, still delighting audiences with the sort of childlike unreality found in the stories that constitute The Happy Prince, and Other Tales (1888). There is a real kinship between the two works despite their obvious differences and the differences of their intended audiences.
Algernon Moncrieff, nephew of the aristocratic Lady Bracknell, is compelled by necessity to live a more or less double life to avoid being completely at the mercy of his Aunt Augusta. To escape from her dull dinner parties, he invents a wholly fictitious friend named Bunbury, whose precarious state of health requires Algernon’s absence from London whenever his aunt summons him to attendance.
Algernon’s friend, Jack Worthing, is forced into a similar subterfuge for quite a different reason. He has under his care a young ward named Cecily Cardew, who lives at Jack’s country estate in Hertfordshire under the care of a stern governess, Miss Prism. Jack thinks it necessary to preserve a high moral tone in the presence of Cecily and her governess. To escape from this restraint, he invents an imaginary brother named Ernest, who is supposed to be quite a reprobate and whose name and general mode of behavior Jack assumes during his frequent trips to London.
To complicate matters, Jack falls in love with Gwendolen Fairfax, the daughter of Algernon’s aunt, Lady Bracknell. Gwendolen returns his love, but in particular she falls in love with his name, Ernest, of which she is very fond. When Lady Bracknell learns of his intentions toward Gwendolen, she naturally wants to know something of his family history, but he can supply nothing more definite than the fact that he was found in a leather bag at the Victoria Railway Station, and that he was raised by a benefactor. Given that his parentage is unknown, Lady Bracknell refuses to consider his marriage to her daughter.
Jack realizes that the time has come to put an end to Ernest. He even goes so far as to appear at the manor house in Hertfordshire in deep mourning for his brother Ernest. His friend Algernon, “Bunburying” as usual, precedes him, however, posing as Ernest. Cecily takes an immediate interest in this supposed brother of her guardian. When Jack and Algernon come face to face, Jack promptly announces that his brother Ernest was unexpectedly called back to London and is leaving at once. Algernon, however, having fallen in love with Cecily, refuses to leave. Cecily, in turn, confesses that it has always been her dream to love someone named Ernest.
Algernon, realizing that his hopes of marrying Cecily depend on his name, decides to have himself rechristened Ernest. For that purpose, he calls on the local clergyman, the Reverend Canon Chasuble, but Jack precedes him with a like request. Dr. Chasuble thus has an engagement for two christenings at five-thirty that afternoon.
Gwendolen arrives at the manor house in search of Jack. Because both Gwendolen and Cecily believe that they are in love with the same man, the nonexistent Ernest, their initial politeness to each other soon gives way to open warfare. When Jack and Algernon appear together, the real identities of the two pretenders are established. Both girls are furious. At first Jack and Algernon upbraid each other for their mutual duplicity, but they finally settle down to tea and console themselves with muffins. Cecily and Gwendolen at last decide to forgive their suitors, after Algernon admits that the purpose of his deception was to meet Cecily, and Jack maintains that his imaginary brother was his excuse to go to London to see Gwendolen. Both girls agree that in matters of grave importance—such as marriage—style and not sincerity is the vital thing.
Lady Bracknell, arriving in search of her daughter, discovers her nephew engaged to Cecily. Afraid that the girl, like her guardian, may possibly have only railway station antecedents, Lady Bracknell demands to know Cecily’s origin. She is informed that Cecily is the granddaughter of a very wealthy man and the heiress to 130,000 pounds. When Lady Bracknell willingly gives her consent to the marriage, Jack refuses to allow the match, pointing out that Cecily cannot marry without his consent until she comes of age, and that, according to her grandfather’s will, is when she turns thirty-five. However, he says he will give his consent the moment Lady Bracknell approves of his marriage to Gwendolen.
Lady Bracknell’s objection to Jack as a suitable husband for Gwendolen remains, but the mystery is cleared up to Lady Bracknell’s satisfaction when it is revealed that Miss Letitia Prism, Cecily’s governess, is the nurse who left Lord Bracknell’s house with a perambulator containing a male infant that she placed in a leather handbag and left in the cloakroom of the Victoria Station. The infant is the son of Lady Bracknell’s sister, a circumstance that makes Jack Algernon’s older brother. Jack’s Christian name turns out to be Ernest. The Reverend Chasuble is relieved of his two christenings that afternoon, and Gwendolen is happy that she is actually going to marry a man named Ernest.