Oscar Wilde, the literary representative of the so-called Yellow Nineties, stood at the end of the nineteenth century and jeered at the Victorian age. He ridiculed Victorian values most particularly in The Importance of Being Earnest, probably his most popular work. Turning on the play of words in the title, the drama also satirizes the very idea of earnestness, a virtue to which the Victorians attached the utmost significance. To work hard, to be sincere, frank, and open, and to live life earnestly was the Victorian ideal. Wilde not only satirizes hypocrisy and sham virtue, he also mocks its authentic presence.
Wilde mocked the high society of his time, and he paid a high price for it. Within weeks of the first production of The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde’s career came to a scandalous and tragic end. Although Wilde was married and the father of two children, he, like many apparently heterosexual men, also had sex with men, a not unusual situation in late-nineteenth century England. Wilde’s mistake was to be open about his sexuality. When the marquis of Queensbury accused him in public of being a sodomite because of Wilde’s sexual affair with the marquis’s son, Lord Alfred Douglas, the playwright brought a suit of slander against the marquis. The case was dismissed after it was established in civil court that the marquis’s allegations were a matter of fact. However, because British law held homosexual acts to be criminal, once Wilde lost his suit alleging slander, the door opened for criminal proceedings against him. The first trial ended in a hung jury, but Wilde was immediately tried again, found guilty, and sentenced to two years hard labor. After serving the full sentence, he went at once to France. He did not set foot again on English soil, and he died in Paris two years later, a broken man.
These biographical details are closely connected with the art of Wilde and with The Importance of Being Earnest, a play in which a number of the characters lead double lives. The play’s characters, too, let truths slip out while pretending to be engaged in social chitchat. They are adroit at saying and doing two opposing things at once, and they are virtuosic in their use of language. Nearly all the humor in the play depends on these devices.
At times, it is not quite clear if the characters intend to imply another, usually hidden (because socially dangerous) meaning or if they are quite unconscious and even inept. This shimmer between intention and its opposite is constant throughout the play, making the play a parade of cognitive dissonance. Reading or watching the play is to observe the unconscious of the society of Wilde’s day. Indeed, Wilde’s popularity stemmed from the fact that his society loved the experience of watching its own unconscious on display. The Importance of Being Earnest, in particular, was immensely popular, its run cut short only by the real-life scandal that overtook the playwright. The man who exposed secrets so subtly in his writing had exposed his own altogether too explicitly.
The four young characters of the play have an engaging insouciance about them; they are...
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