Illustration of Jack Worthing in a top hat and formal attire, and a concerned expression on his face

The Importance of Being Earnest

by Oscar Wilde

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Wilde's Play and Victorian Concepts of "Earnestness"

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To modern theatre audiences, the title of Oscar Wilde's most popular play, The Importance of Being Earnest, seems a clever play on words. After all, the plot hinges on the telling of little—and not so little—white lies, while the title suggests that honesty (earnestness) will be the rule of the day. The title also implies a connection between the name and the concept, between a person named Earnest and that person being earnest. The narrative action does not bear out this assumption but rather its opposite. Audiences who saw the play when it opened in London in 1895 would have brought to it more complex associations with "earnestness," a word which historians, sociologists, and literary critics alike see as, at least in part, typifying the Victorian mindset.

The word "earnest" has three related meanings: to be eager or zealous; to be sincere, serious, and determined; and to be important, not trivial. During Queen Victoria's more than half-century reign, tremendous economic, social, and political changes rocked Great Britain. These were caused by earnest actions and their consequences required, indeed demanded, earnest responses. The Agricultural Revolution dislocated rural populations, forcing people to leave the countryside for cities. There, those people became workers in the factories created by the Industrial Revolution. While, over the long term, the British nation as a whole benefited from these changes, individuals often suffered greatly.

Even the wealthy were not immune to the changing economy's negative impact on land values. In The Importance of Being Earnest, this becomes clear when Lady Bracknell inquires into the finances of Jack Worthing, Gwendolen's choice for a husband. When Jack indicates that he has suitable income, she is pleased it comes from stock rather than land, for the declining value of "land . . . gives one position, and prevents one from keeping it up."

By the mid-nineteenth century, discussions concerning issues of economic disparity came to be known as the "two Englands" debate. People considered what would happen to Britain if economic trends continued to enrich the few while the majority of the population worked long hours in dangerous factories, underpaid and living in squalor.

Writers and intellectuals as well as evangelicals and politicians earnestly engaged in this debate. Poets and novelists such as Elizabeth Barrett Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell, created literary works which portrayed the lives of the underprivileged. Writings such as these ultimately contributed to changing public attitudes—and more importantly—public policy toward practices like child labor and public executions. Reforms in hospitals and orphanages, prisons and workhouses, schools and factories can all be traced to debates initiated or fueled by writers. The earnestness of all these reformers—artistic, intellectual, religious, and political—improved the quality of the life in Victorian Britain.

Earnestness did not characterize only those who addressed social evils, however, but also those whose activities created social problems in the first place. The farmers, investors, and manufacturers whose actions dislocated rural populations and resulted in the squalor of factory towns like Manchester, were also "earnest" about their actions. They believed they were improving the quality of peoples' lives and, in some ways, they were.

Overall, the country produced more abundant, cheaper food and better quality, affordable mass produced goods like clothing. Indeed, historian Asa Briggs termed the middle of the nineteenth century "The Age of Improvement" (a phrase he employed as the title of his book on the subject), because of the rising living conditions but also because of the concern to improve the quality of life, to ensure that each generation lived better than the last.

Like British farmers and industrialists, British colonial administrators also justified the nation's imperial ambitions because they "improved" the lives of "uncivilized" peoples, giving them Christianity British cultural values, and higher living standards. This attitude came to be know as, in author Rudyard Kipling's words, "the white man's burden."

Many of those enriching themselves in this way would acknowledge that their actions caused suffering as well as benefits. They justified their actions based on the utilitarianism of thinkers like John Stewart Mill. Utilitarians determine the rightness of an action by asking if certain actions produce the most good for the most people. If people in general benefited, the suffering of a few specific people could be tolerated as the price paid for progress. While this approach may seem callous and self-serving, these thinkers and tycoons were also "earnest" in their actions.

Yet the characters in Wilde's play are not earnest in this sense. Their actions satirize popular notions of the idle rich but also poke fun at Utilitarianism as well. When Jack admits to Lady Bracknell that he smokes, she replies that "a man should have an occupation." Later, Algernon admits that he doesn't "mind hard work where there is no definite object of any kind." Jack and Algernon have no real occupations or professions; their purposelessness critiques the "earnest" nature of Utilitarian activities.

Now we can see that Wilde's use of "earnestness" is more complex than it may first appear to modern audiences. Indeed, his play offers rather biting, if understated, criticism of the institutions and values that had, by the end of the nineteenth century, made Britain the world's greatest colonial power. Ironically, it is exactly the earnestness exhibited by Britain's exploitative class, industrial, and colonial systems that enables the life of leisure enjoyed by the play's main characters. When asked about his politics, Jack replies, "Well, I am afraid I really have none," though the Liberal Unionist party with which he identifies supports the continued colonial status of Ireland.

Britain's colonial system comes up again when Algernon jokes about sending Jack to Australia, emigration then being a common way to prevent excess population from causing unemployment and lower wages. Investment in stocks—the source of Jack's wealth—provided economic support for Britain's expanding economy, and by the play's end, we learn that his father served as a general in colonial India a common road to personal enrichment during the Victorian age.

The rich are not the only targets of Wilde's wit, for the playwright satirizes earnestness and reformers of all kinds, in morality, education, women's rights, and marriage.

Reformers religious and secular alike expended much energy on improving the morals of the working classes, particularly in regard to family life, procreation, and child-rearing. In this regard reformers often emphasized the importance of the positive example to be set by upper class behavior. The servant Lane tells Algernon he had "only been married once. That was in consequence of a misunderstanding between myself and a young person." Algernon turns the reformers' ideas on their heads, observing "Lane's views on marriage seem somewhat lax. Really if the lower orders don't set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them." The comedy comes by satirizing the serious ideas of earnest critics of the class system (particularly communist thinkers such as Karl Marx), who wondered exactly what the purpose of the wealthy might be. Finally, Miss Prism's conversation about christening the poor reveals an underlying anxiety about the sexuality and population growth of the working classes.

Earnest reformers engaged in the public debate about education, which expected to "improve" the middle and working classes and enhance the "culture," as Matthew Arnold wrote, of the country in general. One forum for popular education, begun during the eighteenth century, was public lectures, and Wilde satirizes the earnest, if misdirected, efforts of educational societies whose talks have titles like "Society for the Prevention of Discontent among the Upper Orders'' and a "Lecture by the University Extension Scheme on the Influence of a Permanent Income on Thought."

Wilde also satirizes the ineffectiveness of the education for the privileged in the scenes between Miss Prism and her reluctant student Cecily. More generally, though, Lady Bracknell proclaims: "The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes and probably lead to acts of violence." Lady Bracknell links education of the poor with social unrest, fearing that the educated masses might forget their place and reject hierarchical class structure.

The independence and audacity of Wilde's female characters reflects the changing status of Victorian women, part of a public debate known as "The Women Question." It was only with the passage of a series of Married Women's Property Acts (1870-1908) that women could hold property in their own names. The opinions of Queen Victoria herself, who opposed women's suffrage but advocated women's education, including college, exemplified the ambiguous situation of women in England during this period.

Cecily and Gwendolen discuss changing gender roles in their conversation about male domesticity, indicating their belief that "home seems to me to be the proper sphere for the man." Marriage, however, remained most women's primary goal and occupation. Arranged marriages had been on the decline since the late-eighteenth century but were not unknown among the Victorian era's upper classes. This may have made economic sense, but it did not always create domestic harmony. Consider Algernon's lament about the low quality of champagne in the homes of married men and his belief in the necessity of adultery, "for in marriage, three is company and two is none." Both comments highlight the lack of companionship resulting from marriage without compatibility and love, suggesting that the Victorian husband requires alcohol and a mistress to be happy.

Wilde describes the situation for married women in equally depressing terms. When Lady Bracknell tells of her visit with the recently widowed Lady Harbury, Algernon remarks that he's heard that "her hair has turned quite gold from grief." The audience anticipates the cliched response, that her hair turned gray or white from sorrow, but Wilde turns the phrase around.

Why might her hair have turned gold instead? Like many Victorian women, Lady Harbury seems to have been trapped in a loveless marriage, the kind Lady Bracknell proposes to arrange for Gwendolen. Now that Lady Harbury's husband is dead, she is finally free to become who and do what she wants. She feels younger, more attractive and changes her hair color. While the joke requires that we associate aging and grief, Wilde turns that around, associating widowhood instead with gold hair and joy. Algernon's statement could also be an indication of the new wealth and independence Lady Harbury gained in inheriting her husband's money. The simple turn of a phrase communicates a complex reality, in this case, about economic, social, and sexual politics.

The status of the nineteenth century's educated women remained grim, however, with few occupational outlets other than teaching. Miss Prism, Cecily's governess, combines two common female occupations, teaching and novel writing, another activity at which women flourished (and for which they were criticized). Prism's confusion between a baby and a manuscript pokes fun at changing ideas about parenthood and child-rearing. The misplaced baby symbolizes what critics saw as a confusion of gender roles, when women entered the traditionally masculine world of the mind. The plight of orphaned baby Jack illustrates the destabilization of family ties, which in his case are sequentially lost, invented, changed, and discovered.

As Lady Bracknell says, "we live, I regret to say, in an age of surfaces," a position echoed by her daughter's comment that "in matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing." To many, Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest may seem a work of "surface" and "style," but further examination shows it to have depth and substance as well as humor.

Source: Arnold Schmidt, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998. Schmidt holds a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University and specializes in literature and drama.

Review of The Importance of Being Earnest

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Owing to unavoidable circumstances, this department cannot solemnly swear that John Gielgud's performance of The Importance of Being Earnest is immeasurably superior to the original performance in 1895. Even Mr. Gielgud, wise though he is, cannot know that from personal observation. But traditions grow slowly, and it is highly unlikely that the original actors blessed Oscar Wilde's comedy with the knowing perfection that Mr. Gielgud and his colleagues are bestowing on it.

Having played The Importance triumphantly in London, Mr. Gielgud has now brought it across the Atlantic with no appreciable seachange—not, let it be said, with the entire original cast, but with superb players of artificial comedy, and they all set it meticulously on the stage of the Royale last evening. By the accuracy and uniformity of their style in acting, directing and setting they transmute a somewhat mechanical comedy into a theatre masterpiece.

Even when it was new, to judge by the records, "The Importance of Being Earnest" seemed mechanically contrived in plot and dialogue. It was a bit like Gilbert without the Sullivan music. Especially in the central parts of the second act the brilliance of the wit today shines with an effort as though Wilde were puffing a little.

That might be a point worth dwelling upon in a performance less stylized than Mr. Gielgud's. But he has approached it as if it were a score to be played for its own sake as artificial comedy without laying emphasis on the plot and without speaking the lines like jokes or deliberate rejoinders. Absurdly self-conscious, dry and arrogant, Mr. Gielgud and his associates are marvelously entertaining. In the purest meaning of the word they are "playing" Oscar Wilde. Nothing here is seriously intended except the manner of the comedy.

Notice how all the actors hold their heads high as though they were elevating themselves above vulgarity. Notice how they greet each other with dainty touches of the fingers, avoiding at all costs the heartiness of a handshake. The lines of dialogue are written elaborately; each word is carefully chosen for its satiric value; by modern standards, some of the lines are long. But notice how disdainfully these actors speak them. Instead of hammering away at the jokes, they speak dryly in an insufferable fashion, as perhaps Oscar Wilde spoke when he, too, had a large, admiring audience at some fashionable reception.

As John Worthing, who has invented a dissolute brother, Mr. Gielgud plays with an ascetic arrogance that is enormously witty quite apart from the dialogue. No play could ever match the sustained perfection of his stylized acting. But this is no exercise in star-casting. For Mr. Gielgud has surrounded himself with actors who have mastered the same attitudes. As the overbearing Lady Bracknell, Margaret Rutherford is tremendously skillful—the speaking, the walking and the wearing of costumes all gathered up into one impression of insufferability.

Pamela Brown plays Gwendolen with the same icy condescension. As the more rustic Cecily, Jane Baxter is lovely and full of merriment in a more humane style. Jean Cadell is playing the spinster Schoolma'm with an acidulously sweet and nervous virtue. Robert Flemyng's Algernon Moncrieff is an excellent foil for Mr. Gielgud's John Worthing. Without rubbing the edge off the style, Mr. Moncrieff gets a dash of well-bred revelry into his acting. As the bachelor's servant, Richard Wordsworth is also immensely expert; and John Kidd is delightfully dull and fatuous as the rector.

Especially for the two interiors Motley's settings are models of period decor; they can be played against without staring the acting out of countenance or overwhelming the performance with color. The costumes, which presumably Motley has also designed, convey the character of the parts and the satire of the comedy without sacrificing beauty. What Motley has accomplished completes Mr. Gielgud's design for artificial comedy. Like the play, it is inhuman. It sacrifices personality to style—detached, egotistical, condescending, arid, satirical and marvelously enjoyable.

Source: Brooks Atkinson, review of The Importance of Being Earnest (1947) in On Stage: Selected Theater Reviews from the New York Times, 1920-70, edited by Bernard Beckerman and Howard Siegman, Arno Press, 1973, p. 277.

Review of The Importance of Being Earnest

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Of a play representing actual life there can be, I think, no test more severe than its revival after seven or eight years of abeyance. For that period is enough to make it untrue to the surface of the present, yet not enough to enable us to unswitch it from the present. How seldom is the test passed! There is a better chance, naturally, for plays that weave life into fantastic forms; but even for them not a very good chance; for the fashion in fantasy itself changes. Fashions form a cycle, and we, steadily moving in that cycle, are farther from whatever fashion we have just passed than from any other. The things which once pleased our grandfathers are tolerable in comparison with the things which once pleased us. If in the lumber of the latter we find something that still pleases us, pleases us as much as ever it did, then, surely, we may preen ourselves on the possession of a classic, and congratulate posterity. Last week, at the St. James', was revived "The Importance of Being Earnest," after an abeyance of exactly seven years—those seven years which, according to scientists, change every molecule in the human body, leaving nothing of what was there before. And yet to me the play came out fresh and exquisite as ever, and over the whole house almost every line was sending ripples of laughter—cumulative ripples that became waves, and receded only for fear of drowning the next line. In kind the play always was unlike any other, and in its kind it still seems perfect. I do not wonder that now the critics boldly call it a classic, and predict immortality. And (timorous though I am apt to be in prophecy) I join gladly in their chorus.

A classic must be guarded jealously. Nothing should be added to, or detracted from, a classic. In the revival at the St. James', I noted several faults of textual omission. When Lady Bracknell is told by Mr. Worthing that he was originally found in a handbag in the cloak room of Victoria Station, she echoes "The cloak-room at Victoria Station?" "Yes," he replies; "the Brighton Line." "The line is immaterial," she rejoins; "Mr Worthing, I confess I am somewhat bewildered," &c. &c. Now, in the present revival "the line is immaterial" is omitted. Perhaps Mr. Alexander regarded it as an immaterial line. So it is, as far as the plot is concerned. But it is not the less deliriously funny. To skip it is inexcusable. Again, Mr. Wilde was a master in selection of words, and his words must not be amended. "Cecily," says Miss Prism, "you will read your Political Economy in my absence. The chapter on the Fall of the Rupee you may omit. It is somewhat too sensational." For "sensational" Miss Laverton substitutes "exciting"—a very poor substitute for that mot juste. Thus may the edge of magnificent absurdity be blunted. In the last act, again, Miss Laverton killed a vital point by inaccuracy. In the whole play there is no more delicious speech than Miss Prism's rhapsody over the restored hand-bag. This is a speech quintessential of the whole play's spirit. "It seems to be mine," says Miss Prism calmly. "Yes here is the injury it received through the upsetting of a Gower Street omnibus in younger and happier days. There is the stain on the lining caused by the explosion of a temperance beverage—an incident that occurred at Leamington. And here, on the lock, are my initials. I had forgotten that in an extravagant moment I had had them placed there. The bag is undoubtedly mine. I am delighted to have it so unexpectedly restored to me. It has been a great inconvenience being without it all these years." The overturning of a Gower Street omnibus in younger and happier days! Miss Laverton omitted "and happier." What a point to miss! Moreover, she gabbled the whole speech, paying no heed to those well-balanced cadences whose dignity contributes so much to the fun—without whose dignity, indeed, the fun evaporates. In such a play as this good acting is peculiarly important. It is, also, peculiarly difficult to obtain. The play is unique in kind, and thus most of the mimes, having trained themselves for ordinary purposes, are bewildered in approaching it.

Before we try to define how it should be acted, let us try to define its character. In scheme, of course, it is a hackneyed farce—the story of a young man coming up to London "on the spree," and of another young man going down conversely to the country, and of the complications that ensue. In treatment, also, it is farcical, in so far as some of the fun depends on absurd "situations," "stage-business," and so forth. Thus one might assume that the best way to act it would be to rattle through it. That were a gross error. For, despite the scheme of the play, the fun depends mainly on what the characters say, rather than on what they do. They speak a kind of beautiful nonsense—the language of high comedy, twisted into fantasy. Throughout the dialogue is the horse-play of a distinguished intellect and a distinguished imagination—a horseplay among words and ideas, conducted with poetic dignity. What differentiates this farce from any other, and makes it funnier than any other, is the humorous contrast between its style and matter. To preserve its style fully, the dialogue must be spoken with grave unction. The sound and the sense of the words must be taken seriously, treated beautifully. If mimes rattle through the play and anyhow, they manage to obscure much of its style, and much, therefore, of its fun. They lower it towards the plane of ordinary farce. This was what the mimes of the St. James' were doing on the first night. The play triumphed not by their help but in their despite. I must except Miss Lilian Braithwaite, who acted in precisely the right key of grace and dignity. She alone, in seeming to take her part quite seriously, showed that she had realised the full extent of its fun. Miss Margaret Halstan acted prettily, but in the direction of burlesque. By displaying a sense of humour she betrayed its limitations. Mr. Lyall Swete played the part of Doctor Chasuble as though it were a minutely realistic character study of a typical country clergyman. Instead of taking the part seriously for what it is, he tried to make it a serious part. He slurred over all the majestic utterances of the Canon, as though he feared that if he spoke them with proper unction he would be accused of forgetting that he was no longer in the Benson Company. I sighed for Mr. Henry Kemble, who "created" the part. I sighed, also, for the late Miss Rose Leclerq, who "created" the part of Lady Bracknell. Miss M. Talbot plays it in the conventional stage-dowager fashion. Miss Leclerq but no! I will not sink without a straggle into that period when a man begins to bore young people by raving to them about the mimes whom they never saw. Both Mr. George Alexander and Mr. Graham Browne rattled through their parts. Even in the second act, when not only the situation, but also the necessity for letting the audience realise the situation, demands that John Worthing should make the slowest of entries, Mr. Alexander came bustling on at break-neck speed. I wish he would reconsider his theory of the play, call some rehearsals, and have his curtain rung up not at 8:45 but at 8:15. He may argue that this would not be worth his while, as "Paolo and Francesca" is to be produced so soon. I hope he is not going to have "Paolo and Francesca" rattled through. The effect on it would be quite as bad as on The Importance of Being Earnest—though not, I assure him, worse.

Source: Max Beerbohm, review of The Importance of Being Earnest in his Around Theatres, Volume 1, Knopf, 1930, pp. 240-43.

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Critical Overview