Notes on Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest
Introduction to the Main Types of Comedy
Old Comedy: This is satirical comedy that “ridicules political policies or philosophical doctrines, or else attacks deviations from the social order by making ridiculous the violators of its standards of morals or manners” (Abrams 29). The Greek playwright Aristophanes (circa 456-386 BCE) is the first great satiric comedian. If you’ve ever read or seen a comedy by Aristophanes (The Clouds, Lysistrata, The Birds, etc.), you know that it’s rough stuff—mainly topical satire about famous politicians and philosophers. The Clouds, for example, is about Socrates as proprietor of the Thinkery or Think-Shop, where all sorts of ridiculously improbable notions are propagated for the benefit of fools. Outrageous, bawdy, bubbly humor is the essence of such plays, and they can pack a genuine political wallop as well: Lysistrata sets forth a plot in which Greek women withhold sexual favors from men until they agree to put an end to the ruinous Peloponnesian War. On the whole, characters are ridiculous in Old Comedy—a main subject is the perennial nature of human folly, selfishness, and vice. Among the Elizabethans Ben Jonson is perhaps the greatest comic satirist. In his Volpone, things end badly for the play’s main character Volpone (i.e. “the fox”), but the play as a whole is still comic because Jonson (after some initial identification) makes us despise Volpone, not sympathize with him. So the aim in satiric comedy is mockery of a given society or of those who break its rules.
New Comedy: The Greek playwright Menander (circa 342-291 BCE), and his much later Roman followers Plautus (circa 254-184 BCE) and Terence (circa 190-158 BCE), offer a different brand of comic play that will later serve as the basis of Shakespeare’s comic plays and Restoration comedy of manners (Congreve’s The Way of the World, for example; Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and Love’s Labour’s Lost also make fine comedy of manners). The emphasis in New Comedy is on domestic matters rather than broad political issues. Love, or at least sexual desire treated sympathetically, is central to the action, and there’s also some concern for the relationship between the older generation and the younger, particularly between a father and his son, as well as some interest in relations between people of different status, such as masters and their clever slaves. Still, there’s plenty of fun at the expense of fools, dupes, lovers too old for the person they desire, etc. As M. H. Abrams explains in his A Glossary of Literary Terms, 6th edition, the Roman comedies “dealt with the vicissitudes of young lovers and included what became the stock types of much later comedy, such as the clever servant, old and stodgy parents, and the wealthy rival.” English comedies, by contrast, tend towards “the relations and intrigues of men and women living in a sophisticated upper-class society, relying for comic effect in large part on the wit and sparkle of the dialogue—often in the form of repartee, a witty conversational give-and-take which constitutes a kind of verbal fencing match—and to a lesser degree, on the ridiculous violations of social conventions and decorum by stupid characters such as would-be-wits, jealous husbands, and foppish dandies” (Abrams 29). Some major authors of English comedy of manners are Congreve, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Oliver Goldsmith, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, and Arthur Pinero. New Comedy and its developments are seldom rigorous in their morals: the characters who win out tend—surprise!—to be the ones the playwright reckons the audience will like.
Sympathy trumps propriety. The popularity of comic mix-ups and disguises suggests that identities can be swapped at will, and because considerations such as wealth and social status are so important in structuring others’ perceptions of a given character, the new identity will be accepted long enough to get the job done.
The modern situation comedy—Seinfeld would be a sophisticated example—is remarkably like New Comedy: a number of silly but mostly sympathetic characters get themselves into and out of preposterous scrapes from one episode to the next in a competitive world, and through it all they don’t change much. They get insulted, taken advantage of, take advantage of others (though not mean-spiritedly), fall in and out of love, misunderstand one another at every turn, get jobs and get fired from jobs, obtain pleasure and ease and then throw it all away on a whim or through error, and they’re ready for the next absurdity life brings. Comedy reminds us that we seldom learn as much as we should from our mistakes, but it also gives us credit for being optimists and opportunists in spite of the misfortunes life throws our way.
There’s a bit of Bugs Bunny and the Roadrunner in many a comic character: that fur-bearing evildoer Wiley Coyote isn’t going to keep the “poor little Roadrunner” from its appointed rounds (BeepBeep!), nor is Elmer Fudd going to stop Bugs from doing whatever the wascally wabbit wants to do. In comedy, desire is subject to deferral and detour, but not to permanent frustration. The comic orientation towards time is a favorable one: time and chance (accident) are on our side, at least if we are amongst the likeable or generous. In comedy, life is rich and full of opportunities—la vita è bella, as the Italians say. This attitude contrasts markedly with that of tragedy, where the world is stark and unforgiving, and our attention is riveted upon the thoughts and actions of a superior character in confrontation with that stark world.
Structure. The general (Terentian) structure of New Comedy is as follows: A. First comes the protasis, in which the basic characters and situation are established. This stage corresponds roughly to the first act of a modern five-act play. B. Then comes the epitasis in which events and characters are interwoven and complicated. This stage corresponds roughly to the second and third acts of a five-act play. C. Next comes the catastasis, in which the plot reaches a false climax. For example, in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio marries Kate towards the end of Act 3, but that important event hardly concludes the story: Kate must still be “tamed.” D. Last comes the real climax, the catastrophe, which in comedy turns out to be a happy ending, often a marriage or even a set of marriages.
A Note on Shakespearian Comedy. According to Northrop Frye, the structure of Shakespearean comedy often involves the main characters leaving their corrupt city or realm and entering a magical “green world,” from whence they emerge renewed and ready to return to civilized life. As You Like It is a fine example since Rosalind, Orlando, and other characters betake themselves to the Forest of Arden. The Tempest offers a variation, with Prospero exiled from Milan and subsequently resident on a strange but wonderful island. In The Winter’s Tale, much of the action takes place in a pastoral setting where Leontes’ and Hermione’s daughter Perdita resides, while A Midsummer Night’s Dream, of course, offers a remarkable nature-kingdom ruled by Oberon and Titania. In tragedy, the protagonist’s aim is to gain perspective on the disaster that has occurred and what brought it on; as Northrop Frye would say, a tragedy is oriented towards death and draws its meaning from that event. But in comedy, whose initial aim is to amuse the audience with tribulations giving way to a happy ending, the deeper aim is broadly social and oriented toward the renewal of life over generations. The kingdom or other city space may at first be badly ruled or in turmoil for some reason—perhaps the values and institutions of the citizens and/or rulers are in need of some re-examination. What is the basis of those values and institutions—can people live comfortably or at all within them?
Next, the main characters most often leave the city setting (willingly or otherwise) and end up in the countryside. This pastoral setting is often an enchanted space that allows for the necessary reexamination of values and social roles. Magical transformations of characters occur; they are put in situations that could not occur in the city or the kingdom, and the forest or countryside’s magic opens up new possibilities to them. As Meyer Abrams writes in A Glossary of Literary Terms, 6th edition (1993), in a romantic comedy, “the problems and injustices of the ordinary world are dissolved, enemies reconciled, and true lovers united” (29). After the necessary reappraisal and readjustment period has been completed, the main characters come together—the young by marriage, the foundational institution of the civil order and its only hope for regeneration. Finally, the characters return to the kingdom proper or are about to return when the play ends. The key to Shakespearean comic structure is political and social regeneration, continuity for the ruling order. The question to be explored is, “How does a given society preserve order and its values from one generation to the next?”
Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest
This play is a fine comedy of manners that borrows something from Shakespeare’s emphasis on the relationship between the town and country in that the play begins with the characters in the city, moves them toward the countryside to straighten out the mess they’ve got themselves into, and points them toward city life again by the play’s end. As usual in comedy, events turn upon the attempts of the play’s lovers (there are two main couples in this one) to get together and on the many obstacles they must first overcome. So the structure of Wilde’s play is traditional. As for the play’s subject matter and dialogue, they certainly meet Abrams’ criteria for comedies of manners: IBE takes for its most basic subject “the relations and intrigues of men and women living in a sophisticated upper-class society”—indeed, Lady Bracknell calls the late Victorian Era “an age of surfaces.” The dialogue also largely fits the bill: the play is full of “wit and sparkle,” and it has its fair share of what Abrams would call repartee: “a witty conversational give-and-take which constitutes a kind of verbal fencing match.” Many of the characters box their way through the play with quick linguistic jabs, some of them much like the kind of sharp, opportunistically intelligent remarks that made Wilde himself London’s social lion until his downfall in 1895.
Structurally, the play is traditional in yet another sense: it follows the basic Terentian drama: a) first comes the protasis (pro-teino, put forward, propose), in which the basic characters and situation are established: in IBE,we meet Jack and Algernon, Gwendolen and Lady Bracknell. b) then comes the epitasis (epi-teino, stretch) in which events and characters are interwoven and complicated: in IBE, the characters’ competing erotic and class interests involve them in a tangle of deceptions and schemes. c) next comes the catastasis (katástasis, settling, appointment) in which the plot reaches a false climax. In IBE, all seems to have been resolved amongst Jack and Gwendolen, Algernon and Cecily, but then Lady Bracknell arrives in the countryside and new difficulties arise. d) last comes the real climax, the catastrophe (kata-strepho, overturn): in IBE, Jack discovers that he was always “Ernest/Earnest” after all, and the marriages may proceed.
Act One Synopsis: Jack Worthing, a young Justice of the Peace in rural Woolton, is an upper-class character of no background. When he wants to go out on the town, he uses his alternate self, brother Ernest, as a dodge. Algernon and all the big-city folk, therefore, know him as Ernest Worthing. This Jack/Ernest is in love with the Honorable Gwendolen Fairfax, daughter of Lady Bracknell. Gwendolen, a perfect product of the best fashion magazines, is just as much in love with the name “Ernest” as Jack is with her. If Jack wants to embody the Victorian “age of ideals” for Gwendolen, however, he must overcome a few obstacles. Firstly, his name is not Ernest, at least so far as he knows—which isn’t much. His second problem in Act One is Lady Bracknell and her strict requirements for any man who will marry her daughter: Does he smoke? Is he sufficiently ignorant? Is he sufficiently rich? Does he have a townhouse in the fashionable quarter of London? These are formidable demands, but Jack meets them all; he smokes and is indeed ignorant and rich. As for the townhouse in the fashionable quarter, either the townhouse or the quarter, or both, can be altered to suit Lady Bracknell’s liking. In spite of all these qualifications, however, Jack suffers from one flaw that keeps him off Lady Bracknell’s list of eligible bachelors: he was discovered, and for all intents born, in an ordinary handbag, stashed in the cloakroom, Brighton railroad line. This is inexcusable. If Jack has no better origin than this, he had better go out and find one, says Lady Bracknell. Compared to this hostility, the mild razzing Jack undergoes from Algernon is pleasant chatter. Algernon has apparently found his friend’s cigarette case, inscribed with a message from Cecily Cardew to “Uncle Jack.” Jack tries to lie his way out of the embarrassing situation by evoking the picture of a nice plump aunt, but Algernon easily infers that Aunt Cecily is some attractive young woman in the countryside. In a sense, that is true—since Jack was discovered by Mr. Thomas Cardew, it was only proper that the old man should make him the guardian over his granddaughter’s morals. The need to escape from this heavy responsibility was instrumental in Jack’s invention of the great escape hatch, Ernest. The first act ends with Algernon scheming to visit the country address he has copied from the cigarette case.
Act Two Synopsis: The second act opens with Miss Prism instructing Cecily on sentimental novels (one of which, ominously, she mislaid a long time ago), German, Geography, and political economy. She also engages in flirtatious metaphor-slinging with Canon Chasuble. Cecily soon grows tired of her lessons, but the servant Merriman enters with notice of “Ernest’s” arrival. One might call Algernon the impostor responsible for this intrusion on Jack’s country retreat, but then, “Ernest” never existed in the first place. Whatever Algernon’s status, Cecily decides that in spite of his alleged wickedness, the man looks like any other of his class. Soon, Jack makes his entrance in deep mourning clothes, if not spirit, only to be confronted by the all-too-living Algernon/Ernest. Jack wants him to leave at once, but Algernon, who has taken a fancy to Cecily, has no intention of leaving soon. This intransigence is only confirmed when he finds out that unbeknownst to him, he and Cecily have been courting each other for some time: all the action has taken place in her diary. Cecily’s one stipulation for a husband is the same as Gwendolen’s—she will marry no one but an Ernest. As luck would have it, this talk of marriage is followed by the unexpected arrival of Gwendolen, and the fireworks begin. When Cecily declares that she plans to wed “Ernest” (Algernon), Gwendolen is infuriated—she mistakes this Ernest for her own, the man we know as Jack Worthing in the country, Ernest in town. When Jack returns and is cornered into admitting his real name, the mix-up is cleared, but now the two men have a problem: neither of them is named Ernest. Gwendolen and Cecily march off together in a huff. The only thing the men can do for the remainder of the act is struggle over muffins and rechristening rights. Algernon wins the muffin contest and refuses to leave.
Act Three Synopsis: Cecily and Gwendolen take Jack and Algernon’s muffin binge as a sign of repentance, and are willing to be reconciled to their prospective mates so long as they are suitably rechristened. Just when it looks as if everything will go swimmingly, Lady Bracknell bursts onto the scene with all the force of Queen Victoria and Mother Grundy combined. Upon hearing that her nephew Algernon wants to marry the unknown Cecily, Lady Bracknell puts her qualifications to the test. Even though satisfied that the girl’s social status is not so “mobile” as Jack’s Brighton line, she balks at Cecily’s “incident”-crowded life and is about to depart when the phrase “hundred and thirty thousand pounds in the funds” strikes her ears. That is a presentable sum in this “age of surfaces,” so Lady Bracknell bestows her blessing on the newly charming Cecily. Unfortunately for Lady Bracknell, however, Jack won’t allow his ward to marry Algernon unless he gets permission to marry Gwendolen. Jack explains that according to the terms of her grandfather’s will, Cecily will not come of legal age until she is thirty-five, but Lady Bracknell will make no concessions and seems prepared to wait seventeen years for such a profitable match. The Lady’s wrath is even visited upon Algernon, who is forbidden to get himself rechristened “Ernest.” Just when things have reached a standstill, in rushes Miss Prism, who is promptly recognized as the very nurse who lost an infant attached to Lord Bracknell’s house some twenty-eight years ago. “Prism! Where is that baby?” demands Lady Bracknell. Miss Prism’s answer is that she accidentally placed her three-volume novel in the perambulator meant to accommodate the baby, and the baby itself, logically enough, wound up in the handbag that should have been used to hold the manuscript. This gives Jack an idea; he hurries out and comes back in with the handbag, which Miss Prism identifies as the same one she lost at the railroad station all those years ago. She has missed it bitterly. Even more importantly, though, Miss Prism’s recognition of the handbag leads Jack to his true origin as the son of Lady Bracknell’s own sister, Mrs. Moncrieff. It turns out, then, that old Jack has had a younger brother all along: Algernon Moncrieff. Only the name Jack now stands in Jack’s way, but that is cleared up when the Army Lists reveal that General Moncrieff’s first name was Ernest. Jack was always Ernest after all, and now realizes “the vital Importance of Being Earnest.” Algernon will doubtless overcome Lady Bracknell’s thin scruples about rechristening and cash in on beautiful Cecily’s fortune.
Comments on Act 1:
We might say that Gwendolen and Lady Bracknell are the obverse and reverse of this “Age of Ideals,” as Gwendolen calls it – they’re hardly opposites since Gwendolen’s interest in marrying an “Ernest” is every bit as fabricated and absurd as Lady Bracknell’s demands and her insistence that young Mr. Worthing go out and acquire the suitable background that he lacks. Both are more or less admitting that moral ideals are apt to be manufactured just like everything else in a consumer-driven economy. That’s a phenomenon we are very familiar with today – a sophisticated capitalist economy has a way of commodifying just about everything, even the Victorian moral earnestness that is the subject of this play’s light satire. If there’s any serious thing to say about Lady Bracknell’s offense at Mr. Worthing’s being traced back to a handbag on a railway car, I suppose it has to do with the railroad being a metaphor for the era’s social anxieties: railroads quickened the economy beginning in the 1830’s, which in turn meant more and more social mobility. In a few words, the pace of life quickened greatly, the concept of socio-economic status, while still strong in England, began to seem more fluid, and instability became the order of the day.
Comments on Act 2:
Prism and Chasuble, though not exactly simple rustics, are comic foils for the other comic couples in that their confoundedness stems from older-fashioned sexual reticence, which forces them to resort to silly parsing of Eros-laden metaphors. Cecily’s diary stems from the usual Wildean refusal to privilege nature over artifice: even though Cecily is a nice country girl, she is every bit as artificial as any other character in the play, and her “courtship” of Ernest, as Algernon finds to his perplexity but also his delight, was written in advance. Cecily’s exclamation that her private thoughts were from the outset “intended for publication” is prescient; isn’t the willful violation of personal privacy a mainstay of contemporary culture? We thrive on the revelation of private knowledge that really isn’t any business of ours, and there’s no shortage of people willing to take advantage of that trend, even if their gain comes at the cost of their own dignity.
Comments on Act 3:
It looks as if the play’s comic knot has been resolved when the ladies relent and all it will take is a rechristening or two to set things right – but that’s the catastasis, not the catastrophe. Lady Bracknell soon enough enters, and throws a grain of sand in the whole marriage-engine. Jack Worthing, too, has a strong hand to play, given that he doesn’t have to allow his ward Cecily to marry Algernon. It takes Miss Prism’s revelation of her confusion between her sentimental novel and the infant Worthing to settle matters and bring about the play’s rather traditional happy ending, with three couples about to be married.
The element of criticism in Wilde’s play isn’t difficult to construe: the late Victorian Period was running on the fumes of the mid-Victorian insistence on sincerity and moral propriety as its major ideals. By now, everything has become hollowed out and purely nominal, as the values by which a culture thrives will do over time. But the joyful conclusion of this play comes about because human nature really doesn’t change: desire will make opportunities, and in Wilde’s play the characters’ generous desire uses the era’s very shallowness to slide across its treacherous, glittering surfaces and win the prize of contentment. The pleasure principle trumps every other, and all good wishes come true for the “beautiful people” in Wilde’s brilliant comedy of manners.