The Importance of Being Earnest is Oscar Wilde's most well-known and best-loved play, as well as being an enormous success in his lifetime. For many people, it is the apogee of Wilde's work. Like Wilde, the play is the very embodiment of fin de sieclé British dandyism.
However, this seemingly frivolous play has a much darker side. Its critique of Victorian society--though delivered in a velvet glove--is every inch an iron fist. The play is a satire both of the hypocrisies of the society in which Wilde lived, and the damaging effect that these hypocrisies can have on the souls of those live under their rule. Wilde was to become one of those souls shortly after the first performance of the play when he initiated a libel trial that was to lead to his imprisonment for being a homosexual.
Overview of The Importance of Being Earnest
The play is based around two young men, one of whom is an upright young man called Jack who lives in the country. However, in order to escape the drudgery of his highly conservative lifestyle, he has created an alter-ego, Ernest, who has all kinds of reprobate fun in London. Jack says he often has to visit his poor brother Ernest, which gives him his opportunity to escape his boring life and have fun with his good friend, Algernon.
However, Algernon comes to suspect that Jack is leading a double life when he finds a personal message in one of Jack's cigarette cases. Jack makes a clean breast of his life, including the fact that he has a young and attractive ward by the name of Cecily Cardew back on his estate in Gloucestershire. This piques Algernon's interest and, uninvited, he turns up on the estate pretending to be Jack's brother--the reprobate Ernest--in order to woo Cecily.
In the meantime, Jack's fiancée, (and Algernon's cousin) Gwendolen has also arrived, and Jack admits to her that he is, in fact, not called Ernest, but is called Jack. Algernon, despite his better judgment, also confesses to Cecily that his name is not Ernest either. This causes a good deal of trouble in our heroes' love lives, as both women have a rather strange attachment to the name Ernest, and cannot consider marrying anyone who does not go by that name. There is another impediment to the marriages. Gwendolen's mother, Lady Bracknell, will not countenance her daughter marrying someone of Jack's social status (he was an orphan who was found by his adoptive parents in a handbag at King's Cross Station).
As Jack is Cecily's guardian, he will not allow her to marry Algernon unless his aunt, Lady Bracknell changes her mind. This seemingly irresolvable conundrum becomes brilliantly solved when, on inspection of the handbag, Lady Bracknell reveals that Algernon's brother had become lost in just such a handbag and that Jack must, in actuality, be that lost child. What's more, the child had been christened Ernest. The play ends with a prospect of two very happy marriages.
The Importance of Being Earnest combines a labyrinthine plot, the seemingly irresolvable narrative of a farce, and some of the most comic and wittiest lines ever written. It is, as can probably be surmised from its extraordinary to-ings and fro-ings and its incredibly unlikely resolution, is not to be taken as a serious drama. Indeed, the characters and the setting lack any real depth; they are, first and foremost, vessels for Wilde's witticisms lampooning the shallow and roots-obsessed society in which he lived.
However, this is not to the play's detriment - the audience is treated to some of the most sparkling verbal wit ever seen. Whether luxuriating in paradox or simply in the ridiculousness created by the plot that Wilde has set in motion, the play is at its best when it is portraying supposedly serious things in an extremely trivial matter.
However, this seeming piece of fluff is enormously influential and is actually a destructive critique of the social mores of the times. The emphasis that is put in the play on surfaces--names, where and how people were brought up, the way that they dress--belies a yearning for something which is more substantial. Wilde can be credited, by producing a piece of polished decadence, with contributing to the destruction of a class-based, surface-obsessed society. Wilde's play seems to say, look beneath the surface, try and find the real people stifled beneath social norms.
Brilliant, inventive, witty and--when performed--absolutely hilarious, Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, is a landmark in the history of Western theater, and probably that writer's greatest achievement.