“The Importance of Being Earnest”
© 1895 Oscar Wilde
The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility! (Algernon, Act I.)
Algernon and Earnest are two pals who have more in common than they realize. When Earnest visits Algernon, planning on proposing to Algie’s cousin at a family lunch, a mystery is waiting for him. Algernon has recovered a lost cigarette case, one he knows to belong to Earnest, but which for some reason is inscribed to an Uncle Jack from his adoring niece Cecily. Who is Jack?
Who is Jack, indeed? That’s a three-act question. Jack, it turns out, is the real name of Earnest. In real life, he’s a respectable gentleman in the country with a young ward, for whom he must be very proper and upright. When it gets too much, he likes to escape to the city to see after his libertine brother, Earnest. Algernon isn’t in the least bothered to learn that he knows his friend under an assumed name – Algy likes to pretend he has a sick friend in the country, Bunbury, who occasionally needs help. (The occasion invariably coincides with party invitations from Algernon’s aunt.) When Algernon decides to visit Jack’s country estate pretending to be the scoundrel brother Eanrest, hilarity ensues.
Strictly speaking, hilarity was ensuing long before that. Wilde once equipped that nothing succeeds like excess, and this play’s abundance of witty dialogue may hint at truth in the saying. Part of the humor comes from Wilde turning social conventions on their head; his rich characters complain that the lower orders aren’t setting a good example for the uppers, characters despair of hypocrisy in a good man who pretends to be naughty, and at least one woman proclaims that men’s proper place is in the home, and once they leave it they become altogether too feminine. It’s a very silly play, and even a little meta: towards the end Aunt Augusta complains that contrived coincidences like this simply have no place in ‘good’ families like hers. This is a topsy-turvy plot, wherein characters are alternatively sparring and then defending one another, traveling from sobs to shrieks of joy at a moment’s notice. It’s magnificent fun, especially in the hands of talented actors.