Oscar Wilde was an Irish wit, poet, and dramatist whose reputation
rests on his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891),
and on his comic masterpieces Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892)
and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). He was a
spokesman for the late 19th-century Aesthetic movement in England, which advocated art
for art’s sake.
The trouble about Wilde
as a playwright was that he never quite got through the imitative phase. The Importance
of Being Earnest is the
nearest approach to complete originality that he attained. For the first time,
in this play, he seemed to be tearing himself away from tradition and to be developing
a dramatic form of his own. Unfortunately, it was the last play he was to
write, and so the promise in it was never fulfilled. Had his career not been
cut short at this moment, it is possible that this might have proved the
starting-point of a whole series of “Trivial Comedies for Serious People”. Paradoxical as it may sound in the case of a
so cheerful and light-hearted a play, The Importance of Being Earnest
is artistically the most thoughtful work that Wilde produced for
the theatre. Not only is it by far the most brilliant of his plays considered
as literature. It is also the most sincere. With all its silliness, its
psychology is truer, its criticism of life subtler and more reflective than
that of the other plays. And even in its technique it shows, in certain
details, a breaking away from the conventional well-made play of the ‘seventies
and ‘eighties in favour of the looser structure and more naturalistic methods
of the newer school.
In The Importance
of Being Earnest, in fact
Wilde really devised a new type of play, and that type was the only quite
original thing he contributed to the English stage. It is a variant, not of
domestic drama like Candida or of
melodrama like Brassbound, but of
farce, a genre which, being antithesis of serious, is not easily put to serious
uses. In fact, nothing is easier than to handle this play without noticing what
it contains. It is so consistently farcical in tone, characterization, and plot
that very few care to root out any more serious content. The general conclusion
has been that Wilde merely decorates a silly play with a flippant wit.
In form it is farce, but
in spirit and in treatment it is comedy. Yet it is not a farcical comedy. Farcical
comedy is a perfectly well recognised class of drama and a fundamentally
different one. There are two other plays which belong to same type— Arms and the Man and The
Philanderer. Arms and the Man, like The Importance of Being Earnest, is psychological
farce, the farce of ideas. In it Mr. Shaw, like Wilde, has taken the
traditional form— the last act of
both the plays are quite on traditional lines in their mechanism— and breathed
into it a new spirit.
The action of the play is
about the importance of being earnest. The title is as straightforward an announcement
of the theme as any literalist could ask for. Specifically, the play deals with
the consequence of that way of not being earnest that Algernon calls Bunburying,
and it is Bunburying that gives the plot moral significance. The key speech in
the play is Algernon’s little lecture to Jack:
one must be serious about something, if one wants to have any amusement in
life. I happen to be serious about Bunburying. What on earth you are serious
about I haven’t go the remotest idea. About everything, I should fancy. You
have an absolutely trivial nature.
Bunburying means to
invent a fictitious character who can serve as a pretext for escaping a
frustrating social routine, controlled by a repressive convention. Bunburyism
is the alternative to a convention that fails to reckon with the facts of human
nature. Algernon charges Jack (unfairly, as it happens) with a failure to
discriminate among life values, to see that monotone of attitude dampens the
spirit and deadens joy. And this is precisely Wilde’s charge against
Victorianism. The Bunburyist lives in a world of carelessness, freed from the
enslavement of a hypocritical convention. The escape from convention is itself
a blatant instance of hypocrisy; pretense is the price the Bunburyist pays for
freedom from the pretense of convention. In his title pun Wilde catches the
moral failure of dandyism. Just as the conformist pretends to be, but is not,
earnest, so Algernon and Jack pretend to be, but are not, earnest. What Wilde
is saying, then, is that all Victorians who want to retain the respect of their
conservative society are, perforce, Bunburyists, leading double lives, one
respectable and one frivolous, neither earnest.
The play is connected
with the idea that ‘man who despises superficiality is himself superficial’. As
its title confesses, it is about earnestness,
that is, Victorian solemnity, that kind of false gravity which means
priggishness, hypocrisy, and lack of irony. Wilde proclaims that earnestness is less
praiseworthy than the ironic attitude to life which is regarded as superficial.
Wilde calls The Importance of Being Earnest “a trivial comedy
for serious people” meaning, in the first place, a comedy which will be thought
negligible by the earnest and, in the second, a comedy of surface for connoisseurs.
Instead of presenting the problems of modern society directly, he flits around
them, teasing them, declining to grapple with them. His wit is no searchlight
into the darkness of modern life. It is a flickering, a coruscation, sporadically
revealing the upper class of England in a harsh bizarre light. One does not
find Wilde’s satire embedded in plot and character as in traditional high
comedy. It is a running accompaniment to the play, and this fact, is the making
of a new sort of comedy. The dialogue which sustains the plot, or is sustained
by it, is an uninterrupted statement on all the themes of life.
The margins of an
annotated copy of the play would show such headings as: death; ideology and
economics; money and marriage; beauty and truth; the decline of aristocracy;
nineteenth century morals; the class system. The possibility of such notations
in itself means nothing. But if we bear in mind that Wilde is skimming steadily
over mere topics all through the play, we can usefully turn to a particular
page to see precisely how this works:
Did you hear what I was playing, Lane?
I didn’t think it polite to listen, sir.
I’m sorry for that, for your sake. I don’t play accurately— anyone can play
accurately— but I play with wonderful expression. As far as the piano is
concerned sentiment is my forte. I keep science for life.
And, speaking of the science of Life, have you got the cucumber sandwiches cut
for Lady Bracknell?
Good Heavens! Is marriage so demoralising as that?
I believe it is a very pleasant state, sir. I have had very little experience
myself up to the present. I have only been married once …
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? They seem, as a class,
to have absolutely no sense of moral responsibility.
This passage is enough to
show the way in which Wilde attaches a serious and satirical allusion to every
remark. The butler’s “I didn’t think it polite to listen, sir” is a prelude to
the jokes against class society which run through the play. Algernon’s first
little speech touches on the foolish opposition of sentiment and life, art and
science. Talk of science and life leads by Wildean transition back to the
action and the cucumber sandwiches. A little dialectical climax is reached with
the discussion on marriage, and then a little didactic summing-up of
Algernon’s: “Lane’s views on marriage…” And, so it ripples on.
We are accustomed to
plays in which a serious plot and theme are enlivened— “dramatized”, as we say—
by witticism and comic incident. Such plays are at best sweetened pills. Oscar
Wilde’s procedure is different from this. He has no serious plots, no credible
characters. His witticisms are, not comic, but serious relief. They are in
ironic counterpoint with the absurdities of the action. This counterpoint is
Wilde’s method. It is what gives him his peculiar voice and triumph. The
dialogue in the play is forever on the frontier of satire, forever on the point
of breaking into bitter criticisms. It never breaks. The ridiculous action
constantly steps in to prevent the break. That is its function. Before the
enemy can denounce Wilde, the agile outburst is over and we are back among the
The counterpoint or irony
of Wilde’s play expresses itself dramatically in the contrast between the
elegance and confidence of the actors and the absurdity of what they actually
do. This contrast too can be dismissed as mere Oscarism and frivolity.
Actually, it is integral to an uncommonly rich play. The contrast between smooth,
assured appearances and inner emptiness is, moreover, nothing more nor less
than a fact of sociology and history.
The play is one sustained
metaphor, and aesthetic objectivity is the only mood in which it can be
intelligently enjoyed. It insists on being acted straight, for if we should
feel, even for a moment, that the characters are aware of what absurdities they
are saying, the whole thing vanishes. Once object and image are confused there
is blurring of vision. No one in his right mind gets emotionally involved with
the destinies of Algernon and Cecily, Gwendolen and Jack. But it’s precisely
their emotive neutrality as figures of farce that allows Wilde’s characters to
establish his ‘limited perspective’: Wilde’s basic formula for satire is their
assumption of a code of behaviour that represents the truth that Victorian
convention pretends to ignore.
The play’s merit is that
it is all farce capable of serving as a lucid image of the non-farcical reality
that is kept strictly outside the play.