Oscar Wilde was an Irish wit, poet, and dramatist whose reputationrests 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 aspokesman for the late 19th-century Aesthetic movement in England, which advocated artfor art’s sake. The trouble about Wildeas a playwright was that he never quite got through the imitative phase. The Importanceof Being Earnest is thenearest 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 developinga dramatic form of his own. Unfortunately, it was the last play he was towrite, and so the promise in it was never fulfilled. Had his career not beencut short at this moment, it is possible that this might have proved thestarting-point of a whole series of “Trivial Comedies for Serious People”.
Paradoxical as it may sound in the case of aso cheerful and light-hearted a play, The Importance of Being Earnestis artistically the most thoughtful work that Wilde produced forthe theatre. Not only is it by far the most brilliant of his plays consideredas literature. It is also the most sincere. With all its silliness, itspsychology is truer, its criticism of life subtler and more reflective thanthat of the other plays. And even in its technique it shows, in certaindetails, a breaking away from the conventional well-made play of the ‘seventiesand ‘eighties in favour of the looser structure and more naturalistic methodsof the newer school.In The Importanceof Being Earnest, in factWilde really devised a new type of play, and that type was the only quiteoriginal thing he contributed to the English stage. It is a variant, not ofdomestic drama like Candida or ofmelodrama like Brassbound, but offarce, a genre which, being antithesis of serious, is not easily put to serioususes. In fact, nothing is easier than to handle this play without noticing whatit contains.
It is so consistently farcical in tone, characterization, and plotthat very few care to root out any more serious content. The general conclusionhas been that Wilde merely decorates a silly play with a flippant wit.In form it is farce, butin spirit and in treatment it is comedy.
Yet it is not a farcical comedy. Farcicalcomedy is a perfectly well recognised class of drama and a fundamentallydifferent one. There are two other plays which belong to same type— Arms and the Man and ThePhilanderer. Arms and the Man, like The Importance of Being Earnest, is psychologicalfarce, the farce of ideas. In it Mr. Shaw, like Wilde, has taken thetraditional form— the last act ofboth the plays are quite on traditional lines in their mechanism— and breathedinto it a new spirit. The action of the play isabout the importance of being earnest. The title is as straightforward an announcementof the theme as any literalist could ask for.
Specifically, the play deals withthe 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 inthe play is Algernon’s little lecture to Jack:Well,one must be serious about something, if one wants to have any amusement inlife. I happen to be serious about Bunburying.
What on earth you are seriousabout I haven’t go the remotest idea. About everything, I should fancy. Youhave an absolutely trivial nature.Bunburying means toinvent a fictitious character who can serve as a pretext for escaping afrustrating social routine, controlled by a repressive convention. Bunburyismis the alternative to a convention that fails to reckon with the facts of humannature. Algernon charges Jack (unfairly, as it happens) with a failure todiscriminate among life values, to see that monotone of attitude dampens thespirit and deadens joy.
And this is precisely Wilde’s charge againstVictorianism. The Bunburyist lives in a world of carelessness, freed from theenslavement of a hypocritical convention. The escape from convention is itselfa blatant instance of hypocrisy; pretense is the price the Bunburyist pays forfreedom from the pretense of convention. In his title pun Wilde catches themoral 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 Wildeis saying, then, is that all Victorians who want to retain the respect of theirconservative society are, perforce, Bunburyists, leading double lives, onerespectable and one frivolous, neither earnest. The play is connectedwith the idea that ‘man who despises superficiality is himself superficial’.
Asits title confesses, it is about earnestness,that is, Victorian solemnity, that kind of false gravity which meanspriggishness, hypocrisy, and lack of irony. Wilde proclaims that earnestness is lesspraiseworthy than the ironic attitude to life which is regarded as superficial.Wilde calls The Importance of Being Earnest “a trivial comedyfor serious people” meaning, in the first place, a comedy which will be thoughtnegligible by the earnest and, in the second, a comedy of surface for connoisseurs.
Instead of presenting the problems of modern society directly, he flits aroundthem, teasing them, declining to grapple with them. His wit is no searchlightinto the darkness of modern life. It is a flickering, a coruscation, sporadicallyrevealing the upper class of England in a harsh bizarre light. One does notfind Wilde’s satire embedded in plot and character as in traditional highcomedy. It is a running accompaniment to the play, and this fact, is the makingof a new sort of comedy.
The dialogue which sustains the plot, or is sustainedby it, is an uninterrupted statement on all the themes of life.The margins of anannotated copy of the play would show such headings as: death; ideology andeconomics; money and marriage; beauty and truth; the decline of aristocracy;nineteenth century morals; the class system. The possibility of such notationsin itself means nothing. But if we bear in mind that Wilde is skimming steadilyover mere topics all through the play, we can usefully turn to a particularpage to see precisely how this works:Algernon.Did you hear what I was playing, Lane?Lane.
I didn’t think it polite to listen, sir.Algernon.I’m sorry for that, for your sake. I don’t play accurately— anyone can playaccurately— but I play with wonderful expression. As far as the piano isconcerned sentiment is my forte.
I keep science for life.Lane.Yes, sir.Algernon.
And, speaking of the science of Life, have you got the cucumber sandwiches cutfor Lady Bracknell?Lane:Yes, sir.…Algernon.Good Heavens! Is marriage so demoralising as that?Lane:I believe it is a very pleasant state, sir. I have had very little experiencemyself up to the present. I have only been married once …Algernon:Lane’s views on marriage seem somewhat lax. Really, if the lower orders don’tset 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 toshow the way in which Wilde attaches a serious and satirical allusion to everyremark. The butler’s “I didn’t think it polite to listen, sir” is a prelude tothe jokes against class society which run through the play.
Algernon’s firstlittle speech touches on the foolish opposition of sentiment and life, art andscience. Talk of science and life leads by Wildean transition back to theaction and the cucumber sandwiches. A little dialectical climax is reached withthe discussion on marriage, and then a little didactic summing-up ofAlgernon’s: “Lane’s views on marriage…” And, so it ripples on.We are accustomed toplays 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. OscarWilde’s procedure is different from this. He has no serious plots, no crediblecharacters. His witticisms are, not comic, but serious relief. They are inironic counterpoint with the absurdities of the action. This counterpoint isWilde’s method. It is what gives him his peculiar voice and triumph.
Thedialogue in the play is forever on the frontier of satire, forever on the pointof breaking into bitter criticisms. It never breaks. The ridiculous actionconstantly steps in to prevent the break. That is its function. Before theenemy can denounce Wilde, the agile outburst is over and we are back among thecucumber sandwiches.The counterpoint or ironyof Wilde’s play expresses itself dramatically in the contrast between theelegance and confidence of the actors and the absurdity of what they actuallydo. 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 lessthan a fact of sociology and history.The play is one sustainedmetaphor, and aesthetic objectivity is the only mood in which it can beintelligently enjoyed.
It insists on being acted straight, for if we shouldfeel, even for a moment, that the characters are aware of what absurdities theyare saying, the whole thing vanishes. Once object and image are confused thereis blurring of vision. No one in his right mind gets emotionally involved withthe destinies of Algernon and Cecily, Gwendolen and Jack.
But it’s preciselytheir emotive neutrality as figures of farce that allows Wilde’s characters toestablish his ‘limited perspective’: Wilde’s basic formula for satire is theirassumption of a code of behaviour that represents the truth that Victorianconvention pretends to ignore. The play’s merit is thatit is all farce capable of serving as a lucid image of the non-farcical realitythat is kept strictly outside the play.