Written for a production of The Importance of Being Earnest at STC, in the winter of 2013-14. -DL
I hope you enjoy my “trivial” play. It is written by a butterfly for butterflies. – letter by Oscar Wilde to his friend Ada Leverson, 1895
In the last line of Oscar Wilde’s last and most famous play, Jack Worthing tells Lady Bracknell, “I’ve now realized for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest.” But what is this “vital” thing, this “earnestness,” around which so much of the play revolves? It is not a stretch to say that no one knows. In all of world drama, there is perhaps no work more unanimously praised as a masterpiece than The Importance of Being Earnest, and certainly no work more deliriously immune to criticism. Everyone agrees that it is important to be “earnest,” but nobody can define what that means.
The play does not appear, at first glance, to stand up to “earnest” analysis. Firstly, it is a farce, a genre often regarded as frivolous. Secondly, the plot consists of a Gilbertian (or Shakespearean) series of absurdities regarding long-lost babies, reunited siblings and a climactic reveal concerning leather goods. Finally, all of the characters are silly, which is to say, they do silly things. The men stuff their faces with muffins and cucumber sandwiches. They masquerade in town and country under assumed names. A young woman writes love letters to a man she’s never met, on the basis of his (romantic-sounding) name.
The key to decoding the play’s meaning lies in its style, which transforms this very silliness into a way of life. Wilde’s wit floats like a butterfly over the play’s absurdities, and it stings like a bee, exposing the deep triviality of “earnest” social convention. For example, in the play’s opening scene, Algernon and his butler Lane glide effortlessly among taboo topics, touching on music and philosophy, science and life, bachelorhood and marriage, and all points in between. It is one of the most dazzling scenes of comic dialogue ever written in the English language, a virtuosic pas de deux. W.H. Auden called The Importance of Being Earnest “the only pure verbal opera in English,” and there can be no doubting its crystalline brilliance.
But the conclusions Wilde reaches here – and in the play – are surprising, if not radically subversive: sentiment rather than accuracy is paramount in art; the science of life is preferable to a life of science; and the “pleasant” state of marriage, not the dissipated one of bachelorhood, is so demoralizing that it is better not to think of it at all. Instead of presenting modern-day problems, in the manner of Shaw, Wilde upends them by refusing to take them seriously. At the end of the play, when Jack’s lies turn out to be the stuff of deep truth, we realize that this light farce has transformed into a profound criticism of Wilde’s contemporary society. The “earnest” life, of the world outside the theatre, is the stuff of smarm, sham and illusion. This play, on the other hand, this frivolous play, in which everything is an illusion, embodies the life of our dreams. It is significant that Wilde subtitled The Importance of Being Earnest “a trivial comedy for serious people.”
The name of Miss Prism tips Oscar’s hand: the demure spinster embodies the play’s principle of reflective reflectiveness. Every character in this play, we realize with a shock, turns out to conceal their own opposite. Wilde’s world is one where all of the women read German philosophy, while the men lounge elegantly on sofas. As Cecily says in Act II, in a line of particularly Wildean inversion, “Once a man begins to neglect his domestic duties he becomes painfully effeminate, does he not? And I don’t like that. It makes men so very attractive.”
Every attribute in this play is subject to the theatre of identity, where it can be lost or acquired. Perhaps, or even especially, social class. The lower classes, as Algernon notes, are “always losing their relations” (Lane: “Yes, my lord, they are extremely fortunate in that respect”). Meanwhile, Lady Bracknell, the play’s paragon of upper-class respectability (herself revealed to be a middle-class arriviste) advises the social climbing Jack to “acquire some relations as soon as possible.”
According to Harold Bloom, The Importance of Being Earnest belongs to the Victorian genre known as “nonsense” literature: the works of Lewis Carroll, J.M. Barrie and Edward Lear, a through-the-looking-glass world of cucumber sandwiches and noms de folie. It is more accurate, however, to group Wilde’s play with another genre entirely. Utopia, as coined by Sir Thomas More in 1516, is a place built out of moments when hierarchies are reversed, and social roles are inverted. Instead of private property, all wealth should be shared. Instead of fear, society should be ruled by pleasure. Wives are subject to their husbands, but husbands are just as subject to their wives. As Professor Pangloss says, in Voltaire’s Candide (1759), this nowhere-land is the “best of all possible worlds.” As Karl Marx wrote in The Communist Manifesto (1848), this imagined future paradise is one in which “all that is solid melts into air.” Marx may as well have been describing Oscar Wilde’s dramaturgy, in which nothing seems to stay in one solid, immutable form.
In his writings, Wilde often returned to this dream, of life lived as a work of art. “The real life,” he once said, “is the life we do not lead.” Wilde’s true ideal was the self-created man or woman. Just as every man has an element of the woman in him, as the play mischievously implies, every low-class striver can be an ideal husband or a woman of importance. Few knew this better than Wilde himself, an Irishman whose lifelong performance of “Englishness” was really a parody of the notion. The true “importance” of being earnest lies in the play’s utopian embrace of triviality, of superficiality, of artificiality. Perhaps this is the reason for the play’s evergreen popularity: every performance of The Importance of Being Earnest offers us a chance to live the Wilde life once more, if only for a few hours. It is the closest we come to what Oscar would call the “real life,” rather than the life we lead.