Source of book: I own this. My particular copy was given to me by my mother, and contains four additional plays by Wilde.
I haven’t read any drama for the last two years. Even typing that makes me sad. From henceforth, I resolve to keep a play in my book pile.
As I am a great fan of wit, what better way to start than by reading Oscar Wilde? I read a scene or two from The Importance of Being Earnest back in high school, but didn’t own the book until later. I do not believe I ever finished it, which is a shame, because it is quite enjoyable.
Many people associate Wilde with his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which has been a fertile source for Science Fiction ever since. He wrote in a wide range of genres: drama, fiction, essays, and poetry; all of which are worth reading. Dorian Gray was considered to be scandalous in its time, in part because of its author, who was rumored to be homosexual. Later, he was actually convicted of this crime, which further tarnished and embellished his reputation.
Earnest is a wonderfully witty and snarky play. I could quote from any random page and find a delicious witticism, or at least a rapier sharp takedown of literature or society. Like any good satirist, Wilde is amusing because he sees truth. Without hypocrisy, there is no satire; and without room for satire, hypocrisy becomes totalitarianism. This is why the Danish cartoons of Mohammed have caused violence, rather than guilty laughter. We can either laugh at our faults, or kill those who do.
A bad pun is at the heart of The Importance of Being Earnest. Both Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff are young gentlemen who are anything but earnest. They both create imaginary characters to aid them in their irresponsibility. Soon enough, both have assumed the character of Jack’s imaginary brother Ernest. Two eligible young women fall in love with them, believing each to have the name of Ernest. Obviously (to them), neither “Jack” nor “Algernon” are suitable as names for husbands. Only “Ernest” will do. As expected, much hilarity ensues.
Other memorable characters are Lady Bracknell, Algernon’s aunt, who provided P. G. Wodehouse with his template for the infamous Aunt Agatha; Lane, a butler who might be an early version of Jeeves; Miss Prism, the puritan governess; and Reverend Chausable, the clergyman willing to forsake celibacy for his love for Miss Prism.
I must quote a few lines to give the flavor of the play. Algernon, who has been playing the piano, says to Lane, “I don’t play accurately – any one can play accurately – but I play with wonderful expression.” At this point, all of us musicians nod our heads.
Later, Jack and Algernon are discussing dinner parties and having to sit next to married couples. Algernon, who is even more cynical than Jack comments, “The amount of women in London who flirt with their own husbands is perfectly scandalous. It looks so bad. It is simply washing one’s clean linen in public.”
Algernon’s imaginary invalid friend, Mr. Bunbury, is his prop to get out of unwanted social obligations. Invited to dine with Lady Bracknell? Bunbury is sick and needs care. Lady Bracknell is not impressed.
“Well, I must say, Algernon, that I think it is high time that Mr. Bunbury made up his mind whether he was going to live or die. This shilly-shallying with the question is absurd. Nor do I in any way approve of the modern sympathy with invalids. I consider it morbid. Illness of any kind is hardly a thing to be encouraged in others. Health is the primary duty of life. I am always telling that to your poor uncle, but he never seems to take much notice…as far as any improvement in his ailment goes.”
Lady Bracknell is hardly the only misanthropic character. Her distaste for mankind is aristocratic; that of Miss Prism is puritanical. When Cecily, who is Jack’s ward and later Algernon’s love interest, expresses an interest in reforming Jack’s (imaginary) dissolute brother Ernest, she states, “I am not in favor of this modern mania for turning bad people into good people at a moment’s notice. As a man sows, so let him reap.”
Miss Prism further disdains all attraction between the sexes – except perhaps on the basis of moral character. Algernon is attempting to woo Cecily, and uses the old line: “You are the prettiest girl I ever saw.”
Cecily responds, “Miss Prism says that all good looks are a snare.”
“They are a snare that every sensible man would like to be caught in,” says the smitten Algernon.”
Not to be outdone in wit, Cecily counters, “Oh, I don’t think I would care to catch a sensible man. I shouldn’t know what to talk to him about.”
Later in the play, Algernon takes his pursuit even farther, asking for Cecily’s hand in marriage. As he does, Cecily attempts to put his words down in her diary as he says them, asking him to go back and repeat things so she gets it right. This, predictably, causes him to get ever more flustered and ever less poetic than he intended. As a lawyer, this made me wonder if proposing to a court reporter were a bit like this.
As a final bit of wit, I cannot help but quote a dialogue between Cecily and Miss Prism, who most decidedly does not approve of Cecily’s diary.
CECILY: I keep a diary in order to enter the wonderful secrets of my life. If I didn’t write them down, I should probably forget all about them.
MISS PRISM: Memory, my dear Cecily, is the diary that we all carry about with us.
CECILY: Yes, but it usually chronicles the things that have never happened, and couldn’t possibly have happened. I believe that the Memory is responsible for nearly all the three-volume novels that [a popular pulp novel publisher] sends us.
MISS PRISM: Do not speak slightingly of the three-volume novel, Cecily. I wrote one myself in earlier days.
CECILY: Did you really, Miss Prism? How wonderfully clever you are! I hope it did not end happily? I don’t like novels that end happily. They depress me so much.
MISS PRISM: The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.
Read this play, or better yet, see it live if you can. Wilde’s wit and penetrating knowledge of his world (and ours) never really gets old. Human nature remains the same, with the same foibles and tics. Wilde captures these, and brings them to a razor-sharp life, unmistakable as the essence of what we really think, but cannot bring ourselves to say out loud.
Note: I read the original version of the play, with the full four acts. Wilde later shortened it slightly, and compressed the action into three acts.
The original production of The Importance of Being Earnest in 1895 with Allan Aynesworth as Algernon (left) and George Alexander as Jack (right)