Thursday, December 2, 2010

How far is it appropriate to describe The Importance of Being Earnest as a farcical comedy ?

An Artificial, Farcical Comedy

The Importance of Being Earnest belongs to a literary genre known as artificial comedy. This kind of play flourished during the Restoration in England and was subsequently revived by Congreve. This kind of comedy is entirely lacking in truth to nature, and it creates an artificial, imaginary, illusory world. The Importance of Being Earnest too is deficient in truth to nature. However, it is free from the indecency and obscenity which were a glaring feature of Restoration comedy. The Importance of Being Earnest is characterized by exaggeration and extravagance both in its plot and its dialogue. In fact, the keynote of this play is absurdity. The proper description of this play is to call it a farce.An Artist in Sheer Nonsense

One of the contemporary reviewers of this play expressed the view that by writing The Importance of Being Earnest Wilde “found himself as an artist in sheer nonsense”. That reviewer called this play a farce “in which there is no discordant note of seriousness”. “It is of nonsense all compact, and better nonsense our stage has. not seen,” he added. In this play Wilde shows himself as “an artificer of the ludicrous”. There is no philosophy, no profundity, no underlying significance, no symbolism, and no theme even in this play. It is just talk, witty talk, and the chief interest of thee play lies in that witty talk.

A Trivial Comedy For Serious People

Wide described the play as a “trivial comedy”, and, he was right ; but he also described it as a trivial comedy “for serious people”, which is a paradox characteristic of Wilde. How can a trivial comedy appeal to serious people ? Perhaps Wilde meant that even serious people would be moved to laughter by the comedy of this play. Or, perhaps, he meant that, though it was a trivial comedy,, it did convey certain ideas which might interest serious people.

The Farcical Situation of a Baby Found in a Hand-Bag

The distinguishing feature of a farcical comedy, as already indicated above, is exaggeration to the point of absurdity. Now, most of the situations in The Importance of Being Earnest are absurd and they amuse us by their very absurdity. The central situation about which the play hinges is Jack’s having been found in a hand-bag in the cloak-room of a railway station in London. Jack is thus a foundling. (A foundling is a child who is found somewhere, having been abandoned or forsaken, most probably because it was -an illegitimate child and its mother wanted to get. rid of it in the hope that somebody else would find it and bring it up out of sympathy or pass it on to an orphanage). The fact of` being a foundling is not by itself absurd. What is absurd is that Miss Prism, the nurse, committed a blunder by putting the child in a hand-bag and the three-volume novel written by her in the perambulator instead of putting the manuscript in the hand-bag and letting the child remain in the perambulator. Now, it is impossible for us to believe that anybody, no matter how absentminded, can commit a blunder of that kind. That is not the only absurdity. We do not understand why, after having committed that blunder, Miss Prism did not go back to her employers to report the loss of the child and why she simply disappeared from the scene. There is nothing absurd about Mr. Thomas Cardew’s discovery of the foundling, but it is absurd that he should have named the child Worthing because he was having a first-class railway ticket for a sea-side resort called Worthing.

The Witty Remarks Made By Lady Bracknell

The absurdity of the manner in which Jack was lost as an infant serves as the basis for a number of witty remarks by Lady Bracknell and also as the basis for her rejection of Jack as her would-be son-in-law. When, in the course of her interrogation of Jack, she is told that he does not know his parentage, she tells him that she can never allow her daughter “to marry into a cloak-room and form an alliance with a parcel”, which is one of her most witty remarks. When Jack asks her what he should do under the circumstances, her advice to him is to try and acquire some relations as soon as possible and to make a definite effort to produce at any rate one parent, of either sex, as soon as possible. When, towards the end of the play, Miss Prism gives an account of how she had lost the child, Jack jumps to the conclusion that he is the illegitimate son of Miss Prism herself and so he amuses us by offering to forgive his supposed mother for her act of folly in having been seduced and having given birth to an illegitimate child.

The Absurdity of Gwendolen’s Rapturous Reaction to the Name “Ernest”

Another absurdity which could be found only in a farcical comedy is Gwendolen’s rapturous reaction to the name of Ernest. She tells Jack that it had always been her ideal to love some one of the name of Earnest because there is something in this name that inspires absolute confidence. She adds that the moment her cousin Algernon first mentioned to, her the fact that he had a friend called Ernest, she knew that she was destined; to love the man having that name. She also makes the paradoxical statement that she was far from indifferent to Jack even before having met him. He always had an irresistible fascination for her, she says. She also makes it clear that she could not love a man with any other name. The name Jack, for instance, is not acceptable to her because this name is a notorious domesticity for John. Gwendolen pities any woman who is married to a man called John because such a woman would never enjoy the pleasure of a single moment’s solitude. The name Ernest, she says, is a divine name, with a music of its own. It is a name that produces vibrations. All Gwendolen’s comments on the name Ernest are absurd, but delightfully witty. No woman in her senses would talk in this way about a name, but this very talk constitutes one of the comic highlights of the play.

The Absurdity of Cecily’s Having Fallen in Love With Algernon

Another absurdity in this farcical comedy is Cecily’s similar reaction to the name Ernest. Cecily too says that there is something in the name Ernest which seems to inspire absolute confidence, and she too pities any poor married woman whose husband is not called Ernest. She too says that it had always been a girlish dream of hers to love some one whose name was Ernest. We have already noted the absurdity of Gwendolen’s reaction to the name Ernest, and now a similar reaction oh the part of another girl to that name makes the situation doubly absurd. Not only that, the absurdity in Cecily’s case is further heightened by the account she gives to Jack of now she tell in love with him and got engaged to him in her imagination. She tells Jack that she had become engaged to him on the kith of February, about three months ago, and that the next day she had bought an engagement ring in his name and also a bangle with the true lover’s knot which she promised him in her imagination always to wear. The absurdity does not end here. Cecily has also been writing letters to her lover, and been replying to those letters on his behalf. She always wrote three times a week, and sometimes oftener. “Oh one occasion she broke off her engagement with him because of a quarrel, but she forgave him within the same week and got engaged to him again.

The Absurdity of the Proposed Christenings

Yet another absurdity in the play is “the decision of both Algernon and Jack to be rechristened in order to acquire the name of Ernest watch has fascinated their beloveds. Both of them make appointments with Dr. Chasuble for the christening ceremonies which Dr. Chasuble readily agrees to perform is really surprising and incredible that two sensible, well-educated girls should be fascinated by a name, and that two sensible and well-educated men should think of changing their names to Ernest because of that fascination. But farcical situations are always incredible or at least improbable.

The Absurdity of Certain Remarks and Statements

Then there are some remarks made by the various characters, in the play which are too preposterous to be believed, and these remarks too are part of the farce. For instance, Gwendolen makes the paradoxical and amusing remark that the simplicity of Jack’s character makes him exquisitely incomprehensible to her. (if a man’s character is simple, it should be perfectly comprehensible and not incomprehensible). Cecily makes the remark that the memory of a human being records the things that have never happened and could no; possibly have happened, which too is a paradoxical statement. Dr. Chasuble says that his sermon on the meaning of the manna in the wilderness can be adapted to almost any occasion, joyful or distressing. Cecily’s keenness to enter in her diary the words that Algernon speaks in praise of her beauty is also absurd. Her saying that Dr. Chasuble is a great scholar who has never written a single book is also a remark of that kind. Algernon makes the remark that half of the people who get into the Bankruptcy Court are called Algernon. Another remark of the same kind which Algernon makes is that, when he is in. trouble, eating is the only thing that consoles him.

The Realistic Elements in the Play

In spite of so many absurdities in this play, it must be admitted that there are a number of realistic, and credible situations and happenings in the play also. For instance, there is nothing, nonsensical or absurd or fantastic about Algernon’s invention of Bunbury and Jack’s invention of a younger brother called Ernest. We all seek excuses for some of out unusual or objectionable activities, and both Algernon and Jack have created two persons in order to cover up their escapades. Lady Bracknell’s reaction to Jack’s account of his origin is also perfectly believable. No society lady would agree to the marriage of her daughter with a man whose parentage is not known. Lady Bracknell’s reaction to the fact that Cecily has a large amount of money in her name is also perfectly believable, because a bride who can bring a rich dowry is always acceptable to people. There is nothing fantastic about the three love-affairs in the play also. It is perfectly natural for Jack to be in love with Gwendolen, for Algernon to fall in love with Cecily as soon as he sees her, and for Dr Chasuble to be attracted by Miss Prism and to marry her in order to relieve his loneliness even though the Primitive Church was opposed to matrimony. Nor is there anything absurd about Gwendolen’s flight from home to meet her lover at his country home. So many girls run away from their homes to join their lovers.

The Possible Appeal of This Play For Serious People

It is quite possible that Wilde, apart from providing rich comic fare to his audiences, wanted also the serious people among them to derive some food for thought from his play. Wilde posed as a “trifler”, but he was a, trifler with a capacity for, thinking, and there is often a wonderful suggestiveness in his lightest banter and his wildest paradox. Several remarks in the play seem-to have a” serious point. For instance, the excessive consumption of wine by servants at parties at. Algernon’s flat is the kind of complaint which all bachelors will share. Again, Algernon voices a well established fact that, strictly speaking, romance ends when a proposal of marriage is accepted. Algernon is right also when he speaks of English society of the time suffering from the corruption which was depicted in French drama. That relatives are a pack of tedious people is another observation containing a large measure of truth. Another serious element in the play is the portrayal of Lady Bracknell as a snobbish woman with a mercenary outlook. This portrayal is a satirical attack on social snobbery, class-consciousness, and greed for money. The portrayal of Dr. Chasuble may also be taken in a serious light as a satirical picture of the .hypocrisy and shallowness of certain members of the clergy. Furthermore, the play also poses the problem as to how Jack should have been treated by society if he had really been an abandoned, illegitimate child. Gwendolen, no doubt, finds Jack’s origin to be exciting or stirring, but Lady Bracknell rejects him summarily, and it is Lady Bracknell, who is the true representative of fashionable society. Indeed, there is much food for thought in the play for serious people, and the author has made it very enjoyable too by his wit.

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