Thursday, December 2, 2010

“The Importance of Being Earnest”: Critical Appreciation

The Original Four-Act Version of the Play



The Importance of Being Earnest, as originally written, was a four-act play ; but the producer, George Alexander, who was also to play one of the two leading male parts, asked the author to reduce it to three acts. This was done, and it is the three-act version that has been printed and played ever since, though the four-act version is still in existence. There is no doubt that the three-act version was an improvement on the four-act original, though the exclusion of Mr. Grisby, a solicitor’s clerk, who went down to the country to serve a writ of attachment on the fictitious Ernest Worthing was unfortunate as his appearance was only a very short one and affected a good deal of the subsequent dialogue in the play.

The Play, a Great Success


The Importance of Being Earnest was produced at the St. James’s Theatre on the evening of the 14th February, 1893, and was received with great enthusiasm and rapturous delight by both the audience and the critics. With this play, Wilde had conquered London after a long struggle, and had now reached the summit of his success as a writer. Actor-managers everywhere now began to besiege him with requests to write more plays for them. He had, indeed, several plots for plays running in his head but suddenly, four days after the first night of The Importance of Being Earnest, something happened which not only put all thought of work out of his mind for the time being but eventually led to his trial on a charge of homosexuality and to his conviction and a sentence of two years in prison.


A Comedy of Dialogue, With Little Action


The Importance of Being Earnest is a comedy of dialogue with little action. The plot of this play is rather thin and flimsy. It is true that as many as three marriages materialize by the time the play comes to an end, that the mystery of Jack Worthing’s parentage is cleared up, and that Algernon attempts the role of Jack Worthing’s fictitious younger brother. But that is about the entire plot of the play. It is by no means a spectacular or even a substantial plot. Very little happens in the play, though there is abundant or copious conversation. The chef interest of the play arises from the conversation or the dialogue. It is what the characters say that matters and not what they do, because they do very little except talk.


Witty Paradoxes and Epigrams in the Play


The dialogue of this play is full of humour, wit, paradoxical twists, and epigrams. The play is replete with verbal sallies, quips, and repartees. The wit is clever, brilliant, scintillating and highly entertaining. We find humour in Algernon’s masquerade and in the satirical portrait of Dr. Chasuble. Epigrams, shafts of wit, and paradoxical twists come from almost each of the characters. For instance, Algernon gives a witty turn to some of the well-known sayings. Thus the saying “Marriages are made in heaven” is amended by him as : “Divorces are made in heaven.” The saying that two is company and three is none undergoes a change and takes the following shape : “In married life three is company and two is none,” which has a naughty implication. One of Algernon’s wittiest statements is this : “The only way to behave to a woman is to make love to her if she is pretty, and to someone else if she is plain.” All these observations have an epigrammatic quality. Algernon shows his talent for paradox when, instead of using the phrase “washing one’s dirty linen in public,” he speaks of “washing one’s clean linen in public,” and when he says that truth is never pure and simple. Jack is also a witty man. Speaking to Algernon, he says : “Soave aunts are tall, some aunts are not tall. You seem to think that every aunt should be exactly like your aunt.” Gwendolen contributes to the play a fair number of remarks which are paradoxical and witty. Here are some of those remarks :


(l) “The old-fashioned respect for the young is fast dying out.” (2) “Algy, you always adopt a strictly immoral attitude towards life. You are not old enough to do that.” (3) “If you are not too long, I will wait here for you all my life.”


Cecily makes a witty and paradoxical remark when she says “Whenever one has anything unpleasant to say, one should always be candid.” Here is another such remark from her : “When one is going to lead an entirely new life, one requires regular and wholesome meals.” Lady Bracknell too overflows with wit. Examples of her wit are her remarks about’ Mr. Bunbury, her disapproval of “the modern sympathy with invalids,” and her description of Jack’s kneeling to Gwendolen as a “semi-recumbent, indecorous posture.” The following remark by Lady Bracknell is paradoxical :


“A girl with a simple, unspoiled nature, like Gwendolen, can hardly be expected to reside in the country.”


Miss Prism, too, gives evidence of a sense of humour and a capacity to make witty observations. Her remarks about Jack’s (imaginary) younger brother amuse us greatly. Here is a specimen of her wit : “No married man is ever attractive except to his wife.” In fact, this play was written to provide an opportunity to a number of witty characters to display their mental ingenuity in making remarks which make an audience roar with laughter. In this connection it must be pointed out that the witty remarks, observations, and paradoxes have been put into the play “with a fine sense of dramatic form, and not flung into the play as brilliant irrelevances.”


Farcical Absurdities in the Play


The Importance of Being Earnest is far from being a realistic play. In fact, it is completely divorced from the realities of life. It is a play “in which artificiality is exploited for artificiality’s sake, in which the absurd assumes complete command.” Most of the situations in the play are so absurd as to be incredible ; nor are the characters convincing. What can be more absurd than a governess putting, in a fit of absent-mindedness, a baby into a hand-bag and depositing the hand-bag in a railway cloak-room ? Why the police could not trace the absconding governess and why the loss of the baby was treated rather casually by Lord and Lady Bracknell are questions which naturally arise in our minds but to which there are no satisfactory answers. The manner in which Gwendolen responds to Jack’s nervous and incomplete declaration of love touches the very limits of farce. Hardly Las Jack told her that he admires her more than he admires any other girl when she bursts into the following, wholly improbable, speech


“Yes, I am quite well aware of the fact. And I often wish that in public, at any rate, you had been more remonstrative. For me you have always had an irresistible fascination. Even before I met you I was far from indifferent to you. We live, as I hope you know, Mr. Worthing, in an age of ideals. The fact is constantly mentioned in the more expensive monthly magazines, and has reached the provincial pulpits, 1 am told ; and my ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence. The moment Algernon first mentioned to me that he had a friend called Ernest, I knew I was destined to love you.”


Which woman, howsoever advanced or emancipated, would talk like that when a gentleman has barely indicated his inclination towards her? And the infatuation with the name Ernest is utterly ununderstandable. But even the limits of farce are crossed when we learn about Cecily’s passion for Algernon whom she has never met or seen but only heard about. Gwendolen merely anticipated that she would fall in love with a man having the name Ernest ; but Cecily actually falls passionately in love with Ernest on the basis of his name and the accounts she has heard about him. This particular absurdity in Cecily’s behaviour is surpassed when she begins writing letters from Ernest to herself and when subsequently she gets engaged to him in her imagination, going to the length of buying a ring in his name. And as for her infatuation with the name Ernest, this is what Cecily says to her lover :


“You must not laugh at me, darling, but it had always been a girlish dream of mine to love some one whose name was Ernest.”


Here are two clever ladies in the play, equally infatuated with the name Ernest, and both responding with amazing promptness and a rare energy to the declarations of love from their lovers.


The Absurdity of Fictitious Persons in the Play


Another absurdity in the play is Jack’s invention of a younger brother, the invention having been prompted by the need of providing some basis for his frequent visits to London. Algernon’s invention of an ailing friend by the name of Mr. Bunbury is a parallel absurdity. (The parallelism in the play is, of course, to be noted. Cecily’s ready and whole-hearted response to Algernon’s declaration of love is parallel to Gwendolen’s similar response to Jack, while Algernon’s Bunburying is parallel to Jack’s invention of a fictitious younger brother. Likewise, Algernon’s intention to be re-christened and to acquire the name of Ernest is parallel to an identical desire on Jack’s part). But the absurdities have got to be accepted in order that we may enjoy the wit of the play. Again, the characters of Lady Bracknell, Dr. Chasuble, and Miss Prism are more in the nature of caricatures than attempts at realistic portrayal. But within “the orbit of their incredibility” they are delightfully real people.


“A Trivial Comedy For Serious People”


The author called this play “a trivial comedy for serious people.” This in itself is a witty anus paradoxical description of the play. If the play is a comedy, how can serious people be interested in it ? Serious people would be interested in serious matters and not in things which appeal to the comic sense. And if this play is trivial, besides being a comedy, how can it attract even the most casual attention or notice of serious people ? Furthermore, a comedy which derives its whole value from the originality and the brilliance of its wit cannot be called trivial. The word “trivial” has been used either from a feeling of modesty on the author’s part or in an ironical sense––most probably for the latter reason.


Food For Serious, Thought In the Play


As for the play being _meant for serious people, the idea seems to be that it is expected to make even serious people laugh because of its wit. Or, was the author merely having a dig at the serious people and coaxing them into seeing it on the stage in order that they may derive from it some food for thought ? It pleased Wilde to pose as a ‘‘trifler” ; but she was a trifler who was capable of thinking, and there is often a wonderful suggestiveness in his lightest banter and in his wildest paradox. Several examples may be given from this play of remarks which have a serious point. The excessive consumption of wine by servants at parties at Algernon’s flat is a complaint which all bachelors will share. Again, Algernon voices a well-established fact that, strictly speaking, romance ends when a proposal of marriage has been accepted, and accepted readily. Algernon is right also when he speaks of English society suffering from the corruption which is depicted in French drama That relatives are tedious people is another observation which contains a large measure of truth. Besides, the portrayal of Lady Bracknell is an indirect attack on social snobbery and class-consciousness. The portrayal of Dr. Chasuble exposes the ignorance, hypocrisy, and mercenary motives of certain members of the clergy. The play also poses the problem as to how Jack should have been treated by society if he had really been an illegitimate and abandoned child. Gwendolen, no doubt, finds Jack’s history to be exciting, but Lady Bracknell rejects him summarily and it is she who is the true representative o “society”. Indeed, there is much food for thought in this play for serious people, and the author has made it quite delectable, too, by his wit.


The Pun Is the Title of the Play


There is a pun involved in the use of the word “Ernest” (which is a name) and the word “Earnest” (which means serious-minded). The title of the play is The Importance of Being Earnest, which means that, in order to marry the woman one loves, one must have the name Ernest and that, furthermore, one must be earnest (that is, really anxious and keen) to marry her. Jack and Algernon can be accepted as husbands on the condition that they possess the name Ernest, but also on the further condition that they are really keen to marry the girls with whom they are in love. Thus there is the “importance” of having the name “Ernest” and of being “earnest”. This pun makes the title of the play quite amusing, and therefore serves to indicate the comic quality of the whole play.

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