The plot of The Importance of Being Earnest is rather complicated and therefore difficult to follow. In the morning-room of his flat in Half-Moon Street we find Algernon Moncrieff talking to his man-servant, Lane, about the excessive amount of champagne which he has drunk, a dialogue which leads to the subject of marriage on which Algernon comments thus :“Lane’s views on marriage seem somewhat lax. Really, if the lower orders don’t set 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.”
Algernon is Joined by his friend Ernest Worthing. The latter announces that be is in love with Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolen Fairfax, who is coming to tea with her mother Lady Bracknell. Algernon produces a cigarette-case which Ernest Worthing left behind on a previous visit, and asks for an explanation of the inscription inside: “From little Cecily, with her fondest love, to her dear Uncle Jack.” It turns out that Ernest is actually called Jack (or; more properly John) and that he was adopted at an early age by a Mr. Thomas Cardew. Mr. Cardew bad also, in his will, made him guardian to his grand-daughter, Miss Cecily Cardew, who in the countryside under the charge of her governess, Miss Prism. In order to go up to London he has pretended to have a younger; Wicked brother called Ernest who lives in the Albany, but he has now decided to put an end to the pretence. Algernon then confesses that in order to get out of town he pretends to have an invalid friend called by the name of Bunbury to whose side he is frequently called. Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen-arrive, to take tea. Later, while Lady Bracknell is in the next room selecting music for her last reception of the season, she says :
“French songs I cannot possibly allow. People always seem to think that they are improper and either look shocked which is vulgar, or laugh, which is worse. But German sounds a thoroughly respectable language and indeed, I believe, is so.”
Jack takes the opportunity to propose marriage to Gwendolen who is a very self-possessed young lady. However, she accepts big” under the name of Ernest––“the only really safe name.” They are interrupted by Lady Bracknell who interviews Jack as a prospective son-in-law but on learning that he was a foundling*––found in a hand-bag––at once rejects him. She cannot dream of allowing her only daughter–– “a girl brought up with the utmost care––to marry into a cloak-room and form an alliance with a parcel.” Gwendolen manages to have a last-minute conversation with Jack in which she says that she may need to communicate with him urgently and requests to be given his country address. The address is overheard by Algernon. When at the end of this Act Algernon asks Lane to prepare his Bunbury outfit, we can be sure that mischief is afoot.
The second and third Acts are set in the countryside at the Manor House, Woolton. Oscar Wilde is here writing clever variation on the old theme of the corruption of the town and the innocence of the country, particularly as he sets Act II in the garden amid roses, a large yew-tree, and basket-chairs. In this Eden we find Cecily at her studies supervised by Miss Prism whose adoration of the. Rector, Canon Chasuble, is obvious. Algernon then; enters in the guise or Jack’s younger brother, the wicked let nest, and begins at once to flirt with Cecily. Shortly afterwards Jack is seen emerging from the back of the garden dressed in mourning clothes. He announces the death of his wicked brother, Ernest, in Paris. A farcical situation ensues when Algernon and Jack face each other. When Algernon resumes his flirtation with Cecily, he finds that, she has always been determined to love someone by the name of Ernest. In consequence both he and Jack wish Cannon Chasuble to christen them with the name of Ernest. While the two men are absent, Gwendolen is shown in Jealousy and curiosity have brought her down into the countryside to find out more about Jack whom she knows only as Ernest. The two young women find that they seem to be engaged to an Ernest Worthing. After a scene of formal, restrained, and ruthless bitchiness, they join forces against Jack and Algernon who are left alone to eat snit muffins of which they are both extremely fond. (Wilde may have derived some of this action from W. S. Gilbert’s Engaged).
The third and last Act takes place in the drawing-room. Originally, Wilde had set it in the garden and then moved it to a drawing-room. Lady Bracknell arrives. She refuses to allow a marriage with Algernon until she learns that Cecily is the heiress to an immense fortune, whereupon she sees in her many admirable qualities which she had hitherto overlooked. Jack takes his revenge by revealing that, under the terms of her grand-father’s will, Cecily is not allowed to marry without the consent of her guardian until she is thirty five. That does not seem an objection to Lady Bracknell who says
“Thirty five is a very attractive age. London society is full of women of the very highest birth who have of their own free will remained thirty five for years. I see no reason why our dear Cecily should not be even still more attractive at the age you mention than she is at present._ There will be a large accumulation of property.”
However, Cecily shows a somewhat impatient nature by declaring that she cannot wait so long. The situation is resolved by the appearance of Miss Prism. It turns out that years before she had been in the service of Lord Bracknell and had disappeared with a baby of the male sex in n perambulator. Miss Prism confesses that she had put the manuscript of a novel, which she had written in her leisure hours, in the perambulator and had placed the baby in a hand-bag which in s moment of absent-mindedness she had deposited in the cloak-room of Victoria railway station. Lady Bracknell solves the riddle of John’s birth still further : he is the eldest son of her poor sister, Mrs. Moncrieff, and therefore the brother of Algernon. The baby deposited in the cloak-room at Victoria railway station is none other than John Worthing who now finds his place in society as Algernon’s elder. brother, Lady Bracknell’s nephew, Gwendolen’s cousin and fiance, and Cecily’s guardian and brother-in-law to be. The play ends with declarations of love exchanged between Algernon and Cecily, Jack and Gwendolen, and Canon Chasuble and Miss Prism. The action takes place within twenty-four hours.
The Subordination of Every Dramatic Element to Dialogue
Although The Importance of Being Earnest is frequently described as a masterpiece of construction, there is a clumsiness in the balance of events in the first Act and those of the next two Acts (which take place on the following day). Part of the weakness of the first Act derives from the late entry of Lady Bracknell whose dialogue intensifies the humour to a point from which it can only fall away after her exit. Contemporary critics stressed Wilde’s indebtedness to the French theatre. They also mentioned the influence of W. S. Gilbert who was famous for his neat, farcical constructions. W. H. Auden has this to say about Wilde’s play :
“In The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde succeeded in writing what is perhaps the only pure verbal opera in English The solution that, deliberately or accidentally, he found was to subordinate every other dramatic element to dialogue for its own sake and create a verbal universe in which the characters are determined by the kinds of things they say, and the plot is nothing but a succession of opportunities to say them.”
Auden seems here to have put his finger on a basic element in this comedy, although he does less than justice to the visual factors and to Wilde’s sense of social justice which pervades the greater part of his work. Nevertheless, The Importance of Being Earnest can reasonably be described as a purely verbal opera, with all the fun and gaiety to be found in the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan but without any of the pathos or sympathetic studies of love to be found in those of Mozart. The play falls, as most producers from Alexander onwards have realized, into set pieces : duets, trios, quartets and septets, as well as into a number of arias of a varied and baroque nature. Even the amusing mistake, vastly improbable as it was, whereby Jack Worthing, when a baby, was placed in a hand-bag and deposited in the cloak-room at Victoria railway station and the manuscript of a three-volume novel put in his place in the basinette by the absent-minded Miss Prism, has its counterpart in opera, serious and comic.
A Series of Secrets, the Basis of the Play’s Construction
The construction of the play also rests on a series of secrets. It has sometimes been remarked that Wilde’s social comedies depend on secrets ; but it would be nearer the truth to sav that the action arises from disclosure or the fear of disclosure. Deception and deceit are, in any case, the basis of most comedy and The importance of Being Earnest is no exception. Algernon goes down into the countryside under the pretext of visiting an invalid friend called Bunbury, while John Worthing excuses his absences from his country home by claiming to have a profligate brother called Ernest who lives at B.4, the Albany, in those days a somewhat raffish* place of residence and eminently suitable for a disreputable bachelor whose immigration to Australia is under consideration. While in town, John Worthing (who prefers to call himself Jack) is known as Ernest. In the first Act he tells Gwendolen that he is staying in town until Monday but retreats to the countryside the very next day, probably to announce the death of his fictitious brother Ernest and also to have himself christened under that name. Gwendolen, after having obtained Jack’s country address on the pretext that she might have to communicate with him urgently and after having made sure that he is remaining in London, goes down into the countryside the very next day to investigate his home-background. After halving overheard the conversation between Jack and Gwendolen, Algernon notes down this country address and, pretending to be the profligate brother Ernest, manages to slither into the country home and meet Cecily. Lady Bracknell is no less tricky in this respect. She bribes Gwendolen’s maid and manages to find out where Gwendolen has gone. Lady Bracknell’s own life has been touched by scandal and mystery when her infant nephew disappeared, together with his nurse-maid, and could not be recovered despite the elaborate investigations by the metropolitan police who succeeded only in finding the perambulator standing by itself in a remote corner of Bays water. Miss Prism has lived with the guilty secret of her misdeed (and without her hand-bag), for nearly thirty years. But John Worthing alias Jack Worthing alias Ernest Worthing, has lived with even greater scandals : those of his unknown parents, of his having been found, and of his having been found in the cloak-room of one of the railway stations, places known before now to have concealed social indiscretions. In the four-Act version there is an even greater scandal, when Jack or John, masquerading as Ernest Worthing, is served with the writ for his unpaid account at the instigation of the Savoy Hotel, which seems to indicate that not only does John give himself up to a life of pleasure as Ernest but acts the part so fully as to run into debts under that name, a somewhat unnecessary course of action in view of his immense wealth. This wealth is also mysterious, because we learn little of the late Mr. Thomas Cardew, grand father to Cecily and benefactor to John and who has left him a country house with about fifteen hundred acres attached to it, a town house at 149, Belgrave Square, and an income of between seven and eight thousand pounds a year. His lack of direct heirs is not referred to. It would have been interesting to know whether Mr. Cardew actually rose from the ranks of the aristocracy or was born in the purple of commerce. Whatever the case, his name appears in the exclusive Court Guides of the period and he must have been therefore among the wealthiest men in London. When John learns .that the hand-bag in which he was found had belonged to Miss Prism, he falls at her feet and calls her “mother”, willingly accepting that she was his unmarried mother. Of course, this is a piece of comic lunacy on Wilde’s part––and to accept the fact that John is a bastard is a trifling matter after the various upheavals he has gone through. Nor is little Cecily above deceit, though of a petty kind, as when she tells Gwendolen that her engagement is to be announced in the local newspaper. The lives of the servants too are not above suspicion. Lane, the manservant, was married in consequence of a misunderstanding between himself and a young woman, a situation of which he speaks distantly.
Deceptions and Misunderstandings
The entanglements of the plot proceed directly from Algernon’s reading the inscription inside John’s cigarette-case to which he has been holding on since John last dined at home with him. Deceptions and misunderstandings are the essence of farce and, to a lesser extent, of comedy, so that it is wrong to regard those in The Importance of Being Earnest in too serious a light. But their existence as part of the dramatic situation must be noted by the reader and stressed by both actors and producers. Though they are decidedly comic, they might very well have been tragic ; and there is nothing funny about an arrest of any kind, as Wilde was to learn for himself only a few weeks after the first performance of the play. (In the original four-act version of this play, Algernon is arrested for the debts of the imaginary Ernest. The Importance of Being Earnest was produced on the stage in 1895 and in the same year Wilde himself was arrested on a charge of homosexuality).
Declarations of Love at the End
As Shakespeare in his comedies, Wilde in this play is concerned with young people, love, and marriage ; and as Shakespeare’s comedies are generally set in the open air, so Wilde sets part of his play in an English garden. At the end we are presented with declarations of love (which imply proposals of marriage) by the two young couples as well as the older, graver Miss Prism and Canon Chasuble. The two young men are also, in a sense, regenerated by killing off their pretended identities and seeking fresh baptism. John soon declares his intention of killing off his brother and, in fact, announces that Ernest is “dead, quite dead” ; while Algernon kills off his alter ego* Bunbury : “Bunbury is dead. I killed Bunbury this afternoon. He was quite exploded.”
The Question of Baptism
If we take the intention of the two young men to be baptised as symbolic of their turning their backs on their old life and facing their new (married) life in an appropriate state of earnestness, we are reminded by Wilde that they are, in the Christian faith, already redeemed. The laughter arises not only from their casual attitude towards christening but also from the different attitudes of Lady Bracknell and Canon Chasuble. Lady Bracknell does not underestimate the importance of christening, least of all in the financial sense, for she says that at John’s birth he experienced it together with “every luxury that money could buy”, and his desire to be re-christened is described as “grotesque and irreligious” and as an “excess” ––which theologically speaking, it is. Canon Chasuble reinforces the theological attitude when addressing Algernon : “Yes, but you have been christened. That is the important thing.”