The Importance of Being Earnest is Wilde’s best and most highly acclaimed play. Wilde had achieved his first major success in the sphere of drama with Lady Windermere’s Fan. The two plays which followed Lady Windermere’s Fan were A Woman of No Importance and An Ideal Husband, and both these had also proved to be notable triumphs. With these three plays, Wilde’s popularity as a playwright had fully been established. But The Importance of Being Earnest was his crowning achievement, and is, by common consent, his masterpiece.
The Phenomenal Reception Given to This Play
The Importance of Being Earnest started its theatrical career on the 14th February, 1895, at the St. James’s Theatre, and the reception given to the play on that opening night was phenomenal. One of the actors who had played a role said about the play afterwards : “In my fifty-three years of acting, I never remember a greater triumph than the first night of The Importance of Being Earnest. The audience rose in their seats and cheered, and cheered again.” Most critics were equally impressed. H. G. Wells, who had been disappointed with An Ideal Husband, found Wilde’s new play thoroughly delightful. William Archer, intrigued by its curiously elusive wit, declared the play to be “an absolutely wilful expression of an irrepressibly witty personality,” adding: “It is delightful to see ; it sends wave after wave of laughter curling and foaming round the theatre. Farce is far too gross and commonplace a word to apply to such an iridescent* filament of fantasy.” Another reviewer said : “Believe me, it is with no ironic intention that I declare Mr. Oscar Wilde to have found himself at last as an artist in sheer nonsense. There is in The Importance of Being Earnest no discordant note of seriousness. It is of nonsense all compact, and better nonsense, I think, our stage has not seen. The laughter it excites is absolutely free from bitter after-thought.” A relatively new dramatic critic had this to say about the play : “It is all very funny, and Mr. Oscar Wilde has decorated a humour that is Gilbertian with innumerable spangles* of wit that is all his own. We must congratulate him unreservedly on a delightful revival of theatrical satire.” It may also be pointed out here that the play, as originally written, consisted of four acts, and that the fourth act was cut at the suggestion of the actor-manager, George Alexander, In this act, Jack Worthing, in his role of his imaginary brother Ernest, finds himself in imminent danger of imprisonment for unpaid debts.
The Weaknesses of This Play, and Its Principal Merit
But some critics dissented from this widespread praise. G. B. Shaw, who had delighted in An Ideal Husband found the new play amusing but insisted that “the general effect is that of a farcical comedy dating from the seventies.” Moreover, added Shaw, the play lacked “humanity” ––a quality which Shaw perhaps associated with his own drama of social and political reform. But, curiously, Shaw seems to have overlooked the obvious and significant point that Wilde, like Shaw himself, had taken the conventional dramatic form and infused it with a new vitality. The well-known periodical Punch, printed a fictitious interview with Wilde to suggest its attitude towards his new play. Here is a part of that interview :
Q. Why give a play such a title as The Importance of Being Earnest ?
A. Why not ?
Q. Does the trivial comedy require a plot ?
A. Nothing to speak of.
Q. Or characterization ?
A. No, for the same kind of dialogue will do for all the company-for London ladies, country girls, justices of the peace, doctors of divinity, maid-servants, and confidential, butlers.
Q. What sort of dialogue ?
A. Inverted proverbs and renovated paradoxes.
The questions and answers in this interview focus our attention on some of the most striking features not only of The Importance of Being Earnest but of the other plays of Wilde as well. In the first place, there is very little of what we call “plot” in Wilde’s plays. Secondly, there is hardly any characterization, and the various persons in these plays are not at all individualized. Thirdly, almost every character possesses a talent for making witty remarks. Finally, the dialogue contains a number of proverbs which are modified or inverted to suit the author’s purpose, and also many paradoxes so renovated as to amuse the audience. Now, all these weaknesses are certainly to be found in The Importance of Being Earnest. But the imaginary interview quoted above does, not refer to the chief merit of this play, and that is its brilliance as a comedy. The play was designed to make the audience laugh, and it did succeed in making the audiences of the time roar with laughter. Nor has the sparkling and scintillating wit of the play become stale even today. The play makes the present-day audiences laugh as much as it made the audiences of the time laugh when it was first produced. Wilde himself joined in the praise of his play when he said : “The first act is ingenious, the second beautiful, and the third abominably clever.”
Wilde’s Own Reaction to the Success of the Play
Wilde pretended to be rather vexed by the chorus of praise which greeted the play. “There are two ways of disliking my plays.” he said : “one way is to dislike them, the other is to prefer The Importance of Being Earnest.” But this epigram had been rather over-worked, for Wilde had used it in connection with art and poetry “There are two ways of disliking art ; one way is to dislike it, the other is to like it rationally.” And : “There are two ways of disliking poetry ; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope.” Actually, of course, Wilde was immensely pleased with the success of his play. Two* of his plays were running in the West End of London at the same time, both of them great successes, and each quite different from the other. Furthermore, no play in living memory bad been received by intelligent audiences with such continuous and hilarious laughter as was The Importance of Being Earnest at every performance, and when the curtain tell on each act the applause was felt to be much more for the author than for the actors. Nevertheless the performances of the two chief male characters were worthy of the play, and have never been equalled since, the reason being that the later actors playing the roles of Algernon and Jack have not realized the vital importance of being earnest in their roles. They have been either studiously affected or consciously comical, instead of being realistic and serious, and the fun of the play on the stage depends on the simple sincerity and perfect gravity of the ‘actors. Once the audience begins to feel that the actors themselves are also enjoying the joke, or are performing their parts in an artificial manner as if they did not really believe in them, the humour largely evaporates.
Subsequent Stage-History of the Play
Despite Wilde’s arrest on the 5th April, 1895, The Importance of Being Earnest ran until the 8th May for a total of eighty-six performances, Wilde’s name having been removed from the playbills and programmes. George Alexander, the actor and manager who played the role of Jack Worthing, attributed the loss of almost three hundred pounds on this production to the scandal of Wilde’s arrest. In 190, he revived the play at the St. James’s Theatre, but this production was also not very successful financially although it was critically well received. Max Beerbohm, reviewing it for the Saturday Review, described the play as
“fresh and exquisite, and over the whole house almost every line was sending ripples of laughter––cumulative ripples that became waves, and receded only for fear of drowning the next line. In kind the play always was unlike any other, and in its kind it still seems perfect. I do not wonder that now the critics boldly call it a classic, and predict immortality. And I join gladly in their chorus.”
In 1909, the second revival staged by Alexander ran for eleven months and made a profit of over twentyone thousand pounds. Further revivals were presented by Alexander in 1911 and 1913.
A Cool Reception to the Play In America
Unlike the London production, the New York production which opened on the 22nd April, 1895, two days before Wilde’s trial, at the Empire Theatre was not well received by the critics. William Winter the well-known critic for the New York Daily Tribune who usually disapproved of Wilde’s work, did not even review the play. The Sun was the only daily newspaper to write favourably of the production :
“The audience did not give the smallest indication that it knew or cared anything about the playwright, further than to appreciate the fact that he had written an exceedingly clever piece.”
Despite the generally unfavourable reception from most of the American critics, the play ran for a few weeks, but its closing marked the beginning of a period of oblivion for Wilde in America that was to last for ten years.