There is very little action in the plays of Oscar Wilde. Wilde’s own mother once complained to him about the dearth of action in his plays and urged him to put more action in them. However, action was not the strong point of Wilde as a playwright. All his famous plays, of which there are only four, are comedies of dialogue, and The Importance of Being Earnest is no exception. The notion in this play is quite inadequate and the entire appeal of the play lies in the brilliance of its dialogue.
Action in Act I
Hardly anything happens in the entire play. In terms of action, The Importance of Being Earnest is a flimsy play.” In Act I, for instance, the only action consists in the following developments Jack Worthing’s visit to Algernon’s flat ; the arrival of Lady Bracknell and her daughter Gwendolen for tea at the same place ; Jack’s proposal of marriage to Gwendolen and her immediate acceptance of it Jack’s inward decision to change his name to Ernest; Lady Bracknell’s rejection of Jack as possible son-in-law after her interrogation of him and his confession that he does not know his parentage. Besides these incidents, we are also informed that while Algernon has invented an ailing friend by the name o Bunbury to serve as an excuse for his frequently leaving the town to escape from its social activities, Jack has invented a younger brother by the name of Ernest in order to serve as an excuse for his leaving his country home in order to pay frequent visits to London.
Action in Act II
In Act II the action consists in the following situations Cecily’s finding an excuse for Miss Prism to go for a walk with Dr. Chasuble ; Algernon’s arrival at the Manor House in disguise in order to get acquainted with Cecily, Jack’s return home in mourning clothes ; Gwendolen’s unexpected arrival at Jack’s country home and the misunderstanding that takes place between her and Cecily ;Algernon’s decision and the arrangements made by both Jack and Algernon for their christening by Dr. Chasuble ; and Algernon’s refusal to leave Jack’s house.
Action in Act III
In Act III, the action consists in Lady Bracknell’s arrival at the Manor House ; Lady Bracknell’s approval of Cecily’s marriage to Algernon but her continued disapproval of Gwendolen’s marriage to Jack ; Jack’s objection to Cecily’s marriage to Algernon ; Lady Bracknell’s interrogation of Miss Prism and the resolution of the main complication of the play.
The Wit and Humour in the Remarks of All the Characters
Thus there is very little of what is called “plot” in this play and yet it is a play which holds the attention and the interest of the audience and the readers throughout. It is the humour and the wit of the dialogue which lends to the play its main interest. Each of the characters gives evidence of a brilliant wit in whatever be or she says. As all the characters are well-educated (even the governess Miss Prism has written a three-volume novel), the humour and the wit in the speeches of each is not of the unconscious variety. In other words, each character is conscious of his or her wit. But it must be kept in mind that none of the characters gives any sign of being aware that he or she is speaking in a witty manner. Another point to note is that the wit is not laboured but spontaneous and effortless. Witty remarks, statements, and comments flow from the lips of the various characters naturally. In fact, it is impossible for us, on a closer view, to believe that all the characters can possess such a fertile wit ; but in the theatre, or. even in the study, we hardly stop to question the talent for making witty remarks of which every character provides ample evidence. And, in any case, we know that we are reading what is known as an artificial comedy, and so it does not matter whether the possession of this gift of wit by so many characters is something convincing or not.
The Display of Wit By Algernon and Jack
The comic and witty quality of the play becomes apparent to us in the very opening, dialogue which takes place between Algernon and his servant Lane. Even the servant amuses us by his remark that bachelors keep superior wines in their homes and that in married households the wine is rarely of a first-rate brand. Lane’s remark about marriage leads Algernon to make a paradoxical statement which also amuses us. Algernon says that the lower orders of society should set a good example by showing a sense of moral responsibility so that the upper classes can learn something from them. This dialogue is followed by a much longer dialogue between Algernon and lack, and in the course of this dialogue we come across a large number of witty remarks to which both these characters make a contribution, though Algernon shows himself to be more witty than his friend. Algernon indulges in a lot of bantering talk in connection with the inscription on Jack’s cigarette-case. One of the witty remarks that Algernon makes here is that girls never marry the men they flirt with. Jack makes a witty remark when he says that some aunts are tall, some aunts are not tall, and that it is a matter which an aunt may be allowed to decide for herself. Algernon makes another paradoxical and witty remark when he says that literary criticism should be left to people who have never been at a university. He makes yet another witty remark by saying that the number of women in London who flirt with their own husbands is perfectly scandalous: Another witty remark comes from Algernon when he gives a twist to a well-known saying and modifies it by saying that in married life three is a company and two is none. Another paradoxical remark from Algernon is that people who are not-serious about meals are shallow-minded.
The Display of Wit By Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen
Then Lady Bracknell and her daughter Gwendolen arrive, and we have some real fireworks. On being told by Jack that she is perfect, Gwendolen replies that she would not like to be perfect because perfection would leave no room for developments and because she intends to develop in many directions. Lady Bracknell makes a very witty remark when she says that Mr. Bunbury should make up his mind whether he is going to live or to die and that his shilly-shallying with the question is absurd. She also says that she does not approve of the modern sympathy with invalids, which is a paradoxical remark because generally one is expected to be sympathetic towards the sick and the ailing. Gwendolen’s reaction to the name Ernest is highly amusing to us. It is indeed very funny that a highly sophisticated girl should find in the name Ernest something that inspires absolute confidence. It has always been her ideal, she says, to love some one of the name of Ernest. Lady Bracknell makes a very witty remark when, on seeing Jack kneeling. before Gwendolen, she says to him “Rise, sir, from this semi-recumbent posture ; it is most indecorous.” A witty remark which is also paradoxical is made by Lady Bracknell when she says that she does not approve of anything that interferes with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate, exotic fruit which should not be touched but should be allowed to remain intact. She thinks it fortunate that education in England produces no effect whatsoever on the people because, if it were to produce any effect, it would prove to be a serious danger to the upper classes. One, of Lady Bracknell’s wittiest remarks is that to be born or bred in a handbag shows a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life reminding her of the worst excesses of “the French Revolution. This remark is amusing because of the extreme exaggeration implied in the comparison of a child’s being found in a hand-bag with the worst excesses of the French Revolution. But, perhaps, the most hilarious remark that Lady Bracknell makes is that she and her husband cannot allow their “only daughter to marry into a cloakroom and form an alliance with a parcel.”
More Witty Remarks By Algernon and Jack
After Lady Bracknell has rejected Jack as a possible son-in-law and has then left, Jack makes a witty remark when he calls her a Gorgon, and adds that she is a “monster without being a myth”. Jack makes another witty remark when, on being asked by Algernon if he has told Gwendolen the truth about his being Ernest in town and Jack in the country, Jack says that truth is not quite the sort of thing one tells to a nice, sweet, and refined girl like Gwendolen. To this, Algernon replies wittily that the only way to behave to a woman is to make love to her if she is pretty and to make love to some other woman if the first one is unattractive. There is something comic in the very invention of an ailing friend by the name of Bunbury and a younger brother by the name Ernest. Referring to the invention of Bunbury, Algernon says that, if he had not invented this friend with extraordinarily bad health, he would not have been able to escape from his dinner-engagement with Lady Bracknell. Towards the end of Act I we again meet Lane who, on being told that he is a perfect pessimist, replies that he does his best to give satisfaction to his master, implying paradoxically that his pessimism should be a cause of satisfaction to his employer. Act I ends with Jack telling Algernon that the latter always talks nonsense and with Algernon replying that everybody talks nonsense and nothing but nonsense. Thus the whole of Act I is replete with witty paradoxes, sarcasms, ironical remarks, and amusing statements which have an epigrammatic quality.
Witty Remarks of Miss Prism, Cecily, and Gwendolen
The wit shows no signs of dwindling in Act II. In the beginning of this Act, we find Miss Prism telling Cecily that she is not in favour of the modern mania for turning bad people into good people at a moment’s notice, which is certainly an amusing remark. Cecily makes an amusing remark when she says that memory records the things that have never happened and could not possibly have happened. This remark is also a paradox. Another paradoxical and witty remark is made by Cecily when she says that she does not like novels that end happily because such novels depress her much. Miss Prism makes a witty remark when, talking to Dr. Chasuble, she says that by remaining unmarried a man converts himself into a permanent public temptation. We are greatly amused also when Dr. Chasuble claims that his sermon on the meaning of the manna in the wilderness can be adapted to almost any occasion, joyful or distressing. He has preached this sermon at harvest celebrations, christenings, confirmations, on days of humiliation and festivals days. Of course, Dr. Chasuble does not say this in order to amuse anybody ; in fact, he is quite serious about what he is saying ; but he produces a comic effect, and the humour” here is unconscious. Miss Prism amuses us when she says that the news of the sudden return of Jack’s younger brother who was supposed to have died is peculiarly distressing. Several other remarks made by Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism are also very amusing. Cecily makes a paradoxical and amusing remark when she says that it is always painful to part from people whom one has known for a brief space of time but that the absence of old friends can be endured without much difficulty. Cecily’s whole account of how she had fallen in love with Algernon (who has come in the disguise of Jack’s younger brother Ernest) and how she had become engaged to him is also extremely amusing and would make an audience roar with laughter. She also amuses us when she says that she would like to put down in her diary whatever words her lover has to speak to her in order to express his sentiments about her. Algernon makes a very witty remark when he says that half of the chaps who get into the Bankruptcy Court are all called Algernon. Gwendolen makes a sarcastic remark to Cecily when, after Cecily has mentioned a spade, Gwendolen says : “I am glad to say that I have never seen a spade. It is obvious that our social spheres have been widely different.” Act II closes with Algernon again indulging in banter at the cost of Jack, and Jack ultimately groaning and sinking into a chair while Algernon continues to eat muffins.
Witty Dialogue in Act III
Nor is Act III deficient in wit. Lady Bracknell, for instance, says that hesitation of any kind is a sign of mental decay in the young and of physical weakness in the old. Speaking to Cecily, Lady Bracknell says that an experienced French maid would certainly bring about a lot of improvement in Cecily’s hair and her way of dressing. She gives the example of Lady Lancing whom her own husband could not recognize after she had undergone the treatment by a French maid for three months. Jack here intervenes to say that after six months nobody could recognize that lady, which also is a witty remark. Lady Bracknell amuses us greatly when she says that she does not approve of mercenary marriages, giving her own example and pointing out that when she married Lord Bracknell she had no fortune of any kind. It is extremely amusing for us to hear Lady Bracknell say that she never allowed her lack of dowry to stand in the way of her marriage to Lord Bracknell. Another witty remark “made by Lady Bracknell is that thirtyfive is an attractive age for a woman to get married. London society, she adds, is full of women of the very highest birth who have remained thirtyfive for years. When Lady Bracknell refuses to give her consent to her daughter’s marriage to Jack, Jack wittily says : “Then a passionate celibacy is all that any one of us can look forward to.” Gwendolen makes a paradoxical and witty remark when, on being asked by Jack to wait for him, she says “If you are not too long, I will wait here for you all my life.”
In short, although some of the situations in the play are certainly funny, it is the dialogue which keeps us laughing most of time.