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A Wild, Wilde World: The Importance of Being Earnest

Updated on August 4, 2011

"The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means."

And indeed, even Mr. Oscar Wilde's famous play lives up to this most astute observation. Satire of the best kind and effervescent wit abound in his classic, The Importance of Being Earnest. No subject is sacred, and everything and everyone is victimized by his rapier bantering. You do not believe it? Name a subject and, most assuredly, I shall prove it to you.

Horticulture, you say? But of course.

Algernon: Might I have a buttonhole first? I never have any appetite unless I have a buttonhole first.

Cecily: A Marechal Niel?

Algernon: No, I'd sooner have a pink rose.

Cecily: Why?

Algernon: Because you are like a pink rose, Cousin Cecily.

Cecily: I don't think it can be right for you to talk to me like that.

Table manners? Ah yes, what would a play on morality be without addressing this most important subject?

Algernon: Well, I can't eat muffins in an agitated manner. The butter would probably get on my cuffs. One should always eat muffins quite calmly. It is the only way to eat them.

Romance. Oh, I knew you would ask.

Jack: I am in love with Gwendolen. I have come up to town expressly to propose to her.

Algernon: I thought you had come up for pleasure?... I call that business.

Education, of course. How did Mr. Wilde get his anyway?

Lady Bracknell: I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever.

Did you say Women. That's not quite fair of you, is it? But I shall oblige.

Jack: You don't think there is any chance of Gwendolen becoming like her mother in about a hundred and fifty years, do you, Algy?

Algernon: All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his.

So you can see, Earnest has something to say about absolutely everything. Now if only we could discern exactly who Earnest is, we should be so much better off. So without further ado, we shall attempt to discover him.

The Play

They say that the book is always better than the movie, and this instance is not going to disprove that theory at all. Wilde's original play is so well conceived and delivered, cinema could never hope to do it justice, however noble it's efforts.

It is the story of poor Jack Worthing (but he's actually quite wealthy), who lives in a rather dull country home with the usual staff of servants, his ward Miss Cecily Cardew (who is only just eighteen and excessively pretty), and her governess, Miss Prism (who is of repellent aspect, and remotely connected with education). Whenever Mr. Worthing finds himself bored with his rural life, he goes to London to look after the misdeeds of his most unruly and wicked younger brother Ernest. The only problem being, he hasn't got a younger brother-- especially not one named Ernest-- and so he finds nothing to do in London but amuse himself while carrying about the name Ernest, which he very much enjoys doing, especially with his friend Algernon Moncrieff.

There is another advantage to London; Algernon's beautiful cousin Gwendolyn is quite as madly in love with Jack (whom she thinks is actually Ernest) as he is in love with her, and he proposes marriage to her. She accepts of course, but her strict mama has manifold objections to Mr. Worthing, and he is sent from Gwendolyn's presence. They are forced to correspond secretly, and in light of his new found position, Jack decides to kill Ernest once and for all lest Gwendolyn discover his duplicity.

But another problem has begun brewing. Algernon has quite made up his mind to meet Miss Cardew in spite of Jack's many objections, and so he slips away to make her fall in love with him. He assumes as his disguise the name of Ernest, knowing that Cecily is most intrigued by the reports of her guardians wicked brother. Upon meeting her, Algy goes head over heels in love (it is a play, after all) and they are engaged to be married. Upon returning home from London, Jack is most angry with him, but upon Algy's threat to expose his London life as Ernest, he desists.

The matter is brought to a head when Gwendolyn shows up at the country estate and meets Cecily. Both young ladies discover that the other is engaged to Ernest, and tempers are incited to heated pitches in a very properly English way. The arrival of the gentlemen clears up that misunderstanding, but provides another to the hurt and deceived young ladies who were infatuated with the supposed Christian name of their respective fiancees.

The gentlemen contritely offer to be re-christened with the name of Ernest and are at once forgiven, but Gwendolyn's irascible mother comes upon the scene and breaks off her daughter's engagement upon the bases that Mr. Worthing was "found" (in a handbag, in a train station, it must be confessed. Such accidents of birth are quite unforgivable.) However, Miss Prism holds the secret of his breeding, birth, and loss, restoring honor to his name and blessings upon his marriage.

Thus, as in all fiction, the good ends happily, and all have learned the true importance of being earnest.

The Film

Made in 1952, starring Michael Redgrave, Michael Denison, Joan Greenwood, Dorothy Tutin.

A very close adaption or Wilde's original script that is rendered all the more humorously because it takes itself so very seriously. It is not an expensive, impressive sort of production, and the dialogue is given in a style rather more slow that what would be standard for today. I will warn you, I positively groaned at the very beginning. However, it is very entertaining, and destined to provide great diversion with it's dry, witty style. Especially delightful is the repartee between Algernon and Cecily, as well as the garden scene with Gwendolyn and Cecily.

The Movie

Made in 2002, starring Colin Firth, Rupert Everett, Judi Dench, Frances O'Connor, Reese Witherspoon.

There is a substantial difference between what I call the film and what I refer to as the movie. This adaption is highly edited from the play, and has lots of cuts and altered scenes to give it more of the feel of a modern movie, which both adds and detracts from the enjoyment of it. It also treats it's material as humor, making it surprisingly less funny. Additions of unnecessary vulgarity make it far less enjoyable and very unrecommended. There are some very charming performances given, but overall, it isn't worth the two hours of your time.

The Morals of Earnest

And now we must turn our attention to Earnest's morality-- all works of art do have them, you know. It is indeed satire, so not everything should be taken seriously whether spoken rightly or not. Wilde mocks the triviality that marriage, education, and even the value of women is given in the social world of his day, but perhaps occasionally also despises the strengths of it. Also, what are we to make of two protagonists who repeatedly deceive others and each other, but this fault is treated as merely an inconvenience? Overall, Jack and Algernon are not in any sense heroic sorts of characters, and nothing worthy of emulation. Their charm and likeability may make it hard to recognize, but really they are both thorough-going rogues of the first water. So in the end, The Importance of Being Earnest is witty, entertaining, and even insightful, but not always something exemplary.


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    • kenneth avery profile image

      Kenneth Avery 6 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Hi, collegatariat! Voted up and away on this delightful hub. Amazing lay out and text. YOU are a natural talent. That is so evident that any serious literature student could sense this. I am a fan and a follower. Honored to be those parts in your life play. Highest Regards, Kenneth Avery, from a rural town, Hamilton, in northwest Alabama that resembles the sweet little town, Mayberry, on the Andy Griffith Show. Much success to YOU!