Elements of Comedy in The Importance of Being Earnest

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What is a Farcical Comedy?

      Generally speaking, a comedy is a fictional work in which the subject matter is selected and arranged in order to amuse. The characters gets our attention and they make us believe that no disaster will happen to them. There are certain kinds of Comedy-Romantic Comedy, Satirical Comedy, Comedy of Manners, Farcical Comedy, Comedy of Humours and so on.

      Farcical comedy is a type of comedy designed to provoke audience's heartily touches of laughter — "belly laughs" (in terms of theatre). Writer of this kind of comedy generally employs highly exaggerated characters and "puts them into improbable and ludicrous situations." Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest is the supreme example of it. Wilde has caricatured improbable characters and have placed them in ludicrous situations, that are completely incredible, "but which achieve their comic effects not by broad human and bustling action, but by the sustained brilliance and wit of dialogue."

The Importance of Being Earnest is an Artificial and Farcical Comedy

      The Importance of Being Earnest belongs to the literary genre known as artificial comedy. It flourished during the Restoration Period in England and was revived by Congreve in the late nineteenth century. This kind of comedy has nothing to do with the reality and creates its own artificial and illusory world. It aims at light-hearted entertainment with the help of highly exaggerated characters, situations and dialogues. This type of comedy is less about action but more about dialogue. For example, in The Importance of Being Earnest, the comic effect in the wit lies on its sparkling dialogues. In this play Wilde has created a plot with improbable action, fantastic coincidences and incredible characters. The play has a great deal of a farce and is an artificial comedy. Wilde's application of puns and paradoxes has made it more admirable. The dramatist has caricatured only a few characters in The Importance of Being Earnest — Jack, Algernon, Gwendolen, Cecily and Lady Bracknell are the major characters. Lane, Miss Prism, Dr. Chasuble and Merriman are the minor characters. Wild called it, "trivial Comedy for serious people" and himself explains:

"We should treat all the trivial things of life seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality...."

James Laver writes:

      "It (The Importance of Being Earnest) is universally considered to be the best of his (Wilde's) plays. The three earlier ones had been artificial; this soared beyond artificiality into the realms of fantasy......The wit is not merely attached to the characters; it flows out of situations. The whole thing is as light as air and is still as fresh and amusing now as when it was first written. The public on its first production hailed it with delight, and this time even the critics were unanimous in its praise."

An Artist in Sheer Nonsense

      Critics and reviewers accused Wilde of being "an artist in Sheer nonsense." In 1885, when The Importance of Being Earnest was staged for the first time, one reviewer called it a farce "in which there is no discordant
note of seriousness", and "it is of nonsense all compact and better nonsense our stage has not seen." According to Oscar Wilde's own personality and "his gifts of satirical wit and epigram thus lent his talent a drawing-room and rather superficial character." It is a play where is no philosophy, no profundity, no significant message, no symbolism and no theme at all. Wilde laughs at the grotesque elements of life.

      The Importance of Being Earnest attacks Victorian manners and morals. It is a witty satire of Victorian social hypocrisy, Wilde pulls the string on his cast of late-Victorian characters making them appear, first and foremost, exactly as they are-superficial, upper class Englishmen bound and clinched by an artificial code of manners. He has laughed at everything the English held. In this play Wilde shows himself as "an artificer of the ludicrous." There is nothing but witty dialogues in this play and they have been formed in a way that it never fails to amuse.

The Importance of Being Earnest as a Trivial Comedy for Serious People

      When asked to describe the "philosophy" behind The Importance of Being Earnest (subtitled as "A Trivial Comedy for Serious People") Oscar Wilde replied, "We should treat all trivial things very seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality." Identically he described it a "trivial comedy" but at the same time, "for serious people" what it is certainly not. In fact it is a characteristic of Oscar Wilde, to make paradoxical statements. Because the fact is that how can a trivial comedy appeal to the serious people? Perhaps Wilde meant that even serious people would be moved by the comedy of this play. Gamini Salgado says The Importance of Being Earnest is, paradoxically, Wilde's most - "serious play, a comedy in which form and expression are at once triumphantly united and constantly commenting each other. By deliberately touching on serious matters in a farcical context-equating mislaid babies and mislaid hand-bags,...." He further adds, "By doing so he highlights not only the triviality of the well-made play but the irresponsibility of the audience who could consider such plays as embodiments of important issues... but it was not perhaps entirely playful that Wilde called his masterpiece "A Trivial Comedy for Serious People. Those serious people who laughed at it certainly saw in it only a flatteringly idealized portrait of their own life-styles, and were delighted rather than dismayed by its elegant ribbing of their mores."

Elements of Absurdity in The Importance of Being Earnest

      (A) A Baby Found in a Handbag: A Farcical Situation: An important feature of a farcical comedy is its absurdity and we are amused by the absurdity of the things. The central situation of the play is Jack's being
found in a hand-bag in the cloak-room of a railway station in London. He is found by Mr. Thomas Cardew. In that way Jack is a foundling. A foundling is a child who has been forsaken by its parent because it is an illegitimate child and its mother wants to get rid of it, later on found by someone and is handed over to the orphanage out of pity. The absurdity of the play lies in the facts that Miss Prism, the nurse, out of her forgetful nature placed the baby in a leather hand-bag and her three volume novel in perambulator instead of putting the baby in perambulator and the manuscript of the novel in the hand-bag. This is extremely absurd to believe that how can anybody commit a mistake of this kind. It does not end here. Even after committing such blunder she did not go back neither to her employers nor to the railway station is search of the baby. Another absurdity is about Mr. Thomas Cardew, a gentleman who found Jack. The absurdity lies in the fact that he named the child Worthing because he was having a first-class railway ticket for a sea-side resort called Worthing.

      (B) Jack's Encounter with Lady Bracknell and Witty Remarks made by Her: After knowing everything about Jack's strange life, Lady Bracknell rejects him to accept him as her son-in-law and made a number of witty remarks. She is utterly dismayed to discover that he has only the spurious claim to be parented by a "hand-bag". She presents him with an ultimatum: unless he can prove his suitable origin within the week, the marriage will be off. She tells him that she will never allow her daughter, "to marry into a cloak-room and form an alliance with a parcel." Jack asks her what to do then, she 'blessed' him with an advise, that sounds extremely absurd: "I would strongly advise you Mr. Worthing to try and acquire some relations as soon as possible, and to make a definite effort to produce at any rate one parent, of either sex, before the season is quite over." Towards the end of the play, Miss Prism gives an account of how out of her forgetful nature she deposited the handbag in the cloak-room. And Jack comes to the conclusion that he is Miss Prism's illegitimate son whom she abandoned to avoid social criticism. He is ready to forgive her.

      (C) Gwendolen Being Fallen in Love with the Name 'Ernest': Element of Absurdity: Another element of absurdity is Gwendolen's reaction to the name "Ernest". She tells Jack:

"My ideal has been to love some one of the name of Ernest. There is something in this 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."

      She also tells him that she always had an irresistible fascination for the name "Ernest". Jack expresses his doubt whether this name suits him. She tells him with great confidence: "It perfectly suits you. It is a divine name. It has music of its own. It produces vibration.''

      When Jack asks her whether she would love him if his name were anything else than 'Ernest', as an instance if it is 'Jack', she retorts:

"Jack?......No there is very little music in the name Jack, if any, at all, indeed. It does not thrill. It produces absolutely no vibration.....I have known several Jacks, and they all, without exception, were more than usually plain. Besides, Jack is a notorious for domesticity for John! And I pity any woman who is married to a man called John. She would probably never be allowed to know the entrancing pleasure of a single 'moment's solitude. The only really safe name is Ernest."

      All her views about this name 'Ernest' are extremely absurd but at the same time delightfully witty too.

      (D) Cecily's Absurd Love for Algernon: Another absurd element in the play is Cecily's reaction to the name Ernest i.e. more or less similar to Gwendolen's reaction to it. Cecily too articulates that there is something in this name 'Ernest' that 'inspires absolute confidence' and she too expresses pity for any woman whose husband is not called 'Ernest'. She also had a dream to love someone called 'Ernest'. Her absurd fascination to this name is similar to Gwendolen's. But Cecily's case is far more absurd. Cecily Cardew's diary is merely a piece of utter nonsense and deception, especially self-deception. She has created in her diary a make-believe world in which she fantasizes a relationship with 'Ernest'. She has never met 'Ernest' (Algernon) but she had composed a bulk of incidents of her love story with him. She tells Algernon that she got engaged to him on 14th of February, about three months ago. She further adds that the next day she brought an engagement ring on his behalf and a bangle with a lover's knot which she promised always to wear. She also wrote several letters addressing herself on his behalf. She even broke off her engagement because: "It would hardly have been a really serious engagement if it hadn't been broken off at least once."

      But she forgave him before the end of the same week and got engaged to him again. She tells Algernon, when he asks her whether she would have loved him if he had any other name: "I might respect you, Ernest, I might admire your character. But I fear that I should not be able to give you my undivided attention."

      Though she loves his curly hair but even then she prefers the name most.

      (E) Absurdity of the Idea of Christening: Another absurdity in the play is that both Jack and Algernon are ready to undergo the ordeal of christening at such a late stage, just for the sake of their beloveds. Both of them are willing to be christened as 'Ernest'. And both of them make appointments with Dr. Chasuble for the christening ceremonies. It is extremely absurd to see that two well-educted and sensible men are changing their names because their beloveds find absolute confidence in the name Ernest.

      (F) Various Absurd Remarks and Statements: This play is full of improbable situations and absurd remark. Every character in the play is making absurd remarks. For example, Gwendolen's paradoxical remark: "The simplicity of your character makes you exquisitely incomprehensible to me."

      If a man's character is simple, it should be perfectly comprehensible but according to Gwendolen it is incomprehensible. Cecily finds the act of "eating muffins'' as an act of "repentance." At an another place Cecily remarks: "It usually chronicles the things that have never happened and could not possibly have happened." Above statement is a fine example of her wit.

      Dr. Chasuble remarks on his sermon: "My sermon on the meaning of the manna in the Wilderness can be adapted to almost any occasion, joyful, or, as in the present case, distressing; Cecily's absurd act of noting the comments in her diary; again Algernon's telling Cecily that Algernon "is not at all a bad name. In fact, it is rather an aristocratic name. Half of the chaps who get into the Bankruptcy Court are called Algemon" - exhibit the absurd elements in the play.

      Absurdity of Algernon's remark reaches its height when he tells Jack that "When I am in trouble, eating is the only thing that consoles. Indeed, when I am in really great trouble, as any one who knows me intimately will tell you, I refuse everything except food and drink."

      Lady Bracknell is another character who goes on making absurd remarks. She talks about Algernon: "Algernon has nothing but his debts to depend upon." Gwendolen's views are extremely absurd when she tells Cecily: "And certainly once a man begins to neglect his domestic duties he becomes painfully effeminate, does he not?"

      Miss Prism suggests that Dr. Chasuble should get married because: "by remaining single, a man converts himself into a permanent public temptation."

Some Credible Elements

      Apart from all these absurd and incredible elements there are some credible elements in the play too. For instance, there is nothing absurd about Jack Worthing's invention of a rakish brother, Ernest, whose waywardness calls Jack away from family duties and gives him an excuse to travel to London. Similarly credible is Algernon's creation of the persona of Bunbury, an invalid friend, who periodically requires his services in the country. Both the young man has cleverly used their invented relatives to disguise their misdemeanours until, Jack discovers that Algernon has been impersonating Ernest to woo Jack's young ward, Cecily. Lady Bracknell's reaction to Jack's origin is perfectly obvious because no mother would ever allow her daughter to marry a man whose parentage is not known. Her reaction to the fact that Cecily has a large amount of money on her name is also believable because such a bride is always acceptable who can bring a handsome dowry.

Elements for Serious People

      Apart from providing comedy arising from the absurdities of characters, Wilde also wanted to provide some appealing elements for serious people. Several remarks in the play seem to have serious points. Algernon's observation that "Relatives are simply a tedious pack of people..." is another believable statement. So he has provided food for thought to the serious readers and audience.

      But inspite of the many elements that Wilde has made for the 'serious people', the play remains a ''trivial comedy" full of absurd elements.

University Questions

Discuss The Importance of Being Earnest as a farcical comedy.
Or
How far is it justified to call The Importance of Being Earnest an artificial comedy?
Or
In what ways does The Importance of Being Ernest show Wilde as "an Artist in Sheer Nonsense?
Or
Wilde called The Importance of Being Earnest "A Trivial Comedy for Serious People." How far do you agree with this statement?
Or
Discuss the elements of absurdity in The Importance of Being Earnest. Substantiate your views with examples from the text.
Or
"Wilde's comedies are artificial comedies. They have brilliance but not utilitarian purposiveness." Do you agree?
Or
What is a farcical comedy? Do you think that Wilde has been successful in presenting The Importance of Being Earnest as a farcical comedy?

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