Views of Critics on The Importance of Being Earnest

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      1. Hesketh Pearson: The perfect fusion of the immature side of Wilde's nature with the over-mature intellectual side produced a masterpiece. The Importance of Being Earnest is that masterpiece. It could only have been written by one in whom boyishness and braininess were combined to an extraordinary degree. With his three serio-comedies Wilde may be compared with Sheridan, though The School For Scandal remains by far our best comedy of manners. But with The Importance of Being Earnest Wilde stands alone. It comes in no category. To call it a farcical comedy is obvious but fatuous. It is like no fare and no comedy and no farcical comedy on earth. It follows no rules and makes its own laws as it goes along. One cannot even call it perfect of its kind, because there is no kind. It is sui generis, is perfect of itself, and is the quintessence of Wilde. It ridicules everything that human beings take seriously; birth, baptism, love, marriage, death, burial, illegitimacy and respectability; yet so light-heartedly and so absurdly that only a humourless clergyman could take offence at it. Wilde called it "A Trivial Comedy for Serious People", and said: "The first Act is ingenious, the second beautiful, the third abominably clever." All of it is ingenious, all of it is abominably clever, and the whole is beautiful because perfection is beauty. Many people, with Shaw, have complained that it is not something else, not serious enough, not touching, not like life, not a dozen other things. But Wilde did not wish to move people, except to laughter. He set out to provide a dish that would be pleasing to the palate and joyfully digested; and the unique trifle he served up for us has become a classic.

      2. Alan Bird: The Importance of Being Earnest is Wilde's masterpiece in which his wit, his intention, his sense of social reality, his deep-seated and radical love of justice and fundamental benevolence of his character are most perfectly mingled. He is able to laugh confidently at the beauty and the grotesqueness of life which he sees as the same thing, just as Miss Prism is a "female of repellent aspect, remotely connected with education" and at the same time, "the most cultivated of ladies and the Very picture of respectability", and the Canon's sermon on the meaning of the manna in the wilderness "can be adapted to almost any occasion", while retaining, presumably, its basic form unchanged. Wilde touches on money, property, marriage, social class, philanthropy, education and aristocracy among other matters, all with the lightest but sharpest flashes of humour, and leaves little doubt as to his own sympathies. In fact, he made fun of everything the English held, and still hold, scared, not least money, baptism, birth, religion, food and property, and in so nonsensical, light-hearted, and fantastic a way that the comedy never fails to amuse in even the poorest of revivals. The Importance of Being Earnest, is the only work that Wilde wrote which is worthy of his genius.

      3. Rondey Shewan: Wilde's last play, "a trivial Comedy for Serious People", is the dandy's holiday, a treat for "the few choice spirits", an idyllic trip to the utopian land of "doing as one likes" where only reason and external authority are denied entry. The text passed through various forms and was cut from four acts to three, but these vicissitudes strengthened it, and it is rightly considered his tautest and most accomplished achievement. A summary and send-up of all his major themes, whether neo-Restoration, Romantic or Victorian and of practically all his critical or comic antitheses, it is the imaginative synthesis of its author's career and personality, and paradoxically, the only work with which he succeeded completely in penetrating the fortress of established morality. For Mary McCarthy, indeed, it is the culmination of Wilde's usual propensity to make himself too much at home: "Where the usual work of art invites the spectator into its world, already furnished and habitable, Wilde's plays to just the opposite: the author invites himself and his fast opinions into the world of the spectator." No doubt Wilde would retort that, if the artist did not invite himself into the usual world, he would never be invited anywhere by anyone. Even so, Miss McCarthy's complaint can hardly be justified by The Importance of Being Earnest, a work which, whatever its debts to comic tradition of its feints towards social satire, creates and exhausts its own genre. Here, no one enters except by self-admission, for the play's burden is simply: "Be thyself". Since this proposition had proved impossible in all other genre, Wilde posits absurdity as the norms in order to keep at bay those "other people" whose opinions are "Vulgar" and impossible.

      4. Alan Bird: The Importance of Being Earnest is earnest in quite a different way in its attitudes to two very material substances, both, at times, interchangeable: money and food. Eating and drinking whether of champagne or tea, cucumber sandwiches and bread-and-butter, cake, tea, muffins, or crumpets, whether in Algernon's flat, at Willis's or in the countryside, is a near-continuous activity which ferociously engages the attention and the passions of the characters. Algernon tells us: "When I am in really great trouble, as anyone who knows me intimately will tell you, I refuse everything except food and drink." The emotional scenes are those involving food which is used as a weapon of warfare both personal and social. Thus, cake is not eaten in the best houses any more (social aggrandisement); and, against her wishes, Gwendolen is given cake and sugar is put in her tea (personal aggrandisement). The acquisitive instinct is aroused even more keenly by money, and Cecily's hundred - and thirty thousand pounds in the Funds. Lady Bracknell, indeed, goes into raptures over the subject: a large accumulation of property is eminently disable even if the owner's youthful charms fade away during the process, for against human frailty is contrasted money, a real, solid quality, one of "the qualities that last and improve with time". As some one who before her marriage had no fortune of any kind, Lady Bracknell is clearly in a position to appreciate its value in others as does her nephew Algernon who has nothing but his debts to rely on. The original four-act version, it should be remarked, had an act devoted to Algernon being arrested for the imaginary Ernest's debts.

      The very first scene between Algernon and his butler Lane is a prelude to the jokes against class-society which run through the play. Wilde lets us see that Lane is not entirely defenseless; he established his right to help himself to the champagne in the blandest yet most defiant of fashions. Miss Prism reminds Cecily that watering the plants is a utilitarian (and, therefore, to be despised) occupation which belongs properly to the gardener. And Lady Bracknell believes that universal education is likely to result in acts of violence in Grosvenor Square. The dialogue between Cecily and Gwendolen in the second act abounds with references to class, not the least being Gwendolen's assertion that she is happy to say she has never seen a spade. But so kind is Wilde's humour and his affection for these ruthless, acquisitive, snobbish characters, all fighting for self-expression, that he is content to establish the basic structure, the basic tone and let the play speak for itself.

      5. George Bernard Shaw: I cannot say that I greatly cared for The Importance of Being Earnest. It amused me, of course; but unless comedy touches me as well as amuse me, it leaves me with a sense of having wasted my evening. I go to the theatre to be moved to laughter, not to be tickled or bustled into it; and that is wrhy, though I laugh as much as anybody of a farcical comedy, I am out of spirits before the end of the second Act, and out of temper before the end of the third, my miserable mechanical laughter intensifying these symptoms at every. outburst. If the public ever becomes intelligent enough to know when it is really enjoying itself and when it is not, there will be an end of farcical comedy. Now in The Importance of Being Earnest there is plenty of this rib-tickling — for instance, the lies, the deceptions, the cross-purposes, the sham mourning, the christening of the two grown-up men, muffin-eating and so forth. These could only have been raised from the farcical plane by making them occur to characters who had, like Don Quixote, convinced us of their reality and obtained some hold on our sympathy. But that unfortunate moment of Gilbertism breaks our belief in the humanity of the play. Thus we are thrown back on the force and daintiness of its wit, brought home by an exquisitely grave, natural, and unconscious execution on the part of actors.

      6. Gamini Salgado: Wilde's gift for brilliant repartee and his delighted amusement at the frivolities of Victorian high life find their perfect form in his supreme comic masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). It is perhaps the best known and best-lived of all English comedies, with the possible exception of that other great Victorian comic triumph, Charley's Aunt (1892). Together with the best of the Savoy, operas, it is the outstanding achievement of the late nineteenth-century drama (Shaw excepted), for more impressive in its own terms than any of the period's serious drama. Here at last it is clear that Wilde is playing with the well-made play. Instead of attempting to conceal absurdities and coincidences, he revels in them. Improbability is elevated into a fine art with all the dazzling symmetry of a kaleidoscopic pattern. The play is too familiar to need detailed discussion and it may appear that extended analysis is grotesquely inappropriate to its precarious perfection. It is worth insisting however that perfection is not only a matter of surface brilliance, however dazzling. 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 on each other. By deliberately touching on serious matters in a farcical context—equating mislaid babies with mislaid hand-bags, class distinctions with cucumber sandwiches, and so an - Wilde draws attention to the impossibility of adequately treating such issues within such a frame-work. By so doing he highlights not only the triviality of the well-made play but the irresponsibility of an audience who could consider such plays as embodiments of important issues. No doubt this is an unduly heavy - handed way of approaching a comedy where verbal wit is immediate and endlessly delightful, but it was perhaps not entirely playfully 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-style, and were delighted rather than dismayed by its elegant ribbing of their mores. Their awareness of the sharp and rigorous line between that and any real threat or transgression was amply shown by Wilde's trial and imprisonment in the same year that his comedy was produced.

      7. J.T. Grein: In 1895, when The Importance of Being Earnest saw the light at the St. James's Theatre, it was devoted a perfect farce and, but for the catastrophe, it would have been played for centuries of evenings. I recall this not merely as a chronological fact but more particularly in order to emphasize the exceeding cleverness of the play, since the duality of its fiber escaped most of the critics and certainly the majority of the public. The practiced eye discovered at once that the first and the second Acts and the third Act were not of the same mould. They, made the impression of wines of different vintages served in the same glasses. Those two Acts — perfect, not only as farce but as comedy too, for they reflect the manners of the period and are richly underlaid with humours current — were written in day when the poet basked in the hot sun of popularity, when his every saying darted like an arrow through the land, when the whole of English-speaking world echoed sallies which, though they were not always Oscar Wilde's, were as well - invented as if they had been his. The third act was composed under stress of circumstances, when the web was tightening round the man, and menaces of exposure must have rendered his gaiety forced, like that of a being condemned to the stocks. Under pressure a lofty mind often does excellent work, and it is undeniable that in the third act, of The Importance of Being, Earnest there is more cleverness than in one round dozen English Comedies en bloc. There are epigrams in it for paternity of which some people would give a few years of their lives, and as solution to a tangle well-nigh inextricable it is by no means unhappy. Yet it is not of the same quality as those other two Acts, in which the real, the probable, and the impossible form a menage a trois of rare felicity. And as we listen to the play, what strikes us most of all is not so much the utterances of a mind which could not fail to be brilliant, but the prospect that this comedy will enjoy a kind of perennial youth somewhat akin to Congreve's work or that of Sheridan, ne Importance of Being Earnest ranks high, not only on account of its gaiety but because it satirizes vividly, pointedly, yet not unkindly, the mannerisms and foibles of society which is constantly before the public eye.

      8. A.B. Walkley: His plots are as artificial as this weaker epigrams; almost as artificial, indeed, as the plots of Congreve. His stage situations are striking rather than inevitable, or even plausible. The story of An Ideal Husband is a mere list of articles of stolen property - letters, cabinet secrets, bracelets, more letters. In plot, as in characterisation, when Wilde tried to be serious he succeeded only in being artificial.

      In the single comedy without a blemish of seriousness The Importance of Being Earnest, the situations are not only striking in themselves, but naturally contrived. I would almost go so far as to say that the situation
of Jack Worthing's entrance in Act II is the most visually comic thing in the English drama. Jack Worthing has come to announce the death of his (wholly fictitious) brother, and is ignorant of the fact that his mischievous friend Algernon, impersonating that brother, has preceded him. Jack Worthing is in deep mourning and, before a word is spoken, the whole situation is revealed to the eye. This is a supreme example of that rare thing, wit in action. On the first night at the St. James's Theatre the house shook with laughter and, as often as Jack Worthing stalks' in solemn black on the stage, the world will laugh again. The story of Miss Prism and the traveling hand-bag is natural too — natural, that is, in the make-up atmosphere, the "high fantastical" plane of the play.

      9. John Drinkwater: But the final issue remains that his work, taken as a whole in its brilliance and pathos, misses the profounder qualities of humour and passion. Once, however, Wilde's own nature, with all its limitation, worked clearly in delight of itself, and achieved what is in its own province a perfect work of art. The Importance of Being Earnest is not really a comedy of manners in the sense of being primarily a criticism of the follies into which a society is betrayed by its conventions, and a tearing off of the masks. Nor is it primarily a comedy of wit, sure and sustained as the wit is. Attempts have been made to derive the play in some measure from the Restoration masters, but without much conviction. The Importance of Being Earnest really forms a class in English drama by itself. It is in mere simplicity that one says that it seems to be the only one of Wilde's works that really has its roots in passion. Every device of gaiety and even seeming nonsense is employed to keep the passion far back out of sight, and if it were otherwise, the play would not be the masterpiece it is. But the passion is there. That is to say, the play is directly an expression of that part of Wilde's own experience which was least uncontaminated and in which he could take most delight. And this meant that all his great gifts as a craftsman were for once employed in work where, with insincerity almost as the theme, there was more sincerity than in anything else he did.

      10. Alan Bird: The Importance of Being Earnest is not a difficult play to present. It is modest in its requirements of settings and actors. Wilde does not set difficult tasks for his actors and even the character of Lady Bracknell, although central to the drama, is comparatively easy to impersonate. Played as a refined aristocrat, the character loses all impact, for if she is something more or something less than a representative of the upper class, she is certainly not an aristocrat in whose veins runs the bluest of blood. The tomfoolery about missing trains and exposing oneself to comment on the platform is deliciously funny but only a parvenu, which Lady Bracknell essentially was, could have displayed such concern about social position. The secret of Edith Evans's triumph in the part lay in the exact degree of flamboyant vulgarity she brought to it. At the same time, Lady Bracknell is at heart a woman to whom money means infinitely more than birth, as it did in late nineteenth century society. Miss Cecily Cardew is rejected as a wife for her nephew Algernon (penniless as he is), until it is realised that she has a large fortune (in the Funds) whereupon she instantly becomes attractive. John Worthing, found in a hand-bag fortuitously adopted by Mr. Cardew, has no difficulty in making his way in London society, no doubt because of his inherited money. Lady Bracknell was herself without any money but this did not prevent her marrying Lord Bracknell. She despises land which gives one position out prevents one from keeping it up. She prefers money, especially in investments. She represents the new class which emerged in the last years of the reign of Queen Victoria and which was to triumph at the court of King Edward VII; and the wonder is that she is not chasing an American heiress as a wife for her nephew rather than accepting an English girl from an undistinguished family. As it is, the recognition of John as her long-lost nephew Ernest, is a testimony to the strength of English class-structure which, together with money, is where her basic interests lie. All of this is not to say that Lady Bracknell is not a gloriously funny and worthy member of the line of English stage eccentrics which includes Mistress Quickly, Mrs. Malaprop, and Charley's Aunt. Lady Bracknell is Wilde's greatest single creation in whom he managed to reconcile the qualities of wit and social observation which he had previously tried to express through the characters of Lord Darlington and Prince Paul. Not only can she turn the social order upside down when she so wishes but even the physical one: both the number of John Worthing's house in Belgrave Square and the fashionableness of one size or the other can be changed if necessary; the railway line is immaterial, although she will not allow her daughter to "marry into a cloak-room and form an alliance with a parcel." Significantly, for her, marriage is an alliance (Lord Bracknell counting for very little in her own case), and society a battle-field on which triumphs are won not only by social position and material wealth but equally effectively by words.

      10. Sheridan Morley: Lady Bracknell is a character who transcends in her rumbling fury all the rest of Wilde's dramatic creations. She it is who, told of John Worthing's unfortunate loss of both parents, replies: "To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both seems like carelessness". She it is who, told how the infant Worthing was found at Victoria Station in a hand-bag, replies: "to be born or at any rate bred in a hand-bag, whether it had handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution. And I presume you know what that unfortunate movement led to?" And she it is who, told of Worthing's lack of education, replies: "I am pleased to hear it. 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 whosoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square."

      There is, in short, no one in the whole of English dramatic literature quite like Lady Bracknell. Equally there is no play quite like The Importance of Being Earnest which perhaps explains why, Seventy-five years after its original creation, such diverse playwrights as Tom Stoppard and Alan Bennett could parody it in their own work, totally secure in the knowledge that its landmarks would be recognised by all.

      Still, George Bernard Shaw did not care for it. Wilde himself called the play "a trivial comedy for serious people", but George Bernard Shaw had more serious reservations.

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