The Importance of Being Earnest: Critical Analysis

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Introduction

      Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest opened at The St. James's Theatre in London on Feb. 14, 1895, on the month-old heels of Wilde's previous success, An Ideal Husband. The packed audience dressed to the nines in the dandified fashion of the playwright and rollicked with laughter at the on-stage caricatures that resembled them. Nevertheless, the play has proved a timeless hit beyond its primary demographic; considered Wilde's best play, many hail it as the greatest stage comedy of all time. It was an era when many of the religious, social, political, and economic structures were experiencing change — The Victorian Age (the last 25-30 years of the 1800s). The British Empire was at its height and occupied much of the globe, including Ireland, Wilde's homeland. The English aristocracy was dominant, snobbish and rich—far removed from the British middle class and poor.

The Social Issue Addressed in the Play

      Many novelists, essayists, poets, philosophers and playwrights of the Victorian Age wrote about social problems, particularly concerning the effects of the Industrial Revolution and political and social reform. Dickens concentrated on the poor, Darwin wrote his theory of evolution describing the survival of the fittest, and Thomas Hardy wrote about the Naturalist theory of man stuck in the throes of fate. Other notable writers such as Thackeray, the Brontes, Swinburne, Butler, Pinero, and Kipling were also contemporaries of Oscar Wilde. In an age of change, their work, as well as Wilde's play, encouraged people to think about the artificial barriers that defined society and enabled a privileged life for the rich at the expense of the working class. The Importance of Being Earnest is a comment upon the snobbery and hypocrisy of Victorian upper-class society. Under the covering of a force, Wilde feasts at these absurdities. Lady Bracknell symbolises the mercenary outlook of a social-climber. Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble epitomise the narrowness and stringency of education and religion.

The Influence of French Theatre

      Although the themes in The Importance of Being Earnest address Victorian social issues, the structure of the play was largely influenced by French theatre, melodrama, social drama, and farce. Wilde was quite familiar with these genres, and borrowed from them freely. A play by W. Lestocq and E.M. Robson, The Foundling, is thought to be a source of Earnest, and it was playing in London at the time Wilde was writing Earnest. The Foundling has an orphan-hero, like Jack Worthing in Wilde's play. A farce is a humorous play using exaggerated physical action, such as slapstick, absurdity, and improbability. It often contains surprises where the unexpected is disclosed. The ending of Earnest, in which Jack misidentified Prism as his unmarried mother, is typical of the endings of farces. Farces were usually done in three acts and often included changes of identity, stock characters, and lovers misunderstanding each other. Wearing mourning clothes or gobbling food down at times of stress are conventions that can be traced to early farces.

Use of Epigram

      Part of the play's success comes from Wilde's seemingly infinite supply of piquant epigrams. Though some of the concise, often paradoxical statements refer to contemporary events (the state of 19th century French drama, for instance), most are universal, hilarious reflections on beauty, art, men, women, and class; they are endlessly quotable and continue to delight audiences with their blend of sophistication and absurdity.

      One feature of the epigram that ensures the play's durability is that it can be separated from the play's narrative. In other words, epigrams have little effect on the story. This is because epigrams encapsulate many of Wilde's beliefs on what art should do; above all, art should be beautiful and serve little social function. It should be 'useless' as he has written. The epigram is the epitome of this ideal; beautiful in its elegant construction, it is also dramatically useless to the play.

Wilde's Comment on Marriage and Morality

      The Theme of marriage was typical of 1890s literature. Jane Austen and George Eliot were both novelists who used the idea of marriage as the basis for their conflicts. Many of the comedies of the stage were social comedies, plays set in contemporary times discussing current problems. The white, Anglo-Saxon, male society of the time provided many targets of complacency and aristocratic attitudes that playwrights such as Wilde could attack.

      Beyond pontificating on beauty, the play is also a masterful send-up of Victorian manners, especially in regards to marriage and morality. Marriage had long been an important issue in English literature, and Wilde exposed its manipulative use as a social tool of advancement; except for Miss Prism, all the women in the play have ulterior motives when it comes to romance. As for morality, Wilde critiqued the starchy facade of politeness he observed in society; he details the "shallow mask of manner," as Cecily calls it, that aristocratic Victorians wore.

Triviality in Serious Facade

      Chief among the delights of the play is the characters confused sense of values. Wilde described the play as "exquisitely trivial, a delicate bubble of fancy, and it has its philosophy that we should treat all the trivial things of life seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality." Wilde also directed his actors to speak all their lines in earnest, without a wink to the audience that they were in on the joke. Though the Victorian characters are usually anything about earnest, they wholeheartedly believe they are. While a comedy of manners, the play also uses overtly farcical techniques to downplay its seriousness, and the audience is willing to forgive the characters' irresponsibility and various indiscretions.

The Play as a Comedy of Dialogue

      The brilliance of the play sparkles in its witty dialogue. The play is not an action-based comedy. However, action reaches much-awaited climax followed by well-explained unravelling of complicacy. and the happy union of two main couples, despite little happenings in the play.

Homosexual Allusions

      Within the play's framework of false identities, Wilde also planted several possible allusions to the male characters' homosexuality. Whether or not one believes this argument, Wilde was leading dual lives as a married man and an active homosexual. Moreover, much of the contemporary audience for the play is reputed to have howled at all the inside reference to London's homosexual subculture. In the ambiguity over exactly what people refer to when they speak of "wicked" on immoral behaviour, we can detect a system of coded references to homosexuality, just as we can infer a more general comment on the hypocrisy of late Victorian society.

A Farcical Drama

      The Importance of Being Earnest was an early experiment in Victorian melodrama. Part satire, part comedy of manners and part intellectual farce, this play seems to have nothing at stake because the world it presents is blatantly and ostentatiously artificial. By an exaggerated means Wilde targets the absurdities of society. Frequently he takes an established cliche and alters it to make its illogic somehow more logical ("in married life three is company and two is none"). While these gems are in place for sophisticated critiques of society, Wilde also employs several comic tools of "low" comedy, specifically those of farce. He echoes dialogue and actions, uses comic reversals, and explodes a fast-paced, absurd ending whose implausibility we overlook because it is so ridiculous. This tone of wit and farce is distinctively Wildean; only someone so skilled in both genres could combine them so successfully.

Conclusion

      Unfortunately, Wilde's heady success with Earnest was short-lived; the Marquess of Queensbury, father of Wilde's young lover, Lord Alfred Douglas ("Bosie") showed up to the opening night. Though he was barred entrance, Wilde's infamous trial began soon after, resulting into his rigorous imprisonment for two years, that brought his career to halt.

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