Sunday, June 6, 2010
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
I am lucky enough, however, to belong to a Real Life Classic Book Group. (Face to face! With Real People! How lucky am I?) this year we have two classic plays on the reading schedule: In December we're reading A Doll's House by Ibsen, and we had a quick and enjoyable read this month: The Importance of being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. Our fearless leader, my good friend Amanda, is a huge Wilde fan, so I know we're going to have a great discussion next Saturday.
Basically, Earnest is a delightful, satirical romp about Victorian courtship. Two young men, Jack and Algernon, are basically wealthy ne'er-do-wells. But Jack has a little secret: he has an alternate identity, Earnest. He calls himself Earnest in London, but on his country estate, he uses his real name, Jack, to appear respectable for his young ward Cecily. Algernon is equally sneaky, using a fictional friend Bunbury to escape social obligations -- for example, Bunbury is conveniently ill whenever Algernon would prefer to avoid unpleasant relatives, etc.
Jack is in love with Gwendolen, Algernon's cousin, and intends to marry her; however, he is foiled by her formidable mother, Lady Fairfax, who is unimpressed by Jack's family history -- it seems he was a foundling adopted by a rich man after he was discovered in a train station luggage room.
Basically, the entire three act play is a farce with mistaken identities and misunderstandings, resolved by amazing plot contrivances and coincidences. If it was meant seriously, it would just be ridiculous, but since it's all a joke it's hilarious. Above all, it's the snappy dialogue that make this play a hoot. Almost the entire play is worth quoting, but here's a sample. In Act 2, Cecily, Jack's ward, is writing in her diary, and Algernon wants to know what she's writing. [Algernon is pretending to be Jack's libertine brother Ernest].
Algernon: Do you really keep a diary? I'd give anything to look at it. May I?
Cecily: Oh, no. [Puts her hand over it]. You see, it is simply a very young girl's record of her thoughts and impressions,and consequently meant for publication. When it appears in volume form I hope you will order a copy. But pray, Ernest, don't stop. I delight in taking down from dictation. I have reached "absolute perfection." You can go on, I'm quite ready for more.
Algernon: [somewhat taken aback]. Ahem! Ahem!
Cecily: Oh, don't cough, Ernest. When one is dictation one should speak fluently and not cough. Besides, I don't know how to spell cough.
Sadly, The Importance of Being Earnest was his final play; it closed after only 83 performances due to his scandalous legal problems. A couple of months ago I also watched the excellent biopic Wilde, about Oscar Wilde's tragic downfall. After reading this play, it makes me even sadder and angrier that such a talented person was ruined because of his personal life. I highly recommend both movies and I look forward to reading more of his plays, and may even branch out to more classic playwrights. The Russians are visiting The Classics Circuit in June, so hopefully it will inspire me to try more Chekhov.
This is book #6 for Our Mutual Read Challenge.