Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

My knowledge of classic plays is woefully lacking.  Aside from Shakespeare in college, I can't remember the last play I read.  And I hardly ever go to the theater.  I think the combination of spending a little too much time hanging around the drama club in high school, plus a work/study job in a small theater company in college, led to a kind of overdose of theater in college.  And I wasn't even a theater or English major!

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.

Though I rarely go to the theater, I do admit to watching film adaptation of plays, especially when they are chock-full of my favorite British actors.  Yes, there was an excellent adaptation several years ago, starring . . . Colin Firth, Judi Dench, Frances O'Connor . . . pretty much everyone who's ever been in a BBC production of anything.  And Reese Witherspoon.  The casting was brilliant, well  worth watching, if nothing else but for the dialogue.

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.


  1. I love Wilde, I love this play, and I love the adaptation you mentioned! :) I think Rupert Everett is the perfect actor for Wilde adaptations. :D Have you seen An Ideal Husband?

  2. I'm glad you liked this Karen! Our group is going to be so much fun this weekend, assuming we can find stuff to talk about. I'm used to leading discussions on very deep books, not so much humor and satire. Must get to work researching!

  3. Eva -- I have seen An Ideal Husband, I really liked it. I'll have to watch it again, and hopefully read it.

    Amanda -- This was such a fun read -- probably lighter than A Doll's House. This should be an interesting discussion. I'm also going to do some more research about Wilde's life.

  4. I really need to read Earnest! When Amanda reviewed it recently, I asked my daughter to find her copy, but she hasn't located it yet. Last year I read A Doll's House - my first play since high school - and loved it. Your group sounds like such fun!

  5. JoAnn -- our IRL classics book group is great, it's one of the things I love best about San Antonio. It's even good when I haven't read the book. I'm looking forward to A Doll's House.

  6. I love this play! I saw Amanda's review a few weeks ago and now with yours, I think I need to find it and reread it (or maybe re-watch that adaptation. So good!)