The Importance of Being
Importance of Being est
Above: Oscar Wilde in "aesthetic" costume
during his lecture tour of America, 1882. Photograph by Napoleon
Right: "Oscar Wilde on Our Cast-Iron Stoves"
From Harper's Weekly, 1882, Cartoon illustration by Thomas Nast
The play's story-- marriage, its manners and
obstacles--is actually quite a common one in fiction (literature and best-sellers)
and especially comedies. The characters' views of marriage are both
a source of laughter and an issue for serious discussion. What does
each character in this act (i.e. Jack, Algernon, Gwendolen, Lady Bracknell,
and Lane) think about love, engagement, and marriage?
Jack, Algernon, Gwendolen and Lady Bracknell
are all from the upper class. What are their value standards? In other
words, what are the things they think are importnat, or "serous"? ( Pay
special attention to Lady Bracknell's inquiries of Jack.)
Besides the aristocrats, there is Lane as
a servant in this play. How is presented in the beginning of Act I? E.g.
his views about marriage, his lies, and his drinking his master's champagne.)
4. What are the lies you have found in Act
I? What is Bunburying? Is lying easy or difficult for the characters?
The play is a comedy of manners. What is comic
about it? What are the foibles that are satirized in Act I?
of Manners: A term used to describe a play deriving its comedy from
the social habits (manners and the mores) of a given society, usually the
dominant one at the time the play is written. A comedy of manners typically
chronicles the foibles of the upper classes, with some attention to the
lower classes as they interact with the gentry in their roles as servant,
tradespeople, and the like.]
Plays are to be performed. Usually stage
direction offers directors/actors suggestions about setting and action.
This play has a minimum of stage direction, and you definitely can provide
some more--about the character's gesture, expression and action, if not
about setting. Try to do it on one piece of dialogue (for instance,
Lady Bracknell's examination of Jack.) You can keep the late-19th-century
setting, or put it in Taiwanese context.
How are Cecily and Ms. Prism different from
each other, as is revealed in their conversation in the beginning of Act
II? In Cecily's conversation with Algernon that follows, we see more of
the things Cecily hates or values. What are they?
How are Jack's and Algernon's lies revealed
in this Act? How do they react to this farcical revelation?
How does the issue of name (Ernest) get complicated
or more "serious" in this Act?
What does the dialogue between Cecily and
Gwendolen show about their personality and their manners?
How do Gwendolen and Cecily react to Jack's
and Algernon's plan to be christened as Ernest? What do they all think
about Christening, or baptism, on the one land, and the name Ernest on
What does Lady Bracknell's inquiry about Cecily
reveal about the former? What is the most important thing that makes her
agree with Cecily's marriage with Algernon?
How is the ending comical, or farcical? Consider
Jack's calling Mr. Prism his mother, and the declaration of love of the
of Being Earnest
The Play as a Whole
The subtitle of the play is A Trivial Comedy
for Serious People. What are the superficial or trivial things that
are considered serious by the characters? What are the serious things that
get trivialized? What, do you think, are the serious problem these characters
have? Does the play itself suggest that we should be serious about anything?
Consider Wilde's explanation:
"I hope you will enjoy my 'trivial'
play. It is written by a butterfly for butterflies. [The play]
has its philosophy . . . that we should treat all the trivial things seriously,
and the serious things in life with sincere and studied triviality."
How is the title significant? (For the characters,
is it important to be earnest, or be one called Ernest?)
How is the play a
comedy of manners? (What are the main themes? What are the characters'
foibles? What do they value most? How are they--the themes, the foibles,
and the values--treated?)
The characters in the play are paired.
Compare and contrast Jack and Algernon, Gwendolen and Cecily, Lady Bracknell
and Mr. Prism.
What do the main characters think about the
lower class, or class society? (E.g. Ms. Prism reminds Cecily that watering
Bracknell's disagree with universal education; Gwendolen is happy that
she has never seen a spade.)
Describe Wilde's verbal humor. First collect the epigrams
and then try to find out the common devices he uses (for instance, turning
a proverb inside out; parallelism; creative usage of [or trivializing]
cliche expression--"we live in the age of ideal"). Is his
humor witticism or social criticism, or both?
Do you consider the play "realistic"? Why and how is it (un-)realistic?
Try to relate the world of the play to our society. Are there any
similarities in terms of values, manners or views of marriage?
To follow up on the previous question on Wilde's language, let's consider
his art. Do you like it?
To borrow words from his fictional character in The Picture of
"All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath
the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so
at their peril"--do you appreciate both "surface" and "symbol"?
For George Bernard Shaw, the play is "rib-tickling" but lacking in "humanity."
Later on he said that he picked up "his passion for fun from Oscar Wilde"
(The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays Signet, 1985: xviii,
xxxii) Do you agree with Shaw's criticism of the play?
Oscar Wilde--Life, Issues, and General Information:
Trials of Oscar Wilde (from English Literature databank) with pictures
and a brief introduction.
Good, thought-provoking site devoted to "Life and Times" of
Wilde, with a first-person count of his life, as well as a lot of contemporary
documents and Wilde's own letters related to the trial. Informative
Wilde's 1895 martyrdom for 'indecent acts.'
The Oscar Wilde
Web very informative, including:
Wilde's visit to
San Francisco from the Museum of the City of San Francisco.
"The costume adopted by young Wilde, which included short
breeches, long silk stockings, and a shoulder-length haircut, was hailed
with horror and amazed contempt by young dandies educated to long tight
trousers, high stiff collars, and full mustaches. "
"During the winter months there were published in the
Wasp and in other California publications occasional jingles about Wilde
and the Aesthetes; a popular song entitled "Oscar Dear" was received with
condescending humor in the city's gay spots; and the slang
of the moment included such supposedlyWildean expressions as 'too utterly
utter,' 'just too too,' and 'do you yearn?'"
The Importance of Being Earnest
brief introduction to the play with reference to one production at
Houston's Alley Theatre and .
course notes on the play, including its style and plot summary: by
Gregg A. Hecimovich
discussion of the background and language of the play (from
"The major influence on Wilde and his writing style was not
that of his contemporaries, George
Bernard Shaw being one, but rather the inheritance of Restoration comedy.
. . It has been argued that Wilde's plays are not so much about people
as about words. The characters live through their speech, merely conveying
the role they are playing, rather than their psychology."
Reviews of actual productions of The
Importance of Being Earnest
Social background--Victorian Society; Aestheticism