The Importance of Being Earnest
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“It is absurd to have a hard and fast rule about what one should read and what one shouldn't. More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn't read.”
The Importance of Late-Term Plot Devices, or, as it is alternatively – and, perhaps more popularly – called, The Importance of Being Earnest, A Serious Comedy for Trivial People is a play widely believed to be written by notorious buggerer and 19th Century wank-fiction author Oscar Wilde, and the mathematical proof of the ability to write an entire play comprised solely of a string of deus ex machinas. It premiered on 14 February 1895 at the St. James's Theatre in London to fantastic acclaim before an audience of high-born socialites who hadn’t the foggiest that they were, as it were, the butt of the joke. The opening night’s festivities were only slightly marred by a certain Marquess of Queensbury, who attended only so that he might toss rotten vegetables at the tosser who was currently tossing his son.
Set across the pond during the late Victorian Era, the play's humour (sic) derives in part from characters maintaining fictitious identities to escape unwelcome social obligations, in much the same way that, during the Victorian Era, socially unwelcome women were known to have invented fictitious social obligations.
Understanding the intricacies of The Importance of Being Earnest is utterly contingent upon the reader’s capacity for suspension of disbelief. The entire plot, which is probably among the flimsiest ever conceived, is completely dependent upon the vast majority of characters (all but two) being completely oblivious to the woefully obvious double lives of the rest (those same two), who themselves don’t know that the other leads a double life, and that they are in fact, related – a turn of fate that could only occur in the carelessly incestuous clime of upper-class Victorian England.
“I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time. That would be hypocrisy.”
It has proved Wilde's most enduringly popular play. Suffice it to say, he never arsed himself to write another.
Algernon Moncreiff, an aristocratic young Londoner possessed of good name and fuckall else, whose propensity for groceries (especially cucumbers), and a sore lack of cash despite great material wealth leads one to believe that he is morbidly obese (or at the very least, a resident of the American Midwest) is enjoying an private afternoon of wine and song alone with his manservant, whereupon, out of nowhere, he is rudely barged in upon by a fellow by the name of Ernest Worthing. Ernest, who happens to be Algernon’s only friend, despite (or perhaps, because of) the fact that he is only in town for short periods, arrives from his big manor in the country to call on “Algie”, not so much with the intention of visiting his dear friend, but rather with the rather vulgar ulterior motive of marrying his cousin, Gwendolen. He’s not quite the Keymaster to her Gatekeeper anyway, and so Mr. Worthing will have to plead his case to Lady Bracknell, who does, in fact, hold the keys to the chastity belt, as it were.
There is a row and a jolly bit of fun over an incriminating cigarette case that Mr. Worthing left in Algernon’s flat – of the very same kind, in fact, as the type of gold-plated cigarette cases that Oscar Wilde reputedly used to reward his favorite little boys, which were each very tastefully and discreetly inscribed:
For services rendered - O.Wilde
In any case, the long and short of the whole obtuse matter is that our man Ernest makes a monumental cock-up, and it rather slips out that the “earnest” Ernest is not quite “earnest” after all, because his name is really Jack and he’s an adopted orphan who was living off the charity of a kindly gentleman, entrusted with the well-being of than same nice man’s underage daughter. "Ernest" is thus forced to disclose that he is leading a double life: in the country, he goes by the name of John (or Jack), pretending that he has a wastrel brother named Ernest living in London and requiring his frequent attention, which doesn’t make quite a lot of sense, because if he was the consumptive gambler Jack was making him out to be, he’d either be at the bottom of the Thames or else the World-Champion Blood Cougher of the British Empire. ( In any case, this is a laudable decision on the part of the author, who could have just as easily chosen, as many of his contemporaries did, to lazily kill his character off with tuberculosis whenever he ran short of ideas).
Much akin to one of those totally-not-hackneyed-at-all plot-line moments where two long-lost twins get together, get on for a couple of years, and then discover that they’re actually related, Mr. Worthing discovers that he and his good friend Algernon share common interests: leading pointless double lives and collecting old suitcases. Whenever Algernon wants to avoid unwelcome social obligations, he "goes Bunburying" instead. This is a phenomenon he never explains, but is likely some sort of code word for “trolling the English countryside for gay sex”, in which case it would literally, rather than merely technically, be one of the many examples of ‘queer neologism’ that pervades Wilde’s prose as might a particularly hearty bout of bowel cancer.
That revelation under the belt, the scene becomes slightly less of a sausagefest as Gwendolen arrives for dinner. (One ventures only to say “slightly less”, as Lady Bracknell is there, too. While Lady Bracknell’s busy deriding Algernon for “Bunburying” all of the time, Jack proposes to Gwendolen, who giddily accepts, but seems to love him only because she gets all wet at even the slightest utterance of the name “Ernest”.
“ My dear fellow, the truth isn't quite the sort of thing one tells to a nice, sweet, refined girl.”
Lady Bracknell walks in on them messing about before dear Uncle Jack can even cop a feel, and since nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, he tells it as it is: his parents are a handbag and a train station. Unsatisfied with the ancestry provided by the noble houses of Grand Junction and Gucci, Bracknell forbids her daughter from ever seeing him again. Gwendolen, tramp that she is, uses her powers of escape to sneak a goodbye. After reiterating the importance of that name in her consideration, she tells “Ernest” that she will always love him, and entreats him for his address. Unbeknownst to the latter, Algernon scrawls his friend’s address on his cuff, which was apparently the Victorian equivalent of a BlackBerry.
Given that Jack has some business to attend to before returning home, Algernon takes full advantage, and arrives first, introducing himself to the impressionable Cecily as the wicked brother, “Ernest”, for whom Jack was always running off to attend to. There’s a bit of an interlude with her smug spinster of a tutor and the local rector, which, once a tawdry sex scene between two obviously unattractive senior citizens, turned out to be too disgusting even for Wilde’s libertine tastes, and was thus replaced in later folios with a romantic walk shared between two geriatrics. At any rate, the younger coupling of Algernon and Cecily is progressing rather swimmingly, until – surprise, surprise: Cecily not-so-offhandedly mentions that, by the way, she absolutely adores the name Ernest.
Now that anyone in the audience with half a cerebellum can guess exactly how things are going to play out: Jack arrives, intent to announce that he’s killed off “Ernest” once and for all. He suddenly finds himself in a sticky wicket because it seems like there’s Ernests coming out of the bloody woodwork like those little furballs from that episode of Star Trek. And, patently unwilling to be cockblocked by their Christian names, our two heroes run for the rectory, hoping to secure their chances to ‘get some’ by each renaming themselves Ernest.
Gwendolen arrives and starts a catfight with Cecily over who gets to marry “Ernest”. The whole charade falls apart, and both parties get quite angry. Steaming, the gals retire to the bathroom, as women frequently do, and come up with a compromise. They finally agree to honor their proposals if both men agree to do them the little, eeny-weeny, teensy favor of changing their names officially to Ernest and they get to go shopping afterwards, or somesuch silly girly thing.
Now Lady Bracknell arrives in pursuit of her daughter like the Wicked Witch of the West, and is shocked to find her nephew outside of the company he usually keeps. She has some reservations about letting him shack up with Cecily, but upon discovering that she’s the modern-day analogue of a trust fund baby, consents to the pairing. Jack, because he feels like being a douchebag, initiates a Mexican standoff: Cecily can’t marry Algernon if Jack can’t marry Gwendolyn.
In a happy resolution that seems in no way contrived, everyone’s favorite flighty fuckwit Ms. Prism shows up and regales all present of the history of her brief career as an aspirant hack, in which it is discovered that she was the twit who abandoned Jack at the train station when she really should have abandoned the trashy romance novel she was writing to sublimate her own sexual frustrations. Algernon and Jack (or, now more accurately, Ernest and Ernest) rejoice at the fact that the two worst liars in all of Christendom happen to be brothers, and can now partake in the excessively upper-class tradition of marrying one’s own relatives.
All that now stands in the way of Jack and Gwendolyn's happiness, it seems, is the question of his first name. Lady Bracknell informs Jack that, as the firstborn son, he must have been named after his father, General Moncrieff, but cannot remember the general's first name. Jack looks in the Army Lists and discovers that his father's name - and hence his, all along – was, in fact:
He promptly shuts and shelves the book.
As the happy couples embrace - Ernest and Gwendolen, Algernon and Cecily, and Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism - Lady Bracknell complains to her new-found relative: "My nephew, you seem to be displaying signs of triviality."
"On the contrary, Aunt Augusta," he replies,
"I've now realized for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest."
This phrase, which appears to be just a harmless pun to distract the audience from the glaring fact that Jack and Gwendolen are blood relatives, is actually an anagram. When the letters are properly arranged, it reads: " Lewis Carroll and I killed all those Whitechapel prostitutes together."
- Hon. Gwendolen Fairfax: by no means deserving of the prefix, she’s the useless twat who’s holding the story captive in an Aristotelian structure because she has a hard-on for the name Ernest, and therefore, for some reason, won’t marry the only man who’s ever loved her.
- Jack ("the Ripper") Worthing: The poor sap mentioned above. He’s an aristocrat-cum-foundling-cum-aristocrat, who, unfortunately enough for his chances at doing Gwendolen repeatedly, can only trace his family lineage to a handbag in a train station, which is quite useless in high society where everybody apparently wears their pedigree on their coat and their annual income taped to their forehead. Who knew?
- Algernon ("Algy") Monqueef: First cousin of Gwendolen, but not in a “kissing” fashion. He spends most of the play devouring cucumber sandwiches, derailing the protagonist’s plans to kill off his own phantom sibling, and convincing himself that he is not, in fact, gay.
- Lady Bracknell: the quintessential Victorian prude and social ladder climber, a busybody, and discharged with the solemn duty of finding a respectable young man to take Gwendolen’s virginity before it’s no longer desired.
- Cecily Cardew: When the late Mr. Thomas Cardew bequeathed all of his land and fortunes into the hands of an orphan, Cecily was the string attached. Jailbait with the intellectual wherewithal of a high school girl. Thinks German is an ugly language. Exists solely to annoy Jack, annoy Ms. Prism more, and cozy up to her guardian’s fictitious brother.
- Miss Laetitia Prism: Cecily's governess who actually started the whole damn mess by shifting the infant Jack from a pram to a purse, leaving him at a train station because she was too damned busy fawning over her own miserable attempt at a manuscript. She is an allegorical character representing all of those female authors who think they can replace the attention of a husband with a literary career.
- Lane: Algernon's “manservant”.
- Merriman: [ Naturally, Jack must also have a “manservant”, so Wilde politely gives him one. ]
“The only way to behave to a woman is to make love to her if she is pretty and to someone else if she is plain.”
“ Never speak disrespectfully of Society, Algernon. Only people who can’t get into it do that. ”
“Well, I can't eat muffins in an agitated manner. The butter would probably get on my cuffs. One must eat muffins quite calmly, it is the only way to eat them.”
- The Picture of Dorian Gray
- Ballad of Reading Gaol
- Lady Windermere's Fan
- Importance of Being Earnest
- An Ideal Husband
- A Woman of No Importance
All Things Wilde: A listing of everything about Oscar Wilde
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