September 11, 2005

Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest -- Drama as Literature (EL 250)

According to The Importance of Being Earnest – Wikipedia, the free Encyclopedia,,

“Algernon, a wealthy young Londoner, pretends to have a friend named Bunbury who lives in the country and frequently is in ill health. Whenever Algernon wants to avoid an unwelcome social obligation, or just get away for the weekend, he makes an ostensible visit to his "sick friend." In this way Algernon can feign piety and dedication, while having the perfect excuse to get out of town. He calls this practice "Bunburying." (The role of Algernon stands as one of the wittiest and most charming characters in English Literature.)
Algernon's real-life best friend lives in the country but makes frequent visits to London. This friend's name is Ernest...or so Algernon thinks. "Ernest" discloses that his visits to the city are also examples of "Bunburying." In the country, "Ernest" goes by his real name, Jack, and pretends that he has a wastrel brother named Ernest, who lives in London. When Jack comes to the city, he assumes the name of Ernest and tells everyone he has a brother Jack who lives in the country.
Jack wishes to marry Gwendolyn, who is Algernon's cousin, but runs into a few problems. First, Gwendolyn seems to love him only because she believes his name is Ernest, which she thinks is the most beautiful name in the world. Second, Gwendolyn's mother is the terrifying Lady Bracknell. Lady Bracknell is horrified when she learns that Jack is a foundling who was discovered in a handbag at a railway station.
Algernon gets the idea to visit Jack in the country, pretending that he is the mysterious brother "Ernest." Unfortunately, unknown to Algernon, Jack has decided to give up his Bunburying, and to do this he has announced the tragic death of Ernest.
A hilarious series of comic misunderstandings follows, as Algernon-as-Ernest visits the country (as a dead man, as far as the hosts are aware), and Jack shows up in his mourning clothes. There he encounters Jack's ward, Cecily, who believes herself in love with Ernest - the non-existent brother she has never met. The play contains many examples of Wilde's famous wit.
It has a small cast, which is as follows:
• Jack Worthing
• Algernon Moncrieff
• Lady Bracknell
• Cecily Cardew
• Gwendolen Fairfax
• Miss Prism
• Dr. Chasuble
• Lane
• Merriman
Notice that none of the cast is called Ernest: although Jack pretends to be and turns out to be Ernest, Algernon also pretends to be Ernest.
The comedy has been successful even when performed in translation. The title being almost untranslatable, it is then usually staged under the title Bunbury -referring to deceit in general.
Exceptions to this are Germany and The Netherlands. In Germany the reprint of the play and the 2002 movie are called "Ernst sein ist alles" (literally Being Earnest is all), keeping the pun of the original title. (Ernst being both a first name and a synonym for being serious in German). In The Netherlands it has been translated as Het belang van Ernst, in which the pun is also fully functional.
It is sometimes erroneously suggested that some of the expressions in the play have their origins in homosexual subculture of the 1890s. Thus, it is claimed that "Earnest" was used as a euphemism for homosexual, and "Bunburying" meant the art of living a secret homosexual life while appearing to be heterosexual to the outside world: the use of such terms in such a manner is unattested before the date of publication.”
Wikipedia spells out the bare bones of the plot for us, but there are many elements that need to be examined individually to understand a greater part of the comedy at hand.
First, the dedication of the play made to Robert Baldwin Ross. Wilde called Ross, ‘the Mirror of Perfect Friendship.’ One has to wonder if this is a semi-anecdotal work. Or if the dedication is just that, a dedication.

Also, there are issues of religion all through out the work: issues with being baptized with the proper name, Ernest; “manna in the wilderness,” sent from God to the Isrealites after escaping Egypt (Exodus 16); and issues about what “a man sows, so let him reap” (Galatians 6:7). It is interesting to note, that two of the aforementioned deal with the nature of escape or change. Algy and Jack wanted to be baptized in the Catholic church as men named Ernest because that is what their female admirers so longed. Chasuble prepares a sermon about the escape of the Isrealites from Egypt, in which God provides for them. Many of the characters in the story are trying to escape themselves, but eventually return full circle to realize what they are escaping in the fiber of their being. They learn lessons on moral character, which is something they repeatedly reference in the work. In all actually, they learn the importance of being earnest.

Posted by KatieAikins at September 11, 2005 10:22 PM