To go along with the Introduction to Classics book group I've started running recently, I'd like to try writing some reviews as I go along. The first work we're reading is the Importance of Being Earnest, so I'll give it a quick critique below.
'The Importance of Being Earnest' (TIOBE hereon) was written by Oscar Wilde, an Irish playwright, in 1895. It is, on the surface, an excellent comedy but Wilde's true intent was to poke fun at the structure and standards of Victorian society. Naturally, a lot of the content is still applicable today. (I ought to point out that spoilers abound if you read any further.)
Act One starts with the two protagonists - Algernon Moncrieff and John (Jack) Worthing, who Algernon knows as Ernest - chatting in Algernon's London flat. After Algernon spies a message to 'Uncle Jack' on his cigarette case, 'Ernest' is forced to admit that he leads a double life. He is Ernest in town, but Jack in the country, a division he maintains in order to distance his upstanding country life from his reprobate city behaviour. When in the country, he pretends that his (non-existent) brother Ernest needs help, in order to escape social obligations. Algernon does this too, with his friend Bunbury, who exists in much the way that leprechauns don't.
It transpires that the gift comes from a 'Cousin Cecily', whom Algernon takes an immediate interest in, but before this progresses they are interrupted by Gwendolen (Jack's fiancée, and Algernon's cousin) and her mother Lady Bracknell. Jack proposes to Gwendolen, who gladly accepts, but Lady Bracknell has none of it. She interrogates Jack about all aspects of his life, and she eventually finds out that he was adopted as a child, after being found in a handbag at Victoria Station.
Act Two takes place in Jack's country house, where Cecily lives with her governess Miss Prism. Algernon arrives, pretending to be Jack's brother Ernest. He and Cecily soon become mutually infatuated, and soon engaged. Jack, however, arrives in full mourning, announcing the sad (and fictional) death of his brother Ernest from a chill, and their stories start to unravel. When Cecily and Gwendolen meet, both claim to be engaged to a Mr. Ernest Worthing, and their deceptions are revealed.
Act Three remains at the country house. Lady Bracknell comes looking for Gwendolen. She is initially taken aback by Algernon and Cecily's engagement, but she acquiesces when she finds out about Cecily's sizeable trust fund. However, Jack needs to give his consent, which he will not do until Lady Bracknell allows him to marry Gwendolen, which she steadfastly continues to prohibit.
The impasse is broken by Miss Prism's return. Bracknell recognises her as the woman who took her sister's son out in a pram, and then somehow leaving him in a handbag in Victoria Station. Jack turns out to be Bracknell's nephew, and thus Algernon's elder brother. Having gained respectable relations, Bracknell allows the marriage. Furthermore, it turns out that Jack's birth name was Ernest - the lie turned out to be reality.
It is a very odd play. For starters, it's incredibly funny, and the humour is entirely fresh even after nearly 120 years, but even the comedy is odd. There are certain parts which are just endlessly quotable - "The only way to behave to a woman is to make love to her, if she is pretty, and to some one else, if she is plain" is one that comes to mind - but much of the humour derives from the utterly ridiculous situations people end up in. The plot is so layered, and there are so many nuances with character relations, that a small comment from the second act can become instrumental in the third - for example, Miss Prism's flippant reference to her three-volume novel rears its head once more during the finale. I appreciate that my synopsis isn't the best, but the great thing about the play is that almost everything is important to the plot in some manner. It's difficult to take anything out without detracting from the reading experience.
Aside from being a comedy, Wilde clearly has a point to make about society, and he doesn't do it lightly. The reactions to Bunbury's illness and death, while comedic, are very suggestive of how the underprivileged were considered an inconvenience by the upper classes. Some critics even go as far to suggest that there may be some homosexual undertones - 'Earnest' was apparently a slang term for gay at the time, which gives the ending a whole new meaning - but even if these are ignored, the repeated mockery of society is sheer brilliance. Social customs, marriage, Germans, and operatic composers are all lampooned, with such a finessed wit that it just slips nicely into the play as a whole.
It may be a bit odd to read a play without watching it, but if a production isn't going on near you, even the script is highly commendable. It's very short, clocking it at less than a hundred pages, and it can be easily read in a couple of hours. Of course, if you do have the opportunity to see it, go, without a second's thought. Watching a performance adds yet another layer to both the humour and the storyline, and hopefully you'll be tempted to seek out some more of Wilde's plays (or even his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray).