The Importance of Being Earnest
by Oscar Wilde
The Importance of Being Earnest Introduction
In A Nutshell
If you're anything like the seething hivemind here at Shmoop, you love British comedy. Blistering banter? Bullet-quick repartee? Totally bizarre statements issued with poker faces? We can't get enough of that tea-and-crumpet-infused hilarity.
And we're not the only ones. Think of American comedy shows like Veep, The Office, or Shameless—all based on British shows.
But the U.K. invasion of comedy isn't a recent phenomenon. No, it's been infiltrating the global scene since the time when the sun never set on the British Empire. And one of the biggest names in comedy during the Victorian Era was Oscar Wilde. (He's Irish, but remember that Ireland was part of the Empire way back when.)
Wilde's comedy skewers Victorian England. He pokes fun of the entire social structure of fainting corset queens and mustachioed dandies... and still manages to be totally guffaw-provoking even today.
"Life is too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it," wrote Wilde in Vera; or, The Nihilists. And boy does that statement echo throughout his career. This is a guy who experimented with achieving the perfect ratio of serious to trivial. And by the time Wilde wrote The Importance of Being Earnest, he had perfected his comedic recipe.
The Importance of Being Earnest debuted in London on February 14, 1895, when Wilde was at the height of his powers. But don't be fooled by the title. There is nothing earnest about this play, at least on the surface. It’s a satire of the Victorian Era, when an intricate code of behavior governed everything from communication to sexuality. The most important rules applied to the farce of Victorian marriage—a topic that hit home for Wilde, who was married to a woman but sexually involved with men.
During the Victorian period, marriage was about protecting your resources and keeping socially unacceptable impulses (like being gay) under control. We can see this at work in the The Importance of Being Earnest. The ridiculous end of the play—three engagements in five minutes—is a "happy" one because everyone gets together, but underneath this perfect comic ending there's more than a hint of darkness.
The characters only get together because their social and economic fitness for each other is demonstrated—not because of true love. It's this hint of bitterness that makes the sweetness of Wilde's comedy all the more delicious... and insured his legacy as a founding father of modern U.K. comedy.
Why Should I Care?
We're all a little guilty of Bunburying.
No, you weirdos: that is not a sexy euphemism. It's a witty Wilde phrase that refers to pretending to have a prior engagement. We all know it's hard to be accepted as someone who contains multitudes. Sometimes you just need an alter-ego... or a really good alibi.
Maybe you're a lit nerd who tells his friends that he's going to see a Shakespeare play... and instead sneaks off to go to the rodeo. Maybe you're a lacrosse player... who also LARPs as an elf. Maybe you're a responsible gentleman who needs to cut loose every once in a while and decides to call himself "Ernest" while wreaking havoc in London. Or maybe you're a good-time socialite who needs some R&R and pretends to visit his ailing buddy Bunbury.
All the characters in The Importance of Being Earnest are Bunburying in one way or another. Jack pretends to be Ernest. Algernon "visits" his friend Bunbury. Cecily writes about a fictitious love affair in her diary. Miss Prism writes a novel.
Wait. Is anyone being earnest in this play?
According to Oscar Wilde, heck yes. For Wilde, a gay man in the hyper-repressive Victorian Era, it was necessary and absolutely imperative—it was dang well earnest—to divide yourself up when you lived under the thumb of Victorianism. It wasn't just the corseted ladies of the day who couldn't breathe. It was everyone. What else could you do in the face of such repression but become multiple people?
Four days after The Importance of Being Earnest was first performed, Wilde was called out by his boyfriend's dad for being gay. This led to a series of events: Wilde was tried, sentenced to two years of hard labor, and imprisoned. He died less than five years later.
Thankfully, we've come a long way since then. But the importance of The Importance of Being Earnest is, well, being earnest. The rallying cry of Wilde's masterpiece is that it's super-foolish (although, admittedly, hilarious) to pretend to be what you're not. We owe it to Wilde to be ourselves—in all our messy, multifaceted glory.
Oh, yeah: we also owe it to Wilde to snicker uncontrollably at his super-funny play.