The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde’s last and most famous play, debuted in London on February 14, 1895. Wilde’s fans wildly anticipated this new play and sunk their fangs into any breaking news of it. To protect his work-in-progress from prying eyes, Wilde's company gave it the working title Lady Lancing, who is mentioned once in Act III of the play.
At the time, Wilde was at the height of his success. But just a few months later his boyfriend’s father sent an insulting letter calling him a "somdomite" – yep, he misspelled it. A humiliating trial was set in motion, and Wilde was convicted of "gross indecency" and sentenced to two years of hard labor.
"Life is too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it," wrote Wilde in one of his first plays, Vera or The Nihilists. Long interested in the combination of the serious with the trivial, Oscar Wilde experimented with different proportions of each in his plays like a baker trying to get the perfect sugar to salt ratio in chocolate chip cookies. By the time Wilde wrote The Importance of Being Earnest he had perfected his recipe.
The Importance of Being Earnest is funny all the time. 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 marriage – always a popular topic in Victorian plays, and one that interested 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 under control. We can see this at work in the The Importance of Being Earnest, usually when the social referee, Lady Bracknell, blows her whistle. Her two main concerns are class and money. Jack is a no-go because he doesn't know who his parents are (i.e., his class is unknown). Lady Bracknell is concerned that he might be a butler in disguise who will squander her daughter Gwendolen’s wealth. One character in particular, Cecily, becomes a lot more interesting when her fortune is mentioned. The ridiculous end of the play – three engagements in five minutes – is a "happy" one because everyone gets together. But think about it – they only get together because their social and economic fitness for each other is demonstrated.
Who are the people in The Importance of Being Earnest, who do they want to be, and how does the identity they choose affect their choice of a spouse? Generally speaking, the characters are young, unattached people looking for the future. They have the ability to define themselves. Jack knows nothing about his past. Algernon can’t remember what his father looked like and says they weren’t on speaking terms. Cecily is an orphan, creating herself in a diary full of fictitious events. Jack and Algernon are ready to change their names. Only Gwendolen has a strong link to the past (i.e., to Lady Bracknell). With perhaps the exception of Gwendolen, these characters could choose to recreate themselves in a unique and unconventional way.
But they don’t. According to Wilde: if you give a person an opportunity to invent himself, he will choose to be exactly who he should, according to social rules.
What a relief we don’t live in Victorian England. No rules in America, man, it’s the land of the free! Be who you want to be.
Really? There are no expectations? No unspoken rules? No opportunities to disappoint your family with your choices – of school, of career, of romantic partner? Maybe there are expectations and rules after all. The question of how much control we have over our identity – and the life path that comes with it – is still incredibly relevant to us today.