Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” is a play which was first performed in London on February 14th, 1895. Wilde describes this work as “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People.” Even 124 years later, the playwright’s title still holds; This play could make even the most serious or stubborn theatregoer laugh. The jokes are clever and carefully crafted, the characters are interesting and engaging, but perhaps most notably, the creative plot devices and ridiculous consolidation of the storylines are want contribute the most to making the piece so incredibly funny.
Wilde is quick to establish the stasis and what ‘normal’ looks like within the world of the play. He introduces Alby and Jack as young bachelors who live their lives consumed mostly by leisure and pleasure. It is evident that Alby and Jack see each other often and are quite comfortable with one another based on the way they converse and the pressure they are able to place on one another as well.
For example, Alby is applying persistent pressure to Jack when he is questioning him about his cigarette case, yet Ably knows Jack well enough and Jack trusts Alby enough that he eventually owns up and tells Alby the truth. The audience is also able to learn a lot about the two characters relationship through this small example of the push and pull between Alby and Jack, which is further illuminated by their constant back and forth bantering.
The language Wilde uses acts as a large indicator of the setting in the play.
The complex sentence structure, vocabulary, and eloquence the characters use indicates their financial class and helps the audience grasp the aristocratic setting. Wilde’s title, “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People” may also be indicative of this setting. The language and the characters may appear serious, but their actions and lines are actually very humorous.
The aristocratic setting of the play and the establishing of class is also demonstrated through the way Algy treats his manservant Lane. When Lane exits the room at the beginning of the play, Algy speaks to himself saying, “Lane’s views on marriage seem somewhat lax. Really, if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them? They seem, as a class, to have absolutely no sense of moral responsibility (267).” The fact that in this moment Algy is speaking out loud to himself, seems rather unrealistic, and may be a case of poorly executed exposition on Wilde’s part. Yet nevertheless, from the start the play establishes a class system and the audience understands that Algy and his circle of friends and family are at the top of that class system.
Wilde is able to weave in multiple elements of foreshadowing in the first act of his play. For example, the admission that Jack does not know anything about his heritage and that he was “found” as baby foreshadows a problem of identity which demands to be solved within the plot. Wilde includes another Easter egg by displaying Alby and Jack’s characters as very similar. They are both guilty of what Alby calls “bunburying,” and have created elaborate lies in order to gain more freedom in their bachelorhood. This unique similarity and common way of thinking is potential foreshadowing to the reveal of their brotherly relationship at the end of the play. Interestingly, Wilde also has Jack directly foreshadow and predict the plot in reference to Gwendolen and Cecily calling each other sister. Jack says, “Women only do that when they have called each other a lot of other things first (279)” which ends up being exactly correct. Wilde also uses the first act to introduce phrases which will be repeated later in the play. This repetition of phrases is another small element that enhances the humor of the storyline. The first example of repetition is when Cecily echos Gwendolen’s line, “my ideal has always been to love someone of the name of Ernest (274).”
The inciting incident in “The Importance of Being Earnest” is Jack’s proposal to Gwendolen. This is the inciting incident because through his proposal Jack encounters two obstacles which he must figure out how to solve and battling those obstacles becomes the main action for the rest of the play. He finds out that Gwendolen has a strange attachment to the name Ernest, which means Jack must be christened as Earnest. Lady Bracknell also finds out about his lack of a family and insists that he “try and acquire some relations… before the season is quite over(277).” It is fairly straightforward to the audience that Jack must accomplish two tasks in order to marry Gwendolen and he even has a timeline given to him, “before the season is quite over (277).” This inciting incident is partially obscure because though Jack’s storyline fashions the main action of the play, Alby’s storyline is also very central to the plot, especially as it intertwines with Jack’s. The multilayered initial plots make the inciting incident harder to track down. However, setting Alby and Jack off of two different objectives, which later to contend with one another, prove to make the plot a lot more dynamic and funny.
The first plot point which raises the stakes of the play is when Alby goes to the country and pretends to be Earnest. The audience already knows that Jack is planning to tell everyone in the country that his brother has died from a chill, a solution which Alby himself came up with, in order to christen himself Earnest and marry Gwendolen. Therefore Alby’s arrival marks the start of there being two actual real Earnest’s on stage, a new element which the characters must learns how to sort out and which will inevitably lead to a lot of turmoil. Alby’s arrival is also an interesting development because the audience only has a subtle clue into Alby’s scheme, which is when he writes the address of Jack’s country house on his shirt cuff. Additionally, when Alby arrives he immediately begins wooing Cecily and she responds positively to him, introducing another romance into the play. The dynamic and focus shifts when there are two couples in the play instead of one. Alby and Cecily’s plot line becomes a lot more important and central to the story when the audience is able to root for them as a couple.
Another turning point is when Gwendolen and Cecily find out that neither of the men are really named Ernest and that they both have been lied to. Up until Gwendolyn arrives, there is obviously tension between Jack and Alby as Jack understands what Alby is doing, but neither of them are completely exposed and both of their schemes are still somewhat intact. However, Gwendolyn arriving and talking with Cecily starts to unravel everything, as Cecily and Gwendolyn both believe they are engaged to the same person. Their confrontation of the men and learning that there is really no Ernest at all marks an interesting change in the gender dynamic of the play. Now, both ladies are allianced against the men and their wrongdoing. At this moment the audience is hooked on whether or not the men can somehow resolve their lie and be forgiven or whether neither lady wants to marry them at all. It is a sort of rewind in objective for the men, who now have to try and figure out a way to get the ladies to like them again, let alone marry them.
One of the final turning points is Lady Bracknell’s arrival on the scene, her jumping at the mention of a Miss Prism, and demanding to see Miss Prism. I think that this is an interesting plot point because it is so out of the blue. The audience did not see it coming in any way, yet it is so exciting because the audience immediately starts thinking about how it might affect the situation. This is also an interesting turning point because thus far in the play Lady Bracknell has not been a particularly helpful character. Instead, she has been the one putting up roadblocks in front of Jack and Gwendolen’s relationship. However in this moment, unbeknownst to her, Lady Bracknell is truly helpful in solving a problem which is crucial for the conclusion of the play. Her calling Miss Prism to talk to her as a seemingly random tangent leads directly to the climax of the play.
Some might argue that the climax of “The Importance of Being Earnest” is the moment when the Gwendolen and Cecily find out that neither of their lovers name is Ernest, consequently unravelling both Jack and Algy’s attempts at “Bunburying.” However this moment is very unresolved and there is still a good deal to be uncovered after the discovery that Ernest does not exist. The climax is when Jack finds out that he is Algy’s brother and comes from a good family. This is the most emotional point because not only does it come as a surprise, but it also ensures that all the lovers can end up together. Romance is one of the aspects of this play which the audience is most invested in and because the play is a comedy, the audience members expect there to be a happy ending. This dramatic development is what ensures a happy ending. It is not surprising that the climax would come at the very end of the play, especially because it is a comedy, in order to keep the suspense going and audience engaged up until the very end.
After the climax of the play the audience has a quick glimpse of the new stasis for the characters. Both couples, Gwendolen and Jack, and Cecily and Alby, are presumed to continue on as lovers and get married, disregarding the fact that Gwendolen and Jack are first cousins. The spirit at the end is romantic and uplifting and even Chasuble casts away his celibacy to embrace Miss Prism in the height of romance. Besides the couples being able to live happily ever after, Jack and Alby also adjust to their new stasis as brothers. Within this new stasis, Alby and Jack have both abandoned their practice of “Bunburying.” They are free from their secrets and can go on to live happily. The audience can also mark the change in characters through the denouement, especially the self professed change in Alby from his last line, “I’ve now realized for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest (308).” In the beginning Alby was content with amusing himself by “Banburying” and enjoying his bachelorhood, but now he can see the true rewards of honesty and commitment.