Miss Prism’s famous satchel is not the only baggage to be found in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Often cited for the “lazy” luggage of theatrical conventions of its day, it is just as often commended for the unprecedented manner in which it stands beyond time and place. Just as he had lavishly decorated the rooms of Number 16 Tite Street, where he and his new bride moved in 1885, with an eclectic and aesthetic collection of the new and the old, Wilde mixes them in The Importance of Being Earnest, his optimum opus. The play is a culmination of earnest payments, echoed in his epigrams.
Where did Wilde fit into the theatre of late Victorians? Steamships and railroads had made touring possible, and Wilde even traveled with art lectures on a vast American circuit which included Salt Lake City and the Colorado mines. Modem technology enabled actor-managers like Sir Henry Irving to create sensational melodramatic effects. Husbands and wives co-managed companies; playwrights were paid well; Henry Irving was knighted; and theatre became respectable. People liked to be entertained, to laugh, to see happy endings, and to have their middle class moralities confirmed. Later dinner hours made shorter theatre evenings with a single bill. Productions were spectacular, and gilt extended from the picture-frame arch of Haymarket to the actor’s chairs in the wings of George Alexander’s St James where The Importance of Being Earnest was first produced. Wilde fit well. His flourish, the theatricality of his dress and lifestyle, had made him easily one with the glitter. Until his deviances were uncovered, his marriage to a lovely woman and his two sons made him respectable.
As to scripts, “the good ended happily, and the bad unhappily,” as in Miss Prism’s three-volume novel “That is what Fiction means” (369; the source for all quotations from this play is Best Known Works, Wise and Co.: New York). It was an era of domestic tragedies and romantic extravagances, of elaborate scenic effects and even more exaggerated acting. There were French farces, melodramas, drawing room comedies, mutilated Shakespeare, and pantomimes with equally spectacular productions. W. S. Gilbert’s outrageous assaults on conventions, as in Engaged, may have primed Wilde’s creative approach to his times. Strindberg, Ibsen, Zola, and Shaw also experimented with newer forms, attempting to affix a growing sense of reality as described by the new sciences of psychology and sociology. Pinero and Jones similarly wrote problem plays in response to growing awareness of social conditions in a country whose potential audience included 80 percent working people. Debating Darwin, people began to see human fates as influenced by both environment and heredity.
Of Oscar Wilde’s plays, three, Lady Windennere’s Fan, A Woman of No Importance, and An Ideal Husband, can be called drawing room dramas, with the stylish settings and “pink lamps” Wilde himself attributed to that genre (George Rowell, Theatre in the Age of Irving, Rowman and Littlefield: Totowa, N.J., 1981, 122). Their spectacle was for both eyes and ears. The melodramatic speeches of the wronged woman, now sacrificing her future for her child, thrilled actresses playing them, as well as audiences. Certainly morals must not be compromised, but had society punished a woman unfairly? Social conventions upheld, Wilde had it both ways because he questioned their application. In A Woman of No Importance, Mrs. Arbuthnot was censured, while Lord Illingworth, whose name says it all, managed to be as irresponsible as he was waggish—both amoral and amusing.
The witty first act of A Woman reveals Wilde warming up to write Earnest while satisfying the Victorian theatre public. Wilde fit the problem play pattern: fallen women, the double standards for men and women, poverty, and other issues. He also borrows, from Scribe and Saniou, the structure of the well-made play with its inciting incident, obligatory confrontation, and denouement.
Social judgments in Earnest aren’t as severe as in these three earlier dramas where the upper classes are brutally revealed in all their sha1lowness, immorality, and snobbery. Here the woman with a past is Miss Prism and not an unwed mother, though Jack gamely offers to forgive even this. “But afterall, who has the right to cast a stone against one who has suffered? Cannot repentance wipe out an act of folly? Why should there be one law for men, and other for women?” (394) In England, until 1923, adultery alone was grounds for divorce from a wife, while she must prove desertion and cruelty as well to obtain divorce from a husband. Marriage, materialism, education, and the church too are criticized. The play, as Eric Bentley has reminded us, “is about earnestness, that is, Victorian solemnity, that kind of false seriousness which means priggishness, hypocrisy and lack of irony” (“The Importance of Being Earnest” in Oscar Wilde: A Collection of Essays, ed. Richard Ellmann. Prentice-Hall, Inc.: Englewood Cliffs, N. J., 1969,111).
“Never speak disrespectfully of Society, Algernon,” advises Lady Bracknell. “Only people who can’t get into it do that” (390). Not a member of the English aristocracy, Wilde ensured his place there by becoming its provocateur, a career begun at Oxford as he shed his Irish accent and donned the clothes that made his fame as a dandy. On the lecture circuit, in drawing rooms, and at dining tables, he delighted and enraged, by drawing attention to forms devoid of sense. Once, still at Magdalen College, he began the daily scripture readings by announcing The Song of Solomon to a suddenly alert audience (Richard Ellmann, Four Dubliners, Library of Congress: Washington D.C., 1986, 17).
“All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his” (365). Was it Wilde’s gift or his tragedy that he resembled his mother? His Irish heritage was his mother’s penchant for repartee A flamboyant dresser, poet, and speaker, Francesca Speranza Wilde was often quoted. To Wilde’s phrase “show to the world my sin and shame;” she responded typically, “sin is respectable and highly poetical, but shame is not” (Ellinarn 17).
“How charming you are, dear Lord Illingworth,” says Lady Hunstanton to the ‘Wilde card” of A Woman of No Importance. “You always find out that one’s most glaring fault is one’s most important virtue. You have the most comforting views of life.” Not everyone was comforted, and Wilde’s excesses were his making and his unmaking. As quickly as Lady Bracknell would have rejected Jack without the proper credentials, society expelled Wilde when, a few months after the first production of Earnest, his own name was struck from the playbills as a result of his conviction on a charge of homosexuality.
When conventions are stripped to essences, Wilde was free to concentrate on the now evident paradoxes. Not laziness, but genius, his borrowing of forms allowed him to move in Earnest to pure form minus the elements of melodrama or even realistic society mirrored in other Victorian dramas or his earlier plays. The drawing rooms look alike, but the characters are stock and the situations are venerable scenarios. The masks of Menander’s Greek New Comedies included young lovers, and Wilde has two sets. Their path to true love is ensnared by a gorgon of a woman, “a monster without being a myth” (365). The very name no doubt suggested tangles to Wilde. Lady Bracknell often, like her Greek counterpart, was played by a man.
Unlike their predecessors neither Cedily nor Gwendolen is vapid. Cedily calls “a spade a spade,” and Gwen is glad that she has “never seen a spade” (379). Algernon and Jack fit the prototypes of both the young lovers and the rascal servant personae of New Comedy. They are assisted by their alter egos, Earnest and Bunbury. In refusing to allow his ward to marry Algernon, Jack also becomes the intractable guardian. Dr. Chasuble echoes the stock role of the foolish scholar. “Dr. Chasuble is a most learned man. He has never written a single book, so you can imagine how much he knows,” says Cedily. The servant is found in loyal Miss Prism, governess, romantic, and snare for the chaste Chasuble. It is from her missing handbag that the magic is drawn to untangle the skeins of the plot.
In addition to thwarted lovers, Menander’s plots involved lost children, mistaken identities, and other such domestic doings. Victorians also loved mistaken identities. In The Victorian Theatre, George Rowell tells us, “no experienced play-goer put any trust in the family relationships indicated by the list of characters when all his training told him that by the end of Act II one or more would certainly have changed partners or parents in midplay” (The Victorian Theatre, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1978, 109). (The confusion may have been experienced by actors in repertory theatres which might require them to perform forty roles in thirty-six days.) Both young women insist on marrying a man named Ernest “There is something in that name that seems to inspire absolute confidence” (361). An excess of fiances named Ernest is compounded by Jack’s fiction of a brother named Ernest and Algernon’s invention of a scandalous Bunbury to draw him from town. (A real Henry Bunbury was a friend of Wilde at Oxford, and the name has led to speculation.) What’s in a name indeed? Given a name whose meaning he had lived to fulfill, Wilde was to see it taken from the bills of his very play.
More troublesome than mixed identity is the question of true identity. Found ina handbag, Jack’s “origin was a Temminus,” says Lady Bracknell (389). His frequent use of misplaced children (there are incidents in A Woman of No Importance and in Lady Windermere’s Fan) may owe something to Wilde’s three siblings, fathered by his reputably randy parent, and born to mothers unknown to Oscar. But Victorians were heavily supplied with lost children from Little Nell to Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and even the lost Christ child wandering in Wilde’s fairy garden of “The Selfish Giant.” True to formula, Wilde reunites lost children with their true parents, and what seemed false is found to be true. “It is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth. Can you forgive me?” Gwendolen can, for she feels that Jack is “about to change” (396).
‘The truth in art,” Wilde tells us, “is that whose contradictory is also true” (Bentley 115)
The very concept of paradox suggests duality--the meaning and its opposite. Says Lord Darlington in Lady Windermere’s Fan: “If you pretend to be good, the world takes you very seriously. If you pretend to be bad, it doesn’t. Such is the astounding stupidity of optimism.” Of course part of the baggage lugged into that drawing room of the Manor House, Woolton, arose from the dualities in Wilde’s personal relationship with his world. In that pre-Edwardian decadence of the 1890s, there was much pretense, a society of public expressions of conventions amid unmentioned shadowy private practises. Wilde’s real crime was the social faux pas of citing the marquis of Queensbury (his lover’s father) for libel— the marquis whose country address was, incidentally, Bracknell. “The truths of metaphysics are the truths of masks” (Bentley 115).
Having once said that “life should imitate Art,” Wilde lacked the balance of art in his life. He, like his famous Dorian Gray, was drawn to excesses and split by resulting contradictions like that man and his portrait. An aesthete, he loved the beautiful, deplored the ugly, yet created both, often destroying the first with the second. He struggled with reli-gion, deploring the institution, yet drawn to writing nearly maudlin religious sentiments. As a student he was drawn to both Catholicism and Free Masonr--rather opposing movements. He ridiculed the shallowness of society, but did so in such a way as to ensure his place in it. He was an advocate of art for art’s sake, yet wrote plays and commentary with other intent. The last of these, The Ballad of Reading Gaol was quite effective in winning reforms for the prisoners there, and the essay “The Soul of a Man under Socialism” matches him to Fabianist fellow Irishman, George Bernard Shaw. In 1895, The Importance of Being Earnest and Wilde’s arrest are the climax of both his private and literary paradoxes
Miss Prism’s handbag originally carried a “three-volume novel of more than usually revolting sentimentality” (395). It was exchanged for the offspring in the perambulator, a child named Ernest. Likewise, reaching into the past, Wilde has, from his own set of sensibilities, combined the traditions of his progenitors with the conventions of contemporaries and produced a unique reflection of timeless truth. As Algie reminds us: “The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modem literature a complete impossibility” (358).