By Patricia Truxler Aikins
"It's perfectly phrased and quite as true as any observation in civilized life ought to be."
(Algernon to Jack, on the nature of wit)
While it may be claiming a great deal to say that there is little in all of English drama to rival the sparkle and wit of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, it is certainly not claiming too much. Lovers of language, comedy of manners, satire, parody, and even burlesque will find much here to admire. But so will probers of complex social issues; for beneath the surface of this immensely entertaining play runs a serious thread of intense social criticism, so much so that what many have called this play's critical weakness--the lack of any serious, respectable, thoughtful character--is, in fact, its great critical achievement. Here Wilde has delineated for us the ultimate consequences of a decorous but decadent society--empty-headed, useless, silly human beings.
The achievement of the play is simply this: that on the surface, we are positively delighted, indeed enchanted, with the complex humor that is the result of a gross incongruity between the way people behave and what exactly it is that they are "behaving" about. Thus, we delight in Algernon's incredible capacity to render, flippantly and unwittingly, profoundly truthful observations about human nature. But, at the same time, as we laugh uproariously at the apparently harmless nature of these people's lack of self-consciousness, we are struck by the serious consequences for a society that puts form over function, for a society where what matters most is not what you value but how you value it, not what you mean but how you mean it.
As amusing as the play is on the surface, its comic energy springs ultimately from the realities that are being mocked. Thus Algernon, who can speak perfectly, speaks perfect nonsense. Cecily, who is too addled to be anything but naive, declares that it would be a "truly awful thing for a man to be only pretending to be wicked." Gwendolen, who is clearly not the pattern of all patience, declares that she "will wait forever as long as it doesn't take too long." And Jack, who behaves impeccably, behaves with impeccable silliness about "the supreme importance of being Earnest." The play itself is constructed over an abyss of disquietude and apprehension. While deception is everywhere, all men Bunbury, all women lie about their age, the deception is of no more significance than a name. Passion competes with ambition and innocence with idiocy; and even deception itself is deceived by its accidental accuracy.
The Importance of Being Earnest, then, is a rollicking good play about some pretty serious problems. After all, in a world where there is no discrepancy between appearance and reality because there is no reality, where there is nothing beneath the surface because there is only surface, Wilde offers a different answer to that great Shakespearean dilemma of what's in a name. While, for Shakespeare, "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet," for Wilde, a Jack by any other name is Earnest, but only accidentally.