This play is Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece. The Importance of Being Earnest is wholly dedicated to wit; it is written in Wilde’s best style, and directly comments on the drabness of ordinary speech and the real world. The play, in fact, represents the full embodiment of Wilde’s lifelong assault upon what he deemed to be commonplace life and commonplace values. It is pure farce in which paradox and artificiality reign supreme and the preposterous becomes the norm.
Wilde termed Sin an essential element of progress, believing that without it the world would stagnate, grow old, or become colorless. His fiction and drama invariably tend to give prominence to some secret sin, and The Importance of Being Earnest is no exception. Both its heroes assume false identities to sow their wild oats, although Wilde apparently felt sufficiently carefree about secret sin to be here lampooning the idea.
Defiance was always part of Wilde’s public attitude, but only in this play was he so bold as to make this defiance plain from the beginning to the end. The Importance of Being Earnest shares some traits with plays belonging to the great Restoration period of English high comedy, including the two country boors Miss Prism and Canon Chasuble, both of whom know nothing of fashion and whose wit is invariably unintended. Jack and Algemon are obviously dandyish masters of wit and fashion; both are foppish. Algernon tells us, “If I am occasionally a little overdressed, I make up for it by being always immensely overeducated.” Likely both Wilde and his work would have been more accepted in the roistering days of Charles II than they were in the England of Queen Victoria.
When asked what sort of a play to expect with The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde replied, “It is exquisitely trivial, a delicate bubble of fancy, and it has its philosophy . . . that we should treat all the trivial things of life seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.”
Wilde gave his characters such lines as “Divorces are made in Heaven. . . . It is simply washing one’s clean linen in public. . . . I hear her hair has turned quite gold from grief. . . .” To invert these respectable, conventional cliches was to subvert respectability itself, and that is just what Wilde intended.
It was inevitable that the conventional world should strike back at Wilde, at his character and his ideas, if not specifically at his play, but the speed and cruelty of the retribution surpassed expectation. Four days after the opening of The Importance of Being Earnest, his last and finest comedy, the succession of events began. that brought about his disgrace, imprisonment and exile.
The Importance of Being Earnest disappeared from the stage in the years immediately following Wilde’s disgrace, but it quickly returned as a classic. Sir John Gielgud brought a particularly outstanding production to America in 1947. Scarcely a season goes by without a distinguished professional production somewhere, and while amateur productions can fall prey to a broad, farcical approach, the fact that The Importance of Being Earnest still survives is perhaps the greatest proof of its indestructible worth. As Wilde himself modestly admitted, “The first act is ingenious; the second, beautiful; the third, abominably clever.”