ARTicles vol.4 i.bc: The Importance of Being Subversive

Sarah Wallace looks at the history behind Wilde's classic farce

Like many great works of art, The Importance of Being Earnest was written for the most seductive of reasons ... money. Oscar Wilde, cash poor and desperate, took a loan of one-hundred and fifty pounds from actor-manager George Alexander. ‘I am so pressed for money,” Wilde disclosed to Alexander, “that I don’t know what to do.” Despite this mercenary approach to playwriting, the final result thrilled Wilde. “My play is really very funny: I’m quite delighted with it.” Premiering Valentine’s Day, 1895, at the St. James’ Theatre in London’s West End, The Importance of Being Earnest scored a critical and commercial success. It was the peak of Wilde’s career; a few months later he would be arrested, tried, and imprisoned for “gross indecencies” – homosexuality. Though Wilde died a few years later, poor and disgraced, his play not only survived but grew in popularity and stature. A century later his comedy of mistaken identities continues to astonish audiences.

The play rejects serious discourse in favor of epigrams that keep audiences laughing. Unlike Wilde’s previous satires, A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband, and Lady Windermere’s Fan, Earnest does not overtly examine moral themes like adultery and illegitimacy. William Archer, a supporter of Wilde’s previous works, attended the premiere of Earnest, and criticized it for lacking depth:

It is like a mirage-oasis in the desert, grateful and comfortable to the weary eye – but when you come close up to it! It is intangible, it eludes your grasp. What can a poor critic do with a play which raises no principle, whether of art or morals, creates its own canons and conventions, and is nothing but an absolutely willful expression of an irrepressibly witty personality?

Archer’s distaste for what he perceived as superficial explains Wilde’s strategy. “We should treat all the trivial things of life seriously,” Wilde said, “and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.” His characters live, breathe, and die by this code. When Gwendolen and Cecily think they are engaged to the same man, this betrayal does not drive them to jealous frenzy. Rather, Cecily’s refusal to follow good form in her tea service pushes Gwendolen over the edge:

You have filled my tea with lumps of sugar, and though I asked most distinctly for bread and butter, you have given me cake. I am known for for the gentleness of my disposition, and the extraordinary sweetness of my nature, but I warn you, Miss Cardew, you may go too far.

Both women ignore the serious; the trivial, however, cannot be ignored. If politeness is not worth fighting for, what is? This scene between Gwendolen and Cecily illustrates the heart of Wilde’s dramaturgy; a conversation about superficialities cloaks important issues. The women aren’t really concerned with tea and cake, but unable to address their sexual jealousy head on, they discuss what society permits them to discuss. The real issue remains locked in the closet.

Wilde claimed The Importance of Being Earnest celebrates the trivial, and he used the tricks of farce: complicated plot, puns, innuendo, disguises and mistaken identity. Yet despite William Archer’s critique, Earnest contains a scorching social satire. Through the guise of farce, the play subverts the reigning institutions of the day: marriage and class. Wilde exposes the hypocrisy and greed lurking under Victorian politeness. Each of the play’s aristocrats (Jack, Algernon, Gwendolen, Cecily, and Lady Bracknell) contributes to this moral decay. While the characters appear to obey propriety, they lie and deceive to do so.

Earnest savages the politics of marriage. The lovers’ betrothals are acceptable only after proper lineage or wealth is revealed. Victorian society took the material aspects of marriage seriously. Lady Bracknell, Gwendolen’s mother, is aghast that her daughter wishes to marry a man without blue blood. Yet Lady Bracknell’s disgust towards her daughter’s fiancée hides her own social climbing. She came from a limited background with limited resources. “When I married Lord Bracknell,” she says, “I had no fortune of any kind. But I never dreamed for a moment of allowing that to stand in my way.” In Wilde’s play Machiavellian politics, not love, drive the marriage market, leaving married couples stranded in a desert of loneliness. The play asks if a monogamous, middle-class marriage is the royal road to happiness.

Oscar Wilde loved and loathed the world he depicts. Both member and outsider, Wilde described Victorian London from an aesthetic distance. Early in his career he served as editor for Woman’s World, originally titled Ladies’ World. Wilde said of the journal that it “seems to me to have been a very vulgar, trivial and stupid production, with its silly gossip about silly people, and its social inanities.” But Wilde hoped to achieve loftier goals with the magazine, subverting its existing purpose. As he conceived it, Woman’s World would, “be made the organized organ for the expression of woman’s opinions on all subjects of literature, art, and modern life, and yet it should be a magazine that men could read with pleasure, and consider it a privilege to contribute to.” Here Wilde hints at the method he will adopt for Earnest, taking something “trivial” (a women’s fashion magazine) and using it as a platform for a lesson in civics (the education of women).

While Wilde worked within the system in Woman’s World, his 1891 essay “The Soul of Man under Socialism” preached social and economic revolution,

    With the abolition of private property, then we shall have true, beautiful, healthy Individu-alism. Nobody will waste his life in accumulating things and the symbol for things. One will live. To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.

This essay – an angry assault – shows how the whims of society annihilate individual choice. Earnest takes a lighter approach. Instead of attacking, Wilde mocks his characters by unmasking the rigidity of their absurd obsession with etiquette.

If anyone understood the pressures society imposed, it was Wilde. Secretly attracted to men, he wanted to conquer a society that criminalized homosexuality. Living in disguise with a wife and children, Wilde hid his “other” life, including an affair with Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas. Always a flamboyant character, Wilde was outed in 1895, and imprisoned for two years of hard labor. Prison broke his body but not his spirit. After his release, he wrote to his friend Robert Ross in 1898, “to have altered my life would have been to have admitted that Uranian [homosexual] love is ignoble. I hold it to be noble ...” The characters in Wilde’s play illustrate the hypocrisy often found in sanctioned “noble” relationships. Gwendolen cannot love Jack unless his name is Ernest. “And my ideal has always been to love someone of the name of Ernest,” she says. “The moment Algernon first mentioned to me that he had a friend called Ernest, I knew I was destined to love you.” The emotion these characters declare for each other is frivolous but socially acceptable.

Wilde’s play unmasks middle-class morality, but the play’s most subversive element is evident only to those who know the code. Throughout the play, Algernon refers to his invalid friend Bunbury. Bunbury’s tendency to fall ill forces Algernon to make frequent trips to the country at a moment’s notice. Bunbury, however, exists only in Algernon’s lies; he uses the excuse of his fictional friend to escape the city and family obligations whenever he desires. Wilde’s inclusion of Bunbury nodded to those in London living double lives. The term “bunbury” referred to male homosexual practice and specifically to visiting a male brothel. While Algernon may be a heterosexual, the term hints at forbidden desires. Algernon explains to Jack, “Nothing will induce me to part with Bunbury, and if you ever get married, which seems to me extremely problematic, you will be very glad to know Bunbury. A man who marries without knowing Bunbury has a very tedious time of it.” Wilde, married with children, had to invent excuses to lead his double life, a duplicity society forced on him. Though the altar-bound characters choose domesticity, The Importance of Being Earnest celebrates this double life.

Shortly after its triumphant opening, her majesty’s government locked Wilde up in Reading Gaol. His name was stripped from the marquees, and he died in exile and poverty. Despite Wilde’s fall from grace, his plays never disappeared from the stage. For the past century, The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde’s “trivial” romp, has made audiences giddy with subversive laughter. The comedy – light and bright and sparkly – hides anger and pain.

Sarah Wallace is a first-year dramaturgy student at the A.R.T./MXAT Institute for Advanced Theatre Training.

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