Wednesday, March 13, 2013


To read the play online as an e-book, click here.

Victorian LifeThis is a featured page and The Importance of Being Earnest

The Importance of Being Earnest, written in 1895, acts as a play set in the present, that is, 1895. This comedy's humor sources in poking fun at society and its members. The play was not widely popular when it was first produced simply for the fact that people do not enjoy laughing at themselves. However, the humor of this play transcends time because the more time passes the more we are able to laugh at the traditions and customs, that once seemed all important, which are now trivial. Although, over one hundred years later, modern audiences still find The Importance of Being Earnest comical, there are some references that we do not understand since we have not experienced the political context. For instance, the characters make several political references to late 1800s British government and political powers. 

The Importance of Being Earnest acts as a depiction of daily life in the Victorian Era of England. 

Gardens: Wilde sets much of this play in the garden at the country house which accurately fits in with new trends of the Victorian Era. During this time, gardening had become a new fad in the upper class. Many public gardens were being built because the upper class felt that gardens would help the lower classes decrease their drunkenness and improve their social skills. 

Tea: One custom that became increasingly popular in Victorian England was the tradition of taking afternoon tea. This practice was displayed predominately by the upper class. One of the main scenes of Wilde's play takes place while enjoying afternoon tea. 

Vacation: During the Victorian Era, people were increasingly able to take vacations to other cities. This was in part due to the development of the train system, a move from an agricultural society and the creation of bank holidays, days that were designated by the government as public holidays. Increased ability to travel and take holidays help the reader to understand why Jack and Algernon are able to take off for the country to go Bunburying as they please.

Mourning Clothes: Wearing black to display mourning for a loved one was customary in Victorian England. A widowed wife would wear black for up to two years to mourn her husband's death. The house would also be prepared to mourn: clocks would be stopped, window curtains would be closed, and mirrors would be covered. When Jack arrives to tell Miss Prism and Cecily about his brother's death, the stage directions tell us that he is dressed in mourning clothes and wearing black gloves.

Education: As we see with Cecily and Miss Prism, education for the upper class students took place in the home with a private tutor. Schooling was not mandatory throughout the 1800s, but the richer children normally received schooling in the home just as Cecily does.

Religion: Religion played a large part in the daily lives of the Victorian English people. Many people during this time period attended church regularly. Baptism is a sacrament of the Christian Church and Wilde illustrates this aspect of Victorian culture through both Jack's and Algernon's desires to be baptized as Ernest. 
A Review
"Life is too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it," wrote Wilde in one of his first plays, Veraor The Nihilists. Long interested in the combination of the serious with the trivial, Oscar Wilde experimented with different proportions of each in his plays like a baker trying to get the perfect sugar to salt ratio in chocolate chip cookies. By the time Wilde wrote The Importance of Being Earnest he had perfected his recipe.

The Importance of Being Earnest is funny all the time. There is nothing earnest about this play, at least on the surface. It’s a satire of the Victorian era, when an intricate code of behavior governed everything from communication to sexuality. The most important rules applied to marriage – always a popular topic in Victorian plays, and one that interested Wilde, who was married to a woman but sexually involved with men.

During the Victorian period, marriage was about protecting your resources, and keeping socially unacceptable impulses under control. We can see this at work in the The Importance of Being Earnest, usually when the social referee, Lady Bracknell, blows her whistle. Her two main concerns are class and money. Jack is a no-go because he doesn't know who his parents are (i.e., his class is unknown). Lady Bracknell is concerned that he might be a butler in disguise who will squander her daughter Gwendolen’s wealth. One character in particular, Cecily, becomes a lot more interesting when her fortune is mentioned. The ridiculous end of the play – three engagements in five minutes – is a "happy" one because everyone gets together. But think about it – they only get together because their social and economic fitness for each other is demonstrated.
 Why Should I Care?
Who are the people in The Importance of Being Earnest, who do they want to be, and how does the identity they choose affect their choice of a spouse? Generally speaking, the characters are young, unattached people looking for the future. They have the ability to define themselves. Jack knows nothing about his past. Algernon can’t remember what his father looked like and says they weren’t on speaking terms. Cecily is an orphan, creating herself in a diary full of fictitious events. Jack and Algernon are ready to change their names. Only Gwendolen has a strong link to the past (i.e., to Lady Bracknell). With perhaps the exception of Gwendolen, these characters could choose to recreate themselves in a unique and unconventional way.

But they don’t. According to Wilde: if you give a person an opportunity to invent himself, he will choose to be exactly who he should, according to social rules.

What a relief we don’t live in Victorian England. No rules in America, man, no rules in Australia? Aren’t we free to be who we want to be?

Really? There are no expectations? No unspoken rules? No opportunities to disappoint your family with your choices – of school, of career, of romantic partner? Maybe there are expectations and rules after all. The question of how much control we have over our identity – and the life path that comes with it – is still incredibly relevant to us today.

1 comment:

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