The Importance of Being Earnest
Everett Quinton, Laurie Williams, and Laurie Kennedy in McCarter Theatre’s 1999 production of The Importance of Being Earnest.
First performed on February 14, 1895 at St. James’s Theatre in London, The Importance of Being Earnest is a comedy of manners in which the protagonists maintain fictitious personae in order to escape burdensome social obligations. Working within the social conventions of late Victorian London, the play’s major themes are the triviality with which it treats serious institutions such as marriage, and the resulting satire of Victorian ways. Contemporary reviews all praised the play’s humor, though some were cautious about its explicit lack of social messages, while others foresaw the modern consensus that it was the culmination of Wilde’s artistic career so far. Its high farce and witty dialogue have helped make The Importance of Being Earnest Wilde’s most enduringly popular play.
Summary of The Importance of Being Ernest excerpted from an 1895 review in the Daily Graphic.
John Worthing, Mr. Wilde’s hero, has been found in Victoria Station in a leather bag by a rich, elderly, and benevolent gentleman, who on dying has left him a large estate encumbered only with a rich and pretty ward.
Living as a bachelor in the country, John Worthing has also chambers in the Albany, which he occupies under the name of Ernest Worthing, a purely imaginary brother, whom he converts into a scapegoat, bearing the blame of all his own iniquities. He has fallen in love with the Hon. Gwendolen Fairfax, to whom, under his town name of Ernest, he proposes marriage.
Being accepted by the lady, though refused by Lady Bracknell, her mother, he determines on reformation. When, accordingly, he returns to his country house at Woolton, he goes in deep mourning, and announces solemnly and with tears the death of his brother Ernest.
Unluckily for him a pseudo Ernest [whose real name is Algernon]…is already in the house, and has already become affianced to his ward, Cecily Cardew. Cecily had always loved in her heart the disreputable young scamp, concerning whose evil doings she has heard so much, and so soon as his representative turns up, she is prepared to throw herself into his arms. It so chances, however, that what has principally captivated the maidens has been the name of Ernest, which both have assumed, though neither is entitled to it.
For a while negotiations are broken off, and an offer on the part of the two suitors to be rechristened does not go far towards settling matters. To tell the means by which the imbroglio is set straight the mystery of John Worthing’s birth dispelled, and the way cleared to a brace or, indeed, possibly, to a leash of marriages, would be mere waste of time. The story is as frankly nonsensical as it is diverting.
The full text of The Importance of Being Earnest may be read here.