Friday, March 02, 2012

The Importance of Being Earnest (1895)

Author: Oscar Wilde
Title: The Importance of Being Earnest
Publisher: Oxford World Classics
LCC: PR5812.C38

The Importance of Being Earnest is not a particularly good play, but it does strive to amuse and sometimes it succeeds. Part of the problem with the play rests with the weakness of its conceit. Jack Worthington has been leading a double life. A foundling, Worthington has been made a gentlemen by a wealthy benefactor. He is also the guardian of Miss Cecily Cardew and he finds this duty sometimes too much to bear. In order to escape, Jack has invented a fictitious brother named Earnest whose affairs Jack must often straighten up in London. Once in London, Jack pretends to be Earnest. Upon this one lie, the whole play and its complications rest. These complications are four in number: 1) Little Cecily has fallen quite in love with the romantic image she has of Earnest, unaware that the man is really her "Uncle" Jack; 2) Jack's fiance in the city, Gwendolyn, is quite in love with him, but a good deal of her attraction rests upon her odd fascination with the name of Earnest; 3) Jack's friend Algernon Moncrieff also likes to impersonate others, and gets the idea to go to Jack's country estate and pretend to be Earnest in order to seduce Cecily and; 4) Cecil falls for Algernon, but like Gwendolyn, has a particular and inexplicable fondness for the name Earnest.

But all of this requires the play's audience or its characters to ask a simple question. How does an orphan child, found in a rail station cloak room, have a brother in the first place? It's a giant plot hole and the entire play sinks into it.

The other problem with the play is that sometimes Wilde strains to be witty and he falls flat. Like the modern sitcom, which must have a joke per page, Wilde's play prefers to keep a bad joke in the script rather than to have a "dull" moment. The worst example of this habit comes early in the play when Algernon is trying to deduce Jack's secret.

ALGERNON: Yes, but that does not account for the fact that your small Aunt Cecily, who lives at Tunbridge Wells, calls you her dear uncle. Come, old boy, you had much better have the thing out at once.
JACK: My dear Algy, you talk exactly as if you were a dentist. It is very vulgar to talk like a dentist when one isn't a dentist. It produces a false impression.

Now maybe simple anti-dentite humor was all the rage in the Victorian period, but I take the joke here to be a rather lame pun on the word "impression." Call the comedy police because this is just not funny. In fact, better yet, call Monty Python.

Oscar Wilde on Monty Python

This is not to say that all the jokes are bad. Just a few minutes later, Wilde does much better when Lady Bracknell utters the famous line that, "To lose one parent is unfortunate, to lose two is carelessness."

The quality of some of his jokes aside, why do we continue to read Oscar Wilde and see performances of his plays and their Hollywood adaptations? I think the answer resides in the very modern quality of the plays themselves. Despite the fact that they are close to 200 years old, the plays nonetheless continue to reflect certain attitudes that are still with us. Shakespeare wrote about people masquerading as other people. Sheridan, like Wilde, populated his scripts with wits. What seems both new to Wilde and to the modern age, however, is how Wilde focuses less on character--the moral qualities of a person--and more on the personality or the style of a person.

In Wilde's play, wit becomes a form of social combat. To talk faster and with a better turn of phrase means to establish oneself socially. What matters most is not moral character or birth--even Lady Bracknell's displeasure at Jack's rude origins proves transitory--but the ability to communicate with force. For Jack, for Allgernon, as for all of Wilde's characters being able to say the wittier thing is in a sense to achieve dominance not only over your conversation partner, but over the situation itself. This has remained a strand throughout comedy.

His Girl Friday

Take, for instance, the above scene from His Girl Friday. Walter Burns's (Cary Grant) wit and his ability to speak fast is his way of trying to dominate his ex-wife Hildy (Rosalind Russell). However, we can see that Hildy can keep up with Walter, interrupt him if necessary, and this is how we know they are equals. In contrast, Hildy's new fiance Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy) is from Albany, talks slow, thinks slower, and just doesn't belong in the picture. His static nature might be wholesome, but it is also an abomination. We know that he needs to be removed from the romantic triangle if we are to get any sort of satisfactory end.

Will & Grace

Will and Grace of course provides a different view of the Wilde-aesthetic. Will (Eric McCormack), Grace (Debra Messing), Jack (Sean Hayes), and Karen (Megan Mullally) are all perfect wits. While they are all often the butts of each others jokes, they are nonetheless equal wits and thus their friendship can continue. The fun of Will and Grace was not only the Wildean speed of the characters but also the way in which we could see the characters verbally joust with one another, all for the sake of fun and all for the sake of their friendship.

Of course, all of this is incredibly shallow. But Wilde might have found it fitting that his legacy was wider than it was deep.

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