The Importance of Being Earnest | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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The Importance of Being Earnest | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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First produced to great acclaim and fanfare in London in February 1895, Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest is subtitled A Trivial Comedy for Serious People. The play is the farcical tale of Jack Worthing, a gentleman in every way—except for when he assumes the identity of his invented brother, Ernest, in London to misbehave. Jack's double life leads to complications with his friend Algernon and the woman Jack loves, resulting in a hilarious comedy of manners and mistaken identity.

Although The Importance of Being Earnest satirizes the people who made up its audience, the play was hugely popular. However, Wilde's own double life caught up with him, and the resulting scandal ruined him socially and financially. His name was removed from the play, which wasn't revived until 1902.

1. Wilde was arrested and jailed not long after the opening of The Importance of Being Earnest.

In 1891 Wilde befriended 22-year-old poet Lord Alfred Douglas. Douglas's father, the Marquess of Queensberry, objected to their relationship, accusing Wilde of being homosexual, which was illegal at the time, and threatening him physically. Wilde had Queensberry arrested for libel, but under question at the trial, it became clear Wilde was uncomfortable with questions about his sexuality. Two criminal trials resulted in a two-year prison sentence for Wilde, and his name was removed from the playbills.

2. There is a suggested homosexual subtext in The Importance of Being Earnest.

Critics are divided over whether there is a gay subtext in the play. The words Bunbury and Ernest have been understood as codes for homosexual identity. Bunburying supposedly meant visiting a male brothel or at the very least implied living a double life. The idea of a double identity, one that is morally upright and the other deviant, was a frequent trope in late Victorian literature. And scholar Ellis Hanson explained the implications of "Ernest":

...Ernest is a person's name, as well as a character trait that means moral seriousness. It also refers to Oscar Wilde's own double life in the sense that we can say someone is earnest, meaning morally serious, and we can also say that someone is in earnest, which means that person really means what he says. But if you say that man is in Ernest, then you naturally say Ernest who, and you start to understand the homosexual double entendre that Wilde was getting at.

After Wilde was arrested for homosexuality in 1895, critics became more interested in the concept of a gay subtext and more convinced of its existence.

3. The opening of The Importance of Being Earnest was a major London social event.

The Importance of Being Earnest opened on Valentine's Day 1895, in the middle of a huge snowstorm. Because of Wilde's popularity, however, London society turned out en masse for the event. Socialites wore their best clothes, and many included a spray of lilies or lilies of the valley as a tribute to Wilde, as Wilde was known often to wear or carry a lily.

4. Wilde was a member of an artistic movement that encouraged transgression.

The Aesthetic Movement of the late 1800s was never officially defined, but it included ideas about art, literature, and politics and an emphasis on beauty and art for art's sake. The Decadent Movement went further than the Aesthetic Movement, focusing on artificiality, intense refinement, and transgressive sexuality. Wilde was first considered an Aesthete and then a Decadent, after the publication of his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, in which a man's amoral behavior is reflected not in his own appearance but in a portrait of himself that he keeps in his attic.

5. Wilde had to sell the copyright to The Importance of Being Earnest after his imprisonment.

Wilde moved to France after he left prison in 1897. He needed to make money and hoped to publish The Importance of Being Earnest in book form. Wilde received an advance of less than £50 for the publication. The book did not sell; shocked by the author's imprisonment and lifestyle, booksellers refused to carry it in their shops, and reviewers refused to review it. Wilde finally sold the copyright to the play for £20.

6. Famous playwright George Bernard Shaw thought The Importance of Being Earnest was "heartless."

George Bernard Shaw, author of plays such as Pygmalion and Man and Superman, wrote in The Saturday Review that The Importance of Being Earnest amused but "didn't touch" him. He ended his review by saying he was, "altogether unable to perceive any uncommon excellence in its presentations." He stated it was Wilde's "first really heartless play."

7. The Importance of Being Earnest is Wilde's most frequently revived play.

The Importance of Being Earnest is not only Wilde's most often revived play, it is one of the most frequently revived plays in English. In England alone, it has been staged professionally more than 300 times, and in local theaters hundreds of times more. It has been performed with all-male and all-female casts, and one 1989 revival featured an all-black cast.

8. Wilde wrote The Importance of Being Earnest because he needed money.

Before beginning the play, Wilde wrote to his friend and lover Lord Alfred Douglas (known as Bosie), "I have not a penny. I can't stand it any longer." Wilde took inexpensive rooms with his family near the sea and went on to write The Importance of Being Earnest, which was a huge financial success until the author's arrest.

9. The Importance of Being Earnest became a graphic novel.

Wilde's play was adapted by John Stokes into a graphic novel in 2014. This illustrated version, with artwork and text that closely follows the plot line of the original play, was published by Classical Comics. A second graphic novel version of the play, developed as an app, was censored by Apple in 2010 when they placed black bars across illustrations of men kissing, but Apple reversed the ban a few days later.

10. The Importance of Being Earnest has been adapted into a variety of dramatic media.

The Importance of Being Earnest has appeared as film versions and has been revived hundreds of times on the stage. Notable films, with world-famous actors such as Michael Redgrave, Reese Witherspoon, and Colin Firth, were released in 1952 and 2002. The musicals Ernest in Love and Earnest or What's in a Name? made their way to the stage. In addition, The Spectator reviewed the 2013 production of Gerald Barry's comic opera, The Importance of Being Earnest, calling it "dangerously, anarchically hilarious" and asking, "Seriously, when is the last time you laughed out loud in the opera house?" Added humor in the opera, other than Wilde's lines, is the casting of Lady Bracknell as a bass.

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