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The Importance of Being Earnest

An Afterward to the Play

Stephen Broyles
Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde (1854—1900), author of The Importance of Being Earnest. This picture was taken in 1895, the year the play opened in London.


A recent Friday night at the Andreas Center was devoted to some nice potato-leek soup and the reading of Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest. We laughed a good deal, of course, but there are ways in which the play is not only comic, but also earnest.


Wilde is generally a social satirist, but one way of looking at The Importance of Being Earnest is to see it as not so much satire as nonsense. Other writers in late Victorian England were creating nonsense, too. One of the best known to us is Lewis Carroll, the Oxford mathematician who wrote Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1872). Carroll’s method was to imagine a dream-state in which the ordinary ways of logic were replaced by fantastic ones. Within the dream-logic, everything is consistent, but queer.

Earnest is a different sort of nonsense from Alice, but it is just as carefully invented and just as carefully consistent. All through the play, people speak this nonsense. This is even said in so many words at the end of Scene 1:


Algernon: I love scrapes. They are the only things that are never serious.
Jack: Oh, that’s nonsense, Algy. You never talk anything but nonsense.
Algernon: Nobody ever does.


The play is very funny, but Wilde is not just getting laughs any way he can. There are no rude noises, no puns, no visual gags. No one sits down in a chair and sticks to it. No one’s toupee is snatched off his head.

Instead, Wilde presents us with this kind of thing:


Algernon: All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.
Jack: Is that clever?
Algernon: It is perfectly phrased! and quite as true as any observation in civilized life should be.


At first we think, “How true! How profound! How clever!” But on second thought we think, “No wait! It is not in fact universally true that all women, etc.” Then Algernon declares it to be as true as any observation in civilized life should be, and we are left thinking, “Untrue, and therefore exactly as true as anything need or ought to be.” What superb nonsense! What an artist!

The Tale of a Thousand Years

As soon as we say that Wilde is not just a gag man but an artist, we raise his work to the level of Literature and cause children to read it in school. Well, it is Literature, and that must mean there is an Idea in it.

What is this Idea? Therein lies a tale.

There was a time—say seven hundred years ago—when intellectuals in Europe had succeeded in making a great synthesis of All Knowledge. This Knowledge included both divinity and science. It had taken hundreds of years to accomplish the feat, and by any standard, the result was elegant and amazing.

The trouble was, they got the science wrong. Their way of doing science was to pore over the books of Aristotle, Pliny the Elder, Ptolemy, and so on, and derive scientific statements by a kind of hermeneutical process.

Eventually it dawned on a few people how out-of-whack that was. So they devised a new means of doing science—by observation, measurement, calculation, and so on. This resulted in a great deal of New Knowledge that contradicted Aristotle and Ptolemy. That by itself would have been no problem, but of course the medieval synthesis of All Knowledge would take a drastic tumble if the new intellectuals yanked out all that Old Science. And yank they did.

The yanking process went on for centuries. The philosophers and theologians tried to keep up, but the scientists were fast-moving. The old synthesis pretty much fell apart, and there was no time to make a new one: the New Knowledge was coming in too rapidly.

In the early Victorian period, Tennyson in England and Melville and Whitman in the States had attempted a kind of synthesis of contradictions. Not knowing what to believe in any more, they manfully believed in everything. “Do I contradict myself?” Whitman observed. “Very well then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”

In the late Victorian period, however, the shaky synthesis of contradictions flew to pieces. It could not keep up with the accelerating speed of the new ideas. In 1859 Darwin published Origin of Species, and humankind officially became an evolving animal. In 1895 (the year Earnest was first staged) Freud began publishing his works, and humankind officially became a stinky little animal to boot. The Industrial Revolution and The First World War took us down another few notches—but now we are shooting beyond Wilde’s lifespan and need to come back to the 1880s.

The old synthesis in which God, humankind, and nature held their elegantly balanced positions was effectively a heap of ruins. Among literary people and intellectuals there was a widespread feeling of despair about the value and dignity of Man, the meaningfulness of civilization, and the existence and goodness of God. No solutions to these problems seemed clear. Therefore the literary people threw themselves into the problems heart and soul:


Algernon: The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility!

Nonsense as an Idea

The literature of the late 1800s and the early 1900s was written out of whatever fragments of belief and unbelief writers were left with. Their literary response to the Big Questions took various forms.

Some despaired of the whole deal, or came close. Joseph Conrad, in Heart of Darkness (1899), showed human civilization and morality as very thin: close to the surface lay unimaginable barbarism and evil. (The point was re-made in the story’s 1979 cinematic re-make by Francis Ford Coppola, Apocalypse Now.)

Others found an attenuated kind of hope in mankind’s upward evolution to some as-yet unseen higher form of life. George Bernard Shaw (a friend of Wilde’s) expounded this doctrine in his play Man and Superman (1905) and gave us glimpses of these supermen in such characters as Henry Higgins (Pygmalion, 1913) and Saint Joan (1923).

Others kept a stiff upper lip and maintained a stoic response in the face of grim reality. Robert Louis Stevenson, for instance, called upon us to bear up, for surely not all is in vain—although he does not exactly explain why not (Pulvis et Umbra [i.e., “Dust and Shadow”], 1888).

Still others took the great shambles of western thought as a source of amusement. Now we see what the human race is, and the joke’s on us. Among the writers of earnest comedy and trivial plays for serious people was, of course, Oscar Wilde. But there were many others, all through the Victorian Period.

What may be regarded the first work of Victorian literature was Thomas Carlyle’s amusingly serious Sartor Resartus (published in serial form in Fraser's Magazine, 1833-1834). The tone was maintained in the comic novels of Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray. Edward Lear composed a more intentional kind of nonsense (four books published from 1846 to 1877), and so did Lewis Carroll, already mentioned. Then there was the caricaturist and writer Max Beerbohm (1872-1956). When he was a young man he knew Wilde and was influenced by him. (Did Wilde intend a reference to Max Beerbohm when Jack reads off the generals whose names begin with the letter M and finds a certain Maxbohm among them? “Ghastly names,” Jack cries.) There were also comic writers, equally funny, who did not, however, labor with equally satirical or intellectual intent. Among these were Jerome K. Jerome (The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow (1886) and Three Men in a Boat (1889)), and later—to shoot once again beyond Oscar Wilde’s lifetime—P. G. Wodehouse (Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves adventured through fifty-four years together, without aging, in books and stories published from 1917 to 1971).

Here then is where Oscar Wilde came in. In spite of the crisis of faith and the aching doubts about ultimate meaning and value, he and other Victorian writers gave England a reason to laugh. And when one laughs, one has not despaired.




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