AD's English Literature : The Importance of Being Earnest - Oscar Wilde's Satirical Comedy of Manners

The Importance of Being Earnest - Oscar Wilde's Satirical Comedy of Manners

 

No woman should ever be quite accurate about her age. It looks so calculating.
“The play, though extremely funny, was essentially hateful", observed George Bernard Shaw (My Memories of Oscar Wilde), and a possible reason for his aversion is its farcical nature. The Importance of Being Earnest is ostensibly a farce, that poor cousin of true comedy which may have had its provenance in Aristophanes and the subsequent Roman comedy, but which never found a secure play in the respectable comic genre. The farce is notorious for its lack of plausible plot, its mechanical actions, and its puppet - like characterization and finally its general lack of intensity. It is only Oscar Wilde and Pinero who, among the English play wrights made a serious attempt at farce, being able to rehabilitate this sub - genre to a considerable degree. Indeed, in his so - called farcical play like Lady Windermere’s Fan, A woman of No Importance ,   and The Importance of Being Earnest , Wilde is able to create a new kind of comedy which straddles the mid - point between farce and comedy , possessing the sheer playfulness of the one and the intellectual alacrity of the other , the mechanical plot of the one and the imaginative utopian land of the other , the flat characterization of the one and the grave satiric thrust of the other. The Importance of Being Earnest is therefore a farce, rather than a farcical comedy sui generis. 
The primary feature of a farce is its improbability plot consisting of number of parallel or symmetric actions. The foremost of such action in The Importance of BeingEarnest is, of course the device of such ‘Bunburyism’. Jack, the country squire invents a fictitious wicked brother by the name of Earnest, living in the city, in order to escape from the routine - bound monotonous. Life in the country - side; similarly, Algernon, The city - gentleman creates an invalid friend by the name of Bunbury in the country - side in order to escape from the responsibilities of his city - lifer. Jack falls in love Gwendolyn in the city under the name of Earnest, whereas Algernon falls in love with Jack's ward Cecily in the country under the same assumed name of Earnest. So a strangely parallel situation is created in which both the lovers assume the same name Earnest, and the both beloved think that they are in love with a man with the name Earnest. As in farce, a serious of vaudeville actions follow the two ladies call each other sister until they realize that they are both in love with Earnest, whereupon they turn into bitter enemies. Both the lovers try to be re - christened as Earnest, and both realize to their chagrin that the beloved have discovered their actual identities, chasms reigns supreme. 
The presence of undimensional characters, characters noteworthy for their static, unchanging quality, is another significant feature of farce. The Importance of Being Earnest is no exception. Its bevy of character including Algernon, Gwendolyn and Cecily and Mir Prism, Lane and Merriman, are all characterized by an idea fixe, a fixed idea which does not change throughout their lives. The sole ambition of Gwendolyn’s life is to fall in love with a person by the name of Earnest since it is a ' divine name ' has ‘music’ of its own and produces 'vibrations ‘. Similarly Cecily’s be - all and end all in life is to fall in love with a wicked person because that would provide her with adventure and romance , Therefore she feels extremely aggrieved when she suspects Algernon of actually being a good character . Indeed, she accuses him of hypocrisy, so that ultimately Algernon averse he has been 'very bad' in his own small way.
Image : Wiki
In spite of his marionette characterization and improbable plot, The Importance of Being Earnest reveals the genuine quality of high comedy in its creation of truly romantic word in which everything is parable, somewhat like, Puck - led world of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The play has indeed the nature of a fantasy where seriousness to be abandons for flamboyant frivolity, all anxieties for the sake of food, Algernon does when his beloved Cecily abandons him. An air of innocence pervades the whole play and the tale since desires for the innocent eyes of a child looking at the multi - hued world where everything is probable and nothing improbable. It is as if were a day dream where neither truth non lie, neither good nor evil has any impact. 
The Importance of Being Earnest may have been castigated for its frivolous wit, but often times these flippant witticisms take on the note of genuine wisdom - a quality germane to true comedy. When Algernon declares that the emergence of romance is uncertainty , he is hinting the very unconventional psychological reality about man being in love with only that which he does not normally achieve or attain , for at the least he does not feel very secure about . In contrast to the usual adage that “marriages are made in heaven ", he declares that” divorced are made in heaven ", implying thereby many marriages in those days, born out of societal convenience and aristocratic status, actually make marriages a bondage, a slavery. Such suggests of wisdom abound in the play.
Satiric vision, it is said, is the most important aspect of high comedy. Although the casual reader or audience may not be able to perceive the satire beneath the fickleness, The perceptive would realize that concealed within the triviality and fantasy is seriousness and satire as John Hankins pointed out in " Wilde as a dramatist, paradoxical as it may sound in the case of so merry and lighthearted play , The Importance of Being Earnest is artistically the most serious work that Wilde produced for the theatre." Through the irresponsible statement of the aristocratic classes , it is the aristocrat themselves . Who are being attacked? Their speeches reveal their inner emptiness and the follies of the decadent society of the late 19th century. At the same time, somewhat like Shaw himself the dramatist heaps scorn on such hallowed institutions as marriage, birth, baptism, romance, love and perhaps human life itself.
Wilde himself might have called this play “a trivial comedy for serious people ", but this playful comment conceals the greater truth that the play is a revelation of the triviality of seriousness. It is of such a profound if iconoclastic truth, the force attends the status of comedy.
Ref: 1. History of English Literature- Albert, 
      2. The Concise Cambridge History of English Literature
      3. Microsoft Students’ Encarta

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