Review: The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

20 Books of Summer 2023: Book 1

I’m not into plays generally; had I realized The Importance of Being Earnest was a play, it would probably have been left off my queue. However, the dialog is so bright and lively that it reads more easily than most plays I’ve read. I’ve always struggled to visualize plays since there’s rarely much description of the physical scenes. Here though, there’s no vague “Elsinore. A platform before the castle” to imagine. There are minimal stage directions, and most describe the tone or gesticulations of the characters. Since the play is more about delivering a string of witticisms than a heavy plot, it’s easy to imagine. The only issue is that much of the play revolves around a single joke, but it wraps up before this joke turns stale.

The play begins when Jack Worthing visits his friend Algernon Moncrieff, and Algernon pesters him about the name on his cigarette case. The name on the case is Jack, but Algernon believes Jack’s name to be Ernest. Jack explains that he actually lives in the country and his real name is Jack; at home, he’s rigid and proper so he can be a role model for his young ward, Cecily. Whenever Jack wants to live a little, he tells Cecily that he needs to visit the city to look after his troublesome brother, Ernest. But there is no brother. Ernest is the name of the alter ego he invented to have fun in the city.

Algernon doesn’t hold this against his friend because he regularly engages in something similar, but in reverse: Algernon has a sickly and imaginary friend in the country named Bunbury. He visits Bunbury when he needs an escape his social obligations (a habit he calls bunburying). Hilarity ensues when Algernon decides to impersonate Jack’s brother, Ernest, in order to visit Cecily at Jack’s country house.

With the classics, there’s always a temptation to dig for a deeper meaning or complicated metaphor. There’s some skewering of the idle upper classes here, but it’s a silly and fun comedy packed with one-liners. As the coincidences and awkward encounters pile up, it only becomes more delightful. Some especially great lines:

“Oh! It is absurd to have a hard and fast rule about what one should read and what one shouldn’t. More than half of our modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.” (4)

“To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” (14)

“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.” (38)

“Never speak disrespectfully of Society, Algernon. Only people who can’t get into it do that.” (50)

While plays are always best performed, this play fares better than most on the page by virtue of every speech being immensely entertaining.

Overall: 4.6 (out of 5.0) It goes on just the right amount of time. One more scene, and all the characters would have become a bit much.

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