"The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be quite tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility."
— Algernon Moncrieff
The Importance of Being Earnest is an 1895 play by Irish playwright Oscar Wilde. It is a farce on the societal conventions and restrictions of late-Victorian society, and remains enormously popular today.The play follows the lives of two best friends, Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff. Jack lives in the country with his ward, Cecily Cardew, but spends much of his time in London — where he calls himself "Ernest Worthing," so that he can do as he likes without anything getting traced back to his real identity. Furthermore, as luck would have it, his girlfriend Gwendolen (Algernon's cousin) has always dreamed of marrying a man named "Ernest." Algernon finds out Jack's ruse, but keeps Jack's secret for his own mischievous purposes: since he knows that there is no such person as "Ernest Worthing," he can sneak off to Jack's country home and pose as "Ernest Worthing," where he meets and falls in love with Cecily.Jack, meanwhile, had "killed" his fictional brother Ernest, only to find that Cecily had already met "Ernest" in the form of Algernon. Not long after, Gwendolen arrives and meets Cecily, and the ladies soon find that both of them are engaged to a man named Ernest Worthing.It makes... more sense if you actually read it. And keep in mind that Wilde specifically ordered that the comedic script should be acted with the utmost seriousness. Plus the finale ending with the multiple plays on the word/name "Ernest" is much funnier if played seriously.
This play provides examples of the following tropes:
Accidental Truth: Jack and Algernon pretend to be brothers, and it turns out they are. Jack also pretends to be named Ernest, and that was the name he was christened as, before he was lost as a baby.
Adaptation Induced Plot Hole: The 2002 film switched the brothers' birth order, leaving it unexplained how Algernon could have forgotten that he had a younger brother, and why the second, not the first, son being christened after the father would be memorable for Lady Bracknell when she can't remember what the actual name was.
Does This Remind You of Anything?: The whole play is supposedly full of elaborate puns on male homosexuality (though Wilde's contemporaries and John Gielgud have denied it), most of them are examples of Get Thee to a Nunnery now. Still, the whole 'double life' subtext is effective as ever today, and nothing could ever stop "Bunburying" sounding dirty.
German, on the other hand, sounds "thoroughly respectable" — and not just to Lady Bracknell. Cecily insists that studying German makes her look plain, and that's probably why Jack insists on her studying German extra hard whenever he's not there to chaperone her.
Funny Background Event: In live productions, often when characters are talking with one another, anyone meandering on stage and not directly participating in the conversation are doing something hilarious, such as not-so-subtly listening in.
Getting Crap Past the Radar: Allegedly, "Earnest" was a contemporary term, among homosexuals, for "homosexual". Thus, to those in the know, the title of the play becomes "The Importance of Being Homosexual", and the main characters who change their names...
Gold Digger: Lady Bracknell, on her own behalf and her nephew's.
Invented Invalid: Algernon claims to be visiting his invalid friend Mr Bunbury, who suffers from "curiously bad health", allowing him to avoid his engagements with his relatives.
Amusingly, Algy tries to popularize with Jack the word "Bunburyist" to describe people who invent faraway, needy friends as excuses. The fanciful Bunbury, however, inspires minor pity in others and mostly just irritates Lady Bracknell, so he's not the Trope Namer.
Ironic Echo: "My first impressions of people are never wrong."
The Jail Bait Wait: Algernon and Cecily can't marry without Jack's consent until Cecily is thirty-five. Algernon is willing to wait that long, but Cecily isn't.
Although that may have been yet another lie on Jack's part. In any case, he's clearly only withholding consent to blackmail Lady Bracknell into letting him marry Gwendolen.
The Law Firm of Pun, Pun, and Wordplay: When Jack defends his ward Cecily's social status against Lady Bracknell's questions, he notes the late Thomas Cardew's three addresses (which "always inspire confidence, even among tradesmen," according to Lady Bracknell); in support of this fact, he adds that her solicitors are the firm of Markby, Markby, and Markby. They also meet with her approval ("A firm of the very highest position in their profession. Indeed I am told that one of the Mr Markby's is occasionally to be seen at dinner parties.")
Leave the Two Lovebirds Alone: Algernon volunteers to get Gwendolen's mother out of the way so Jack can propose — although he does insist that Jack take him out to dinner as payment.
Left the Background Music On: Depends on the production how far they take this, but Algernon's offstage piano playing in the first act tends to come in at dramatically appropriate moments, much to Jack's annoyance.
Living a Double Life: The entire concept of "Bunburying". Jack is Ernest in town and Jack in the country.
Meaningful Name: Dr. Chasuble's name refers to a piece of clerical clothing; also, the names of Algernon and Lady Bracknell allude to Wilde's lover Alfred Douglas and his mother — the latter lived in the town of Bracknell and Moncrieff was the name of an ancient Scottish family just like that of Douglas.
And Miss Prism's name is a reference to the word misprision, as well as suggesting "prim" and alluding to the phrase "prunes and prisms."
Moral Luck: Lady Bracknell embodies this. She admonishes Jack for being an orphan because it shows "contempt for the decencies of family life"; disapproves of sympathising with ill people because "illness is hardly a thing to be encouraged"; and even congratulates an offstage character for finally "making up his mind" to die.
Passive-Aggressive Kombat: When Gwendolen and Cecily mistakenly come to believe that they are both engaged to the same man, they engage in an incredibly vicious yet polite catfight. The unstated rule is that they must insult each other while maintaining the appearance of civility and the one who loses her temper first loses.
Wife Husbandry: Lampshaded and averted. Jack has a nubile ward, whom he isn't planning on marrying—although Gwendolen suspects otherwise when she first meets Cecily, and it doesn't help that Jack has hidden Cecily's existence from her and from Algy.