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Theatre / The Importance of Being Earnest

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"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, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People 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.

Adapted for the screen several times, most famously a 1952 film directed by Anthony Asquith and starring Michael Redgrave and a 2002 film directed by Oliver Parker and starring Colin Firth, Rupert Everett, Frances O'Connor, Reese Witherspoon and Judi Dench.

Is not, in fact, one of the Ernest movies.

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.
    Ernest: It's a very serious thing for a man to suddenly discover that all his life he's been speaking the exact truth.
  • 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.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Cecily.
  • All Women Hate Each Other: Jack says that his ward Cecily and his fiancée Gwendolyn will be "calling each other sister" before the day is out. Algernon snarks that, "Women never call each other sister before they've called each other a lot of other things first." He's proven right when Gwendolyn and Cecily get into a verbal catfight later.
  • Ambiguous Syntax: the source of many a pun.
    Jack: How you can sit there calmly eating muffins when we are in this horrible trouble, I can't make out. You seem to me to be perfectly heartless.
    Algernon: Well, I can't eat muffins in an agitated manner. The butter would probably get on my cuffs.
  • Ancestral Name: Jack is revealed to have originally been named Ernest, after his father, before he was abandoned as a baby.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: Algernon drank a bottle of wine that Jack was saving, then he comes onto and eventually gets engaged to his ward Cecily, stays for tea and eats all the muffins.
  • Becoming the Mask: Jack pretends to be another person (his own brother) named Ernest while in the city, and Algernon pretends to be Jack's fictional brother Ernest while visiting Jack's relative Cecily. Both end up actually having to become men named Ernest when their love interests both want them to actually be named Ernest.
  • Big Eater: Algernon
  • Blatant Lies: Jack and Algernon, constantly, and the others get their share as well.
  • Brick Joke:
    • "You will call me sister, will you not?"
    • In the 2002 film, the credits play over the characters holding a funeral for Mr. Bunbury, who Algernon later tells his aunt finally died.
  • Collective Identity: Both Jack and Algernon use the alias Ernest Worthing. Each proposes while using this identity and Hilarity Ensues when Ernest's two fiancees meet each other.
  • Contrived Coincidence: The resolution of the plot hinges on a huge one. The Colin Firth film averts this. Jack just lies. Lady Bracknell knows, but goes along with it.
  • Coupled Couples: Jack and Gwendolen, and Algernon and Cecily.
  • Cross-Cast Role: In contemporary theatre productions, the role of Lady Bracknell is frequently (although not always) played by a man.
  • 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.
  • Doorstop Baby: Jack
  • Embarrassing Tattoo: In the 2002 movie, Gwendolyn gets a tattoo of the name "Earnest" ... and then finds out his name is Jack. Oops.
  • Everything Sounds Sexier in French: This is why Lady Bracknell doesn't want French songs played at her next reception. 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.
  • Fauxlosophic Narration: It's up to interpretation if what Algernon says is actually deep or if he just likes sounding that way. When Jack outright asks, he replies that it's "perfectly phrased."
  • "Fawlty Towers" Plot: It's already one of these by the first act. Jack has convinced Gwendolen that his name is Ernest and has become engaged to her behind Lady Bracknell's back, while Algernon unscrupulously acquires Jack's country address to approach Cecily. And it only gets worse from there.
  • 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.
  • Gold Digger: Lady Bracknell, on her own behalf and her nephew's.
  • Gorgeous Period Dress: The 1952 film is full of these. So is the 2002 film.
  • Grande Dame: Lady Bracknell is one of the grandest — and one of the dame-dest.
  • Have a Gay Old Time
  • Horrible Judge of Character: Played with; Gwendolen claims that her "first impressions of people are never wrong" when really they are consistently wrong.
  • Hot for Preacher: Miss Prism.
  • Ice-Cream Koan: An awful lot of the wittiest lines sound profound at first, but fall apart when you think about them too hard. The characters even comment on this fact.
  • Idle Rich: Jack claims to make most of his money from investments to the point where Lady Bracknell seriously considers smoking to be his occupation.
  • I Have No Brother: Cecily thinks Jack is invoking this trope, but really Jack's almost revealed that his brother never existed.
  • Imagine Spot: In the 2002 movie, Cecily has several involving her as a maiden being rescued by a knight. When she meets "Ernest" (Algie), she imagines him as a knight and then imagines his visor snapping shut when she learns he isn't really named Ernest.
  • Implausible Deniability: Jack keeps insisting that the suspicious cigarette case was a gift from his aunt even after it's obvious that Algernon has read the whole inscription.
  • The Ingenue: Gwendolen and Cecily are parodies. Lampshaded by Lady Bracknell for Gwendolen, and Jack for Cecily.
  • Insult Backfire: How Gwendolyn wins the catfight with Cecily.
    Cecily: This is no time for wearing the shallow mask of manners. When I see a spade I call it a spade.
    Gwendolyn: I am glad to say that I have never seen a spade. It is obvious that our social spheres have been widely different.
  • Internal Reveal: Gwendolen and Cecily have a falling out over both being engaged to Ernest, which the audience knows already is the pseudonym adopted by both Jack and Algernon. The women quickly discover the truth when their boyfriends arrive on the scene together.
  • Intimate Marks: The 2002 movies has Gwendolyn get "Ernest" tattooed on one of her buttocks. The end credits show Jack at the same parlor getting a matching tattoo of her name as she holds his hand for support.
  • Invented Individual: Algernon's Ernest is the nonexistent and perpetually sickly "Mr Bunbury"; Jack's is, naturally, his brother Ernest.
  • 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 Jailbait 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.
  • Kissing Cousins: At the end of the play, since Jack is Algernon's brother, Jack's girlfriend Gwendolyn is his cousin. Of course, in Wilde's time this wasn't a particularly big deal.
  • The Klutz: Miss Prism is this, especially as played by Margaret Rutherford. There's a moment in the film where she gets her watch chain tangled with her eyeglass chain holder and Cecily either hides a giggle, or Dorothy Tutin is Corpsing and they threw it in
  • 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 Markbys 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.
  • Lighter and Softer: Probably the lightest of all Wilde's plays, moreso than even his earlier comedies.
  • Living a Double Life: The entire concept of "Bunburying". Jack is Ernest in town and Jack in the country.
  • Locked into Strangeness: Played with. The unseen Lady Harbury's hair is said to have "turned quite gold from grief" at her husband's death.
    I never saw a woman so altered; she looks quite twenty years younger.
  • Love at First Sight: Algernon's for Cecily. (Her love for him, of course, is of an even earlier origin.)
  • Love Before First Sight: With someone who doesn't even exist.
  • Luke, I Am Your Father: The comedy reveals at the end.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Dr. Chasuble's name refers to a piece of clerical clothing.
    • 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."
  • Mirror Character: The Reveal that Jack and Algernon are brothers after all is hardly surprising given how similar they are. Both use fake names to indulge in somewhat scandalous double lives, both are single men looking to marry the loves of their lives. They even repeat each other's lines on a few occasions, underscoring not only their similarities, but the matching motivations.
  • 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.
  • My Beloved Smother: Lady Bracknell
  • Names to Trust Immediately: Cecily and Gwendolen both think the name "Ernest" is one of these.
  • One Degree of Separation: Although like many of the tropes in this play, this is something of a satire on common dramatic conventions.
  • Parental Marriage Veto: Lady Bracknell refuses to allow Jack and Gwendolen to marry after learning he doesn't know who his parents are. Jack forces her to change her mind by invoking a clause in Cecily's grandfather's will that allows him to prevent her from marrying Algernon until she's 35.
  • 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. Cecily wins.
  • Perfect Health: Cecily can't even cough on demand.
  • Pun-Based Title: Meaning, of course, both "The importance of being named Ernest" and "the importance of being sincere."
  • Rapidfire Name Guessing
  • The Reveal: Jack's parentage.
  • Running Gag: There are several food-related ones, such as Algernon's constant eating and love of muffins, and the dislike of cake that appears to be shared by all four lovers.
  • Satchel Switcheroo: Resulting in the aforementioned Doorstop Baby
  • Shotgun Wedding: The 2002 movie implies this to be how Lady Bracknell (then a dancing girl) got Lord Bracknell to marry her.
  • Single Woman Seeks Good Man: invoked by Gwendolen and Cecily when they address the men they love.
  • Speech-Centric Work: Stacks of dialogue, most of it snarky.
  • Spirited Young Lady: Cecily; watch her in the tea scene.
  • Standard Snippet: Algernon strikes up the Wedding March—prematurely, it turns out—after Jack proposes.
  • Stealth Insult: After Jack complains about Algernon's Fauxlosophic Narration, saying that all the clever people running around are becoming 'an absolute public nuisance'.
    Jack: I wish to goodness we had a few fools left.
    Algernon: We have.
    Jack: I should extremely like to meet them. What do they talk about?
    Algernon: The fools? Oh! about the clever people, of course.
  • Talk About the Weather: Gwendolen can tell Jack is working up to something serious when he starts out by commenting on the weather.
  • Technician Versus Performer: Algernon claims to be the latter.
    Algernon: I don't play accurately—anyone can play accurately—but I play with wonderful expression.
  • That Makes Me Feel Angry: Cecily at one point announces that she "feel[s] very happy."
  • Thicker Than Water: Inverted. When Jack apologizes for insulting Algernon's aunt, Algernon reassures him that he can't stand his relatives and loves hearing people insult them.
  • Title Drop: The last line.
    Lady Bracknell: My nephew, you seem to be displaying distressing signs of triviality.
    Jack/Ernest: On the contrary, Aunt Augusta — I've now realised for the first time in my life the vital importance of being earnest.
  • Trial Balloon Question: "Couldn't you love me if my name wasn't Ernest?"
  • Turn Out Like His Father:
    • "All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy.
    • averted: "No man does; that's his."
  • The Vicar: Dr. Chasuble
  • Verbal Backspace:
    • "I must get christened at once—I mean we must get married at once."
    • "Oh! I killed Bunbury this afternoon. I mean poor Bunbury died this afternoon."
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Jack and Algernon.
  • 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.
  • Wring Every Last Drop out of Him: Quoth Lady Bracknell about Algernon's "sick friend" Bunbury —who Algernon made up as an excuse to avoid unwanted social engagements, and has been using as an excuse for years. "I think it is high time that Mr. Bunbury made up his mind whether he is going to live or to die. This shilly-shallying with the question is absurd."
  • Zany Scheme

Alternative Title(s): The Importance Of Being Earnest