Most plays are all about the plot, but when it comes to Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” which opens at Sweet Briar College this Thursday, it’s less about what happens onstage and more about what’s said.
“The glory of it is the words,” says theater professor Bill Kershner, who is directing Sweet Briar’s production of the famous comedy.
Premiering at the height of Wilde’s fame in 1895, “Earnest” still earns guffaws in theaters today because of the fun it pokes at society.
“His lines are both funny and they’re true,” says Kershner. “… We feel like we’re just going to a comedy, but we come out realizing that we’ve thought a little about what things mean.”
Since Wilde’s work is replete with rib-tickling repartee, we readily recorded our latest cheat sheet, “The Importance of Being Earnest: The plot, the peeps, the point,” to help you keep up with the playwright’s wit.
Also remember, it’s British.
The plot in exactly 70 words
Jack and Algernon are dishonest. Gwendolen and Cecily are in love with Ernest (an alias Jack uses to escape his boring life). Algernon secretly uses the name Ernest to woo Jack’s ward. Gwendolen and Cecily find out they’re both engaged to Ernest; the ladies insult each other over tea. The truth’s revealed. The women get mad but in the end it’s all OK because, turns out, Jack actually is Ernest.
The main players + a whole lot ‘o context (because you need it)
+ Jack Worthing: An orphan, abandoned in a train station as a baby, who was adopted by the late Thomas Cardew and now leads a respectable life in Hertfordshire, England. He has a good job; a ward, Cecily; and is the epitome of a respectable Victorian gentlemen.
Except he’s a giant hypocrite because he’s created fake younger brother Ernest, who he uses to escape his country life to go do unrespectable things in the city.
+ Ernest: Jack’s alter ego, whom he pretends to be when he goes into London. Those in Hertfordshire think Jack is always running off to bail the irresponsible Ernest out of trouble, so he has a convenient excuse to get away any time he wants.
+ Algernon Moncrieff: Jack’s best friend and the cousin of Gwendolen, whom Jack loves. Algernon also is a bit of a troublemaker; he too has created a fictional person he uses to get out of boring social engagements, and later assumes the identity of Ernest to woo Jack’s ward, Cecily.
Algy drives the plot just as much as Jack. It can sometimes get tricky remembering who’s who when they both keep claiming to be Ernest. It’s almost like they’re brothers …
The not-so-main but still important players
+ Gwendolen Fairfax: The love interest of Jack, whom she knows as Ernest. She’s also Algernon’s cousin and the daughter of Lady Bracknell. She was raised in the city, where she was educated in the art of being a lady, but she’s really pretentious — she will only marry a man named Ernest. She’s also totally going to turn into her mother when she grows up.
+ Cecily Cardew: The granddaughter of Thomas Cardew and the ward of Jack Worthington, who is in love with his fake brother Ernest. Seemingly simple but actually quick-witted, Cecily was raised in the country and is somewhat innocent about the world around her, which appeals to Algernon. She’s also extremely wealthy, which doesn’t hurt either.
+ Lady Bracknell: Gwendolen’s mother and Algernon’s cousin, who does not approve of Jack or Cecily because they do not come from money. But, as it turns out, they do, so she accepts their proposed marriages to Algy and Gwen in the end. #Classy
+ Dr. Chasuble: The clergyman whom Jack and Algernon both ask to baptize them under the name Ernest. He has a thing for Miss Prism, who reciprocates his feelings.
+ Miss Prism: Governess of Cecily who was once the nursemaid for Lady Bracknell’s family. She was put in charge of the child of Bracknell’s dead sister but she accidentally left him at a train station and ran away.
Turns out the baby — whose given name was Ernest — is Jack, which also makes him the unprincipled Algernon’s older brother. So he actually wasn’t lying after all. He sure lucked out, didn’t he?
+ Lane and Merriman: Algernon and Jack’s respective butlers.
+ Pants on fire: We all lie. Sometimes we even have good reasons for lying. But lying makes things complicated and as one falsehood leads to another, it’s terribly tricky keeping track of the web you weave. Plus, the truth almost always comes out anyway.
+ All the judgment: Wilde’s play is really an indictment on upper class Victorian society, especially the code of behavior that governs every aspect of life and its self-righteous moralism.
Basically, Wilde says, they’re all giant hypocrites.
It helps to remember that Wilde himself was trapped in this world of proper appearances. He was publicly married to a woman but had an affair with a man (homosexual behavior was illegal in the U.K. at the time).
Did you know?
+ In 2007, a first edition manuscript of “Earnest,” dating back to 1898, was anonymously donated to a charity shop in England. It was dropped off in a handbag, a nod to a key plot element in the play.
+ While the play ends happily, Wilde’s life did not. His relationship with poet Lord Alfred Douglas was made public two weeks after “Ernest” opened — by Douglas’ father no less.
Wilde was found guilty of “gross indecency,” spent two years in prison and was ruined both professionally and financially. He died three years later as a result of his incarceration. He was 46.
+ Even at the end of his life, Wilde still exhibited a sharp wit. His reported last words were, “This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes or I do.”