The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

To celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, I’d like to post my second selection for the Ireland Reading Challenge 2012, and raise a toast to Oscar Wilde for his LOL funny three-act play The Importance of Being Earnest.  

Though written in 1894, Wilde’s work is surprisingly modern. Subtitled “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People”, it is a mashup of mistaken identities, social satire, biting ironies, and one-liners worthy of our late-night talk shows.

You can finish the breezy eighty-some pages in one sitting, but don’t read it in public. You don’t want to be mistaken. To most people, only a lunatic would LOL alone without a bluetooth hanging on his ear.

Jack Worthing is in love with Gwendolen Fairfax of London, cousin of his friend Algernon Moncrieff. But obstacles abound for his courtship. As a country gentleman with many responsibilities, he has to create a wayward younger brother and town-dweller named Earnest as an excuse for him to go out to town for pleasure and to see Gwendolen. While in town, he has taken the name Earnest. Algernon, just the opposite, has to create an invalid Bunbury in the country for him to visit so he can meet and woo Jack’s ward Cecily, while pretending he is Earnest, Jack’s younger brother from London.

Locales may be a hindrance, their major obstacle is Lady Bracknell, Gwendolen’s mother and Algernon’s Aunt, a formidable and feisty gatekeeper of aristocratic matrimony.

With Downton Abbey’s dialogues still ringing in my ears (been re-watching the blu-rays perpetually since its Season 2 Finale on PBS) I can easily imagine the Dowager Countess of Grantham, Violet Crawley, uttering Lady Bracknell’s lines. Screening for Jack’s eligibility as a suitor for her daughter Gwendolen, Lady Bracknell conducts the following interview.

LADY BRACKNELL:  How old are you?

JACK:  Twenty-nine.

LADY BRACKNELL:  A very good age to be married at. I have always been of opinion that a man who desires to get married should know either everything or nothing. Which do you know?

JACK (after some hesitation):  I know nothing, Lady Bracknell.

LADY BRACKNELL:  I am pleased to hear it. I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever…

LADY BRACKNELL:  Are your parents living?

JACK:  I have lost both my parents.

LADY BRACKNELL:  To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.

JACK:  The fact is, Lady Bracknell … I don’t actually know who I am by birth. I was … well, I was found.

LADY BRACKNELL:  Found!

JACK:  The late Mr. Thomas Cardew, an old gentleman of a very charitable and kindly disposition, found me, and gave me the name of Worthing, because he happened to have a first-class ticket for Worthing in his pocket at the time. Worthing is a seaside resort.

LADY BRACKNELL:  Where did the charitable gentleman who had a first-class ticket for this seaside resort find you?

JACK (gravely):  In a hand-bag.

LADY BRACKNELL:  A hand-bag?

JACK (very seriously):  Yes, Lady Brakcnell. I was in a hand-bag—a somewhat large, black leather hand-bag, with handles to it—an ordinary hand-bag in fact.

LADY BRACKNELL:  In what locality did Mr. Thomas Cardew come across this ordinary hand-bag?

JACK:  In the cloak-room at Victoria Station. It was given to him in mistake for his own.

LADY BRACKNELL:  The cloak-room at Victoria Station?

JACK:  Yes. The Brighton line.

LADY BRACKNELL:  The line is immaterial. Mr. Worhting. I confess I feel somewhat bewildered by what you have just told me. To be born in a hand-bag, whether it had handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life…

And many more lines that would show you Wilde could have made one great Oscar host.

***

The Movie (2002, DVD)

I’ve got the DVD. It never fails to delight no matter how many times I re-watch it. Lady Brecknell is portrayed by Judi Dench, as proficient as any Dench performance, albeit a bit too severe here. But just as well, she’s a monster to Jack Worthing.

Jack is played by the ever talented Colin Firth. Dispelling the Mr. Darcy myth, Firth shows he can be one freewheeling comedic actor. Having seen many of his works, I find that with the right words to say, he can always deliver in style, even if he needs to stammer to get his words out.

Before Mamma Mia! (2008), Colin Firth had sung in a movie strumming a guitar, it is here. With Rupert Everett as the piano playing Algernon, the two come together in a duet to woo their love.

Frances O’Connor, who plays Fanny Price in Mansfield Park (1999), is Gwendolen, animated but much intimidated by her icily fierce mother Lady Brecknell. Reese Witherspoon is Cecily, Jack’s 18 year-old ward. The gals can easily call each other sisters if not for the mistaken identity of their love interest, Earnest. Thinking they are romantic rivals, the ladies are at each other’s throat as much as their genteel upbringing can allow, and  quickly become allies once the misunderstanding clears up.

Both Jack and Algernon are willing to go all out to have their names changed to Earnest via christening by the minister Dr. Chasuble, a role mastered easily by veteran actor Tom Wilkinson. Dr. Chasuble is a silent admirer of Cecily’s governess Miss Prism, played by Anna Massey with much comedic sense and timing.

At the end, Jack finds out his true parentage, realizes that he is more kin than kind to Algernon, and three matrimonies ensue, a happy ending Jane Austen would have approved. The movie adaptation is an enjoyable way to go through the play, not just with sight, sound and cinematic fun, but a delightful all-star cast.

Some tidbits: The film won a Best Costume Design award from Italy, and Reese Witherspoon was a nominee of the Teen Choice Award 2002. Looking at the cast today, we see 3 Oscar winners and 1 Oscar nominee.

As usual, the DVD carries special features like The Making Of and Behind the Scene featurettes, interviews with stars and crew, and audio commentary, always a valuable companion to the main feature.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

15 thoughts on “The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde”

  1. the older movie with Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell, and Joan Greenwood as Gwendolen, and Margaret Rutherford as Miss Prism, is much better, with greater actors by far.

    .
    David,

    Thanks for letting me know. I’ll definitely check that out.

    Arti

    Like

  2. Sounds like a great book to read on an airplane trip…or maybe not. Love the quotes.

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    Ellen,

    Why not… on the plane and anywhere. Great lines on every page.

    Arti

    Like

  3. David is quite right. The earlier film is magnificent, but it is a wonderful play, and I love Wilde’s wit. I enjoyed your review.

    .
    Chris,

    Welcome! And for sure, I’d like to get hold of that one… not an easy task though. Thanks for stopping by!

    Arti

    Like

  4. I read and watched this a couple years ago for the Ireland Challenge – and thoroughly enjoyed it! I’ve added your review to the main challenge page. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

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    Carrie,

    Thanks for hosting the Ireland Reading Challenge. I’ve read this play before, and love to reread it every now and then, but not before I’ve forgotten some details and words, so I can be surprised and LOL once again. 😉

    Arti

    Like

  5. I rarely risk that reality of life with a laptop – the spewed-coffee-on-a-keyboard syndrome – but I very nearly did it, reading your selection of lines. That bit about education in England producing no effect is especially rich.

    But what memories you’ve evoked! There was a time when, along with Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”, this was a staple of high school drama programs. We produced it when I was either a sophomore or junior – can’t quite remember – but guess what? I was on the stage crew, and painted scenery! We were pretty ernest about our responsibilities, but I remember even then we giggled over the lines and the plot.

    This is one I’ll get from the library and re-read, just for the fun of it.

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    Linda,

    What serendipitous recall of hidden memories! Glad you’d had fond memories with this play. For some reasons, I missed this one in high school, and didn’t discover it until later. But since then, over all these years, I’ve reread it many times, but not until I’ve forgotten the details or the lines so I can LOL again when I reread it.

    As some commenters have suggested, maybe you can find what they say is a better version of movie adaptation (1952) to capture some more memories, albeit not a stage play. I’d love to get hold of that one too.

    Like

  6. I cannot believe I’ve never seen this film! I adore –simply adore–that play — and everyone in that cast! Oh! Simply perfect! And yes, I CAN hear Dame Maggie saying any of those lines as Lady Violet! I know I have at least one copy of that play downstairs (maybe more in my various collections!). I’ll have to dig it out. Perfect St. Paddy’s offering!

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    Jeanie,

    Thanks! I’m glad you’re as excited as I am in posting this for St. Patrick’s Day… I mean, reading it and getting a laugh certainly is less harmful than getting drunk or setting the town on fire (like the riot in London, Ont.) And yes, I found Downton Abbey to have similar kind of dialogues that I’m planning a post on that. Coming up soon!

    No need to dig in your basement for your old copy. You can read it online free. Here’s one source: Project Gutenberg’s page for the play.

    Arti

    Like

  7. Delightful! I watched this long ago and loved it. Wilde’s charm and wit never cease to amaze and entertain. I saw Lady Windermere’s Fan at the Gaiety in Dublin and loved it.

    I will read your review about “The Grey” after seeing the film, which I hope to soon.

    Your reviews are the best.

    .
    Ruth,

    Thanks. Ireland is a must-visit for me… So hopefully one day I’ll have the chance to watch a show at the Gaiety. And yes, do come back and share your view after you’ve watched The Grey. As always, I’m very eager to know your opinion.

    Arti

    Like

  8. Such a good play, I love something that can still make you laugh over a 100 years after it is written.

    ‘A handbag!’

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    Alice,

    Welcome! Don’t you wish Wilde is around to host the next Oscars?

    Arti

    Like

  9. Isn’t it a wonderful play? I read it long ago so the details are fuzzy but whenever I read excerpts I am always reminded about how funny it is. I didn’t know Firth was in a movie version. Will have to watch that sometime!

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    Stefanie,

    Oh yes, even though some commenters think the older film adaptation (1952) is a better movie, I know I’m attracted to this newer version mainly because of the cast, esp. Colin Firth. He did a great job too.

    Arti

    Like

  10. I also plan to read this one in 2012, but I’m waiting for Wallace’s read-along in August. Watching the movie afterwards is a great idea!

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    Alex,

    I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. Breezy read for the summer!

    Arti

    Like

  11. A great play. Loved the old movie, but this new one was a delight. Got just the right tone that somehow captured the original but felt modern too. Firth and Everett were inspired. Loved the piano playing scene.

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    WG,

    Thanks so much for sharing your view. Not many have seen both, and I haven’t seen the earlier one, but will try to get hold of a copy. But yes, isn’t it true… with the delightful cast, it’s easy to overlook any cinematic flaws. I think in real life Rupert Everett does play the piano quite well… and Colin’s not bad on the guitar. Good to see the duet, an addition that I think Wilde would have approved. 😉

    Arti

    Like

  12. I’m very late reading posts these days, but The Importance of Being Earnest is a favorite of Daughter #1 (as is Colin Firth!). She is home for spring break this week, so we’ve just placed it at the top of the Netflix queue. I need to read the play, too.

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    JoAnn,

    I’m sure that’ll make one quality time shared by both mom and daughter. Enjoy!

    Arti

    Like

  13. I have the Colin Firth version on DVD — now dug out and ready to view again. As usual, I’m late for the St. Patty’s day watch party — but it’s never to late to laugh and celebrate life, is it?

    As an avid film-goer in the forties and fifties, I bet my father would have viewed the ’52 version. So for sentimental reasons alone, I’ll purchase it soon — along with other films my father saw — like The Quiet Man (another great Irish toast) — and watch them in honor of Dad.

    Strange how I wrote in this morning’s journal of the wish to watch films Dad grew up and lived by. I think it may be an important way of understanding better the man my father was along with what he held important.

    I may say more about this later at my own place perhaps. In the meantime, thanks for the review — and for the reminder of this hidden treasure buried in the second drawer of my armoire cabinet.

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    Janell,

    That’s a good point. As the saying goes: ‘We are what we eat.’ So the same applies: ‘We are what we see, or read, or love.’ It must be a meaningful project to seek out your Dad’s interests in order to know him in a deeper sense. I’ll be curious to have your take on the two versions of film adaptation.

    Arti

    Like

  14. I’d forgotten there was a recent film version – will have to find it on dvd! I have the audio version read by multiple characters and I love the wall-to-wall clever lines.

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    nikkipolani,

    Well, it’s not that recent anymore. 2002 and 1952, still an interesting contrast.

    Arti

    Like

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