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The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays

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Combining epigrammatic brilliance and shrewd social observation, the works collected in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays are edited with an introduction, commentaries and notes by Richard Allen Cave in Penguin Classics.

'To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness'

The Importance of Being Earnest is a glorious comedy of mistaken identity, which ridicules codes of propriety and etiquette. Manners and morality are also victims of Wilde's sharp wit in Lady Windermere's Fan, A Woman of No Importance and An Ideal Husband, in which snobbery and hypocrisy are laid bare. In Salomé and A Florentine Tragedy, Wilde makes powerful use of historical settings to explore the complex relationship between sex and power. The range of these plays displays Wilde's delight in artifice, masks and disguises, and reveals the pretentions of the social world in which he himself played such a dazzling and precarious part.

Richard Allen Cave's introduction and notes discuss the themes of the plays and Wilde's innovative methods of staging. This edition includes the excised 'Gribsby' scene from The Importance of Being Earnest.

431 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1898

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About the author

Oscar Wilde

6,587 books33k followers
Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was an Irish playwright, poet, and author of numerous short stories, and one novel. Known for his biting wit, and a plentitude of aphorisms, he became one of the most successful playwrights of the late Victorian era in London, and one of the greatest celebrities of his day. Several of his plays continue to be widely performed, especially The Importance of Being Earnest.

As the result of a widely covered series of trials, Wilde suffered a dramatic downfall and was imprisoned for two years hard labour after being convicted of "gross indecency" with other men. After Wilde was released from prison he set sail for Dieppe by the night ferry. He never returned to Ireland or Britain, and died in poverty.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 747 reviews
Profile Image for Brittany McCann.
1,647 reviews405 followers
April 24, 2023
Unexpectedly hilarious! It was so surprising how much of the humor translated to current times. Delightfully fun.

I weirdly loved this. But I honestly went into it randomly with very low expectations.

I love witty sarcasm, and Oscar Wilde was chock full of it!

5 Stars
Profile Image for Richard.
1,139 reviews1,026 followers
November 30, 2018
I used to be an inveterate playgoer (one year, 1989 I think, I saw 52 plays).

The action and dialog on stage can be pretty quick. And if you're seeing a play that was written in another time for a different culture, that might be too quick to catch.

For example, the first line of Lady Windermere's Fan is from a butler stepping up to the lady of the house and asking "Is your ladyship at home this afternoon?" Our modern minds would probably surmise from such a question that the butler is asking whether the lady was going out later. But no: the question is asking whether she is receiving visitors at this moment. The notes tell me that this would have been a clue to Victorian audiences that someone is calling that causes social difficulties for the butler... in fact, it is a—*gasp*—man to whom the lady is neither married nor related!

This is why commentary is so valuable when we're bridging cultures. It's all very nice to dive straight into Shakespeare and claim to "get it", for example, but how many of our contemporaries would quickly grasp that a "moveable", for example, is an old term for a small piece of furniture? If you are going to get all of the jokes in Taming of the Shrew, that's something you'll need to be aware of as the banter zips by.

Oscar Wilde is closer to us in time but even better known for his subversive use of humor, so a guide is just as valuable. Don't believe me? Take this quiz. Here's some dialog (middle of the second Act of Lady Windermere's Fan). Hint: Mrs Erlynne is a figure of scandal; nothing has been made too explicit yet, but it seems she might have committed adultery!:
Lady Plymdale [to Mr. Dumby]: What an absolute brute you are! I never can believe a word you say! Why did you tell me you didn't know her? What do you mean by calling on her three times running? You are not going to lunch there; of course you understand that?
Dumby: My dear Laura, I wouldn't dream of going!
Lady Plymdale: You haven't told me her name yet! Who is she?
Dumby: [coughs slightly and smooths his hair]: She's a Mrs Erlynne.
Lady Plymdale: That woman!
Dumby: Yes, that is what everyone calls her.
Lady Plymdale: How very interesting! How intensely interesting! I really must have a good stare at her. [Goes to the ball-room and looks in.] I have heard the most shocking things about her. They say she is ruining poor Windermere. And Lady Windermere, who goes in for being so proper, invites her! How extremely amusing! It takes a thoroughly good woman to do a thoroughly stupid thing. You are to lunch there on Friday!
Okay, what was subversive in this snippet?
Time's up. The answer: "My dear Laura". Use of her given name indicates this couple is having an adulterous affair of their own! And yet here they are discussing the moral foibles of others with much amused cynicism and very little sympathy.

Conclusion: Read the play. Read the notes and commentary. Go see the play. Repeat as necessary.

Lady Windermere's Fan : Leaving the beneficiary of a sacrifice ignorant is somehow more graceful. I liked this one.

Salome : Very strange. It felt like a play from a different time, and a different author. The others (at least so far) have been plays of manners, with a hidden examination of morality and hypocrisy. Salome is more impressionistic and abstract; the treatment seems more amenable to the opera it later became.

A Woman of No Importance : Far too preachy, it seemed much more amateurish than Lady Windermere's Fan. Entire pages devoted to overwrought monologue, and others devoted to one-sided dialogues, where one character acts the straight man for the other's constant stream of aphorisms and quips, which in the end signify nothing.

An Ideal Husband : Curious how almost all of Wilde's plays deal with infidelity. This one has a femme fatale, but it is about a fallen man, not a fallen woman. Good and possibly better crafted, but therefore not as juicy.

A Florentine Tragedy : Short and excellent. A deadly ménage à trois, very tense in its few pages.

The Importance of Being Earnest : When absorbed after the forgoing, this play is that much more impressive. It is certainly more enjoyable—a condensed nugget of brilliant cleverness—but it also is remarkably different.

Besides this one, all of Wilde's plays deal, to some extent, with the transgression of social norms, and specifically with disgrace. They are also all more dramatic. Even those that are arguably comedies have a tension borne of the fear of disgrace, and the maneuvering to evade it. (Well, A Florentine Tragedy isn't actually about avoiding it, but artfully confirming it.)

In Earnest, the tension is completely absent. It would be difficult to imagine a more innocuous play. Or one so charmingly silly. How and why Wilde came up with the forename "Earnest" as the target surname is quite miraculous. I suppose in 1895 the name might have actually been quite popular. In the United States at the time it was the 24th most popular name (see WolframAlpha), and has suffered ever since.

As the dictionary illustrates:
ear⋅nest /ˈur-nist/
1. serious in intention, purpose, or effort; sincerely zealous: an earnest worker.
2. showing depth and sincerity of feeling: earnest words; an earnest entreaty.
3. seriously important; demanding or receiving serious attention.
4. full seriousness, as of intention or purpose: to speak in earnest.
The philosophy of the play is that of the dandy, someone with eyes steadily averted from anything serious and turned, instead, towards one's own (and lesser, one's friend's) superficial pleasantness. Definitely not earnest.

It is too bad Wilde didn't take his own advice. Even though we now think of him as the personification of the dandy, if he had merely averted his eyes from the unpleasantness of the Marquess he wouldn't have come to the unpleasant fate that he did.

In reading The Importance of Being Earnest, again the footnotes were helpful, but less so. The usage of given names and more formal surnames was highlighted, and quite deliciously so. The two young women adroitly switch usage back and forth to punish, reward, fend off, tease and prod their men, and each other.

My favorite character was Cecily. Despite the handicap of being raised in the country, she has somehow manage to elevate herself to the same level of cleverness as her city counterpart, Gwendolyn.

About that cleverness. We aren't very clever these days, I think. Or at least not in that ironic way Wilde and Dorothy Parker made so infamous. And while it is a marvelous thing to witness from a distance, I'm fairly sure I don't regret its absence. In both Wilde's and Parker's eras the mores and standards of the day were like protected but weak currencies — a few risky artistes profited greatly in arbitrage shortly before those unsustainable parts of their society collapsed. That we don't have a tiny and irrelevant subculture throwing mordantly funny barbs at the rest of society probably means that, for all our faults, we're not yet ripe for revolution.

Ah, my favorite quote:
Jack: I am sick to death of cleverness. Everybody is clever nowadays. You can't go anywhere without meeting clever people. The thing has become an absolute public nuisance. 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.
Jack: What fools!
Profile Image for Sketchbook.
676 reviews218 followers
January 7, 2013
"Prism, where is that baby?" demands the damndest dowager in theatre history in OWs farcical masterpiece. Feeling blue ? Reread this comedic milestone for the most preposterous merriment outside of Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit," with a bow to WS Gilbert and Sheridan. Wilde found his playwrighting voice just before The Fall. He turned unreal drawing-room nonsense into Art. Muffins, cucumber sandwiches, a handbag left at Victoria Station and a grande dame who burbles about train schedules : "We have already missed five if not six trains. To miss any more might expose us to comment on the platform." Well--it's uproarious.

Basically, OW was a prude, hence he went to court to clear his name. "Earnest," w the central male using a double name (one for London society, another for private weekends), has even been called his true "De Profundis" -- without the sentiment. By contrast, his 3 earlier "comedies" with creaking plots involving blackmail, scandal and duplicity loom as shoddy Victorian mellerdramas redeemed by the brilliance of his epigrams. Wilde uses mellerdrama as an escape, to take him out of himself into a misplaced reality.

In "Lady Windermere's Fan," the cynical repartee covers the sticky sentimentalism in which the "bad" woman turns out to be the heroine's Mum. He capably linked his escritoire to the box office. In "An Ideal Husband," it's the hero who has a shady past. High-flying chatter relieves the moralizing. "A Woman of No Importance" shows off his worst writing and finest wit : "The Book of Life begins with a man and a woman in a garden; it ends with Revelations." His plot turns on smother love when the Mum who erred cries out to her son, "How could I repent of my sin when you, my love, were its fruit." O, Oscar.

All in all, OW was surely a good-natured gent without malice or spite. At the time of His Fall he was the reigning Playwright and Personality in London. A worldly superstar, he toyed with a deep fear of scandal in 3 plays while the characters seek to protect their social position and careers. After "Earnest," which tossed a concern for provincial virtue into the dustbin, we can only guess at the OW comedies that never got written.

Profile Image for Teresa.
1,492 reviews
March 5, 2020
1. O Leque de Lady Windermere
2. Uma Mulher Sem Importância
3. Um Marido Ideal
4. A Importância de Ser Earnest

são as quatro peças incluídas nesta edição. As minhas preferidas são o "Leque" e o "Earnest" por se focarem mais na intriga e menos nas conversas de sociedade entre Ladies e Gentlemen.
Profile Image for Lucie.
828 reviews88 followers
October 16, 2018
3.5 stars

I love Oscar Wilde so much and I’m so glad I finally ended up reading his most famous plays, they were so ironic and funny, I also adored the social satire he did. I’d love to see them on stage, it must be amazing.

The Importance of Being Earnest, 4/5 stars
Lady Windermere’s Fan, 4/5 stars
Salomé, 3/5 stars
A Woman of No Importance, 3.5/5 stars
An Ideal Husband, 3.5/5 stars
Profile Image for Victorian Spirit.
212 reviews710 followers
August 26, 2021
Me ha parecido una comedia deliciosa que consigue la difícil tarea de que el lector se ría solo. Y no lo hace una vez, me pasé dos tardes de lectura riendo casi sin parar. Esto es muy complicado de conseguir cuando se lee teatro, ya que te falta la 'fisicalidad' y las expresiones del actor. Pero aquí el texto se aguanta en pie solo.
Además del sentido del humor, la obra reserva algunas sorpresas y giros al lector (o espectador) lo que la hace aún más disfrutable.
Me encanta que sea una obra que no se tome en serio a sí misma ya que eso le permite, entre otras cosas, presentar una trama simple y despreocupada y unos personajes bastante planos pero con una vis cómica irresistible.
Sin embargo, es inevitable ver que detrás de ese humor y de ese juego de dobles identidades que presenta la trama se esconde la realidad del propio autor, mucho menos agradable. Y que la doble moral victoriana a la que la obra hace algún guiño se demostró implacable con el propio Wilde, que lo perdió todo justo cuando esta obra arrasaba en Londres.

RESEÑA COMPLETA: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XwFbw...
Profile Image for Casey.
391 reviews97 followers
May 3, 2016
So hilarious!

There's this:
“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."

"Well, I can’t eat muffins in an agitated manner. The butter would probably get on my cuffs. One should always eat muffins quite calmly. It is the only way to eat them."

"I say it’s perfectly heartless your eating muffins at all, under the circumstances.”

And This:

“To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up.”


“This ghastly state of things is what you call Bunburying, I suppose?
Algernon. Yes, and a perfectly wonderful Bunbury it is. The most wonderful Bunbury I have ever had in my life.
Jack. Well, you've no right whatsoever to Bunbury here.
Algernon. That is absurd. One has a right to Bunbury anywhere one chooses. Every serious Bunburyist knows that.”


“Jack? . . . No, there is very little music in the name Jack, if any at all, indeed. It does not thrill. It produces absolutely no vibrations . . . I have known several Jacks, and they all, without exception, were more than usually plain. Besides, Jack is a notorious domesticity for John! And I pity any woman who is married to a man called John. She would probably never be allowed to know the entrancing pleasure of a single moment’s solitude. The only really safe name is Ernest.”
Profile Image for Marta Luján.
Author 20 books160 followers
November 27, 2018
Es, sin duda, una obra divertida y llena de absurdos, como también, una clara crítica de la sociedad de su tiempo.

La obra está estructurada en tres actos, y fue estrenada en el teatro de St James en 1895. Poco a poco se van introduciendo los personajes, Jack, quien se ha inventado un hermano llamado Ernesto para poder escapar de las responsabilidades y de su aburrida vida en el campo; y Algernon, que vive en Londres y quien se ha inventado también un personaje para justificar sus escapadas al campo. Ambos hombres se enamoran de dos mujeres que están convencidas de que deben casarse con alguien llamado Ernesto.

Wilde juega a lo largo de la obra con el doble significado de la palabra "Earnest", que significa tanto Ernesto como "formal". La narración está repleta de ironías y sarcasmos que ridiculizan las convenciones sociales tan rígidas de la época y la hipocresía con la que vivían los miembros de la alta sociedad, especialmente en lo referente a la sexualidad y al matrimonio.

"La esencia del romance es la incertidumbre. Si algún día me caso, trataré de olvidarlo."
Profile Image for Deacon Tom F.
1,769 reviews133 followers
November 29, 2021

This book is a collection of several plays by Oscar Wilde The Importance of Being Earnest is the lead play because it is popular in literature. However, there are other plays which are fun and worth exploring.

Oscar Wilde wrote at the end of the 19th century through the beginning of the 20th century and is incredibly adept in the word interplay necessary for each play.

These plays are very light and easy and sometimes pretty funny or sarcastic. I enjoy doing this paragraph

I highly recommend.
Profile Image for Nadja.
1,565 reviews62 followers
July 12, 2020
The Importance of Being Earnest
The humour, the social satire, the banters, simply brilliant! [06.10.2019, 5 stars]

A Florentine Tragedy
Short play with a shocking twist at the end. [11.10.2019, 3 stars]

Didn‘t like it that much. Was exhausting to read because of its old traditional language and style. The story itself okay with another twist at the end. (For people who don‘t know the bible that good as myself). [The setting however fitted as I’m on holiday in Cyprus. 12.10.2019, 2 stars]

Lady Windermere's Fan
Nothing is at it seems in this play which masterfully showcases the unfairness of society in relation to gender/women’s rights. Bittersweet and tragic. [13.10.2019, 5 stars]

A Woman of No Importance
Another brilliant play which showcases masterfully the hypocrite society of the time. There were so many brilliant sentences in it. [29-30.10.2019, 4 stars]

“Men marry because they are tired; women because they are curious. Both are disappointed.”

An Ideal Husband
Read last year during Victober. Review [22-24.10.2018, 4 stars]
Profile Image for Ricardo Santos.
39 reviews8 followers
February 2, 2023
O Leque de Lady Windermere - 5*
Uma Mulher Sem Importância - 4.5*
Um Marido Ideal - 5*
A Importância de Ser Earnest - 5*
Profile Image for Tatevik.
457 reviews90 followers
December 2, 2019
I don't read plays. Maybe I am the only human being who hasn't read Shakespeare. I tried. Honesty. When I was a teenager, decided to read Romeo and Juliet. Well, teenager+R&J, quite a good start. I got irritated by Romeo just in the middle of the book and left it. Then I started Hamlet. I don't even remember why I left it.
I hated plays and was getting confused in the list of maybe 20 people presented at the front page of the play. Hated this theatrical long monologues and conversations of 10 people at the same time. I didn't understand why everybody is in love with Shakespeare, why Wilde's gravestone was lipstick-covered?
Why people loved him so much? Ok, The Picture of Dorian Gray was quite a sensation, but, I mean, Shaw's or Shakespeare's graves are free from lipsticks of all possible colors.

And then I read plays of Wilde.
Attention! Do not read this book in transport or in public places, where people can think you are high, because, oh boy, you are going to laugh!
Now I want to go to Paris to leave my kiss for this amazing play writer while he sits there and rolls eyes, saying to himself "one more".
And immediately after that I want to go to GB to see all the plays from this collection played by British actors.
Profile Image for Vishy.
668 reviews212 followers
January 27, 2012
I haven’t read a play in a while – I think the last play I read was ‘Homecoming’ by Harold Pinter a few years back. So, I decided to read a few plays this year. The first one I got hold of was ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ by Oscar Wilde. I have always admired Oscar Wilde’s wit and humour and so I was really looking forward to reading his most famous play. I finished reading it a couple of days back. Here is what I think.

What I think

‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ is about two friends John Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff. Worthing loves Moncrieff’s cousin Gwendolen, and proposes to her and she accepts it. But Gwendolen’s mother Lady Bracknell refuses to approve their match, because John was adopted and doesn’t know anything about his biological parents. Algernon falls in love with John’s ward Cecily and proposes to her and she accepts it. Lady Bracknell has a problem with that too, till she discovers that Cecily has good investments in her name. But there is a catch in all this. John calls himself Ernest Worthing when he comes to the city. Gwendolen knows him as Ernest. John also tells his ward Cecily that he has a brother called Ernest in the city who is not a good guy and who is whiling away his time. Algernon, when he meets Cecily for the first time, takes advantage of the situation and introduces himself as Ernest Worthing. So Cecily thinks that he is Ernest. Then comes a situation when John, Earnest, Gwendolen and Cecily all end up in John’s home in the countryside, and both Gwendolen and Cecily think that they are engaged to Ernest. This leads to some funny situations and when the truth is finally revealed, that neither John nor Algernon is Ernest, Gwendolen asks John :

“Where is your brother Ernest? We are both engaged to be married to your brother Ernest, so it is a matter of some importance to us to know where you brother Ernest is at present.”

John replies :

“I will tell you quite frankly that I have no brother Ernest. I have no brother at all. I never had a brother in my life, and I certainly have not the smallest intention of ever having one in the future.”

On hearing this, Gwendolen tells Cecily :

“I am afraid it is quite clear, Cecily, that neither of us is engaged to be married to anyone.”

Gwendolen and Cecily walk off into the house after this conversation. Do John and Algernon manage to win back the trust of Gwendolen and Cecily? What does Lady Bracknell say to all this subterfuge? What happens in the end? The answer to all these form the rest of the story.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’. It made me some of old Hollywood / Bollywood / Tamil movies that I have seen, which had similar plots. It looks like Oscar Wilde inspired many filmmakers. I loved the way ‘earnest’ is interpreted in different ways throughout the play taking on multiple meanings. I was also surprised to discover that Oscar Wilde was Irish. I didn’t know that before.

The play had many of my favourite Oscar Wilde lines, like these.

“it is absurd to have a hard and fast rule about what one should read and what one shouldn’t. More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.”

“That, my dear Algy, is the whole truth pure and simple.”
“The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility.”

“All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.”

“I am sick to death of cleverness. Everybody is clever nowadays. You can’t go anywhere without meeting clever people. The thing has become an absolute public nuisance. I wish to goodness we had a few fools left.”

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

Cecily : That certainly seems a satisfactory explanation, does it not?
Gwendolen : Yes, dear, if you can believe him.
Cecily : I don’t. But that does not affect the wonderful beauty of his answer.
Gwendolen : True. In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.

Lady Bracknell : Is this Miss Prism a female of repellent aspect, remotely connected with education?
Chasuble : She is the most cultivated of ladies, and the very picture of respectability.
Lady Bracknell : It is obviously the same person.

One of my favourite Oscar Wilde lines was not there in the play – or rather it was there in its original form, which in my opinion, didn’t have the same effect. The notes to the play said that this line was modified later. The modified line, which I like, goes like this:

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

Algernon has a manservant called Lane, who is smart and intelligent, and who reminded me of Jeeves from the P.G.Wodehouse books. Here is one scene which I liked.

Algernon : I hope tomorrow will be a fine day, Lane.
Lane : It never is, sir.
Algernon : Lane, you’re a perfect pessimist.
Lane : I do my best to give satisfaction, sir.

I have seen a movie version of the play, which had Colin Firth, Rupert Everett, Frances O’Connor, Reese Witherspoon and Judi Dench. I remember the movie having a twist-in-the-tail kind of surprising ending, which the play didn’t have. I liked the movie but now after reading the play, I want to watch it again. I also have a movie version starring Michael Redgrave, Edith Evans and others, and I want to watch that too.

There are also four other Oscar Wilde plays in the collection I have. I want to read them next.

Have you read ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ or seen it performed or seen a movie version? What do you think about it?
June 14, 2012
Oscar Wilde is such joyous fun! He makes us look at ourselves in the most ironic and funny ways. Certainly he was a master of satire and in this play, he has presented the characters in what I have come to think of as the stiff British way. I loved that is poked a great deal of fun at the staid Victorian period. Mr Wilde himself was certainly everything else but staid and perhaps in thinking of him, we see a man born before his time.

The play on the words "Earnest" is fun and yet its does point to the hypocrisy of the time. Men say silly things, woman fall in love with illusions, and the whole thing becomes a farce, is clearly seen throughout this hysterical story which makes the reader oftentimes lol. Short and to the point, this play must have ruffled a few Victorian feathers as I am sure that was the intent. Earnestness was the avenue to reform at the time and to make the poorer class better. Oscar takes this word and has his way with it and ultimately makes this satirical piece flick its nose at the staid and proper British mores of Victorian times.
Profile Image for Jenny.
919 reviews89 followers
April 16, 2014
The Importance of Being Earnest and Lady Windermere's Fan are fun and light reads, they made me smile and laugh out loud, and they were entertaining. I wish there was a little depth to Earnest, especially regarding the ending. It seemed trivial, and I know that it's a satire, but I couldn't get past the easily-fixed Shakespearean resolution.
Salome, on the other hand, was a different read from Wilde. I've read Dorian Gray, short stories, plays, and essays, and Salome falls more in line with the novel and the essays for me. I enjoyed the tone and the language, especially Herod's descriptions of his jewels and other wealth.
Overall, I'm a Wilde fan, and I appreciate the different aspects that his writing takes on. My favorite is when he's serious, though, or at least blending comedy with a darker side. I think it showcases his true skill much better.
Profile Image for nadia | notabookshelf.
363 reviews164 followers
March 4, 2020
what can i SAY. this is Oscar Wilde. of course this was GREAT

did not read A Woman of No Importance but i definitely shall. the rest were a fucking delight in their own unique way, but my favourite has gotta be The Importance of Being Earnest. i mean, the pun alone deserves all the love and praise.
in conclusion, sir Wilde sure was a fucking bastard, but he definitely knew what he was doing. cheers.
Profile Image for Luís.
1,861 reviews519 followers
August 10, 2020
In The Importance of Being Ernest, Oscar Wilde revisits and revitalizes the long theatrical tradition of the quiproquo, I would say "Italian style". It is a light and lively comedy, as were its predecessors in the Commedia dell Arte, but where the harlequins are English dandies and where the acid lines are more reminiscent of Chekhov than Goldoni.
You have understood that throughout this comedy in four acts, Wilde will play on the ambiguity of this word. Because, the two main protagonists, Jack and Algernon, two single dandies are enjoying the British aristocracy of the late 19th century use a similar process to extricate oneself from family and strategic imperatives.
Whether it is Bunbury or Ernest, the pretext mainly used either to escape obligations that young men find annoying or, and this is the most frequent case, to go and tell a little charming young lady without hope of tomorrow.
However, well aware of the reciprocal infidelity of their friend, both Jack and Algernon begin to see red when they realize that one is a little too interested in the other's cousin and that the latter is engaged in him in the pupil of the preceding one.
We are therefore entitled to a perfectly symmetrical and very artificial crossed construction, moreover, more and more contrived as we advance in the play, which, rare enough to be mentioned, is not embarrassing. We see things happening as big as a truck but done on purpose.
Oscar Wilde seems to care madly whether his play looks believable or not, it is entertainment that he wants, it is placing good lines, it is printing a style, it is having fun while making us happy.
The only problem, for Jack, is that he had the lightness to pretend around him that he was going to his brother Ernest's bedside and, at the same time, never to get too involved with women, is passed off to Gwendolen, whom he now really loves, as Ernest as well.
Knowing that also, the cunning Algernon does not shrink from any deception to be able to approach Cecily, Jack's ward, it is quite possible that he too could pass himself off as Ernest. Hence the importance of the title for the excellent understanding of the play.
In short, good entertainment, with some rather funny passages, a few pikes thrown here and there from De Wilde to the society of his time. A few little kicks in the anthills and then that's it because this play does not probably doesn't have a lot of other hidden ambitions. Getting people to talk about her at the time, shocking her contemporaries a little bit, creating the buzz as we would say today. Still, from there to perceiving an intense and structured social criticism, that is what the author seemed not to want to be "earnest". But this is of course only my opinion, that is to say, very little.
Profile Image for David.
638 reviews117 followers
March 26, 2012
Lady Windermere’s Fan: "Do you want answers?" "I think I'm entitled to it." "You want answers?" "I want the truth!" "You can’t handle the truth!" Switch and repeat.

Salome: "They'll love it in Pomona." Mishima directed it in Japan!

A Woman of No Importance: A bit preachy and hysterical.

An Ideal Husband: "Do you want answers?" "I think I'm entitled to it." "You want answers?" "I want the truth!" "You can’t handle the truth! Oh, wait. It seems that you can." Switch and repeat.

A Florentine Tragedy: It's a bit "O, Love-bourne ecstasy that is Mrs Miggins, wilt thou bring me but one cup of the browned juicings of that naughty bean we call 'coffee', ere I die...". Yawn.

The Importance of Being Earnest: Hurrah!
Profile Image for Dimitris.
42 reviews6 followers
December 25, 2020
Η συγκεκριμένη έκδοση περιείχε τα θεατρικά Σαλώμη, Η βεντάλια της Λαιδης Ουίντερμιρ και Η Σημασία του να είναι κανείς σοβαρός. Ο πρόλογος και το επίμετρο ιδιαιτέρως κατατοπιστικά για το ιστορικό πλαίσιο κατά την συγγραφή των έργων. Η Σαλώμη είναι ένα λυρικά γραμμένο δραματικό μονόπρακτο, όπου η ερωτική επιθυμία καταστρέφει τους τους πρωταγωνιστές. Η βεντάλια της Λαιδης Ουίντερμιρ είναι σαφώς πιο ανάλαφρο, αλλά δεν φτάνει στα άκρα της κοινωνικής κριτικής. Η κυρία Ερλυν δεν θα μπορέσει να επιστρέψει στην Κοινωνία θριαμβευτικά και η αλήθεια δεν θα έρθει στην επιφάνεια.
Η σημασία του να είναι κανείς σοβαρός είναι φαρσικό σατιρικό κωμικό έργο, όπου η εξαπάτηση πρωταγωνιστεί και κλείνει το μάτι ακόμα και στο φινάλε του έργου. Πολλές από τις γνωστές ατάκες του Wilde προέρχονται από τα δύο τελευταία έργα. Συνολικά τα βρήκα ενδιαφέροντα έργα ανά σημεία, τα δύο τελευταία πολύ αστεία και πνευματώδη (ιδίως το τελευταίο), αλλά ίσως η κοινωνική κριτική είναι ελαφρώς επιδερμική.
Profile Image for Vicki Cline.
779 reviews34 followers
May 26, 2018
I really enjoyed the title play. Wilde likes to make fun of the upper class, showing them as rather silly. I especially liked the two butlers. Algernon's man Lane had the perfect response for everything, coming to his master's rescue more than once. I think he might have been the smartest character in the play.

I didn't like the other plays as much. I had a hard time distinguishing Lady A, Duchess B, Mrs. C and Colonel D in some of them. It probably works better to see the plays performed rather than to read them so the characters are more distinct.
Profile Image for Nikita.
94 reviews55 followers
May 25, 2021
No one I have ever read is as funny as Wilde. In many places he came forth as an extremely bold and caustic version of Jane Austen in terms of how he uses his wit to lampoon the British elite.
An Ideal Husband has some very toxic patriarchal ideas about women, but they are part and parcel of the times of which he was writing.
Profile Image for Hayley.
188 reviews9 followers
April 13, 2019
Oscar Wilde knows how to write a really good play. The introduction to my Signet Classic edition picks up on this by analysing the play’s subtitle “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People,” and its inverse “A Serious Comedy for Trivial People” (Barnet xxx). Just as Algernon is “serious about Bunburying,” Wilde is serious at “constructing a play” (Barnet xxvii) [See my footnote 1]. He is a serious playwright in the sense that he is a masterful one, and The Importance of Being Earnest has all the elements of an excellent comedy.

Wilde’s leading male characters, Jack and Algy are classic Wildian types. Their preference for each other’s company over anybody else’s and their indulgence in eating and dressing are the traits of the dandy. Their dead-pan lines are “the language of the dandy [which is] designed to shock – but also to stimulate thought and to induce new perspective” (Barnet xxx). These epigrams are what make Wilde’s writing like no other.

What makes the play a complete success is everything put together. Even the servants are vital ornaments. Algy’s manservant Lane displays his loyalty, riffing off of Algy’s lies about what happened to the cucumber sandwiches (Act I p.119), and in the countryside, the interruption of the butler Merriman to announce the dog-cart ready for ‘Earnest’s’ immediate departure are vital to the comedy of the scene as Algy, playing Earnest, keeps brushing him off, until he delivers the final punch line: “Tell it to come round next week, at the same hour” so that finally, “Merriman retires” from stage (Act II p.149).

The two female leads also display Wilde’s wit and social criticism. Gwendolyn and Cecily are not typical romantic characters. They are not swooning subjects of men’s attention, but are sharply aware of society’s conventions. Gwendolyn qualifies Jack’s proposal by remarking,“Yes, but men often propose for practice” (Act I p. 123). Cecily shares the dandy’s dry humour: “I don’t think I would care to catch a sensible man. I shouldn’t know what to talk to him about” (Act II p. 140) and voices the dandy’s philosophy, content with “the wonderful beauty of [Algernon]’s answer” (Act III p. 165), when accepting his explanation for his double life.

Wilde uses the two girls to poke fun at his contemporaries. The two girls pulling out their diaries as evidence of their engagement is reminiscent of Austen’s own criticism about teenaged girls’ imaginative recordings (go read Northanger Abbey), and Wilde pokes fun at the three-volume novel when Cecily shows her diary to Algy: “It is simply a very young girl’s record of her thoughts and impressions, and consequently meant for publication. When it appears in volume form I hope you will order a copy” (Act II p. 148). The high-brow contempt for the three-volume novel plays out further; anyone can write sensational fiction, because even Miss Prism has a manuscript for publication, which is perhaps an allusion to the Brontë sisters who were also both governesses and authoresses?

Jack’s provenance of being left on a railway car in a handbag is hilarious and a jab at the upper crust’s obsession with family lineage (while employing the pun of a railway line for a family line), but the black handbag with “its stain on the lining” and engraved initials later becomes important evidence to prove Jack aristocratic history (Act III p.177). An object used for comedic humour is also a serious element in the unfolding of the play. Didn’t I say Wilde is a master of comedy? The handbag reminded me of other important talisman in Dickens’ novels that turn-up as evidence of the poor hero’s lost lineage and wealth. Wilde knows how to play off his contemporaries and adds his own oeuvre to the great literature of the nineteenth-century.

[My footnote 1]: If you are interested in further reading, Barnet argues her point further by analysing Wilde’s work through the philosophy of Walter Pater’s The Renaissance, which is considered the ground-breaking text for the philosophy of “art for art’s sake.” She dismisses critics of Wilde’s work, who think his plays are not serious enough, by pointing out that “the job of a playwright, [Wilde] would have said, is to create a work of beauty, not a work of social criticism” (xxv). This philosophy of prioritizing the beauty comes from Pater’s The Renaissance.

[My footnote 2]:
One final note: You do not need to search for depth in Wilde’s work, because there is so much to enjoy on the surface. Even the double-entendre in the title, the importance of being Earnest, as in being honest and as in the alias used by Jack and Algy, is kept focused on the literal – with the two girls insisting on loving the name Earnest, and Algy and Jack preparing to be christened. In these lines, Gwendolyn gives some shocking social commentary: “The home seems to me to be the proper sphere for the man. And certainly once a man begins to neglect his domestic duties he becomes painfully effeminate, does he not?...Mamma, whose views on education are remarkably strict, has brought me up to be extremely short-sighted;...so do you mind my looking at you through my glasses?” (Act II p. 153). Through Gwendolyn’s voice, Wilde subverts the Victorian ideals of men and women’s division of spheres and criticizes Victorian women’s education, but he does not let readers get too serious. He pulls back to the literal and back to the comedy, by having Gwendolyn pull out her glasses and “examin[e] Cecily through a lorgnette” (Act II p. 153). The Importance of Being Earnest is a great candidate for surface reading, a relatively new academic approach that delays the analysis of uncovering meaning and keeps its attention to the surface – the objects, the description - as long as possible. I am interested to explore what critics have written on Wilde from this academic approach. And thank you Professor Schmitt at U of T who introduced me to this critical method. I want more!
Profile Image for Louise Van Cleemput.
41 reviews3 followers
June 22, 2022
3.5 - 4

Het was zeker aangenaam eens toneel te lezen, qua beleving heel anders dan een ‘gewoon’ boek. Een heel fijne afwisseling dus, maar één waar ik wel wat tijd ga tussen laten alvorens ernaar terug te grijpen.

Dit was een verzameling van leutige, amusante stukken vol satirische en humoristische insteken die uithalen naar de schandalen en maatschappelijke dualismen uit Wilde’s tijd. In het bijzonder genoten van The Importance of Being Earnest: een leuk, komisch geheel waarbij constant geïnsinueerd wordt naar de moraal van het verhaal!
Profile Image for Zan.
141 reviews10 followers
April 6, 2011
I wrote my masters thesis on Wilde's society plays so this text was something like my Bible for a year. Wilde's genius lays not just in his wit but also in his undermining of the social structure he wants so desperately to belong to even as he knows he never will. I think his first two society plays are underrated as I think some of his best drawing room twaddle occurs in A Woman of No Importance. A full act of nearly no action is absolute genius. Many brilliant lunatics.

I just read Lady Windermere's Fan again. Generally I think that is my least favorite of his society plays, but that's really not a bad thing, since I still love it. I forget all about how funny Lady Agatha's responses are and the brilliance of the conversation. Lord Darlington is almost a sympathetic cad with dandy ideals. This is a rather heavy plot (some say even reactionary to "A Doll's House" by Ibsen), but plot is not the reason one reads a Wilde text. His genius lies in what is said when nothing is happening.
Profile Image for julia.
318 reviews35 followers
April 7, 2018
4.5 Stars.

It took me a while to finish this book, but only because I was separated from it, not because I didn’t want to dive right into it! I really enjoyed every one of Wilde‘s plays in this collection immensely - he has a way with words, a talent of turning phrases that I adore! I can’t wait to read more of his work. Too bad there isn’t too much of it all in all.
Profile Image for Mary ♥.
442 reviews101 followers
June 21, 2019
Some classics contain so progressive ideas! I am so glad I read this ❤️
Profile Image for Eleanor.
557 reviews112 followers
July 6, 2021
Though I was a little underwhelmed by Oscar Wilde's novel 'The Picture of Dorian Gray', I can say happily that his plays do little to disappoint! The wit, humour, commentary and morality infused into his plays is just so genius, and the funniness of his comedies stands up to this day. I'll admit I was somewhat less enthralled by 'Salome' and 'A Florentine Tragedy', but the beauty of his language is prominent throughout all. Though I think some of his plays had a tendency to be a little repetitive (very similar ideas and jokes were made, particularly in 'A Woman of No Importance' and 'An Ideal Husband' about the roles in marriage and the morality of society) but this is probably in part due to them not being intended to be read back to back in a short space of time. I also thought this edition (Penguin classics) had good notes, the insight of which I found interesting to read.

Lady Windemere's Fan ★★★★★
I think this was my favourite play in the entire collection! I just recall it making me laugh the most, and the characters each were distinct and dynamic. I particularly enjoyed Lady Agatha's 'clever talk'.

Salome ★★★☆☆
This play has grown on me in hindsight but during the actual reading of it I felt I had very little idea of what was happening. As a play it is obviously intended to be seen rather than read and I feel it would have been much easier to understand the dual conversations that seemed to happening had I been able to watch it.

A Woman of No Importance ★★★☆☆
This was definitely my least favourite of the comedies, though my rating is more akin to a 3.5. Personally I just found it at the beginning of this very hard to keep track of all the characters - though again this is a downfall of reading rather than seeing. I think the last two acts were far superior to the first two and I enjoyed the presentation of the position of women in this play, I just found less engagement in the plot.

An Ideal Husband ★★★★☆
I was much more engaged by this play (though ironically I enjoyed the presentation of women less). It explored in my opinion many of the same ideas that A Woman of No Importance did (particularly the humorous philosophising at the beginning)...just in a more interesting way.

A Florentine Tragedy ★★★★☆
The language and metaphors in this play were so beautiful, and I loved how different it was to the others. Its shortness and small cast did not detract from its simple, yet strikingly clever plot.

The Importance of Being Earnest ★★★★★
The absolute classic! This play is hilarious and to me feels the most light hearted of all in this collection. But the humour is en pointe and though usually I'm more for the depressing literature, I cannot help but love the combination of wittiness and the ridiculous Oscar Wilde somehow manages to perfectly combine.
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