Oscar Wilde is probably one of the most quotable writers ever known. His plays are filled with sparking wit and flippant
dialogue with a twisted sense of decorum (which was probably closer to the reality of Victorian society than the one we suppose!). This masterpiece of
comedy and confusion, first performed on February 14, 1895, is considered by many to be Wilde's best work.
“Earnest" here is a pun, first meaning honest, which neither of the two men are, and Ernest, being a man's name, which they both try to claim because the ladies they love want to marry a man of that name!
It begins as Algernon awaits a visit from his Aunt Augusta, (Lady Bracknell) and her daughter Gwendolen. Ernest Worthing arrives beforehand, however, and as Algernon eats all the cucumber sandwiches he had Lane prepare for his aunt, Ernest declares that he has arrived because he intends to propose to Gwendolen. Algernon doesn't believe Ernest loves his cousin, and wants to know who Cecily is. Ernest denies he knows a Cecily until Lane brings in a missing cigarette case belonging to Ernest, in which Cecily has inscribed “From little Cecily, with her fondest love to her dear Uncle Jack." He also sees one of Jack's cards with the address of his country estate.
Ernest admits that his name is really Jack, and that Cecily is simply under his guardianship. She lives in the country, and when Jack wants to get back to London, he uses the excuse that his brother Ernest is ill or in trouble.
That much, at least, does turn out to be the truth.
So Algernon gets his aunt out of the room, and Jack proposes. Gwendolen accepts.
Gwendolen, however, believes his name really is Ernest, and says that her ideal has always been to love someone named Ernest.
Jack decides then and there to get christened as Ernest.
Lady Bracknell is furious and refuses to consent to the wedding.
Meanwhile, Algernon has become curious about Cecily, and has kept the card with her address.
Jack then goes back to the country, and decides to get rid of the Ernest myth with Cecily, since he will no longer need an excuse to escape back to London if he marries Gwendolyn. So he says Ernest died in Paris. Meanwhile, Algernon shows up to meet Cecily, and claims to be Jack's brother, Ernest.
And now it gets really hysterical!
I couldn't complete an Oscar Wilde review without including some choice quotes.
Here, Algernon is complaining about having to dine with his aunt and being sat next to Mary Farquhar, who flirts with her husband across the table:
“The amount of women in London who flirt with their own husbands is perfectly scandalous. It looks so bad. It is simply washing one's clean linen in public."
Lady Bracknell, on her visit with Lady Harbury:
“I hadn't been there since her poor husband's death. I never saw a woman so altered; she looks quite twenty years younger."
Lady Bracknell asks Jack if he knows everything or nothing. He replies “nothing:"
“I am pleased to hear it. I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. . . . Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever."
Cecily and her governess Miss Prism discuss the three-volume novel Miss Prism wrote years ago and Cecily wants to know if it ended happily:
“The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means."
Needless to say, this is a very funny play. I guarantee the end will have you laughing out loud!
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