Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Importance of Being Earnest

Program from the opening night on February 14, 1895. (x)
As you all know, when it comes to classics, I am well versed in the bad habit of watching cinematic adaptations before reading the original work. Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest was no exception- tsk tsk on me. And while I have giggled over the most recent film for years, last week I thought it was high time that I put my money where my mouth is and read the play. A long-time lover of Wilde's delightful turns of phrase, it came as no surprise to me how little the original text was altered for the film. No one can touch his witty banter. Period. How could you think otherwise? This is a man whose last words were, "Either that wallpaper goes, or I do." Clever till the very end! But the thing that's so astounding is how his voice has managed to stay so modern and sharp over 100 years later. It's mind boggling! The Importance of Being Earnest first graced the London stage in 1895, yet it remains laugh-out-loud funny today. 

Wilde's final play follows two friends leading double lives. There's John "Jack" Worthing, a country gentleman with a fictitious younger brother Ernest whom he pretends to visit in London, and Algernon Moncrieff, a self-indulgent young gent with a fictitious invalid friend named Bunbury whom he pretends to visit in the country. Chaos ensues when Algernon, intent on meeting Jack's pretty ward Cecily, shows up unannounced at his country manor, declaring that he is Ernest. Jack's, or rather Ernest's, almost fiancee Gwendolyn arrives soon afterward and is in for a shock when Cecily announces her own engagement to the newly-arrived Ernest (but actually Algernon). All hell breaks loose and hell, as it turns out, is rather hilarious.

Cecily and Gwendolyn have both dreamed of marrying an Ernest one day. So the idea that their life-long dreams are about to be dashed make the claws come out in the form of sugar in tea and cake in lieu of bread and butter. But they soon discover Jack and Algernon's secret and declare their Christian names to be "an insuperable barrier." Much distressed at the exposure of their double lives, the two faux-Ernests take the ladies' place at the tea table and fall into one of my favorite exchanges in the whole play:
Jack: How can you 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. One should always eat muffins quite calmly. It is the only way to eat them.
Jack: I say it's perfectly heartless your eating muffins at all, under the circumstances.
Algernon: When I am in trouble, eating is the only thing that consoles me. Indeed, when I am in really great trouble, as anyone who knows me intimately will tell you, I refuse everything except food and drink. At the present moment I am eating muffins because I am unhappy. Besides, I am particularly fond of muffins. [Rising.]
Jack: [Rising.] Well, that is no reason why you should eat them all in that greedy way. [Takes muffins from Algernon.]
Algernon: [Offering tea-cake.] I wish you would have tea-cake instead. I don't like tea-cake.
Jack: Good heavens! I suppose a man may eat his own muffins in his own garden.
Algernon: But you have just said it was perfectly heartless to eat muffins.
Jack: I said it was perfectly heartless of you, under the circumstances. That is a very different thing.
Algernon: That may be. But the muffins are the same. [Seizes the muffin-dish from Jack.]
And when Cecily observes, "They have been eating muffins. That looks like repentance," I can't help giggling uncontrollably. The countless number of times I burst out laughing in public places as I read this play are testament to Oscar Wilde's genius. All in all, I truly cannot think of a better word to describe this piece than "genius." Case closed.

Except not! Allow me to share some of my favorite quotes, which I would like to start using in every-day sadly-non-Victorian life:
  • "The very essence of romance is uncertainty." - Algernon, Act I
  • "More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn't read." - Algernon, Act I
  • "The truth is rarely pure and never simple." - Algernon, Act I
  • "Well, to speak with perfect candour, Cecily, I wish that you were fully forty-two, and more than usually plain for your age." - Gwendolyn, Act II
  • "I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train." - Gwendolyn, Act II
  • "I could deny it if I liked. I could deny anything if I liked. But my name certainly is John. It has been John for years." - Jack, Act II
  • "In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing." - Gwendolyn, Act III
  • "His voice alone inspires one with absolute credulity." - Cecily, Act III (I spy a reference for our future voice series!)
  • "This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last." - Gwendolyn, Act III
Wow... That took a lot of restraint! I must say nearly every single line in this play is quotable! So if you enjoy a good laugh and a quick read (and really, who doesn't?), then I couldn't recommend The Importance of Being Earnest to you any more highly. Not only will you easily add another classic to your repertoire, but Oscar Wilde's quick-wit just might rub off on you!

To close, I can't help including a clip from the movie. I KNOW! Judge me if you like, but I can only shrug and say, "Colin Firth." It is, of course, the scene where Jack and Algernon are eating muffins.
Jack... Algernon... Let's tea party!

No comments:

Post a Comment