Oscar Wilde, whose actual given name was Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde obviously had a penchant for names and nicknames, as we are able to gather in his comedic play entitled “The Importance of Being Earnest,” the subtitle of which is “Trivial Comedy for Serious People.” The play was first produced at St. James’ Theatre in London in 1895. The reader may be familiar with Oscar Wilde’s other successes, “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” or “An Ideal Husband.”
Oscar Wilde - Portrait by Napoleon Sarony - Wikimedia
Initially, the characters in “The Importance of Being Earnest” are difficult to sort out, given the confusion prompted by the use of pseudonyms, but familiarity eventually takes over.
Jack Worthing (Colin Firth) comes in from the country to meet with his friend Algy Moncrieff (Rupert Everett), who lives in the city. Algy knows Jack as Ernest, which has a plausible explanation. When he is in the country, acting as the guardian of his young ward Cecily Cardew (Reese Witherspoon), Jack must assume a serious identity with the name of John, or Jack. Cecily believes that Jack has a spendthrift, pleasure-seeking brother named Ernest, who lives in London. When Jack is able to get away to London where he can be irresponsible, ignoring any serious obligations, he takes on the name of Ernest. No one is the wiser. As for Algy, he has a similar ploy. When he wishes to duck a social obligation, he pretends to have a sickly friend named Bunbury who lives in the country and who needs his care and friendship, sometimes at a moment’s notice.
Colin Firth - Wikimedia
Jack is in Love
Jack has fallen in love with Gwendolyn Fairfax, Algy’s cousin (Frances O’Connor). He has come into the city to propose to Gwendolyn, who also knows him as Ernest. Gwendolyn and Jack are to meet at Algy’s place, and Gwendolyn has brought along her mother, Lady Bracknell (Judi Dench). While Algy keeps Lady Bracknell occupied in another room, Jack proposes to Gwendolyn who accepts with the explanation that she has always imagined being married to a man named Ernest, a name she loves.
Lady Bracknell interrupted them while they were in a loving embrace, forcing Jack to admit that he had just proposed to Gwendolyn and that she had accepted. Lady Brackness answered that Jack was not on her list of prospective husbands for Gwendolyn and that he should meet at her house in the morning to answer several questions about his prospects.
On that next morning, Jack was grilled extensively concerning his background, and answered truthfully that he was a foundling, discovered in a large handbag in the cloakroom at Victoria Station. The man who found Jack is Cecily’s grandfather, a man of great wealth. Jack told her his address which was The Manor at Woolton. Algy, intrigued by the idea of Cecily, took down the address.
A minor sub-plot is introduced setting up a scene which will occur later on, revealing the character of the two men. While Jack and Algy were having dinner and drinks at the posh nightclub called The Savoy, Jack insisted that they walk out without paying, stating that The Savoy had millions and they themselves were hurting. No one stopped them.
Rupert Everett - Wikimedia
Algy is in Love
Algy showed up at Jack’s place and met Cecily while she was having her lessons outdoors with her governess and chaperone, Miss Prism. Of course, Algy claimed to be Ernest Worthling, Jack’s brother. Like Gwendolyn, Cecily was in love with the name Ernest, and was captivated by Algy’s charming manner. To complicate matters, Jack was not aware at first that Algy was there and, tired of the deception, said that his brother came down with a severe chill in Paris and had died. When Algy appeared, Jack was dumbfounded, but everyone assumed that Ernest Worthing had recovered and returned home.
Both Algy and Jack were making secret plans, unknown to each other, to be baptized with the new name, Ernest, by Dr. Chasuble (Tom Wilkinson), rector of the church, at the first convenient time.
Gwendolyn, having run away from her mother’s obstinance, showed up at Jack’s. As the two men were inside, Gwendolyn and Cecily had a chance to talk. Their conversation revealed that they were both engaged to Ernest Worthing.
Reese Witherspoon - Wikimedia
Lady Bracknell arrived on the scene, having followed her daughter there. Knowing that Jack’s ward Cicely had come from a wealthy family, she consented happily to her nephew Algy’s betrothal to Cicely. Jack refused to give his consent to Cicely’s marriage to Algy unless Lady Bracknell would give her blessing to Jack’s marriage to Gwendolyn. Lady Bracknell would not agree to that.
At this point, the authorities came to Jack’s looking for a man named Ernest who walked out of The Savoy without paying. Since Algy was known to the guests there as Ernest, Algy was asked by the authorities to pay the bill, which he was not in a position to do. Fortunately, Jack stepped up to say “I will settle my brother’s accounts.”
Miss Prism’s Confession
Another sub-plot is in the making. Miss Prism, Cicely’s governess, returns and is recognized by Lady Bracknell. Thirty-four years ago, her sister’s nursemaid had taken the baby for a walk in his carriage, and never returned. Under scrutiny, Miss Prism confessed that she had mistakenly put her manuscript in the baby carriage, and the baby in the manuscript handbag, and left it at Victoria Station. Jack showed them the handbag which he had kept for thirty-four years, learning that he is Lady Bracknell’s sister’s oldest son, making him Algy’s big brother. After learning this, Lady Bracknell gave Jack permission to marry her daughter Gwendolyn.
Dame Judi Dench - Wikimedia
Gwendolyn and Cicely are both flummoxed by the actual names of their respective fiances, since both love the name Ernest. Gwendolyn, in particular, is saddened at the revelation. Lady Bracknell informed Jack that, because he was the oldest, he would have his father’s name, and because the man was an army officer, his name would appear in any Military Directory. A Directory just happened to be handy, and Jack grabbed it. His smile told it all. Under the M’s, was the name Ernest Moncrieff. Everyone was happy with this final outcome. The last scene shows the M page in the Directory, scrolling down to Moncrieff. I will not reveal what Jack saw which nobody else saw.
Oscar Wilde was entertaining, impudent, and clever. Unfortunately, toward the end of his life, he spent two years in prison, which left him emotionally exhausted, and physically and financially depleted. The only thing he ever wrote after leaving prison was his poem entitled “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” which recounted his days behind bars.