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« Gabrielle | Main | The Nose (part 6) »
Saturday
Oct292011

The Importance of Being Earnest

One of the tritest sayings in currency among literary frauds is "I am often asked," such as, "I am often asked why I read Oscar Wilde" – a phrase that Wilde himself would have skewered with some reference to the speaker's hopeless obtuseness outweighing his excellent taste.  There is only one reason to read Wilde, and it is the same reason that one might eat a delicious, delicate tart: both are made to be devoured and savored.  His works' structure have little originality (indeed, their plots are almost boilerplate farce), almost no emotional depth, and all the characters seem to chant in one brilliant, whimsical chorus that eerily channels the voice of their creator.  Yes, he sensed the differences between Victorian men and women with startling accuracy; but his primary contribution to literature is his understanding of how a group of people can agree to a myth – the myth of a family fortune, of a long-tempered love, of England as a society of manners and leisure – and on that basis let generations be nourished.  In that way, Wilde is the most Romantic of all writers because his characters are, to a man, so blind as to stumble upon truth after truth.  There is no real upper class in England, only a bunch of rich, lazy, entitled fools; there is no class struggle in England, because class struggles are for people incapable of being accepted into society; there is no England in the idealized sense of the word because England is composed merely of a long and magnificent series of traditions that gave the world one of its most majestic libraries and one of its stiffest upper lips.  What remains are wit, passion, and optimism, even if guised in the cynical snipes so commonly incident to a great mind who finds daily existence cruel and dull.  Which brings us to one of the most famous of English plays.

Our love trapezoid will become a hexagon by the end, but our primary male protagonists are two: Algernon Moncrieff, a good-for-nothing charmer in his late twenties, and the slightly older Jack Worthing, for all intents and purposes the straight man in their stand-up routine.  Algernon has money, looks, and education, and consecrates almost his entire existence to pondering why others are not as lucky as he.  Jack, at least, has an aim: he has focused his attention on Algernon's cousin Gwendolen Fairfax, whom he adores but who knows him as Ernest Worthing.  Why Ernest?  We get the first of many answers:

We live, as I hope you know, Mr. Worthing, in an age of ideals.  The fact is constantly mentioned in the more expensive monthly magazines, and has now reached the provincial pulpits, I am told; and my ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest.  There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence.  The moment Algernon first mentioned to me that he had a friend called Ernest, I knew I was destined to love you.  The name, fortunately for my peace of mind, is, as far as my own experience goes, extremely rare.

This extremely rare experience will be doubled when Cecily Cardew, Jack's comely eighteen-year-old ward, professes the same interest in Jack's brother Ernest – who we already know has never quite existed.  It goes almost without saying that Algernon has heard as much about Cecily as Cecily has about Ernest, so their meeting is a pleasant confirmation of mutual suspicions.  This would be enough for a plain romance, but for comedy we need ridiculous obstacles, and these come in the form of Gwendolen's mother Lady Bracknell, a reverend by the name of Chasuble, a governess by the name of Prism, and Algernon's imaginary valetudinarian chum, Bunbury. 

The rest of our plot will involved an Ernest or two, an outstanding dinner bill, some wooing and cooing, and more than a few of the most scintillating ripostes ever seen or heard on the English stage.  The Importance of Being Earnest is widely considered Wilde's finest dramatic work, although it contains as much drama as a toilet flush and only slightly more workmanship.  Its genius resides in the voices, which have separate agendas by defaulting to the necessities of the plot, but which rattle and hum as the soundtrack to a single vision.  Wilde believed that we had the ability to spend hours speaking about trivialities and yet, through their observation and broader reflection, outline a remarkably precise philosophy of humankind.  Such nonchalance yields some of the finest adages we have all come to know: "The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily.  That is what Fiction means"; "Memory is the diary that we all carry about with us"; "The only way to behave to a woman is to make love to her, if she is pretty, and to some one else, if she is plain"; "All women become like their mothers.  That is their tragedy.  No man does.  That is his"; "If I am a little overdressed, I make up for it by being always immensely overeducated"; "Good memories are not a quality that women admire much in men"; "Dr. Chasuble is a most learned man.  He has never written a single book, so you can imagine how much he knows."  There is snobbery, sloth, affectation, hypocrisy, deceit, impetuousness, and unadulterated, barefaced lying – in short, the normal menu for any tale about the aristocracy.  There is also an underlying sense for the vigor and juice of life that was frowned upon in Wilde's day and is perhaps overemphasized in ours:

It is always painful to part from people whom one has known for a very brief space of time.  The absence of old friends one can endure with equanimity.  But even a momentary separation from anyone to whom one has just been introduced is almost unbearable.

Are we really supposed to live for the moment?  Is our favorite lover, to paraphrase a famous sportsman, always our next one?  We may ruminate on such matters, but we are better off simply enjoying the show, and in terms of wit and smoothness, the show is rather spectacular.  And then there's that perambulator in Victoria Station.

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