The Importance of Being Earnest

And Other Plays Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), born in Dublin, Ireland, the son of prominent intellectuals (a surgeon-father and a political-activist mother), was a much heralded poet, essayist and playwright, who is most remembered for his play, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), and his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). A prize winning student of the classics at Oxford, he became almost as celebrated (and coveted) for his social graces, eloquence and wit in London, Paris and New York society. Being an admitted homosexual, he offended the Puritanical mores of the day, and, in 1897, after a widely-publicized trial, in which his wit made a mockery of the prosecution , he was mercilessly convicted and served two years of hard labour for “homosexual offenses”, which bankrupted him and broke his health, prompting him to write a poem reflecting on his prison experience, The Ballad of Reading Gaol; he died three years later, at age 46. His dazzling prose and stinging epigrams display The King’s English in all its beauty.

The instant book includes The Importance of Being Earnest, Salome, and Lady Windermere’s Fan, all intended to be farcical, satirical, comedies, spoofing London society and mores of the time. Like all plays and poetry, these works are better if heard than read.

The Importance of Being Earnest (the subject of a fairly recent film, starring Reese Witherspoon) is a double entendre itself; the play has two characters who, in white lies, claim to be named “Earnest”, and the plot, full of contradictions and humorous one-liners, demonstrates the importance of being truthful (earnest). That neither character, self-named, “Earnest” is, in fact, “earnest”, enhances the humour. Along the way, many of London society’s affectations are impaled on Wilde’s mental trident, and, to this day, offer excellent, harmless entertainment, enabling audiences to laugh at their society and at themselves. Their profundity rests in the eloquence of the dialogue. The characters are real; that is, intentionally superficial, but bright, and the dialogue moves quickly and holds the reader’s or listener’s attention. Still, better than reading his plays, we should go see them.

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1.To wit, when asked, “Have you ever adored a young man madly,” he replied, “I have never given adoration to anybody but myself.”