Prism! Come here Prism! Where is that baby?
A man who thinks his name is John is actually (unknown to him) named Ernest, answers to the name Jack, and pretends to others for his own advantage that his name is Ernest. He is an orphan foundling whose benefactor gave him the surname Worthing because he had a train ticket to Worthing in his jacket pocket. In an act of self-division he invents a double identity referring to himself as Ernest in London and Jack in the country. His fake, troublesome brother Ernest is a useful deception to allow him an excuse to shuttle up to town (for pleasure) and avoid engagements in the country (duty). Jack, aged in his late twenties, attempts to stabilise his name by arranging a christening in church. John Worthing JP of The Manor House, Wooton, Hertfordshire, and The Albany Piccadilly is not all he seems. This is a man undergoing a crisis of identity.
Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (A Trivial Comedy for Serious People) is a delightful sparkling stage comedy teeming with wit and good cheer. This is a world of languor and ease and aristocratic certainty. Aristocrats (Lady Bracknell, the Honourable Gwendolen Fairfax) and well heeled young men about town (Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncreiff) bustle around doing nothing, all insouciance and languor, but they do it exquisitely. The play has all the hallmarks of a classic stage comedy: young lovers whose engagements are thwarted by interfering elders surmount obstacles and marry following a sudden shift of fortune in the last act. This light comedy of manners seems impeccably conventional, but it is all elegant skating over an abyss of deceit, suppressed origins, hidden personas and guilty secrets.
Wilde is famous for his epigrams.
- I can stand brute force, but brute reason is quite unbearable.
- Philanthropic people lose all sense of humanity. It is their distinguishing characteristic.
- The only difference between a caprice and lifelong passion is that a caprice lasts a little longer.
- We are born in an age when only the dull are treated seriously, and I live in terror of not being misunderstood.
- I adore simple pleasures. They are the last refuge of the complex.
- The world is divided into two classes; those who believe the incredible, like everyone else, and those who do the improbable, like me.
- Women represent the triumph of matter over mind, just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals.
- Learned conversation is either the affectation of the ignorant or the profession of the mentally unemployed.
- The first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible. What the second duty is no one has as yet discovered.
His epigrams contain a mixture of truth and falsehood simultaneously, but which one is which? They have the form of a maxim but with scrambled content. His epigrams are sayings gone so awry they arrive at the point of meaninglessness. Here, in contrast, is one of Chamfort’s maxims: ‘He who is frugal is the richest of men; he who is miserly, the poorest’. The witticism turns on the different meanings of the word richest, once understood a fresh wisdom is revealed. Maxims are a rhetorical game that at first seem perverse but are cleared up once the witticism is identified. Wilde’s epigrams are not sagacious in this way, they strive not even for unconventional wisdom. His epigrams may look like maxims in form but they retain a perversity of meaning. After the Wildean linguistic rotation the moral or norm is shown to be not only relative and arbitrary, but close to the absurd.
In The Importance of Being Earnest the characters converse in epigrammatic sentences. There seems to be no delineation of character, sex, psychology, class or age in the way they speak or in the form of their sentences. Their standards and ideas therefore appear to be baffling (in no particular order):
Lady Bracknell: The are district social possibilities in Miss Cardew’s profile.
Cecily: They have been eating muffins. That certainly looks like repentance.
Algernon: More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.
Cecily: I know perfectly well that I look quite plain after my German lesson.
Miss Prism: The good end happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.
Lady Bracknell: Indeed I have never undeceived [my husband] on any question. I would consider it to be wrong.
Gwendolen: I never change, except in my affections.
Jack: It is a very ungentlemanly thing to read a private cigarette case.
Algernon: The number of women in London who flirt with their own husbands is perfectly scandalous.
Miss Prism: [Dead!] What a lesson for him! I trust he will profit by it.
Lady Bracknell: The General was essentially a man of peace, except in his domestic life.
Cecily: I hope that you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time. That would be hypocrisy.
Lady Bracknell: To be born, or at any rate bred, in a hand-bag, whether it had handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that remind one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution.
This is not how the Victorian upper classes are normally depicted. The audience of this play knows that people do not converse by exquisite Wildean epigrams. The characters fire off these witticisms and so appear detached, insightful, witty, flippant, brittle, hard-boiled, cynical. The upper classes normally sport with shotgun, horse or rod, here they seem to be sporting with language. They claim to adhere to the strictest of standards, but those standards are bizarre. Artfully cut phrases arrive inexorably and the audience glides from laugh to laugh and is quickly rushed on to the next bon mot without enough time to ponder what all this can mean. The comic incongruity gives way to the nonsensical wit of the full ludic.
Algernon, Jack, Gwendolen and Cecily are all, in the fine tradition of stage comedies, hurling themselves towards marriage. This is usually depicted as ardent, passionate love. Gwendolen claims to have fallen in love with Jack the moment she found out he was called Ernest. ‘It is a divine name. It has music of its own. It produces vibrations’. Cecily becomes engaged to Algernon as soon as he masquerades as Jack’s wicked brother Ernest. ‘You must not laugh at me, darling, but it has always been a girlish dream of mine to love someone whose name was Ernest.’ Their reasons for marriage are, to say the least, capricious. Both Algernon and Jack rush off to be re-christened to disguise their deceptions and fulfil this arbitrary and ludicrous condition.
If identity is in crisis and language unstable and marriage entered into so lightly what else is there to provide some solidity in these lives? Well, at least these characters have the buttress of being members of the upper class. The doubts about Jack’s origins are cleared up in the final Act. It is discovered that he is actually Lady Bracknell’s sister’s lost child. This provides a resolution to the comic plot. He discovers who his parents actually were (Lady Bracknell’s condition of his marriage) and that he was originally called Ernest after all (Gwendolen’s condition of her marriage). And, it turns out, he even has a wicked brother (Algernon) after all. His lies turn out to be true: ‘Gwendolyn it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth. Can you forgive me?’
But is even this as solid as it seems? Hidden in one of Lady Bracknell’s earlier patrician and coruscating put downs is the following: ‘I do not approve of mercenary marriages. When I married Lord Bracknell I had no fortune of any kind. But I never dreamed for a moment of allowing that to stand in my way.’ If Lady Bracknell is a social climber from humble origins, then so is her sister (Algernon’s and Jack’s mother). Their father is a Scottish soldier (Moncrieff is a name of Scottish origin) who we learn rose in rank in India during the 1840s, which was the time of the Indian uprising (and its brutal suppression by the British). It all gives a somewhat different slant to Miss Prism’s line ‘Cecily, you will read your Political Economy in my absence. The chapter on the Fall of the Rupee you may omit. It is somewhat too sensational.’ It turns out that no character in this play belongs to the aristocracy after all. Luxury must have money, must have it quickly, and plenty of it. These characters have a mercenary fixation on the business transaction aspect of marriage. Jack: ‘I am in love with Gwendolen. I have come up to town expressly to propose to her’ Algernon: ‘I thought you had come up for pleasure, I call that business’. Lady Bracknell: ‘A moment Mr Worthing. A hundred and thirty thousand pounds. And in the funds! Miss Cardew seems to me a most attractive young lady now that I look at her.’ They have married, or seek to marry, into the upper class. Their social status has not been built on blood lines and impeccable lineage, but on mercenary marriages, luck or colonial exploitation.
The characters behave as aristocrats, adopting their manners perfectly and mimicking a style of utterance, but all is false. Wilde came from Dublin, born into a protestant Anglo-Irish family, and lost his Irish tones at Oxford. He became more English than the English with his dandified flamboyant posturing. He was an Irishman in England and an Englishman in Ireland. He was both gay and married with children. He was an exile in his own country and an alien on the mainland, a self-divided outsider everywhere. It is not surprising that shady origins, split identities, unproven lineage, failures of belonging and guilty secrets form the basis of his plot. But, and this was his secret, he was untroubled by the idea of an inauthentic identity. He knew he was wearing a mask but he could see, where they could not, that others were as well. Wilde, striking the posture of the upper class dandy, knew his mask was a fiction. He set out not to hide his own but to reveal the masks worn by others.
A fool is wise because (unlike the wise) he knows his own foolishness. Wilde was a licensed fool to the English. To deny the opposition between the serious and the comic is a disruptive matter, and the role of the fool is a perilous performance. Fools are always vulnerable and only safe as long as the laughter continues. The Importance of Being Earnest was a success, but on its first night in February 1895 the Marquess of Queensberry make a demonstration. The next day Wilde was handed the Marquess’s inscribed card at the Albemarle club accusing him of being a ‘Somdomite’. Wilde sued for criminal libel, his trials started and the laughter died. High moral puritanism flowed back with a vengeance and within a few months Wilde was sentenced to two years imprisonment, with hard labour.
After his release from Reading Gaol Wilde lived in exile on the continent under the pseudonym Sebastian Melmoth. To the last Wilde refused to sign up to the claim that there is an unalterable core of identity. He took the name from Melmoth the Wanderer, a gothic novel written by his uncle the Reverend Charles Robert Maturin. Melmoth is a mysterious and satanic hero, a scholar who sells his soul to the Devil in return for an extra hundred and fifty years of life. He wanders the world in vain searching for someone to take over his pact and alleviate his burden. He is a living contradiction and a social outcast ‘I never desert my friends in misfortune. When they are plunged in the lowest abyss of human calamity, they are sure to be visited by me.’ The novel is a gothic classic with live burials, tales within tales, Faustian bargains, mysterious manuscripts. The key feature that people associate with Melmoth is his laughter. He wanders the world laughing and laughing as a perpetual explosion of his wrath and his suffering. ‘Mirth which is not gaiety is often the mask which hides the convulsed and distorted features of agony – and laughter, which never yet has been the explosion of rapture, has often been the only intelligible language of madness and misery.’
The Picture of Dorian Gray: All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their own peril.