1895, in The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays, Penguin 2000
The same time I was reading Wilde’s comedy, I saw playwright Constance (Connie) Congdon speak at a Kennedy Center “Dramatist Guild Legacy Award Conversation.” She was talking to dramaturg Heather Helinsky about the craft of playwriting. She emphasized how playwriting is, like talking, a process. The more one engages with playwriting, the more fluid one’s playwriting becomes. This concept of the “fluidity of playwriting” immediately grabbed me, perhaps because I had been reading Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. “Fluidity” is a fantastic description of Wilde’s writing that hits the nail right on the head.
Wilde is one of the most fluid writers I have come across. There is an effortless ease in his dialogue, in how each scene glide into the next. His writing reminds me of the music of Mozart or Fleetwood Mac. Effortless melody. Of course, as Mozart used to complain, although his melodies sound effortless, a great deal of effort has gone into putting them together. This effort, however, is not immediately apparent to the listener because it is put together so seamlessly.
Not all great music is so effortless. Take Beethoven, for instance. He is on the same level as Mozart, but his notes sound laboured. They sound like they were incredibly difficult to write. The notes do not flow together; they seem to have been willed together by the titanic force of his will. In the same way, not all great drama is as effortless as Wilde. Aeschylus and O’Neill write great plays. But their plays are clunky, wooden, and laborious. Yet their plays represent another type of pinnacle. Aeschylus is, on some days, my all-time favourite.
Congdon and Helinsky’s talk got me thinking: why do some works appear so fluid? Why do some works appear so laboured? My first thoughts were that fluid playwrights relish being in the present. Whichever act and scene they find themselves in, they delight in making it come alive. Algy’s eating constantly in The Importance of Being Earnest, for example, delights in his eating at inopportune moments in the present. Fluidity is part of the Zen of the ever-present moment.
For the more laborious playwrights, however, each moment is part of the scaffolding that sets up the big reveal. Laborious playwrights take delight in the future moment rather than the present moment. To use an example from O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, the incessant drinking Tyrone, Jamie, and Edmund engage in is not for the moment, but to set up that last moment where they see something that hits them so hard that they cannot have that last drink.
The Importance of Being Earnest
There are nine characters in the play. The subsidiary characters are: Rev. Canon Chasuble (the local priest), Merriman (Jack’s butler), Lane (Algy’s manservant), and Miss Prism (Cecily’s governess). The major characters are: John Worthing (Jack, JP, and, when in the city, Ernest Worthing), Algernon Moncrieff (Algy and, when in the country, Ernest Worthing), Lady Augusta Bracknell (Algy’s aunt), Gwendolen Fairfax (Lady Bracknell’s daughter and Algy’s niece), and Cecily Cardew (Jack’s ward). The major characters are major by virtue of their class and that they are, or will be, all related by blood or marriage by the play’s end.
The romantic action starts when, visiting Algy in the city, Jack–operating under the alias of his decadent and fictitious brother Ernest–proposes to Algy’s niece Gwendolen. Gwendolen, having always found the name “Ernest” to be most attractive, accepts. Lady Bracknell, Gwendolen’s mother, on interviewing Jack and finding out that he is a foundling, is not so keen to bless their union.
The action intensifies when Algy finds out that Ernest is an assumed name and that Ernest is actually Jack when he is at home in the country. Algy finds Jack’s country address and proceeds to visit Jack in the Country while himself pretending to be Ernest, Jack’s fictitious brother. It turns out Jack had made up a fictitious brother for himself as an excuse to go to the city to play. Jack is furious when he sees that Algy has come to his country manor under the alias of his fictional brother Ernest. What makes Jack even more furious is that Algy proposes to his ward, Cecily. Cecily, like Gwendolen, is also captivated by the name Ernest. She accepts his marriage proposition. At this point, both Gwendolen and Cecily believe they are engaged to Ernest Worthing. Ernest Worthing, of course, does not really exist: he is Jack’s alias in the city and Algy’s alias in the country.
The action reaches a peak when Gwendolen leaves the city and goes to the country to visit her new fiancé, Ernest Worthing. She meets Cecily there, who is also under the impression that she is also engaged to Ernest Worthing. To add more fun to the scene, the persnickety aristocrat Lady Bracknell also arrives in the country to take Gwendolen back home. After Gwendolen and Bracknell arrive, Jack and Algy’s covers are blown. It is quite an embarrassing moment.
After recovering from the unexpected appearance of the city guests, Algy and Jack renew their marriage proposals to Cecily and Gwendolen, who accept. Jack, however, as Cecily’s guardian, refuses to bless their union. It seems however, that he would bless it if Lady Bracknell would bless his union with Gwendolen. Bracknell, however, puts her foot down: she has climbed the class ladder for too long to let her daughter marry a foundling from the train station. An impasse results.
At that moment Miss Prism enters. Lady Bracknell recognizes Prism as the irresponsible servant who lost her sister’s baby many years ago. She recounts the story of losing the baby in a handbag in a train station, the very same train station where Jack had been found. Jack still has the handbag. He fetches it. Prism recognizes it: it is marked with her initials. This means that Jack is actually Algy’s brother (and not just pretending to be his brother!). What is more, they find out that the missing baby had been–drum roll-christened “Ernest.” So, Jack was always an Ernest. With this revelation, everyone gets married and the play ends with Jack saying: “On the contrary, Aunt Augusta, I’ve now realized for the first time in my life the vital Importance of being Earnest.” A nice play on “Ernest” and “earnest.”
Part of why Wilde can take delight in the dramatic present is because each moment gives him a chance to engage in wordplay. The wordplay sometimes consists of unexpected combinations of words, such as Lady Bracknell’s surprise when she finds out Jack is a foundling:
Jack: I have lost both my parents.
Lady Bracknell: Both? To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.
Her response starts off reasonably: it is a misfortune to lose one parent. Her conclusion, however, that to lose both “looks like carelessness” is unanticipated. What would have been expected is something more along the lines of “to lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both is tragedy.” But that lacks the desired effect. In performance, before the play was pulled over Wilde’s ruinous scandal, it is this line that elicited the most laughs. Children are not responsible for losing their parents. But in Bracknell’s view, they are. By turning expectation upside down, Bracknell’s observation tickles the brain. The brain sees that something does not fit. But a second later, the brain realizes what Wilde is telling us: that Lady Bracknell is, well, different. She is the higher class taken to its own logical conclusion where it becomes a caricature of itself. And when the brain is tickled like that, the biological reaction is laughter.
Similar is Algy’s remonstration of his servant Lane:
Algernon: Lane’s view of marriage seems somewhat lax. Really, if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them? They seem, as a class, to have absolutely no sense of moral responsibility.
Algy voices what the upper class believes, but does not normally voice. To most of the upper classes, to voice their belief in noblesse oblige, the inferred responsibility of the privileged to act with nobility was the norm. Here Algy wants the privilege without noblesse oblige. He wants to have his cake and eat it too. The line mentally discombobulates the audience. When the audience realizes that Wilde does this to let them know Algy is a harmless but good for nothing aristocrat, the biological reaction to this brain tickle is, again, to erupt into laughter.
Comedy, like tragedy, dramatizes the unexpected. Unexpected witticisms and wordplay provoke laughter. And, like tragedy, the fulcrum of the action is an unexpected, low-probability, high-consequence event. In the case of The Importance of Being Earnest, the event is that Jack has hired Prism to be his ward’s governess–the same Prism who, unbeknownst to him, had left him at the train station when he was a babe. Improbability is such an important and ubiquitous element of comedy that characters can make metatheatrical remarks about it and expect to receive in compensation a good laugh from the audience. So remarks Algernon:
Algernon: Now produce your explanation, and pray make it improbable.
Improbability is the heart of comedy and comedy is the heart of laughter.
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Don’t forget me, I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil