Saturday, 1 October 2016

Book #48

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

Cecily Cardew and Gwendolen Fairfax are both in love with the same mythical suitor. Jack Worthing has wooed Gewndolen as Ernest while Algernon has also posed as Ernest to win the heart of Jack's ward, Cecily. When all four arrive at Jack's country home on the same weekend the "rivals" to fight for Ernest s undivided attention and the "Ernests" to claim their beloveds pandemonium breaks loose. Only a senile nursemaid and an old, discarded handbag can save the day.

It's all too easy to dismiss some of the great classics as dull before even picking them up. Even as an avid fan of Victorian literature, I'm guilty of this from time to time. I did not expect to shake with such laughter as I did reading this; Wilde has a skill for commenting on the ridiculousness and vanity of Victorian social custom.

The dialogue is masterful, the characters charming and hilarious, and Wilde's concept of Bunburyism reflects the rigidity of maintaining a good social reputation. Algernon invents an invalid friend named Mr Bunbury, who provides him with the excuse (through serious turns of fictitious ill health) to turn down dinner invitations, or indeed turn down anything he'd prefer not to attend, in order to escape to the country. The importance of being seen as an upstanding gentleman was high, but the temptation to escape it all and indulge in some mischief so strong, that Jack and Algernon play a deceiving game to satisfy the selfish curiosity they both hold dear.

I have a strong dislike for liars, so seeing the two of them become so entangled in the mess they'd created brought tears of laughter to my eyes. Watching the two women believe they are both engaged to the same man, and then subsequently entering into the most civil and polite slagging match of all time was also a great moment of fun. But the handbag - oh the handbag; that was the best of all.

To write such a funny play with an important message to the classes was Wilde's master stroke. An absolute classic, and one which, I imagine, could be improved only by a turn on the stage.

"Never speak disrespectfully of society, Algernon. Only people who can't get into it do that."

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