“The Importance of Being Earnest” is a comical play first performed on the London stage in 1895. It opened to great reviews but was stopped after the playwright, Oscar Wilde was found guilty of homosexuality and imprisoned.
The play follows a responsible young country squire, and his friends. Jack Worthing always does the right thing. He knows his duties, especially to his ward, 18 year old Cecily Cardew. She is the granddaughter of the man that adopted him, Thomas Cardew. Jack is a pillar of the community. He is the justice of the peace, major land holder and responsible for the lively hood of a great number of tenants, workers and servants. But, whenever the burden of respectability becomes too much, he becomes his alter ego, Ernest. In London Jack is known as Ernest Worthing. Ernest is the younger brother Jack complains about. He is wild and uncontrolled. He is the black-sheep, always in trouble so that Jack must race off to London to bail him out. This is how Jack got a breather from the rigors of stoic Victorian life.
While on these mini vacations of debauchery, Jack became friends with Algernon Montcrieff, another playboy. Jack tells Algernon about his alter ego, the younger brother, Ernest, and Algernon, instead of being surprised tells of his imaginary friend, Bunbury, who is sometimes sick and in need of Algernon to race to his bedside, especially when he wants to get out of some obligation. While explaining to Algernon one of the reasons he is considering killing off his fake brother, Jack tells him of Cecily. She has become too nosy lately about Ernest. But, the description of Cecily has kindled an interest from Algernon.
Another reason is because Jack has fallen in love with Gwendolen Fairfax, Algernon’s cousin, and is ready to put away his alter ego and settle down. But, when he asks her to marry him, he runs up against her formidable mother, Lady Bracknell. She is not impressed with ‘Ernest’, particularly when he tells her he doesn’t know who his parents are. He was found at Victoria station in a handbag. Lady Bracknell refuses to allow her daughter to marry him.
In the next act, Algernon shows up at Jack’s country estate posing as Ernest Worthing. He wanted to meet Cecily. Discovering that Cecily is already in love with Ernest because of all the stories Jack had told him, Algernon is thrilled. When Jack arrives, with intentions of announcing the ‘death’ of Ernest, he is surprised to find Algernon posing as Ernest. In order to not be caught in his own lies, Jack must play along.
Algernon is in love with Cecily and wants to marry her. The only problem is she is in love with the name ‘Ernest’. She says is inspires confidence. This is the same thing Gwendolen said. So, Algernon decides to find the parish priest, Dr. Chasuble, and have him baptize him Ernest. Meanwhile, Gwendolen arrives and meets Cecily. They both discover they are engaged to Ernest. But, when the two men arrive, they also learn they were lied to. Neither man in named Ernest.
After much consternation, the two women decide the two men only lied to gain their affection and forgive them. But, before the story progresses much further, Lady Bracknell arrives. She still insists Gwendolen can’t marry Jack. No matter what his name is, his background won’t do. Then she meets Cecily and is impressed with her lineage. She approves of the match between Algernon and Cecily. Jack refuses to allow the match, unless Lady Bracknell allows his and Gwendolen’s. She still disapproves, and is about to drag Gwendolen away when Dr. Chasuble arrives. He mentions Cecily’s governess, Miss Prism. This stops Lady Bracknell in her tracks. She insists on seeing Miss Prism.
As soon as Lady Bracknell sees Miss Prism she accuses her of stealing her sister’s baby 28 years earlier. Miss Prism says it was an accident. She had placed the baby in a handbag and set it down in Victoria’s station. Jack brings out the handbag he was found in and confirms it was the same. They all discover he is Lady Bracknell’s nephew, quite respectable and christened Ernest John, and Algernon is his younger brother. A happy ending is had by all.
In the first act, part one of Oscar Wilde’s satirical play, The Importance of Being Earnest, we meet Algernon Montcrieff and Jack Worthing. The play begins in the Algernon’s flat in London. He is expecting his aunt, Lady Bracknell and her daughter, Gwendolen. Algernon is arguing with his butler about the tea put out for his aunt. Cucumber sandwiches for Lady Bracknell and bread with butter for Gwendolen.
But, the first person to arrive is Jack who is posing as Ernest Worthing. Whenever “Ernest” learns that Gwendolen is expected he is thrilled because he plans to propose marriage to her. But, Algernon is against the match unless “Ernest” tells him who Cecily is. At first “Ernest” denies any knowledge of Cecily, but Algernon produces a cigarette case “Ernest” had left there with the inscription from “little Cecily” to her “dear Uncle Jack”. Finally “Ernest” confesses that his real name is Jack. Ernest is the name he goes by in the city and Jack is the name he uses in the country. Cecily is his ward, the granddaughter of the man who adopted him. Since he is the guardian of an impressionable young woman, he must be of unquestionable moral fiber. This gets to be tedious. So, whenever he wants to let go, he tells Cecily his disreputable younger brother, Ernest, who lives in London, is causing trouble and he must go to sort it out. While in London, he rents a flat and goes by the name Ernest, his alter ego.
But, Cecily has become entirely too interested in Ernest. And, since Jack wants to settle down with Gwendolen, he has decided Ernest must meet with an untimely end. Algernon disagrees. He has an imaginary friend, Bunbury, who lives in the country, and manages to become ill whenever something comes up Algernon wants to get out of. He must race to the poor man’s side when these bouts of illness strike. Algeron thinks a married man needs these imaginary helpers to relieve the stress of married life, but Jack disagrees. As the scene ends, Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen are announced.
Act 1, Scene 2 begins with the arrival of Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen. Lady Bracknell is gossiping about a friend of hers, and looking for her cucumber sandwiches that Algernon had eaten. He blames the butler. Then, Lady Bracknell tells Algernon of the woman he will escort into dinner at her house in the evening. Algernon informs her his friend, Bunbury is ill and he must see to him. Lady Bracknell asks when Bunbury is going to make up his mind whether to live or die.
As Algernon escorts Lady Bracknell off stage to check over some music, Jack and Gwendolen are finally alone. Hoping to use the opportunity to propose, Jack begins to compliment Gwendolen. But, she beats him to the punch, telling him she loves him, too, and will marry him. She couldn’t imagine herself married to any man without the name Ernest. It is such a fine name that inspires confidence. When her mother comes back in, she announces they are engaged. Lady Bracknell begins to question Jack on his prospects. At first his prospects are fine. He is well connected, rich and has extensive land holdings. All is going well until he tells her of his adoption. Jack doesn’t know who his real parents are. His adoptive father found him in a handbag in Victoria’s Station. She is appalled. Her daughter will not marry someone who doesn’t even know who his parents were. She drags Gwendolen off as she storms off stage.
When Algernon comes back on stage, Jack tells him that as far as Gwendolen is concerned they are engaged. Algernon asks Jack if he plans to tell her that he is Jack in the country and Ernest in the city. Jack says since he plans to kill off Ernest, it won’t be necessary. Then Algernon asks him if her has told her about Cecily. Jack says no, but he is sure they will love each other when they meet. Gwendolen comes back to tell Jack she was moved by his story. She asks Jack his address in the country, when he tells her, Algernon listens in and writes it on the cuff of his shirt. Jack leaves with Gwendolen to assist her into her carriage, and Algernon informs his butler he is going Bunburying to the country. The scene ends with Algernon looking at the cuff of his shirt with a mischievous smile.
Act 2, Scene 1 opens at the country estate of Jack Worthing. Cecily is speaking with her governess, Miss Prism. She wants Cecily to study her German homework, but Cecily would rather water the flowers. Miss Prism tells Cecily her uncle wants her to improve herself, but Cecily retorts that her uncle is boring. They begin to discuss Uncle Jack’s wayward brother, Ernest. Cecily thinks if they had him near, she could work at reforming him. But, Miss Prism disagrees. She doesn’t think bad people can be turned into good people. During this conversation, Cecily begins writing in her diary. Miss Prism tells her to put it away and use her memory instead. Cecily counters with the fact that memory is usually inaccurate and leads to excessively long novels. Miss Prism tells her not to mock long novels as she, herself, wrote one years ago.
Soon, Dr. Chasuble, the local vicar, arrives. Cecily decides to do a little matchmaking, since the two are interested in each other. She suggests Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism take a walk. While they are gone, Ernest Worthing is announced. Algernon comes in, dressed sharply and posing as Ernest. Cecily tells him Jack isn’t scheduled to return until Monday. He is planning a trip for Ernest to Australia as a last ditch effort to reform him. But, Ernest suggests Cecily reform him. She says she doesn’t have the time, so he says he can be reformed this afternoon, and they leave to eat lunch.
Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism return and are met by Jack. He is in mourning and informs them his brother, Ernest, just died. They express their condolences, and then Jack remembers Gwendolen, and the problem of his name. He is still not named Ernest, and Gwendolen really wants to marry a man with that name. He makes arrangements with Dr. Chasuble to baptize him as Ernest that afternoon. As the scene ends, Cecily arrives and tells them Uncle Jack’s brother, Ernest has arrived.
Act 2, Scene 2 begins with the arrival of Algernon. Jack is livid. Not only is Algernon at his home, but is pretending to be Ernest, and Jack just said Ernest was dead. Jack is even more angry when he hears Algernon has been speaking to Cecily about the help he gave his friend, Bunbury and she is praising him for being such a good friend. Jack can’t expose Algernon’s duplicity without revealing his own. Jack insists Algernon leave, but he refuses until Jack takes off his mourning clothes. When Jack leaves, Algernon spends some time talking to himself about his love for Cecily. When she comes back he decides to ask her to marry him. She tells him, in her head they’ve been engaged for awhile. She wrote about it in her diary. The stories Jack had told her sparked her imagination and she dreamed up an elaborate love story, starring Ernest. She wrote love letters to herself from Ernest. She also has a ring, and they had a broken engagement with a reconciliation. Algernon finds it all adorable, until Cecily comes to the part where she tells him she loves the name Ernest. As Gwendolen had said, Cecily also thinks the name, Ernest inspires confidence. With that, Algernon leaves to find Dr. Chesuble to get christened as Ernest.
Now it is time for the big reveal. Gwendolen arrives at the manor house and is shown into the garden where she meets Cecily, who she didn’t know existed. Cecily acts as hostess, ordering tea for them. At first, Gwendolen feels jealous because Cecily is a young, pretty ward of Mr. Worthing. But, she soon discovers Cecily is the ward of Jack not Ernest. Then jealousy rears it’s head again when Cecily says she is engaged to Ernest Worthing. Gwendolen tells her that is impossible, because she, herself, is engaged to Ernest Worthing.
After a bit of arguing with each other, in the most dignified manner, Gwendolen starts to leave. Jack walks in. Gwendolen calls him Ernest and asks him if he is engaged to Cecily. He denies it, and Cecily tells Gwendolen his name is Jack Worthing, not Ernest. As Gwendolen is coming to terms with that, Algernon arrives and Cecily calls him Ernest, rushing to him. Cecily asks Algernon if he is engaged to Gwendolen. He denies it as Gwendolen tells her his name is Algernon, not Ernest. The women are indignant. They were each lied to. Their parting words are asking where Ernest is. Although Jack does not like to tell the truth, he must tell them that he has, nor ever intends to have a brother. Obviously, neither of the women are engaged to anyone.
Then the two women huff off together, sisters in their pique. Jack and Algernon are left to argue about each of their broken engagements and the mistakes they made. Jack is glad that there can be no more Banbury to cover for Algernon. He has exploded. Algernon says there can be no more disreputable little brother to allow for Jack’s trips to the city. Jack says he just wanted to marry Gwedolen because he loved her, and Algernon said he just wanted to marry Cecily because he loved her. Jack wants to know how Algernon could play with the affections of such an innocent young woman as his ward. Algernon wants to know how Jack could play with the affections of such an intelligent woman as his cousin. Both men are at a loss and sad. They do still plan to be christened Ernest, though. This prompts another disagreement. Jack thinks since he can’t prove he was ever christened, it is admissible for him to be christened. But, Algernon says that since he has definitely been christened he has more of an idea what to expect. It might prove dangerous to Jack’s health to get wet.
Act 3, Scene 1 opens in the drawing room with Cecily and Gwendolen in conversation. They each want to forgive the men. First, though, the women decide on a cold shoulder, or dignified silence. When the men come in whistling an off key opera, they women decide the dignified silence has produced a bad result. Cecily goes up to Algernon and asks him why he lied to her. He says the reason is because he was so attracted to her and just wanted to meet her. Gwendolen asks Jack if the reason he pretended to be Ernest is so he could see more of her. Even though that isn’t the reason behind his inventing a brother originally, Jack decides it might be a good idea to agree with her reasoning so she won’t be angry at him anymore. The two women decide to forgive the men, especially when they learn that both men made arrangements to be christened Ernest. Jack and Algernon must be truly in love if they are willing to make such a noble sacrifice.
As the reconciliation scene commences it is halted by the arrival of Lady Bracknell. She bribed the address of where her daughter had disappeared from Gwendolen’s maid and is there to stop any further ideas of marriage. Jack is still not suitable. When she sees Algernon, she asks about his friend Bunbury. He says Bunbury is dead. But, the good news is, he is going to marry Cecily. After grilling Cecily on her connections and wealth, Lady Bracknell is thrilled to find her nephew engaged to a girl with such a large fortune. She is especially glad to find out Cecily has no connections to a certain railway station.
Jack refuses to allow the marriage unless he can marry Gwendolen. Lady Bracknell still refuses, and is about to drag Gwendolen out of the house when Dr. Chasuble arrives. He wants to know if the men are ready for their christenings. Jack tells him the ceremonies must be postponed. As Dr. Chasuble is leaving, he mentions that Miss Prism is waiting for him. The name stops Lady Bracknell, she demands to see Miss Prism. At the end of scene 1, Miss Prism arrives.
Act 3. Scene 2 opens with a frightened Miss Prism. Lady Bracknell is bearing down on her and challenging her on the disappearance of a baby. It seems 28 years ago, Miss Prism took a baby boy for a walk in a pram, and when the pram was recovered the baby had been replaced by a ridiculously long manuscript. Through intense interrogation Miss Prism finally relates her tale.
Twenty Eight years ago, she took the baby for a walk, Miss Prism also had the manuscript she had been working on in her bag. But, she was so engrossed in her manuscript, that she absentmindedly left the baby in the bag, and her manuscript in the pram. This grabs Jack’s attention. He begins to question Miss Prism about the bag and baby. Where did she leave him? What station? What train? Jack dashes off, returning with the bag he was found in. Miss Prism correctly identifies the bag as hers. She has really missed her bag and is happy to get it back. At first, Jack assumes Miss Prism is his biological mother and throws his arms around her, calling her mother, but she quickly disabuses him of that notion. She reminds him she isn’t married. Jack falsely assumes she was an unwed mother, rhapsodizing about the unfairness of a world that victimizes women and not men for such things. Miss Prism just points to Lady Bracknell for answers to Jack’s background. Lady Bracknell tells him the baby was actually her sister’s son. Jack is Algernon’s older brother.
With this information, Jack is eligible to marry Gwendolen. But what was his name? Lady Bracknell remembers he was named after his father, but can’t remember the man’s name. Jack pulls out a book of military records and finds the name of his father. With some research, they discover his name is actually Ernest John, and he has a disreputable younger brother, Algernon. Jack has been unintentionally telling the truth. Jack asks Gwendolen if she can forgive him for being honest all these years, since she had already forgiven him for lying. She says she can, because she is sure he will change.
The play ends with hugs all around. Algernon hugs Cecily, Jack hugs Gwendolen, and Dr. Chasuble hugs Miss Prism. After being accused of triviality by Lady Bracknell, Jack delivers the line that clarifies the title, “…I’ve now realized for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest.”:
Jack Worthing – a respected member of his parish. He is a Justice of the Peace and a wealthy land owner. Although, found in a handbag at Victoria’s Station as a baby, he was promptly adopted by Thomas Cardew, a respected and wealthy man. Jack is an extremely proper and respectable young man. He is responsible for the employment of a great many people who depend on him. His biggest dependent is his ward, Cecily Cardew, the granddaughter of Thomas. Upon the death of his adoptive father, Jack took on the responsibility of Cecily. But, sometimes he wants to disregard his burdens and go a little wild in the city.
When the need arises, Jack takes on his alter ego, Ernest. He invented Ernest to be a younger brother who lives in London and gets in trouble often. When ever Jack goes to bail ‘Ernest’ out, he takes on the persona of Ernest. Jack has an apartment in the city and even has cards made up with the name Ernest on them. While in the country he is Jack, while in the city he is Ernest.
At the start of the play, Jack has decided his playboy days are over. He is in love with Gwendolen Fairfax, his friend Algernon’s cousin, and plans to marry her.
Algernon Montcrieff – Jack’s best friend. He is a wealthy, indolent, attractive, charismatic bachelor. His sardonic manner presents some of the best dialogue in the play. His lines are pithy and antagonistic. Algernon is the nephew of Lady Bracknell and the cousin of Gwendolen Fairfax, who his friend, the man he has known for two years as Ernest, is courting. Algernon is selfish and a bit of a libertine, but he still confronts Jack when he thinks he plans to propose to Gwendolen but appears to be having relations with Cecily. Algernon has invented his own imaginary friend to help him escape. Bunbury is his name, and he is often ill. Whenever something comes up Algernon wants to avoid, he just says he must go to tend to Bunbury in the country.
Gwendolen Fairfax – she is the cousin of Algernon and the daughter of Lady Bracknell. Gwendolen is a beautiful young woman and the epitome of fashion. A leader of society, she is the last word of morality and taste. She is cultivated, intelligent, and polished, but she is also a bit of a snob and grandiose. Although she professes to be in love with Jack, she says she can only marry a man with the name Ernest. His name is what first attracted her. She is so determined to find a husband with that name, that she can’t see the man she has fallen in love with is lying to her.
Cecily Cardew – Jack Worthing’s ward. She was left to him by her grandfather, Thomas Cardew, who adopted Jack when he found him in a bag at Victoria’s Station. A lovely young girl of 18. She has been genteelly kept in the country. Although she is enthralled by the name Ernest, she is more attracted to the wickedness portrayed by her uncle’s wayward brother. She is innocent and untouched. A child of nature and of a dreamy disposition. She has invented a whole relationship with Ernest without even meeting him. He is her make-believe lover. When she does meet him, she falls right into love.
Lady Bracknell – Algernon’s aunt and Gwendolen’s mother. She is the picture of the mercenary matchmaker. She is domineering and snobbish. She married well and is determined her daughter will, also. She has a list of suitable men for Gwendolen to marry and Jack/Ernest is not on it. Her wit is unintentional. She says that she values ignorance, but she is cunning. Lady Bracknell’s character expresses Wilde’s viewpoint on Victorian aristocrats.