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A Note from the Dramaturg: The Importance of Being Earnest

Published November 6, 2019

By: Mackenzie Bounds

Victorian London was filthy. The streets were lined with soot and horse dung, and the factory fumes rendered everything a murky gray. Entering London, the welcoming aroma was that of a cesspool. You could even deduce the duration of someone’s visit to the city by the dirtiness of their coat. Due to that environment, a clear marker of someone’s class status was their cleanliness. This is why the wealthy characters you’ll see tonight in The Importance of Being Earnest are so “prim and proper” by comparison. 

Irish immigrant Oscar Wilde noticed that disparity from an outsider’s perspective. While he studied at Oxford, he saw the uptight culture of English high society and thought it was hilarious. For a culture so concerned with sincerity, Victorians were incredibly artificial. This is why The Importance of Being Earnest is what dramatists call “a comedy of manners.” In the dialogue, Wilde exaggerates the Victorians’ strict etiquette to critique what he saw as their hypocrisy and skewed priorities. One way he manifests this satire is with diction. At the time, “earnestness” referenced well-to-do Victorians’ perception of meaningful living. To be “earnest” was to exhibit quiet, polite behavior according to one’s status—and status was everything. Think of “earnestness” as the wealthy version of what lower classes referred to as an “honest” living. However, between all the secret identities and liaisons you’ll see tonight, it’s clear that none of these characters are as honest as they purport. 

Another way Wilde mocks the English elite is by poking fun at their theatre conventions. At the time, popular theatre took the form of melodrama, a fittingly artificial formula. Melodrama used recognizable stock characters and an excessively sentimental tone to reflect Victorian values. In The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde simulates elements of melodrama to ridicule the form itself. One example is his use of the clap-trap, a hammy moralistic statement to “button” a scene while clearly seeking applause. Another would be the coup de théàtre, a sudden reversal of fortune that neatly resolves any conflict. 

Take notice tonight: can you recognize the clap-trap and coup de théâtre?