Thursday, 18 August 2016

The Importance of Being Earnest - Oscar Wilde

Jack. How can you sit there, calmly eating muffins when we are in this horrible trouble, I can’t make out. You seem to me to be perfectly heartless.

Algernon. Well, I can’t eat muffins in an agitated manner. The butter would probably get on my cuffs. One should always eat muffins quite calmly. It is the only way to eat them.

Jack. I say it’s perfectly heartless your eating muffins at all, under the circumstances.’

The Importance of Being Earnest is a play, one that’s most definitely removed from its brilliance when written out the way I witnessed it. It’s silly to be reading about people walking in and out and about the snarky tone of voice and the movements they’re supposedly making with their hands. Surely you, dear reader, already knew this.  By the way, I read this whole thing at a lovely Russian café with a wonderful ice tea and a Pavlova. I suggest you pick a similarly pretentious location if you read this; makes it much more authentic. 

Looking past the obvious, it’s that Oscar Wilde quality one has to admire; it has dangerous thoughts that are given to characters so that nobody has to own up to them. It has banter that’s mean at times but also incredibly likeable at others, so that even the characters have to admit that the others are not to be shunned for their masterful use of the language. I quite loved The Picture of Dorian Gray and can by no means claim this piece can be held up there with it, but it’s a funny little thing, a light-hearted snapshot of the higher class life.

The play centres around two men, John Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff, both pretending to be called Ernest to get the affection of their respective girls. Mishaps ensue. Like I said before, it’s very light-hearted and has been critiqued by contemporary readers for not providing proper insight to the problems of its era. I think it reads just fine as what it is, but if you truly want to hear something real about the Victorian era, this isn’t your play by any means.

The characters don’t get much characterisation, but I quite liked the young Cecily and her relationship to the other woman who’s actually in the play, Gwendolen. Somewhere near the end they have this exchange, filled with salt and probably my favourite thing in the book:

Cecily. [Sweetly.] Sugar?

Gwendolen. [Superciliously.] No, thank you. Sugar is not fashionable any more. [Cecily looks angrily at her, takes up the tongs and puts four lumps of sugar into the cup.]

Cecily. [Severely.] Cake or bread and butter?

Gwendolen. [In a bored manner.] Bread and butter, please. Cake is rarely seen at the best houses nowadays, Cecily.’ [Cuts a very large slice of cake, and puts it on the tray.] Hand that to Miss Fairfax.’

….because nothing has more salt than two wounded noblewomen, neither of whom can freely admit just how salty they are. It’s rather interesting, really. And I love people in books communicating with not the actual words, but rather just circling around the actually subject, firing masked insults back and forth.

Once more, The Importance of Being Earnest is a good play, apparently thought to be Oscar Wilde’s best one (though I’d still recommend Dorian Gray over it, if you only want to read one of his works). It’s not amazing but it’s most definitely worth the hour reading it will take you. Most definitely recommend reading it, if only for the amazingly smart wit and the cultural importance. I'll read the rest of his plays... one of these days, definitely.

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