Oscar Wilde said that his play, The Importance of Being Earnest, subtitled "A Serious Comedy for Trivial People" was "written by a butterfly for butterflies" (qtd. in Stokes 115). Although this statement may be true, the subject of the play itself, while treated in a similarly light-hearted and farcical manner, touches on deeper issues that were at stake in the Victorian era in which Wilde lived. As the critic John Stokes remarked, "the Importance is trivial only in the sense that it laughs at irreducible problems, and absurd in the classic fashion, in that it turns the world upside-down" (87). This "inversion," typical of Wilde in his wit as well as in his life, served as humorous material for his comedies yet had a deeper effect in undermining social institutions that was no laughing matter. "He rightly saw that in the salons and terraces where he set his seemingly frivolous plays, the power of England was concentrated," (Worth 11) and he used his power as playwright to make his critique while making his audience laugh. The Importance of Being Earnest was Wilde's crowning achievement in this effort, for the play, while satirizing the Victorian ethic of earnestness, the idle rich, social class in general, education, marriage, and the masculine vs. feminine "spheres," enjoyed tremendous popular success.
[...] Twayne's English Authors Series. American Univ. of Paris Comp. Lab, Paris Feb < http://www.galegroup.com>. Gagnier, Regenia. Idylls of the Marketplace: Oscar Wilde and the Victorian Public. Stanford: Stanford University Press Holland, Vyvyan. Oscar Wilde and His World. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons “Oscar Wilde.” Contemporary Authors Online. Gale Contemporary Authors. American Univ. of Paris Comp. Lab, Paris Mar < http://www.galegroup.com>. Oscar Wilde: Nothing Except My Genius. Comp. Alastair Rolfe. London: Penguin Books Paglia, Camille. “Wilde and the English Epicene.” Raritan. Winter 1985: 85-109. [...]
[...] While The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband were still playing in the two most successful theatres in London, Wilde was tried, convicted and sentenced to two years of hard labor in Reading Gaol for his homosexual “indecencies.” Earnest may have been supreme demolition of late nineteenth-century social and moral attitudes” that Worth claims it to be, but it was definitely not the “triumphal conclusion to his career as revolutionary moralist” (155). It did, however, mark the end of his career as clever and witty playwright, for he emerged from prison a broken man with broken ideals as is evident in De Profundis in which he attacks decadence in its simpler sense of indolence and triviality. [...]
[...] “Oscar Wilde.” Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 10: Modern British Dramatists, 1900-1945. Ed. Stanley Weintraub. The Gale Group, 1982: 204-218. Gale. Dictionary of Literary Biography. American Univ. of Paris Comp. Lab, Paris Mar < http://www.galegroup.com>. Beerbohm, Max. Review of The Importance of Being Earnest.” Around Theatres. Vol. 240-243. Knopf Gale. Literature Resource Center. American Univ. of Paris Comp. Lab, Paris Feb < http://www.galegroup.com>. Bristow, Joseph. “Dowdies and Dandies: Oscar Wilde's Refashioning of Society Comedy.” Modern Drama 37. No. 53-70. Gale. Literature Resource Center. [...]
[...] Only people who can't get into it do that.” It is uncertain whether or not this comment is in part directed toward Jack, who is shunned by Lady Bracknell as unfit for Society due to his dubious origins, yet one can imagine the quip holds a particular sting for him which recalls that of her indignant speech upon first discovering his lack of background: be born, or at any rate bred, in a hand-bag, whether it has handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that remind one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution. [...]
[...] Very earnest reformers, of hospitals, orphanages, prisons, factories, schools, etc were characteristic of the time period and did bring about improvements in the quality of life in Great Britain with the help of “debates initiated or fueled by writers” (Schmidt 5). Oscar Wilde, however, though he participated in the Fabian Society Lectures and wrote such essays as Soul of Man Under Socialism” was not caught up in the fever for sincerity. In fact, one of his well-known quotes, which as usual proclaims the opposite of what one might expect, states: little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal” (Rolfe 34). [...]
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