Critique for a Play Essay

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¶ … Being Earnest

This play is a 19th century satire poking fun at Victorian values and attitudes, and it is meant to be humorous, which it certainly is. That having been said, as background into the era, the fact that Oscar Wilde was gay is an interesting part of the story of Wilde and his play, "The Importance of Being Earnest" (hereafter called "Earnest" in this paper). On opening night in London (at the St. James's Theatre), the Marquess of Queensberry, the father of Lord Alfred Douglas (Douglass was an "intimate" friend of Wilde's) had planned to arrive with a "bouquet of rotten vegetables and disrupt the show" (Wikipedia). However, Wilde found out about the stunt and Queensberry was not allowed into the theater. Soon afterwards though the fact that Wilde was gay was made public and he was sentenced to imprisonment for alleged "gross indecency"); when he was released he moved to Paris and published "Earnest" and that was the end of his career as a playwright.

The Importance of Being Earnest

In the first Act a character named "Earnest" arrives in London to visit his friend Algernon Moncrieff. The real purpose for the visit by "Earnest" (whose name is actually John Worthing) is to propose marriage to Algernon's cousin named Gwendolen Fairfax. This play uses the strategy of switching and concealing true identities, not an unusual trick for playwrights (Shakespeare often used the tactic of hidden and switched identities). In fact Earnest has been leading a double life, as Wilde was actually doing in real life as well, so perhaps the playwright was using his own life experiences and putting them into his play's characters.

Earnest, it turns out, is also "Jack" and "John" -- depending on where he is and who he is relating to -- and Jack proposes to Gwendolen; she accepts but apparently she is smitten by the name Earnest so Jack becomes Earnest for Gwendolen. But wait, Gwendolen's mother Lady Bracknell, after interviewing Jack (checking him out to see if he is worthy of marrying her daughter) finds out he was an adopted child and had been discovered as an abandoned baby in Victoria Station. To Lady Bracknell, that is an unacceptable man for her daughter but the daughter (Gwendolen) professes in private to Jack that she loves him. It gets very confusing from there on, as Algernon overhears Jack giving Gwendolen his country address and Algernon goes to that country address to meet Jack's other love interest, Cecily.

Algernon meets Cecily there and pretends to be "Earnest" (of course Cecily knew Earnest as "Jack"); Cecily had been led to believe that Earnest was Jack's supposed brother so Cecily falls for Algernon thinking Algernon is the brother Jack has been talking about. Confusing? Yes, but very funny when seen on stage.

When Jack arrives at his country home -- and Algernon has already charmed Cecily under the guise of being Earnest -- he (Jack) claims to be in mourning as he tells everyone his brother Earnest has died in Paris of a chill. But wait, Earnest (in the mind of Cecily) is alive and well. The confusion reaches a zenith when Gwendolen arrives (she ran away from home, angry at her mother and in love with Jack) and Cecily and Gwendolen compare notes. When Jack and Algernon show up, their scams are revealed and the women are not happy about the deception.

In time, the fact that Cecily is worth large amounts of money is revealed, further complicating the situation. And to further muddle the situation, Cecily's governess, Miss Prism, is brought into the picture and she confesses that 28 years ago she put her baby in a handbag in the cloakroom of a railway station; that is where Jack had earlier said he was found as an orphan. "Mother!" Jack cries, but eventually it is determined that Jack is not the illegitimate baby from Miss Prism but rather he is the legitimate child of the sister of Lady Bracknell, the mother of Gwendolen. Hence, it turns out that Jack is actually Algernon's older brother. Whew. A twisted series of plot changes end up with the audience knowing that Jack (who all these years has been using "Earnest" as an auxiliary name) has been truthful about his real name… [END OF PREVIEW]

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