Jack Worthing, gentleman of the Manor House; also known as “Ernest”
Celcily Cardew, Worthing’s pretty young ward
Miss Prism, Cecily’s governess
Algernon Moncrieff, Worthing’s friend
Lady Augusta Braknell, Algernon’s aunt
Gwendolen Fairfax, Lady Bracknell’s daughter
The Reverend Canon Chasublc, Rector of Woolton
While Algernon Moncrieff and his manservant prepared for a visit froi-n his aunt, the formidable Lady Bracknell, their conversation turned to the question of marriage. Observing the servant’s somewhat lax views on the subject, Algernon declared, “Really, if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?”
This chat was interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Algernon’s friend, Ernest Worthing Worthing was pleased to hear that Lady Bracknell – and her beautiful daughter Gwendolen – would be appearing for tea. But Algernon warned, “I am afraid Aunt Augusta won’t quite approve of your bein here.” Mildly insulted, Ernest demanded to know why. “My dear fellow,” Algernon answered, “the way you flirt with Gwendolen is perfectly disgraceful. It is almost as bad as the way Gwendolen flirts with you.” At this point Worthing announced that he intended to propose marriage to Gwendolen, but was taken aback by Algernon’s response: “I don’t give my consent.” Worthing, would first have to explain a certain “Cecily” in his life. As evidence of this relationship, he produced a cigarette case left behind by Worthing on an earlier visit – devotedly inscribed from “Cecily” to her loving “Uncle Jack.”
“Well,” admitted Worthing, “my name is Ernest in town and Jack in the country.” It happened, he said, that Cecily was his ward, who lived in his country home under the watchful eyes of a stern governess, Miss Prism. But to escape the stuffy constraints of country living, Jack had invented an alter ego: ” . . . In order to get up to town I have always pretended to have a younger brother of the name of Ernest, who lives in Albany, and gets into the most dreadful scrapes.” Thus, Jack was often “called away” to the city to “rescue” irrepressible Ernest.
Smiling, Algernon now confessed that he too was a “Bunburyist,” a friend of the equally fictitious “Bunbury,” a “permanent invalid,” whom he visited whenever he chose to get away.
When Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen arrived, Algernon took his aunt aside, leaving “Ernest” and Gwendolen alone. “Miss Fairfax,” Worthing stammered, “ever since I met you I have admired you more than any girl – I have ever met since – I met you.” Gwendolen admitted to returning these warm feelings, in part because “my ideal has always been to love someone of the name of Ernest.” Would she still love him, asked Jack, if his name were, say, “Jack”? “There is very little music in the name Jack,” observed Gweildolen. Before more could be said, Jack knelt and asked her to marry him. At that moment Lady Bracknell entered, and the couple announced their engagement. Highly displeased, Lady Bracknell requested a private conference with Mr. Worthing, in which she asked about his income, his politics, and, finally, his parentage. “I don’t actually know who I am by birth,” lack explained; as a baby he had been found in a handbag in the coalroom of the train station. Lady Bracknell was shocked. Neither she nor her husband, she huffed, could allow Gwendolen to “marry into a cloak-room, and form an alliance with a parcel.”
Now Jack considered his predicament. At least, he decided, he could deal with the complication of Ernest. His imaginary brother must soon “dic” of a severe chill. Deep in these new intrigues, he left.
Meanwhile, Algernon, his curiosity piqued by jack’s mysterious young ward, decided he must meet this Cecily.
At the Manor in Hertfordshire, Miss Prism and Cecily were talking in the garden. Cecily expressed the hope that Jack would soon allow his reprobate brother Ernest to visit: “We might have a good influence over him.” Miss Prism discouraged this idea, but just a few moments after she had left for a stroll with her own admirer, Dr. Chasuble, the local minister, the butler announced the arrival of Mr. Ernest Worthing, and in walked Algernon Moncrieff, posing as Jack’s deliciously wicked – and non-existent brother. After some chit-chat and over a bite to eat, “Ernest” (Algy) implored his “cousin” to “reform him.”
Soon Miss Prism and the Reverend returned, just in time to be greeted by Jack Worthing, who arrived with tears of grief and the news that his brother Ernest was “quite dead.” “What a lesson for him!” Miss Prism clucked. “I trust he will profit by it.” Then Jack, overcome by sentiment, petitioned Chasuble to re-christen him with his poor brother’s name. Chasuble agreed. Just then Cecily burst from the house to announce a surprise: “Your brother Ernest. . He arrived about half an hour ago.” This u7as a surprise – and was an even bigger surprise when Algernon appeared, addressed him as “Brother John,” and announced: “I have come down from town to tell you that I am very sorry for all the trouble I have given you, and that I intend to lead a better life in the future.” Jack glared at him, speechless.
When the conspirators were alone for a moment, Jack demanded that Algernon leave at once. But as he marched determinedly into the house, “Ernest” sought out Cecily to declare himself: “Cecily, ever since I first looked upon your wonderful and incomparable beauty, I have dared to love you wildly, passionately, devotedly, hopelessly …. You will marry me, won’t you?” “You silly boy,” she replied. “Of course … You see, it has always been a girlish dream of mine to love someone whose name was Ernest.” Would she still love him, inquired Algernon, if his name were, but, say, “Algernon”? No; Cecily did not like the name Algernon.
Algernon too now resolved to be re-christened “Ernest,” that very afternoon, and he rushed off to the rectory to find Reverend Chasuble.
Soon afterward, Gwendolen Fairfax also arrived at the estate. She eyed her lovely young hostess suspiciously, even after Cecily revealed that she was only Mr. Worthing’s ward. “Strange,” said Gwendolen, “he never mentioned to me that he had a ward. How secretive of him!” Speaking “with perfect candor,” she added that it would be more to her liking if “Mr. Ernest Worthing’s ward was forty-two and more than usually plain.” Puzzled, Cecily explained that her guardian was not Ernest, but his brother Jack – Ernest, she clarified happily, was her new fiance.
At that moment the two “Ernests” entered the garden – and finally the two women learned that they had been the victims of “a gross deception.” “I am afraid it is quite clear, Cecily,” said Gwendolen, “that neither of us is engaged to be married to anyone.” The dismissed suitors then marched off – to berate and console one another, and to eat muffins.
When the reprobates returned to beg forgiveness, Cecily pointedly asked Algernon why he had pretended to be Ernest. “In order that I might have the opportunity of meeting you,” he replied humbly. Then Gwendolen asked Jack why he had misled her. “Was it in order that you might have an opportunity of coming up to town to see me as often as possible?,, she prompted. “Can you doubt it, Miss Fairfax?” Jack answered innocently. Forgiveness was granted.
But the young couples were ill-prepared for the sudden appearance of Lady Bracknell, who was pained to discover that not only had Gwendolen pledged herself to Jack, but her nephew Algernon was engaged to marry Jack’s lowly ward. When she found that Cecily was heiress to a considerable fortune, however, Lady Bracknell declared “Miss Cardew” to be a “most attractive young lady.”
But Jack now stepped in – to refuse his consent. He questioned Algernon’s “moral character”; had he not in fact come to Worthing’s home under false pretenses, lied to Cecily – and eaten all the muffins? When Lady Bracknell tried to soften his stance, Jack announced that the matter lay in her hands: “The moment you consent to my marriage with Gwendolen, I will most gladly allow your nephew to form an alliance with my ward.” But, to Lady Bracknell, this marraige remained out of the question.
At this point, Miss Prism entered the room – to be greeted by Lady Bracknell’s instant glare of recognition. “Prism!” she exclaimed. “Twenty-eight years ago, Prism, you left Lord Bracknell’s house in charge of a perambulator that contained a baby …. You never returned. Prism! Where is that baby?” Shamefaced, the governess admitted to having absentmindedly stuffed the baby in a hand-bag which she left hanging in the cloak-room of a train station. When she had returned to the spot to retreive the child, he and the handbag were gone. Then, addressing the stunned Jack Worthing, she pointed to Lady Bracknell: “There is the lady who can tell you who you really are.”
Lady Bracknell breathed a sigh. “You are the son of my poor sister, Mrs. Moncrieff,” she muttered, “and consequently Algernon’s elder brother.” What’s more, she revealed that Jack had indeed been christened after his late father, Ernest John.
As the two couples (along with Miss Prism and the Reverend Chasuble) joyfully embraced, Lady Bracknell chided Jack: “My nephew, you seem to be displaying signs of triviality.” But Jack replied, “On the contrary, Aunt Augusta, I’ve now realized for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest.”
Oscar Wilde, the witty Edwardian poet, playright, and author, was noted for his refined demeanor. The same mannerisms and dress, however, that made him a popular guest at parties also labeled him as a homosexual; and although he was the married father of six, a sexual scandal which erupted just a few days after the opening of Tile Importance of Being Earnest eventually earned him two years of hard labor in prison, and effectively ended his career.
Perhaps his frequent use of the convolutions of deceit and misidentity as comic device was as much inspired by the rigid masks imposed in post Victorian society as it was by the Shakespearean “Comedy of Errors” tradition he admired. Wilde’s characters in Earnest are the “UN-earnest,” idle rich, with abundant time and money at their disposal to make intricate messes out of their lives. It is only through the most amazing good fortune – often appearing in the writer’s plays as obvious contrivances – that they are able to get past their own foolishness and flippancy (follies which typified Wilde’s own tumultuous life) to achieve their desired ends.
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