1The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) by Oscar Wilde is a popular play that is still widely performed in English-language theatres and also in many different languages.
2When first performed, the play was mostly considered as a light comedy and classified as entertainment for Victorian society. However, the writing of the play relies on a creativity and richness that combine different styles. Oscar Wilde was gay in a society stifled by social conventions and governed by very tough laws on homosexuality. Nevertheless, some critics have argued that the playwright dared include homosexual connotations in the text. However, I would argue that more generally, despite very little room for manœuvre, he managed brilliantly to challenge the social norms, sexual stereotypes and gender representations of his time while pleasing aristocratic London socialites.
3How does Oscar Wilde implement strategies to create tensions and confusion between the norms imposed by social, moral and aesthetic orders? In an article published in The Guardian in July 2007 Terry Eagleton wrote: “Wilde, typically perverse, challenged and conformed at the same time.”1 In this paper I will show that conformity and resistance are present simultaneously at each stage of the play.
- 2 Pascal Aquien, “Sardoodledum Revisited, or a Few Trivial Remarks about Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husba (...)
- 3 Pascal Aquien, op. cit.
- 4 Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest, version bilingue (traduction de Gérard Hardin), Pocke (...)
4In an article published this year in Études irlandaises, Pascal Aquien argues that 19th century French bourgeois drama exerted a powerful influence on Wilde’s dramatic works. He often used this convenient formal frame to structure his society comedies. By importing a popular and successful French form he could thus conceal his attack on official order and discourse while making English audiences laugh at their own values and beliefs.2 He also draws on the popular forms of melodrama and farce. In so doing Wilde keeps the appearances of a genre the audience is familiar with but subverts it with great subtlety. Because he can’t afford to shock his audience too much and needs success for financial reasons his attack is not frontal. However, he manages to combine commercial success with conservative audiences whilst mocking the very conventions that these audiences are supposed to live by. It is cleverly done so that the audience may ignore the subversive politics in the play if it chooses to. As the Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan said in the 1960s “the medium is the message” and Wilde uses the form to speak of the content. The choice of genre seems to say “beware of appearances,” which is one of the themes of the play. It has all the elements of a comedy of manners: the title delivered as a punchline to the proceedings, the marriage problem, the foundling child, the idea of the double life, the highly-formalised style of language, the fast-moving verbal exchanges and a lot of entrances and exits. The play thus looks like a comedy of manners but it is something else. What is it then? It can be argued that by refusing a specific genre Oscar Wilde produces a discourse on theatrical art. He rejects the naturalist style and the traditional forms of drama of his time. So, is it a modernist experimental drama? Is Wilde “a pre-Ionesco challenger and re-interpreter of language,” as Pascal Aquien said?3 The genre is uncertain and resists characterisation. Wilde was influenced by Walter Pater, the co-founder of the aesthetic movement in art, literature and criticism for whom all art forms are self-sufficient. Therefore, it may be argued that The Importance of Being Earnest exists for its own sake and, as Algernon, one of the characters in the play would put it, “it’s perfectly phrased,”4 and that is enough to justify its existence.
- 5 Colin Counsell and Laurie Wolf (eds), Performance Analysis, Routledge, Londres, 2001, p. 75.
- 6 Oscar Wilde, op. cit., p. 64.
- 7 R.W. Connell, Gender and Power, Polity, Cambridge, 1987, p. 50.
- 8 Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, Routledge, Londres, 1999 (2e édition), p. 177.
- 9 Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, Routledge, Londres, 1990, p. 73.
- 10 S. Phelan (ed), Playing with Fire: Queer Politics, Queer Theories, Routledge, New York, 1997.
5Wilde uses absurd and exaggerated situations, nonsensical language, paradoxical humour and puns. In fact, he invents a new genre, difficult to imitate, combining farce, comedy of manners, social satire and, I would add, “gender parody”. Judith Butler defines “gender parody” as follows: “Gender parody reveals that the original identity after which identity fashions itself is an imitation without an origin.”5 For her the origin is a myth and there is a “fluidity of identities”. In the play Jack and Algernon are not Ernest, but they can become Ernest through baptism. If they take the name of Ernest without even undergoing a physical and psychological transformation they will fit Gwendolen’s and Cecily’s tastes. They will also imitate a model with no origin since Ernest never existed in the first place. Wilde also plays with the illusions created by appearances and mocks the expressive model of gender and the notion of true gender identity. For example, Cecily’s outside appearance is “feminine” but her attitude may be considered as “masculine” since she “has got a capital appetite” and “goes long walks”6—in Victorian times women were not supposed to have body functions or practise sport. Jack and Algernon are men, but they are effeminate dandies. Algernon spends money extravagantly on clothes and is greedy, qualities often associated with women. Here, and throughout the play, Oscar Wilde asks the following question: is biology always the framework which constrains socialisation practices, making it impossible for culture to minimise, rather than eliminate, the effects of natural biological differences between men and women? The tension between the body as real and the body as discursive remains a key axis of the debate within gender studies. For example, for R.W. Connell in socialisation theories, “the underlying image is of an invariant biological base,”7 whereas for Judith Butler “the body is not a ‘being’ but a variable boundary, a surface whose permeability is politically regulated, a signifying practice within a cultural field or gender hierarchy and compulsory heterosexuality”.8 By citing the example of drag (in which a person performs a gender that does not match his/her sex) she wants to show that bodies are not “beings” but are the effects of discourses. Maybe the 2005 production at the Abbey Theatre, showing the actor Alan Stanford first dressed as Oscar Wilde transforming himself into Lady Bracknell—Lady Bracknell being a perfect figure to be played by a man—was trying to take this notion on board. It could be argued, though, that this production only emphasized the superficial and camp side of the play, hardly touching the idea of what J. Butler calls “the illusion of an interior and organizing gender core”.9 If used, gender performativity must “trouble gender”. In other words, it must arouse curiosity and stir traditional feelings and ideas about gender. It is indeed an attractive and challenging notion, although Judith Butler has admitted herself that performativity does not always allow the degree of “free play” with gender that some other queer theorists have suggested.10
- 11 Oscar Wilde, op. cit., p. 52.
6The play is subtitled “A trivial comedy for serious people”. If it is trivial it thus means that it has no important message to convey. However, Paul Watzlawick, the communication theorist said that “one cannot not communicate,” therefore although there seems to be no message in the play, the message might be precisely that, that there is no message. Oscar Wilde tells us that our world is absurd and that it is pointless to try to find any meaning to it. Life is simply like a bubble of champagne: it makes one’s head light and makes one talk nonsense and act silly, just like the play’s characters. However, it may not necessarily be better to know about the absurdity of the world because as Lady Bracknell puts it “Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone!”11 In fact, Oscar Wilde seems to say that nothing really seems to matter in life.
- 12 Monica Charlot, The Road to Universal Suffrage (1832-1928), Didier Erudition, CNED, 1995, p. 124–12 (...)
7Nevertheless, Wilde chose to tackle serious subjects such as marriage, hereditary privileges, education, the Church, sexual roles and language, and also tells us that appearances are deceitful. Cecily and Gwendolen rebel against sexual roles by mastering the language and being witty—qualities often associated with men—but in fact, they talk nonsense. They are also conceited and vain and ready to change quickly their affections, firstly to a man really named Ernest, showing that they cannot understand real passion, and secondly to one another—they call each other sisters at first, then hate each other. These qualities are often associated with women who are supposed to be volatile and not able to experience friendship like men—women are seen as rivals, which is a conformist view. Miss Prism and Canon Chasuble pretend to be religious, serious and pure but the former is easily distracted (she lost a baby, often quits her job as a tutor to go on walks with Chasuble) and the latter adapts one single sermon to all the different occasions; moreover, they both have sexual desires that they express awkwardly through slips of the tongue, for instance when Chasuble says “Were I fortunate enough to be Miss Prism’s pupil I would hang upon her lips” (p. 80). Lady Bracknell is portrayed as a greedy and arrogant aristocrat. At the same time we know that she wasn’t born an aristocrat and that she became one by imitating the customs and integrating the values of the upper-class. In Act III she says “When I married Lord Bracknell I had no fortune of any kind. But I never dreamed for a moment of allowing that to stand in my way” (p. 160). On the one hand, she has learned the dress and language codes and the values of the aristocracy and in that way, she conforms to what the audience expects from a person of her rank. On the other hand, nothing is trustworthy about her because she uses clothes as would an actress to fit her role, talks nonsense, however with the right kind of accent, and can utter the most cruel things but in a very proper language. Therefore, Oscar Wilde rebels against the artificial and hypocritical social codes of his class and suggests that anybody can pass for an aristocrat with a bit of practice. Lady Bracknell also plays the role of a father when she interviews Jack to find out whether he would be “an eligible young man” (p. 52) to marry her daughter, “a girl brought up with the utmost care” (p. 60). Lord Bracknell is blatantly absent from the play, is referred to as a sick man, almost an invalid, and plays in fact the role of the mother. Here it has to be said that a lot of Victorian women had psychosomatic diseases—like Lord Bracknell who has little appetite and often retires to his bedroom—mostly because they were unhappy and frustrated by their assigned impotent roles as daughters, wives and mothers. As for Lady Bracknell she has the power of decision, the power of money and the power of language. Maybe influenced by Ibsen’s Doll’s House published earlier (1879), Oscar Wilde wanted people to reflect on the relations between the sexes, which was also a very topical issue for his contemporaries known as the ‘separate sphere debate’. The play makes extensive reference both implicitly and explicitly to this debate, thus conforming to the fashionable discussion of his time. But at the same time it resists the traditional notions that govern men’s and women’s lives and supports equality between the sexes. For example, at the end of the play, Jack says: “Why should there be a law for men and a law for women?” (p. 176). Indeed, the second half of the 19th century saw women begin to organise themselves in pressure groups in England; the Sheffield Association for Female Franchise held its first meeting in 1851. In 1867, when the Conservatives gave the right to vote to workers in Britain, John Stuart Mill, who was elected to Westminster, moved an amendment to Disraeli’s Representation of the People Act in which he proposed to replace the word “man” by the word “person”. It was defeated by 194 votes to 73,12 showing that men were more afraid of women than of the “dangerous classes”—Queen Victoria herself was against female suffrage. Two years later J.S. Mill, who hadn’t given up on the idea of promoting equality between men and women, published his essay The Subjection of Women (1869). Oscar Wilde, who was well educated, had probably read it or at least heard about it. In 1888 unmarried women were allowed to vote for the new county and borough councils for the first time. Finally, in 1894, one year before the play was published, a quarter of a million women signed the petition for the right to vote for women.
8However, having stated that women do not enjoy the position that they deserve in society doesn’t mean that Oscar Wilde finds women superior to men and that society would benefit from their presence in the public sphere. In the play, Algy and Jack are idle and lazy, but morally the women are not better than them: like them, they are idle, lie, cheat and are interested in money. Lady Bracknell is indeed an assertive woman, but a terrifying “Gorgon” (Jack’s expression). Actually, the play portrays real anxiety about gender because it raises the difficult question about the meaning of masculinity and femininity, yet always in an ironical and derisive tone. For instance, when Lady Bracknell interviews Jack she is glad to hear that Jack smokes because ‘a man should always have an occupation of some kind’ (p. 52). It is a reversal of stereotypes about women’s activities. Upper-class women were idle but sometimes did some volunteer work or some craftswork at home. It was assumed that they had “an occupation of some kind”. But what do we know about what men and women are supposed to do, like and dislike? What are men’s and women’s preferences supposed to be? Gwendolen says in Act II that ‘the home seems to be the proper sphere for the man’, which might have sounded funny and absurd to a Victorian audience, although less so to a modern one. Therefore, if it is ridiculous to state that for men, why shouldn’t it be equally ridiculous to state that for women? Gwendolen then continues “And certainly once a man begins to neglect his domestic duties he becomes painfully effeminate, does he not? And I don’t like that.” So just as Gwendolen, heterosexual women are not supposed to like effeminate men (whereas homosexual men might). Yet, she then adds unexpectedly: “It makes them so very attractive,” hinting that a male chauvinist may not be what women prefer. Here Oscar Wilde used a paradoxical punchline to explode the myths about gendered fixed identities and preferences.
9I mentioned earlier that the play was subtitled “A trivial comedy for serious people”. If it is destined for serious people this implies that serious people might find an interest in it. Indeed, there are serious themes in the play but Oscar Wilde does not treat them seriously, thus debunking the very notion of seriousness. Then, why not play with this subtitle and reverse it? What if, in fact, it were a serious play for trivial people? In that case it would mean that Wilde chose to tackle serious subjects but that he did not believe his public would understand his attempts at turning traditions and preconceived notions upside down. One can also wonder whether he really cares about those notions. Is he really aware of his own discourse on gender? If he is, he does not seem to want to push it too far. Is it because he is afraid of losing his readership and audience? In fact, we do not really know the intentions of Oscar Wilde, except perhaps that, and to paraphrase Jack in the play, when he is in town he amuses himself (p. 18).
William Archer, one of the critics, wrote about the play in 1895:
- 13 World Magazine, 20/2/1895, cited by Ruth Robbins, York Notes Advanced on The Importance of Being Ea (...)
It is delightful to see, it sends wave after wave of laughter . . . but as a text to criticism it is barren and delusive . . . it is intangible, it eludes your grasp. What can a poor critic do with a play which raises no principle, whether of art or morals, creates its own canons and conventions, and is nothing but an absolutely wilful expression of irrepressibly witty personality.13
10He appears to have been seduced by the play but a little puzzled and unable to analyse it very well. More reviews of that time would be required in order to determine if other critics were also ill-at-ease when they saw the play. On the whole we know that there were positive reviews and Earnest could have expected an extended run in the St James Theatre followed by a popular tour in the provinces. However, only a few weeks after its opening, Oscar Wilde was involved in the scandal that led him to prison. For two generations Wilde’s name was mud. The audience that had laughed so much during the performances shunned his company and work. Equally, it would have been interesting to have interviews of members of the audience to find out why they had enjoyed the play. Was it because they had chosen to overlook the questionings of the play or simply because they had completely misunderstood the undertones in the first place? Later, why did they really turn away from Oscar Wilde? Was it because they were really shocked by his homosexuality or just to conform to the new trend that was to despise him? Just as Gwendolen says to Cecily in Act II that cake is rarely seen in the best houses nowadays, Oscar Wilde was rarely talked about in the best houses after the trial that he lost.
- 14 Jill Matthews, Good and Mad Women: The Historical construction of femininity in Twentieth Century A (...)
- 15 Jane Pilchner and Imelda Whelehan (eds), Fifty Key Concepts in Gender Studies, Sage, Londres, 2004, (...)
11More seriously, what people maybe did not understand and forgive him was that by making his “coming out” during the trial he had disrupted the social and gender order. The latter concept did not exist in Wilde’s time and was first developed by Jill Matthews in 1984 in her study of the historical construction of femininity.14 According to her, “the idea of gender order gives recognition to the fact that every known society distinguishes between women and men, while allowing for variations in the nature of the distinctions drawn”.15 This approach emphasizes the idea that patriarchy may not be universal and leaves room for transformation of gender relations because they are regarded as a process subject to resistance as well as conformity. This way of viewing things seems to suggest that the gender order may be disrupted and changed, and Oscar Wilde was certainly one of the first ones to do so in his life and by using theatre as a means of expression for his questioning and mockery of both the social and gender orders.
12As far as the staging of the play was concerned, conformity was the rule for Victorian directors, who chose a naturalist setting and realistic costumes made in London or Paris. When the public saw the actors and actresses on stage they underwent an identification process because they lived in the same flats, wore the same clothes and spoke the same apparent language. The Victorian audience then laughed at itself. Or did it? The scenes would have seemed so exaggerated that they could not possibly have recognized themselves and have taken the play seriously. They actually laughed at social and sexual relationships that, as far as they were concerned, could not exist. Exaggeration and nonsensical dialogues probably helped Wilde get away with the more troubling questions he raised.
13Anyway, the play resists time and it still appeals to people nowadays. For 3 years I have studied extracts of the play with my second-year French Modern Literature students who love it because it is witty, subversive and questions gender roles. However, in 2009 one of them told me that she had not actually found the play funny! This was partly because she only focused on the serious aspects of the play and found Wilde nihilistic.
14Modern stagings in Britain have tried to be more daring than their predecessors. For example, the 1993 production by Nicolas Hytner at the Aldwych Theatre in London brought to the surface the play’s gay subtext (in Act I Algy and Jack greeted each other with a kiss) and there have been attempts with drag casts (I have already mentioned the 2005 Abbey Theatre production for instance).
15In France, the two most recent stagings of the play have not been particularly daring. In 2006 the play was produced at the Théâtre Antoine in Paris and directed by Pierre Laville. In an article published on the website “ruedutheatre” in September 2006, Priscilla Gustave-Perron qualified the performance as “disappointing”.16 The setting was uninteresting, built by Pace, a man who has been working for the theatre for 20 years. The direction lacked creativity and boldness, maybe because P. Laville may have understated the dimension of the play in terms of disruption of norms—or chosen to ignore this aspect. In fact, the Théâtre Antoine is a private theatre that depends on profitability: plays, actors and actresses are selected according to their appeal to the public. Thus Lorant Deutsch as Algy and Frédéric Diefenthal as Jack are said in this review to have failed to embody British dandies or to have conveyed the ferocity of the text, only emphasizing the “marivaudage” side of the play—perhaps to please the Théâtre Antoine’s administration and attract audiences. Only Macha Méril as Lady Bracknell seems to have been spared by the critic. Another review published in Le Figaro on 15/10/0717 focused on the star of the cast, Lorant Deutsch. The critic Marion Thébaud writes more about the actor’s life than about the play, concluding by saying that it is impossible to sum up the plot which relies on “fulgurants paradoxes, pirouettes et acrobaties verbales”. It is the performance that is emphasized, not the subversive content.
16More recently, in September 2008, the Versailles company “L’air de rien” performed a version adapted from the play (translated by Astrid Hauschild and Magali Prompolini) directed by Astrid Hauschild at the Théâtre du Lucernaire in Paris. The setting was more daring than that used by the Théâtre Antoine since it was reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s colours, but the interpretation remained traditional, according to Olivier Pradel, who also wrote that it would have been more original and impertinent to set the play more in our present-day society, where nobility has been replaced by the jet-setters and the traders.18
- 19 Eamonn Jordan, “Meta-physicality: Women Characters in the plays of Frank McGuinness,” Women in Iris (...)
17Any writer, male or female, can find it hard to work outside the conventions, practices and aspirations of his/her predecessors. Can we then say that Oscar Wilde paved the way for contemporary authors like Frank McGuinness for example? According to Eamonn Jordan, McGuinness’s dramas, for example, “set specific challenges, especially when it comes to female characters. Of all the male playwrights writing today in Irish theatre, McGuinness consistently confronts romanticized, conventionalized and stereotypical gendered roles and imperatives”.19
18On the other hand more recent critics have perhaps put too much emphasis on the subversive nature of the play and a re-appraisal might be needed. After all, Wilde himself never considered it as his best work, describing it as “written by a butterfly for butterflies”. However, butterflies are short-lived whereas his play has survived for more than a hundred years so far, conforming to the tastes of many different people and resisting both time and analysis.