What Can We Steal From Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest?

Title of Work and its Form: The Importance of Being Earnest, play
Author: Ernest Hemingway
Date of Work: 1895
Where the Work Can Be Found: The play appears in all kinds of anthologies.  Thanks to the wonders of public domain, the play can be found on the Internet.  (In your face, Sonny Bono and Mickey Mouse!)

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Characterization

The Importance of Being Earnest is, quite simply, one of the best comedies around.  Not only is there a laugh every fifteen seconds, but the characters are compelling and charming.  Best of all, it’s a love story!  Don’t we all enjoy a good love story?  John Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff are…committed bachelors…wink wink…right?  Get it?  All they want is to find women with whom they can settle down.  The course of their true love doesn’t run smoothly at all.  Each of them assume the name Ernest as a way to remain anonymous while having fun.  Algernon also pretends to have a friend named Bunbury who serves as a convenient excuse when he wants to take off.  Enter Gwendolyn and Lady Bracknell.  Gwendolyn is a sweet and beautiful young woman; John/Earnest proposes marriage.  (She loves guys named Ernest.)  Unfortunately, John is not satisfactory marriage material; his mother stuffed him in a handbag as a baby and left him in a train station.  Long story short: a ton of coincidences are discovered and everyone ends up happy and married at the end.

Lady Bracknell is my favorite character from the play.  She’s an older woman who epitomizes the Victorian ideals of propriety.  The most important thing, of course, is not actual propriety, but the appearance of propriety.  (Do we have anyone like that?)  Lady Bracknell doesn’t worry too much about money, which gives her the luxury of living life “properly.”  Her clothing is always perfect and a judgmental quip is always on her tongue.  Freed from the struggles of “normal” life, she is free to tell others what to do.  And the dialogue Wilde gives to her couldn’t sparkle any more brightly.

Let’s look at Lady Bracknell’s entrance and first lines.  (Always a good idea.)

[Algernon goes forward to meet them.  Enter Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen.]

Lady Bracknell.  Good afternoon, dear Algernon, I hope you are behaving very well.

Algernon.  I’m feeling very well, Aunt Augusta.

Lady Bracknell.  That’s not quite the same thing.  In fact the two things rarely go together.  [Sees Jack and bows to him with icy coldness.]

Wilde wastes no time!  Lady Bracknell follows the social script by asking how-do-you-do and then reprimands Algernon, doling out one of her legendary pronouncements.  We don’t often think deeply about these kinds of perfunctory situations, but Lady Bracknell is right; behaving well and feeling well are two very different things.

We love Lady Bracknell because she is relentless and devoutly committed to her beliefs.  Unlike wishy-washy people, she creates drama by being inflexible and unforgiving.  Here are some more of her lines:

I’m sorry if we are a little late, Algernon, but I was obliged to call on dear Lady Harbury.  I hadn’t been there since her poor husband’s death.  I never saw a woman so altered; she looks quite twenty years younger.

Well, I must say, Algernon, that I think it is high time that Mr. Bunbury made up his mind whether he was going to live or to die.  This shilly-shallying with the question is absurd.  Nor do I in any way approve of the modern sympathy with invalids.  I consider it morbid.  Illness of any kind is hardly a thing to be encouraged in others.  Health is the primary duty of life.

An engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be.  It is hardly a matter that she could be allowed to arrange for herself . . .

I have always been of opinion that a man who desires to get married should know either everything or nothing.  Which do you know?

It’s true that Oscar Wilde stole a little bit of Lady Bracknell’s character from similar characters in farces that preceded Earnest.  In the years since I read the play, I have noticed some examples of television writers doing what Wilde did: taking a character “type” and putting a unique spin on it.

Arrested Development’s Lucille Bluth (Jessica Walter) is a wealthy woman who cares only about appearances.  She’s forever telling her children and her husband and her adopted child Annyong and her grandchildren and the painters and the household help how they should live their lives and what is “right” and “proper.”  Fun example: Lucille constantly criticizes her daughter Lindsay’s weight.  They share this exchange in a restaurant:

Lindsay: Did you enjoy your meal, Mom? You drank it fast enough.

Lucille: Not as much as you enjoyed yours. You want your belt to buckle, not your chair.

Two and a Half Men’s Evelyn Harper (Holland Taylor) is a wealthy woman who cares only about appearances.  She’s forever telling her children and grandchildren how they should live their lives and what is “right” and “proper.”  Fun example: in one episode, Evelyn is excited to attend a party in her honor and to soak up attention.  Unfortunately, she is upstaged by the singing of the housekeeper’s sister.  In a moment of reflection, she lets loose this very Bracknell line:

Evelyn Harper: Why does anyone want a party? To feel superior while feigning humility!

What Should We Steal?

  • Take a stock character and make him or her your own.  These words can be very confusing.  They can also characterize the attitude of a character or narrator.
  • Make the most of the entrances your characters make.  Your audience or reader should understand your characters within seconds of meeting them.  Sure, you may change the perception you create later in the piece, but your characters are actors at heart.  They want to make big waves and burn themselves into the audience’s memory instantly.

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