The Importance of Being Earnest

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Theatre

The Importance of Being Earnest is a play by Oscar Wilde, a comedy of manners (extremely satiric) on the seriousness of society in either three or four acts (depending on edition) inspired by W. S. Gilbert's Engaged. It was first performed for the public on February 14, 1895 at the St. James' Theatre in London.

It is set in England during the late Victorian era, and its primary source of humour is based upon the main character John's fictitious younger brother Ernest. John's surname, Worthing, is taken from the town where Wilde was staying when he wrote the play.

Wilde's plays had reached a pinnacle of success and anything new from the playwright was eagerly awaited. The press were always hungry for details and would pursue stories about new plots and characters with a vengeance. To combat this Wilde gave the play a working title, Lady Lancing. The use of seaside town names for leading characters, or the locations of their inception, can be recognised in all four of Wilde's society plays.

Plot summary

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.

Algernon, a wealthy young Londoner, pretends to have a friend named Bunbury who lives in the country and frequently is in ill health. Whenever Algernon wants to avoid an unwelcome social obligation, or just get away for the weekend, he makes an ostensible visit to his "sick friend." In this way Algernon can feign piety and dedication, while having the perfect excuse to get out of town, avoiding his responsibilities. He calls this practice " Bunburying."

The original production of The Importance of Being Earnest in 1895 with Allan Aynesworth as Algernon (left) and George Alexander as Jack (right)
The original production of The Importance of Being Earnest in 1895 with Allan Aynesworth as Algernon (left) and George Alexander as Jack (right)

Algernon's real-life best friend lives in the country but makes frequent visits to London. This friend's name is Ernest...or so Algernon thinks. When Ernest leaves his silver cigarette case at Algernon's rooms he finds an inscription in it that claims that it is "From little Cecily with her fondest love to her dear Uncle Jack". This forces Ernest to eventually disclose that his visits to the city are also examples of "Bunburying," much to Algernon's delight.

In the country, "Ernest" goes by his real name, Jack Worthing, and pretends that he has a wastrel brother named Ernest, who lives in London. When honest Jack comes to the city, he assumes the name, and behaviour, of the profligate Ernest. In the country Jack assumes a more serious attitude for the benefit of Cecily, who is his ward.

Jack himself wishes to marry Gwendolen, who is Algernon's cousin, but runs into a few problems. First, Gwendolen seems to love him only because she believes his name is Ernest, which she thinks is the most beautiful name in the world. Second, Gwendolen's mother is the terrifying Lady Bracknell. Lady Bracknell is horrified when she learns that Jack was adopted as a toddler when he was discovered in a handbag at a railway station. In her opinion it is absolutely below the standards of her daughter to "marry into a cloakroom and form an alliance with a parcel", as she puts it.

Jack's description of Cecily appeals to Algernon who resolves to meet her. Algernon soon gets the idea to visit Jack in the country, pretending that he is the mysterious brother "Ernest." Unfortunately, Jack has decided to give up his Bunburying, and to do this he has announced the tragic death of Ernest.

A series of comic misunderstandings follows, as Algernon-as-Ernest visits the country (as a dead man, as far as the hosts are aware), and Jack shows up in his mourning clothes. There he encounters Jack's ward, Cecily, who believes herself in love with Ernest - the non-existent brother she has never met. After Lady Bracknell arrives, it is discovered that Jack is a nephew of Lady Bracknell who was lost by Miss Prism, Cecily’s governess, who was then working for Lady Bracknell’s sister. That also makes him Algernon's older brother, and the first son of Algernon's father, whose name was Ernest. Jack, therefore, has the real name of Ernest, and he had all along been telling the truth inadvertently. A typical ' deus ex machina' solution. It is suggested at the end of the play that Ernest/Jack will marry Gwendolen and Algernon will marry Cecily. The play contains many examples of Wilde's famous wit. Many readers and scholars have agreed that Algernon represents Wilde's surrogate; he delivers many of the witty one-liners.


It has a small cast, as follows:

  • Jack Worthing (Ernest): In love with Gwendolen. Bachelor. Adopted when very young by Thomas Cardew
  • Algernon Moncrieff (Algy): First cousin of Gwendolen. Bachelor. Nephew of Lady Bracknell
  • Lady Augusta Bracknell
  • Cecily Cardew: daughter of Thomas Cardew wand of Jack Worthing. Lives at his country house in Hertfordshire
  • Hon. Gwendolen Fairfax: daughter of Lady Bracknell
  • Miss Prism: governess to Cecily
  • Rev Dr. Frederick Chasuble: a minister who lives near Jack’s country house
  • Lane: butler to Algernon
  • Merriman: butler to Jack


The comedy has been successful even when performed in translation. The title being translatable only to a few languages—it relies on "Ernest" and "earnest" being homophones in English—it is then usually staged under the title Bunbury, referring to deceit in general.

In some languages, the literal title is maintained, but loses its character as a pun. In Norwegian it is staged as Hvem er Ernest?, which means "Who is Ernest?" In Spanish-speaking countries, the title is translated as La importancia de llamarse Ernesto (The Importance of Being Named Ernest).

Several languages—German, Dutch, French, Hungarian, Czech—offer equivalent puns. In Germany the play and the 2002 movie are called Ernst sein ist alles ("Being Earnest is all"), keeping precisely the original pun (Ernst being both a first name and a German word for being serious). In Dutch it has been translated as Het belang van Ernst, in which the pun is also fully functional. In French, the play is known as De l'importance d'être Constant, Constant being both a mildly uncommon first name and the quality of steadfastness; the pun is preserved but with a slightly different meaning. The Italian L'importanza di essere Franco, or The Importance of Being Frank, similarly preserves punning with a slight twist. The same approach has been used in Hungarian: the title has been translated as Szilárdnak kell lenni ("One Must Be Steadfast"), Szilárd being also an uncommon first name meaning "steadfast". In Czech, the title is translated as Jak je důležité míti Filipa ("The Importance of Having Phillip"), which is an idiom for being clever, and Filip is a quite common name.

Four-act version

When Wilde handed his final draft of the play over to theatrical impresario George Alexander it was complete in four acts. The actor manager of the St. James' Theatre soon began a reworking of the play. Whether to provide space for a 'warmer' or a musical interlude, as was often the bill, it is not entirely clear. However, Wilde agreed to the cuts and various elements of the second and third acts were combined. The "missing" extra act, coming between the current second and third, was heavily cut. The greatest impact was the loss of the character Mr Gribsby, a solicitor, who turns up from London to arrest the profligate "Ernest" (Jack) for his unpaid dining bills. Algernon - who is going by the name "Ernest" at this point - is about to be led away to Holloway Jail unless he settles his accounts immediately. The four-act version was first played on the radio in a BBC production and is still sometimes performed. The 2002 film includes the Gribsby scene from the missing act.

Possible in-jokes

Wilde's use of the name Ernest may possibly be an in-joke. John Gambril Nicholson in his poem "Of Boy's Names" (Love in Earnest: Sonnets, Ballades, and Lyrics (1892)) contains the lines: " Though Frank may ring like silver bell, And Cecil softer music claim, They cannot work the miracle, –'Tis Ernest sets my heart a-flame." The poem was promoted by John Addington Symonds and Nicholson and Wilde contributed pieces to the same issue of The Chameleon magazine.. Theo Aronson has suggested that the word "earnest" became a code-word for homosexual, as in: "Is he earnest?", in the same way that "Is he so?" and "Is he musical?" were also employed.

The words bunbury and bunburying, which are used to imply double lives and as excuses for absences are, according to a letter from Aleister Crowley to Sir R. H. Bruce Lockhart, an in-joke conjunction that came about after Wilde boarded a train at Banbury on which he met a schoolboy. They got into conversation and subsequently arranged to meet again at Sunbury.

While these words may have been such mild in-jokes, Sir Donald Sinden, who had met two of the play's original participants in the 1940s: Irene Vanbrugh, the first Gwendolen; Allan Aynesworth, the first Algy; as well as Lord Alfred Douglas, wrote to The Times to dispute that the words held any sexual connotations, or that 'Cecily' was a synonym for a rentboy: "Although they had ample opportunity, at no time did any of them even hint that Earnest was a synonym for homosexual, or that Bunburying may have implied homosexual sex. The first time I heard it mentioned was in the 1980s and I immediately consulted Sir John Gielgud whose own performance of Jack Worthing in the same play was legendary and whose knowledge of theatrical lore was encyclopaedic. He replied in his ringing tones: "No-No! Nonsense, absolute nonsense: I would have known."


  • John Gielgud was considered to be the greatest Jack Worthing of the twentieth century, and his 1947 Broadway production won the only Tony Award ever given for Best Foreign Production.
  • Lady Bracknell's phrase A handbag? has been claimed to be the single quotation in English drama that has given rise to the most varied readings, ranging from incredulous through scandalized to just plain baffled. There is scarcely an actress who has not tried to put her own personal stamp on it, but the most famous is that of Edith Evans in Anthony Asquith's film, who delivered the line loudly in a mixture of horror, incredulity and condescension.
  • The Marquess of Queensberry, father of Wilde's male lover Lord Alfred Douglas, attempted to enter the theatre on the play's opening night to publicly expose Oscar Wilde's homosexuality, but Wilde was tipped in advance and Queensberry was refused a ticket. Due to Wilde's personal troubles, however, the play was closed after only 83 performances, despite its success.
  • The name 'Miss Prism' is a pun on 'misprision', the word for concealing an error from authority.
  • When Jack tells Lady Bracknell that Cecily has a fortune of 'about a hundred and thirty thousand pounds' that is roughly the equivalent of £10,000,000 or US$18,000,000 in 2005.
  • At the time the play was written Victoria Station in London was actually two adjacent terminal stations sharing the same name. To the east was the terminal of the decidedly ramshackle London, Chatham and Dover Railway and to the west, the much more fashionable London, Brighton and South Coast Railway—the Brighton Line. Although the two stations shared a dividing wall, there was no interconnection: it was necessary to walk out into the street to pass from one station to the other. Jack explains that he was found in a handbag in the cloakroom at Victoria Station and tries to mitigate the circumstance by assuring Lady Bracknell that it was the more socially acceptable "Brighton line."
  • In 2004's Spider-Man 2, Mary Jane Watson ( Kirsten Dunst) appears on Broadway in a scene from Earnest.
  • The famous Spanish singer, Enrique Bunbury, named himself after the character Bunbury.

Film versions

  • The 1952 film of the play was directed by Anthony Asquith and stars Michael Denison (Algernon), Michael Redgrave (Jack), Dame Edith Evans (Lady Bracknell), Dorothy Tutin (Cecily), Joan Greenwood (Gwendolen), and Margaret Rutherford (Miss Prism).
  • The 1992 remake was directed by Kurt Baker.
  • The 2002 remake stars Colin Firth (Jack), Rupert Everett (Algy), Dame Judi Dench (Lady Bracknell), Reese Witherspoon (Cecily), Frances O'Connor (Gwendolen), Anna Massey (Miss Prism), and Tom Wilkinson (Dr. Chasuble) and was directed by Oliver Parker.


  • A musical based on the play called Ernest in Love opened off-Broadway in 1960 to glowing reviews. It starred John Irving as Jack and Louis Edmonds as Algernon. The show was later revived and translated into Japanese in 2005 for the Takarazuka Revue in Japan.
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