"We live in an age of ideals, and my ideal has always been to marry a man named Earnest."
-From Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest
When the aristocratic and forward-thinking Gwendolyn professes this goal as the reason for her love for our protagonist at the beginning of the play, we know that we are in for a riotous ride. I love this quote because I think it sums up the heart and soul of this play. From beginning to end, the dialogue is an acute social satire couched as comedic repartee.
Take this quote from Gwendolyn, for example: it seems to start off on a lofty tone about to say something very important about life and society but ends by naming an ideal so superficial as to be laughable. In the moment, we can take great delight in giggling at Gwendolyn's silliness, but when we pause to reflect, the truth behind this statement creeps home. For doesn't this triviality apply to many of our own ideals or most cherished opinions? At the root, are they not quite as glorious as we profess them to be? Hasn't our human nature crept in and our preferences or desire to be right twisted, just a little bit, the lofty goals or ideals to which we aspire?
Wilde's play is full of many such one-liners that both make us laugh and cringe at the same time. They bring home important truths, and it is Wilde's ability to tell truth and make us laugh that first drew me to this play.
But if he is trying not only to make us laugh but also tell us an important truth, then it is essential to consider what the central idea of this play might be. Wilde does not make us look very far; he puts his message right there in the title: The Importance of Being Earnest.
At its heart, this play is simply about dishonesty - our dishonesty both with others and with ourselves, both of which Wilde shows to be problematic through the antics of his characters. And while Wilde's social satire spoke to the culture of the late Victorian age, I feel that in our age of carefully curated personas, both online and in our daily lives, the lessons are still pertinent.
Just as both the main characters, Algernon and Jack, create a false persona for escaping their circumstances, so we are all too likely to want to craft an ideal version of ourselves to present to the world. But as Jack and Algernon teach us, lies - even the trivial ones - almost always catch up with us. To learn the lessons of the play, we must be willing to accept that our own names and personalities, even if they are as prosaic as John or Algernon, are what will bring us happiness.
But that message seems a little too trite. Can Wilde simply be saying: don't lie and be yourself? Why do I need a play to teach me that? Well, as I am fond of saying, clichés are cliché for a reason, but beyond that, this is where I think the magic of theatre and stories come into play. Wilde can remind us of a truth, but also make us laugh at the ridiculousness of not adhering to it. In this way, he can creep behind our defenses and teach us a lesson we might claim not to need.
I have also seen this lesson play out with my students in the classroom in a slightly different manner. The act of putting on a play is in and of itself a project which requires honesty and vulnerability. In the end, to do it well, you have to put in hard and concentrated work. You have to be present with your classmates. You can not fake your way through line memorization or ten hours of production work. I have asked them all to participate in the process at every stage, to give feedback, to think creatively, and above all, to work together. One of my happiest moments came about when a student told me, "This feels less like a class and more like a big fun project that we are all working on together." This statement is proof that the students have truly invested themselves in some honest work together. Which, to borrow a line from Gwendolyn, has always been my ideal in this age of ideals.
So, what is so important about a play, and the process of theatre itself? It comes down simply to the idea that as either an audience member or an actor, theater reminds us of the vital importance of being earnest with each other in our daily lives.
And so I invite you to bring friends and family to discover "What is so Important about Being Ernest," this Thursday 11/21 at 6:30 pm in the College Church Commons.