The Importance of Being Earnest is a classic comedy of manners by Oscar Wilde. It was first performed for the public on February 14, 1895 at the St. James' Theatre in London. The play, written in either three or four acts, depending on edition, is regarded by many critics and scholars as being the wittiest play in the English language.
It is set in England during the 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.
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. He calls this practice "Bunburying."
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 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, John Worthing, and pretends that he has a wastrel brother named Ernest, who lives in London. When honest John comes to the city, he assumes the name, and behaviour, of the profligate Ernest. In the country John assumes and more serious attitude for the benefit of Cecily, who is his ward.
John 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 John is a foundling who was discovered in a handbag at a railway station.
John's description of Cecily appeals to Algernon who resolves to meet her. Algernon soon gets the idea to visit John in the country, pretending that he is the mysterious brother "Ernest." Unfortunately, unknown to Algernon, John 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 John shows up in his mourning clothes. There he encounters John'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 John is a nephew of Lady Bracknell who was lost by Miss Prism, Cecily’s governess, who was then working for Lady Bracknell’s sister. It is also discovered that John’s real name is Ernest. It is suggested at the end of the play that Ernest/John will marry Gwendolen and Algernon will marry Cecily. The play contains many examples of Wilde's famous wit.
It has a small cast, which is as follows:
The comedy has been successful even when performed in translation. The title being almost untranslatable ("Ernest" and "earnest" being homophones in English), it is then usually staged under the title Bunbury -referring to deceit in general. In Norway it is staged as Hvem er Ernest?, which means Who is Ernest?
Exceptions to this include Germany, The Netherlands, France and Hungary. In Germany the reprint of the play and the 2002 movie are called "Ernst sein ist alles" (literally Being Earnest is all), keeping the pun of the original title. (Ernst being both a first name and a synonym for being serious in German). In The Netherlands it has been translated as Het belang van Ernst, in which the pun is also fully functional. In France, the play is known as "De l'importance d'être Constant"; Constant being both an uncommon but not rare first name and the quality of steadfastness, the pun is preserved but with a slightly different meaning. The same approach has been used in Hungarian; the title has been translated as "Szilárdnak kell lenni" (lit. One Must Be Steadfast), Szilárd being also an uncommon first name meaning "steadfast". In the Czech Republic the play is translated as "Jak je důležité míti Filipa" (literally The Importance of Having Phillip) – which is an idiom for being clever and Filip is a quite common name.
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" (John) 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.