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The Importance of Being Earnest

From Academic Kids

The Importance of Being Earnest is a classic comedy play by Oscar Wilde. 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 Victorian era, and its primary source of humour is based upon the main character Jack's fictitious younger brother Ernest. Jack's surname, Worthing, is taken from the town where Wilde was staying when he wrote the play.

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. "Ernest" discloses that his visits to the city are also examples of "Bunburying." In the country, "Ernest" goes by his real name, Jack, and pretends that he has a wastrel brother named Ernest, who lives in London. When Jack comes to the city, he assumes the name of Ernest and tells everyone he has a brother Jack who lives in the country.

Jack wishes to marry Gwendolyn, who is Algernon's cousin, but runs into a few problems. First, Gwendolyn seems to love him only because she believes his name is Ernest, which she thinks is the most beautiful name in the world. Second, Gwendolyn's mother is the terrifying Lady Bracknell--one of the great comic characters of English literature. Lady Bracknell is horrified when she learns that Jack is a foundling who was discovered in a handbag at a railway station.

Algernon gets the idea to visit Jack in the country, pretending that he is the mysterious brother "Ernest." Unfortunately, unknown to Algernon, Jack has decided to give up his Bunburying, and to do this he has announced the tragic death of Ernest.

A hilarious 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. The play contains many examples of Wilde's famous wit.

It has a small cast, which is as follows:

  • Jack Worthing
  • Algernon Moncrieff
  • Lady Bracknell
  • Cecily Cardew
  • Gwendolen Fairfax
  • Miss Prism
  • Dr. Chasuble
  • Lane
  • Merriman


Notice that none of the cast is called Ernest: although Jack pretends to be and turns out to be Ernest, Algernon also pretends to be Ernest.

The comedy has been successful even when performed in translation. The title being almost untranslatable, it is then usually staged under the title Bunbury -referring to deceit in general.

Exceptions to this are Germany and The Netherlands. 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.

It is sometimes erroneously suggested that some of the expressions in the play have their origins in homosexual subculture of the 1890s. Thus, it is claimed that "Earnest" was used as a euphemism for homosexual, and "Bunburying" meant the art of living a secret homosexual life while appearing to be heterosexual to the outside world: the use of such terms in such a manner is unattested before the date of publication.

Movie versions

External links

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