Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest opened at the St. James's Theatre in London on February 14, 1895, only a month after Wilde's previous success, An Ideal Husband. The packed-in audience rollicked with laughter at the on-stage caricatures. Considered Wilde's best play, many hail it as the greatest stage comedy of all time.
Part of The Importance of Being Earnest's success comes from Wilde's seemingly infinite supply of piquant epigrams. Though some of the concise, often paradoxical statements refer to contemporary events (the state of 19th-century French drama, for instance), most are universal, reflections on beauty, art, men, women, and class; they are endlessly quotable and continue to delight audiences with their blend of sophistication and absurdity.
One feature of epigrams which ensure their durability is that they can be separated from the play's narrative. Epigrams have little effect on the story because they encapsulate many of Wilde's beliefs on how art should function: above all, art should be beautiful and serve little use. The epigram is the epitome of this ideal; beautiful in its elegant construction, it is also dramatically useless to the play.
Beyond reflecting on beauty, the play is also a masterful send-up of Victorian manners, especially in regards to marriage and morality. Marriage had long been an important issue in English literature, and Wilde exposed its manipulative use as a social tool of advancement; except for Miss Prism, all the women in the play have ulterior motives when it comes to romance. As for morality, Wilde critiqued the starchy facade of politeness he observed in society; he details the "shallow mask of manner," as Cecily calls it, that aristocratic Victorians wore.
One of the chief sources of humor in The Importance of Being Earnest is the characters' confused sense of values. Wilde described the play as "exquisitely trivial, a delicate bubble of fancy, and it has its philosophy that we should treat all the trivial things of life seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality." Wilde directed his actors to speak all their lines in deadly earnest, without signaling to the audience that they were in on the joke. While it is in essence a comedy of manners, the play also uses overtly farcical techniques to downplay its seriousness, and the audience is willing to forgive the characters' irresponsibility and various indiscretions.
Within the play's framework of false identities, Wilde also planted several possible allusions to the male characters' homosexuality. By the time he wrote The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde was leading a dual life as a married man and an active homosexual. The play's original audience is reputed to have howled at the inside references to London's homosexual subculture. Unfortunately, the heady success ofEarnest was short-lived; the Marquess of Queensbury, father of Wilde's young lover, Lord Alfred Douglas ("Bosie"), showed up to the opening night. Though he was barred entrance, Wilde's infamous trial began soon after, and his life and career began to unravel.