The Importance of Being Earnest

The Importance of Being Earnest Historical Background to The Importance of Being Earnest

The Importance of Being Earnest is first and foremost a farce, a comedy of manners whose main goal is to amuse the audience, rather than to make them think. As a comedy, it is rooted much less in a specific history or place than many plays. Nevertheless, the play does contain a few references to contemporary historical events, which suggest a troubled society underneath the glossiness of the characters that Wilde portrays. One of the primary critiques of Wilde's play is that it is form without content, and does not deal seriously with any social issues (this, of course, is consistent with Wilde's doctrine of Aestheticism). In a contemporary review, the socialist playwright George Bernard Shaw reacted to The Importance of Being Earnest's seeming heartlessness--he would prefer to think that people are capable of speaking something other than nonsense.

However, some of the topics mentioned briefly in the play indicate larger political issues that were the subject of heated debate at the time that it was produced. One such subject was the issue of Home Rule for Ireland. William Gladstone created a controversy in 1886 when he committed the British Liberal party to support Home Rule--self-governance for Ireland within the framework of the British Empire. A contentious Home Rule Bill was suppressed by the House of Lords only two years before the production of the Importance of Being Earnest. As Lady Bracknell examines Jack's suitability as a partner for Gwendolen, she inquires about his politics. Jack is a Liberal Unionist, meaning that he is a Liberal who does not support Home Rule. Lady Bracknell appears relieved, saying: "Oh, they count as Tories. They dine with us." The political distinction matters only insomuch as it affects Lady Bracknell's social engagements, rather than having to do with the right or wrong of Home Rule for Ireland.

The only reason for Wilde's characters to get incensed about politics is if politics threaten to disturb their hedonistic lifestyle or the social hierarchy that they have grown comfortable with. The threat of a revolution like the French revolution continuously hangs over British society. Lady Bracknell is exceedingly alarmed to hear that the imaginary Bunbury died by explosion. "Exploded! Was he the victim of a revolutionary outrage? I was not aware that Mr. Bunbury was interested in social legislation. If so, he is well punished for his morbidity." Her unease reflects a general feeling of fear regarding social unrest in the 1890s, particularly after a working-class riot in Trafalgar Square in 1885. The word morbidity does well to describe Wilde's characters' attitudes toward politics. It is difficult for them to understand an interest in something that is so far removed from their daily pleasures.

In last analysis, it is unfair to suggest that The Importance of Being Earnest is a shallow, universal farce which has no ties to the historical context in which it was created; however, Wilde's references to the crucial issues of his time are usually overshadowed by his characters' own petty concerns.