Oscar Wilde’s brilliantly clever comedic masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest, was once called by critic W.H. Auden, “the only pure verbal opera in English.” Earnest tells the story of two young gentlemen in London, who each live a double-life, creating elaborate deceptions to find some balance in their lives. John Worthing escapes the burdens of responsibility to have an exciting life in the city, pretending to be his fictitious younger brother Ernest. Algernon Moncrieff, meanwhile, has invented a convenient invalid, Bunbury, whom he uses as an excuse to gallivant off to the country whenever he pleases. When John falls in love with Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolen, he is determined to come clean, but when Gwendolen reveals she can only love a man named Ernest, it somewhat complicates things. When Algernon discovers John’s secret and decides to visit John’s pretty little ward in the country, posing as the debauched “Ernest,” the situation gets entirely more complicated! Hijinks ensue, and the two gentlemen and their ladies are in for more than they ever anticipated when formidable Lady Bracknell, Gwendolen’s mother, begins sleuthing around to uncover the far-fetched truth. Oscar Wilde's brilliant comedy captures with wit and charm the absurdity and delight of the Victorian "age of surfaces" (as Lady Bracknell calls it,) while capturing the struggle of four passionate lovers trying to conform to expectations and, in the most roundabout and delightfully funny way possible, love who they wish and live how they want.
The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People was originally written as a play in four acts, and was shortened to a three-act piece to accommodate the demands of the theatre in which it was originally performed. The original production premiered on Valentine’s Day, 1895 at the St. James Theatre theatre in London. Some subsequent productions have chosen to use part or all of Wilde’s earlier four-act manuscript, rather than the condensed three-act play that was performed at the St. James.
Earnest has been beloved by audiences ever since it was first produced, but it ended up being the last play Oscar Wilde ever penned. Soon thereafter, Oscar Wilde was tried and convicted for engaging in homosexual activity and was jailed. His notoriety surrounding romantic liaisons with Lord Alfred Douglas led the original production of Earnest to close after only 86 performances. While he wrote some poems later in his life, Wilde never wrote a play again. Some have made a link between the double-lives portrayed in The Importance of Being Earnest and the double-life Oscar Wilde himself was leading as an acclaimed and adored playwright of rank, married to a woman while all the time having to lead a double-life in order to be with the man he loved.
Earnest is a perfect example of a comedy of manners. By writing it, Wilde was able to make fun of the behavior of the Victorian upper classes, highlighting their hypocrisy, artificial nature, superficiality, and frivolous activities. The light-hearted and witty dialogue of the play hides a deeper analysis of the society in which Wilde lived and worked. A good example of this is to look at the character of Lady Bracknell. An infamous Wildean character, she bases her whole belief system on the importance of money and social standing. When she believes Jack to be a foundling, Lady Bracknell rejects his marriage proposal to Gwendolen. However, when she realizes that he has a respectable family background, her opinion of him immediately changes!
The Importance of Being Earnest has seen four Broadway productions. The most recent was a transfer from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, produced by Roundabout Theater Company. The production featured a drag performance by Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell, and was also directed by Bedford. The production was nominated for three Tony Awards.
Other notable productions include a 1982 production at the National Theatre featuring Judi Dench as Lady Bracknell and Zoe Wanamaker as Gwendolen, a 1993 production at the Aldwych Theatre directed by Nicholas Hytner and starring Maggie Smith as Lady Bracknell, and a production at the Melbourne Theatre Company starring Geoffrey Rush as Lady Bracknell. Hytner’s direction explored the possibilities of gay subtext in the text of Earnest.
The Importance of Being Earnest has also enjoyed three feature film adaptations (and many adaptations for television):
- In 1952, a black and white film version was made, adapted and directed by Anthony Asquith and starring Michael Redgrave as John and Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell.
- In 1992, a film version of The Importance of Being Earnest, updated to be set in the present-day United States with an all-black cast, directed by Kurt Baker.
- In 2002, a film version directed by Oliver Parker starred Rupert Everett as Algernon and Colin Firth as Jack. This film featured some text from Wilde’s original four-act script that was cut from the 1895 St. James production.
The Importance of Being Earnest opens in dashing young Algernon Moncrieff’s flat on Half-Moon street in London, where he is playing piano with “wonderful expression” but not very well. He talks to his manservant Lane about the happenings of the previous few evenings and plans for Algernon’s aunt, Lady Bracknell’s, arrival later in the afternoon. She has expressly asked for cucumber sandwiches, and Algernon inspects them with much pomp, before stuffing his face with them. A shocking amount of wine has been drunk over the past few days, depleting Algernon’s pockets significantly –though it seems that it is mostly his own fault. Deflecting blame from himself, Algernon blames the alcohol consumption on the servants, but Lane complements Algernon’s taste in alcohol and he flits to his next topic of focus: marriage. Algernon calls it a “demoralizing state” and when Lane tries to chime in further Algernon suddenly shuts him down, saying he doesn’t want to know about Lane’s family life.
Just then the bell rings, and Lane announces that Mr. Ernest Worthing has arrived. Ernest notices the extravagant tea that has been laid out, and Algernon explains that his Aunt Bracknell and cousin Gwendolen, are arriving. Ernest confesses to Algernon that he intends to marry Gwendolen. Algernon becomes upset, stuffing his face with cucumber sandwiches as he rails against the unromantic nature of marriage. When Ernest tries to take a sandwich, Algernon reprimands him, saying that the sandwiches are only for Lady Bracknell. When pressed about his own eating of the sandwiches, Algernon says that he is allowed to eat them since Lady Bracknell is his aunt.
As Algernon continues to eat cucumber sandwiches and Ernest eats bread and butter (Gwendolen’s preferred tea fare,) Algernon begins interrogating his friend about the nature of his intentions. Algernon insists that Ernest’s intentions towards Gwendolen cannot be deemed honorable until they clear up the whole question of Cecily. Ernest has left a cigarette case at Algernon’s flat, inscribed: “From little Cecily with her fondest love to her dear Uncle Jack.” Algernon is confused both by the name Cecily and also the address to an “Uncle Jack.” After much evasion, “Ernest” admits that his name is only “Ernest Worthing” when he is town. When he is in the country, he is “John Worthing, J.P.” the responsible guardian of a very pretty young ward named Cecily Cardew.
John (who up to this point in the play has been called Ernest,) was adopted as a baby by the wealthy, old Mr. Thomas Cardew, who – in his will – made him guardian to his granddaughter “Cecily” and charged him with managing his estate. In order to still have some fun like the young man he is, John explains, he has pretended to have a terribly debaucherous, irresponsible younger brother named Ernest who lives in town. When John comes into town to get “Ernest” out of scrapes, he actually has been telling everyone his name is Ernest.
Algernon is delighted that his friend “Ernest” is a “Bunburyist” – Algernon’s word for a person who leads a double-life for the sake of fulfilling duties but also seeking pleasures. In Algernon’s case, he admits to his friend, Algernon has invented an invalid friend named Bubury who lives in the country, allowing Algernon to go out to the country to “visit” this fictitious person whenever he pleases. Algernon uses his devotion to Bunbury to get out of any activity in which he doesn’t want to engage.
Jack is dismissive of any association between his behavior – which he claims is justified because of the seriousness with which he takes the guardianship of Cecily – and his foolish, cavalier friend’s. He also claims that he is about to come clean to Gwendolen about the whole thing. Algernon is dismayed, as he imagines the only way one could possibly survive a state as terrible as marriage is to be a “Bunburyist,” able to escape into another life altogether. Just then, the bell is rung, and Algernon is certain it is Lady Bracknell because of the loudness and insistence of such ringing. He quickly strikes a bargain with his friend: If John/”Ernest” promises to dine with Algernon at Willis’ tonight, Algernon will get his aunt out of the way for a few minutes to allow for the proposal to take place. John agrees, as the two women enter.
Lady Bracknell commandeers the room and begins asking questions of her nephew as she settles down to sit. She asks Gwendolen to sit beside her, but Gwendolen stays where she is – next to John (who, of course, she still thinks is named “Ernest”). Lady Bracknell asks after the cucumber sandwiches Algernon has promised her, but Algernon has eaten them all. He rings for Lane who, dutiful servant that he is, says to Lady Bracknell that he could not find cucumbers in the market. Algernon pretends to be very distressed about the cucumber shortage, but Lady Bracknell dismisses the issue. Lady Bracknell and Algernon talk about the daily gossip, which finally turns around to the dinner Algernon has promised to attend at Lady Bracknell’s home, this evening.
Algernon begs off dinner, saying that he must go visit his poor, invalid friend Bunbury. Lady Bracknell is exasperated, commenting on Bunbury’s perpetual and inconvenient poor health, but she eventually acquiesces. Before doing so, however, Lady Bracknell makes her nephew promise that Bunbury will not be ill on Saturday, as she is throwing a party and needs him to be there. Algernon assents, and suggests that he and his aunt go over the music for the party in the next room (where the piano is kept). Lady Bracknell begins to leave, telling Gwendolen to accompany her. Gwendolen says she will do so, but then remains behind in the drawing room with John/”Ernest.” After a bumbling start, John turns the conversation to his admiration of Gwendolen. He speaks nervously and in a halting manner, so that Gwendolen is constantly babbling to pick up the slack. They confess their love for one another, but Gwendolen expresses that part of the reason she loves John/”Ernest” so well is that his name is “Ernest.” John, in a panic, asks desperately if she could love him if he had a different name, such as “Jack” (the diminutive form of John). Gwendolen is dismissive of the possibility, but also expresses that she does not like the name Jack. John is desperate, and concludes that he must get christened Ernest at once. When he blurts this out and realizes what he’s said, he changes his words to “we must get married at once.”
Gwendolen acts coy, pointing out that John/“Ernest” has not said anything about marriage yet. He goes on, confusedly, and she points out that he needs to formally propose – adding, that she has already decided to accept him. Once again, he jumps past the proposal, joyous that his love is willing to accept him, but she steers him right in the end and he formally proposes – just as Lady Bracknell re-enters the room.
Lady Bracknell tells John/“Ernest” to get up immediately, but Gwendolen tells her mother that he has not finished yet. When Lady Bracknell asked, “Finished what?”, Gwendolen announces their engagement. Lady Bracknell is shocked, especially since John/“Ernest” has not asked her permission and arranged it with her and Lord Bracknell first. She sends her daughter to the carriage, and sits down to interrogate her prospective son-in-law.
Lady Bracknell’s inquiries after John/”Ernest” and his prospects seem to be going along well, until it is revealed that the house he owns is on the unfashionable side. All seems lost, but Lady Bracknell decides that that could simply be remedied by buying a new house. The real trouble comes when she asks what John/“Ernest’s" parents do for a living, and he has to confess that he lost both his parents, and was found in a railway station handbag as an infant by the late Mr. Thomas Cardew, who adopted him and became his benefactor.
Lady Bracknell is appalled, and insists that no daughter of hers will marry “into a cloak-room and form an alliance with a parcel.” John/“Ernest’s" lack of proper origin (or any sort of definitive origin at all) completely disqualifies him. With that, Lady Bracknell sweeps out of the room, leaving John heartbroken.
As John’s desperation and indignance mount at his lack of control over his own origins and the way in which they are keeping him from the love of his life, Algernon plays a rollicking rendition of the wedding march in the next room. John shouts at Algernon to stop playing, and Algernon pops into the room, cheerily inquiring after how everything went. Seeing John, he concludes that Gwendolen rejected him – which she has been known to do to other men.
John explains that it is not Gwendolen but her mother who is at issue. John rails about how horribly monstrous Lady Bracknell is, before apologizing to Algernon for speaking ill of his aunt. Algernon brushes it off, speaking cleverly about how he likes to hear his relations abused, and John and Algernon end up bantering about the nature of foolery and nonsense. Algernon then turns the conversation back to his friend, asking if he confessed that he is “Ernest in town and Jack in the country.” John patronizingly informs Algernon that that sort of information isn’t “the sort of thing one tells to a nice, sweet, refined girl.”
Algernon reveals his own philosophy about women: “The only way to behave to a woman is to make love to her if she is pretty, and to someone else if she is plain. John dismisses this, too, as nonsense. Still, Algernon pushes on, asking how he is going to deal with the myth of his brother Ernest. John tells his friend that he has decided to kill off Ernest of apoplexy. Algernon persuades him it will be more convincing to tell people his brother died of a “severe chill.”
Algernon presses further, however, pointing out that Cecily has gotten rather attached to Ernest, and might feel his loss quite a bit. John dismisses this, saying that Cecily is sensible. Algernon reveals that he’d quite like to see Cecily, and John adds fuel to the fire by saying, “I will take very good care you never will. She is excessively pretty and she is only just eighteen.” Algernon anticipates their might be trouble with Gwendolen around the fact that John has a ward so close to his age who is so very pretty, but John dismisses his concern saying that “half an hour after they have met, they will be calling each other sister.” Algernon retorts that “women only do that when they have called each other a lot of other things first.”
Algernon realizes that he is hungry and insists the two men go dress for dinner. Jack is ornery about it, but they are about to go dress when Lane announces Gwendolen’s return. Gwendolen rushes in, and tells her cousin to turn around while she confers with her fiancé. Gwendolen confesses her eternal devotion to “Ernest,” despite the fact that her mama may make her marry any number of other people. Hearing of “Ernest”’s “romantic origins” from her mother has only added to her ardor for him. She asks for his address in the country, so that she can correspond with him daily while he is there. He gives it to her, and Algernon, writes the address on his shirt cuff, without John/“Ernest” noticing. Gwendolen, having finished her errand, tells her cousin he may turn back around, but he has already done so and he rings the bell for Lane. John volunteers to see Gwendolen out to her carriage, leaving Algernon alone with Lane. Algernon orders a glass of sherry and gleefully informs his manservant that he will be going Bunburying tomorrow.
John comes back in, mooning over Gwendolen, but notices that Algernon seems particularly amused and inquires after it. Algernon tells him he is just a little anxious about Bunbury, and Jack warns Algy that Bunbury will get him into quite a scrape one of these days. When Algernon tells him that he loves scrapes, John tells his friend he “never [talks] anything but nonsense,” and storms off. Looking at the address on his shirt-cuff Algernon responds slyly, “Nobody ever does.”
The second act opens in the garden of the Manor House, John Worthing’s country estate in Hertfordshire. Young Cecily is watering the flowers, an effort to escape her German grammar lesson, which is being administered by her governess, Miss Prism. Miss Prism tells Cecily that her guardian laid particular emphasis on her need to study German before leaving for town, yesterday. Cecily tells Miss Prism that she thinks Uncle Jack is so serious that she worries he “can’t be quite well.” Miss Prism immediately comes to his defense, saying that no one has “a higher sense of duty and responsibility.” Cecily retorts that must be why he seems a “little bored.”
As Miss Prism continues to reprimand her impertinent charge, Cecily writes in her diary. Noticing the diary, Miss Prism dismisses it as a waste of time. Cecily sets up a dichotomy between the fantasies she writes in her diary and the boring, quotidian facts that she finds “in the three-volume novels Mudie sends us.” Miss Prism reveals that she once wrote a three-volume novel. Cecily says she hopes it did not end happily and Miss Prism replies, “The good ended happily and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.” Cecily asks if the novel was ever published, and Miss Prism – suddenly distressed – tells her that the novel was abandoned. She encourages Cecily to get back to work, but Cecily points out that the reverend, Dr. Chasuble, is coming up the walk.
Cecily tells Dr. Chasuble that her governess was complaining of a “slight headache” and suggests that she would benefit from walking with him in the park. Miss Prism has had no such headache. When Dr. Chasuble inquires about whether Cecily is an attentive pupil, she admits to being quite distracted. Dr. Chasuble finds this bewildering, saying that if he were Miss Prism’s pupil he “would hang upon her lips.” Conscious of the romantic imagery involved in his statement, he clarifies that he was speaking metaphorically and changes the subject to John’s return. John is not supposed to arrive back until Monday, Miss Prism explains. Dr. Chasuble starts to take his leave, but Miss Prism stops him, saying that she does have a bit of a headache, after all, and then two older folks walk off, leaving Cecily to study Political Economy.
Cecily, however, intends to do nothing of the sort, and throws the books on the ground – just as the servant, Merriman, enters. Merriman announces that Mr. Ernest Worthing has just arrived with a lot of luggage. He shows Cecily a calling card that says “Mr. Ernest Worthing” – the same calling card that Algernon took from John’s cigarette case before giving it back to him. Cecily has never met Ernest before, and confesses she feels “rather frightened” to meet a really wicked person – “she is so afraid he will look like everyone else.” When Algernon enters, acting debonair, Cecily concludes that “he does.”
The two make introductions, and when Cecily calls him her “wicked cousin Ernest,” Algernon quickly says, “I am not really wicked at all” – to Cecily’s horror. Cecily is very upset that Ernest might be living a “double life, pretending to be wicked and really being good all the time.” Backpedaling, Algernon admits to being “rather reckless,” which please Cecily. Cecily explains that “Uncle Jack” will not be back until Monday afternoon, and Algernon quickly says that he must leave by Monday morning. Getting caught in his lie, Algernon starts to say that he has a business appointment – but, realizing that Cecily prefers that he is reckless and bad, he adds “that I am anxious… to miss?” Cecily tells him he should probably stay and speak to “Uncle Jack” about his “emigrating.”
Algernon is confused, and Cecily explains that last Wednesday night at dinner, “Uncle Jack” said he would have to choose “between this world, the next world, and Australia.” Algernon responds that “this world is good enough for me,” but Cecily retorts, “but are you good enough for it?” Algernon asks Cecily if she could spend the afternoon reforming him. And Cecily tells him that she’s hasn’t time. Algernon proposes, instead, that he reform himself this afternoon, and Cecily encourages him to try. He declares he feels better already, but Cecily tells him that he looks worse. Algernon explains that this is because he is hungry, and Cecily invites him inside to eat, but Algernon asks for a buttonhole first. She picks a pink rose, at Algernon’s request. When she asks why, he explains that it is because she is like a pink rose, and goes on to say she is “the prettiest girl [he] ever saw.”
As Cecily and “Ernest” go into the house, we see Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble continuing their walk. Miss Prism expresses concern that the reverend is “too much alone” and suggests that he get married. Chasuble explains that he subscribes to the old practices of the “primitive” (Catholic) church and thus is a celibate – even though he is a clergyman for the Church of England, which allows marriage. Prism continues to try to persuade him to marry, explaining that a single man presents a “permanent public temptation,” and that marriage is the only way to ensure that “weaker vessels” are not led astray by him. Positioning herself as a potential mate, Miss Prism suggests that “maturity can always be depended upon” in a partner, then awkwardly asks about Cecily’s whereabouts.
Just then, John enters, dressed in elaborate mourning garb. He announces to Chasuble and Prism that his brother Ernest has died of a severe chill. Miss Prism concludes that “as a man sows, so shall he reap," while Chasuble suggests to have more charity towards the dead man. Chasuble suggests that he can preside over the burial, but John explains that his debauched brother wished to be buried in Paris. Chasuble talks about the sermon he can prepare for the occasion. His go-to is versatile enough for “harvest celebrations, christenings, confirmations, on days of humiliation and festal days.” At the mention of christenings, John is reminded of his need to be christened “Ernest.” John expresses his desire to be christened. Chasuble is shocked, saying surely he’s been christened before. John says he doesn’t remember anything about it, and needs to be christened now. Chasuble assents, and they make an appointment for half-past five. Chasuble wishes John the best, begging him not to be “too much bowed down by grief,” and starts to leave. Miss Prism, still convinced that people get what they deserve, adds that Ernest’s death “seems to me a blessing of an extremely obvious kind.”
Just then, Cecily burst in from the house, greeting her guardian warmly. She is very confused by “Uncle Jack’s” moroseness, especially when she tells him that his brother Ernest is in the drawing room. John is flummoxed, blurting out that doesn’t have a brother. Cecily runs off to retrieve “Ernest,” and returns hand-in-hand with Algernon. John is shocked.
Before John can say anything, Algernon calls him, “Brother John” and asks John to forgive him for all his wrongdoing. When John refuses to take his “brother” by the hand, Cecily is appalled. She claims that if “Uncle Jack” does not shake hands with his brother, she will never forgive him. Begrudgingly, he does.
As the two “brothers” glare at one another, Chasuble declares it a “perfect reconciliation.” Chasuble, Prism, and Cecily decide to leave the two “brothers” alone together.
Left alone with Algernon, Jack insists that his friend leave as soon as possible, insisting “I don’t allow any Bunburying here.” Merriman enters, announcing that he has put “Mr. Ernest’s” luggage in the room next to John’s. John, furious, tells Merriman to order the dog-cart, immediately, to take “Ernest” (Algernon) back to town. Merriman leaves, and Algernon goads his friend about how “darling” Cecily is. John insists that Algernon leave by the four-five train. Algernon insists that he won’t leave a friend in mourning. John asks if Algernon will leave if he changes out of mourning clothes, and Algernon assents begrudgingly, while making more digs about John’s ability to dress. John storms into the house, but not before releasing a tirade of insults against his friend, and insisting that “This Bunburying as you call it, has not been a great success for you.”
Once he is in the house, Algernon admits that he thinks this has been the best Bunbury yet, confessing that he is in love with Cecily “and that is everything.”
Cecily comes back out to the garden, ostensibly to finish watering the flowers. When Algernon tells her that he must leave, she is very distressed. Merriman comes in to tell Algernon that the dog cart is ready, and Cecily asks if it can wait five minutes. In his final moments before being shipped off, Algernon confesses his love for Cecily saying he loves her “hopelessly” – to which Cecily replies, “hopelessly doesn’t make much sense, does it?” Emboldened by Cecily’s love, Algernon tells Merriman that the dog cart should come around next week, instead. He then proceeds to propose, at which point Cecily reveals that in her mind, they have been engaged for the last three months. Cecily explains that she keeps a diary in which she has chronicled her romantic fascination with “Uncle Jack’s brother,” Ernest. Cecily has recorded an entire relationship, evolving over a period of months, in which she wrote love letters between the two of them, created a proposal, broke off the engagement, and then had them reconcile. Algernon is terribly dismayed that Cecily broke off the engagement, but Cecily assuages his fears, saying that now that she’s actually met him she feels she could never break it off again. Additionally, she adds, there is the matter of his name. Cecily, like Gwendolen, is extremely partial to the name Ernest. She says it “inspires absolute confidence.” Panicked, Algernon runs off in search of Dr. Chasuble to see about getting christened Ernest, promising Cecily that he will be back in no time.
Just as Cecily settles in to chronicle “Ernest”’s real-life proposal in her diary, Merriman enters to announce that a Miss Fairfax has called to see Mr. Worthing, Merriman explains that Mr. Worthing is not at home, having walked in the direction of the rectory some time ago. Cecily has never heard of Miss Fairfax, and assumes it is one of the elderly women with whom “Uncle Jack” does philanthropic work, so she tells Merriman to show her to the garden and bring tea. In fact, of course, this Miss Fairfax is Gwendolen, who is astonished to see a pretty young woman in the garden of her lover’s home. The two young women begin by being as cordial as humanly possible, though Gwendolen confesses to Cecily once she discovers the young woman is “Mr. Worthing’s ward” that she wishes she were much older and extremely plain, rather than young and beautiful. Rather than referring to her lover as “Mr. Worthing,” Gwendolen says that, “Ernest has a strong, upright nature.” When Cecily hears the name “Ernest,” she clarifies that she is not Mr. Ernest Worthing’s ward, but the ward of his elder brother, Jack. Gwendolen is relieved – until Cecily follows up this news with the fact that she has recently become engaged to Ernest Worthing. A horrible cat fight ensues, each of the women whipping out their diaries to stake a claim on Ernest. Merriman comes out with the tea, and Cecily serves Gwendolen the precise opposite of the food that she desires: cake instead of bread and butter, and sugary tea instead of plain tea. The confrontation devolves from there, into a horrible fight in which the women both try to be as civil as possible to get the upper hand, but the pitch gets more and more feverish, nonetheless.
As the two women fight, Jack and Algernon arrive, each being greeted by their respective lover as “Ernest.” The women waste no time in correcting the other: Cecily tells Gwendolen her fiancé is really named John Worthing (Uncle Jack) and Gwendolen informs Cecily that hers is actually called Algernon Moncrieff (Algy). The women are disgusted and shocked. They turn to the men, demanding to know where the real Ernest is, as they are both engaged to him. John is forced to admit that there is no man named Ernest Worthing, and that he invented such a brother. Gwendolen and Cecily form a united front against the men, storming into the house while calling each other “sister,” despite the fact that they were calling each other vicious names only moments before.
Alone, Jack and Algernon squabbling over which of them will be able to be christened Ernest – and over who shall eat the muffins that are left from tea -- while each blames the other for his hapless state of affairs.
Inside the Manor House morning-room, Gwendolen and Cecily are waiting for the men to respond to their storming off. Instead, they learn from peering out the window, the two men seem to be eating muffins. They are eager to forgive the men and reconcile, but they certainly don’t want to make the first move – and the men aren’t coming after them! Finally, the men begin to approach – which, of course, they condemn as “effrontery,” even though it’s what they are secretly hoping for. The ladies agree to be silent until they know what the men have to say for themselves – but as soon as the men come in, the women can’t help but speak, confronting them about their motives for this gross deception. Algernon tells Cecily that he pretended to be her guardian’s brother “In order that [he] might have the opportunity of meeting” her – which she finds a satisfactory explanation. Gwendolen doesn’t leave anything to chance, giving John a justification for his actions in her very inquiry about them. All John has to reply is, “Can you doubt it, Miss Fairfax?” Gwendolen tells him she has “the gravest doubts upon the subject. But…intend[s] to crush them.”
The women want desperately to forgive their respective gentlemen, but decide that the men’s Christian names are still an “insuperable barrier,” and tell them so, in unison. The men answer in unison that they are to be christened this very afternoon. Cecily and Gwendolen are overwhelmed by their lovers’ willingness to go through with this “fearful ordeal,” and are won over. The couples embrace, just as Merriman announces the arrival of Lady Bracknell.
Lady Bracknell sees her daughter embracing John, and confronts her. Gwendolen insists that she is engaged to Mr. Worthing, but Lady Bracknell refuses to accept it. She reveals that she bribed Gwendolen’s maid for information about her whereabouts, and insists that all communication between her daughter and John be aborted, immediately. John also insists that he is engaged to be married to Gwendolen and Lady Bracknell, once again, denies this possibility, and turns her focus to her nephew, Algernon. She asks if this is the house in which Mr. Bunbury resides, and Algernon tells his aunt that Bunbury is, in fact, dead. When she asks how this occurred, Algernon begins by saying that he killed Bunbury (the indispensable friend he said no married man could live without, if you recall) this afternoon. Catching himself, he proceeds to explain that Bunbury found out this afternoon that he could not live and so Bunbury died.
Just then, Lady Bracknell asks John who the “young person” is who is holding Algernon’s hand in “what seems to [her] a peculiarly unnecessary manner. John explains that this is his ward, and Algernon announces to his aunt that he and Cecily are engaged. Despite being disturbed by the surprising number of engagements going on today, Lady Bracknell takes upon herself an inquiry about Cecily’s respectability. John proudly explains that Cecily is the late Mr. Thomas Cardew’s granddaughter and has a fortune of a hundred and thirty thousand pounds. Upon hearing the latter piece of information, Lady Bracknell suddenly takes a much stronger interest in Cecily, declaring her a “most attractive young lady.” Lady Bracknell declares that there are “distinct social possibilities in Miss Cardew’s profile,” to which Algernon retorts that his fiancée is the “sweetest, dearest prettiest girl in the world,” and that he doesn’t “care twopence about social possibilities” (a marked change from the Algernon we knew in the first scene.)
At long last, Lady Bracknell approves Algernon and Cecily’s union, and the couple rejoice – but John interrupts, informing them that as Cecily’s guardian he absolutely declines to give consent to the marriage. John accuses Algernon of being untruthful, and delineates his numerous transgressions. Lady Bracknell decides to entirely overlook Algernon’s misbehavior, but John remains firm in his objection. This becomes all the more relevant when it is revealed that according to her grandfather’s will, Cecily will not be an autonomous adult until the age of thirty-five (at least, this is what John claims – the will is not on hand to back it up.) Algernon tells Cecily that he will wait for her until she is thirty-five, but Cecily confesses that she can’t stand to wait that long. Lady Bracknell entreats John to change his mind, and he reveals that the decision is, in fact, entirely in her own hands: if Lady Bracknell consents to his marrying Gwendolen, then he will grant permission for Cecily to marry Algernon. If not, John declares, “a passionate celibacy is all that any of us can look forward to.” Lady Bracknell, however, refuses to allow her daughter to remain celibate, and fully intends to marry her to someone else. She tells Gwendolen that they must leave immediately.
Just then, however, Dr. Chasuble comes in, announcing that everything is reading for the christenings. Lady Bracknell is very confused, wondering if somehow one or both of the young women are pregnant. Chasuble explains that both young men are going to be christened. Lady Bracknell declares the idea “grotesque and irreligious.” As neither wedding seems to be going forward, John explains that there is no longer a need for the two ceremonies, at present. Chasuble prepares to depart, explaining that he has just been told that Miss Prism has been waiting for him in the vestry. Hearing the name “Miss Prism,” Lady Bracknell immediately inquires as to who this “Miss Prism” might be and demands that she be sent for. Conveniently, Miss Prism is heading toward them at that very moment.
When Prism sees Lady Bracknell, she grows pale. Lady Bracknell confronts Miss Prism, demanding to know the whereabouts of a baby that was once in her charge. Twenty-eight years ago, Lady Bracknell explains, Miss Prism was in charge of taking care of a baby. Prism took the baby out for a walk, and she and the baby were never seen again. Weeks later, the perambulator was found in Bayswater. It contained the manuscript of a “three-volume novel of more than unusually revolting sentimentality.” Prism and the baby, however, were never found.
Contrite, Miss Prism confesses that she does not know what happened to the baby that had been in her charge. She goes on to explain that on the fateful day in question, she left the house with the baby in the perambulator and also with a handbag containing the manuscript of a three-volume novel that she had been writing. Absentmindedly, she must have confused the two and placed the manuscript in the carriage and the baby in the handbag.
John, having been found in a handbag, is now very invested in this conversation and presses Miss Prism for details about where she left the handbag. Miss Prism reveals that she left the handbag in the coat room of Victoria station, the Brighton line – which is exactly where John was found by Mr. Thomas Cardew, as a baby.
Suddenly, John excuses himself, hurrying offstage without explanation. He returns moments later with a large, black handbag – which he presents to Miss Prism. She confirms that it is, indeed, the handbag she mislaid and says she is very happy to have it restored to her after all these years. John emotionally declares that more has been restored to her than a handbag, explaining that he was the infant inside it and assuming that she was his mother. John embraces Miss Prism, who is horrified, as she is an unmarried woman. John, misunderstanding, says that though the news is unpleasant that he was born out of wedlock, he is happy to forgive her the transgression. Miss Prism finally extracts herself from John’s embrace, and tells him that it is Lady Bracknell who can tell John who he really is. John, in true English form, says to Lady Bracknell, “I hate to seem inquisitive, but would you kindly inform me who I am?”
Lady Bracknell reveals that John is, in fact, the son of her sister, Mrs. Moncrieff, and thus Algernon’s elder brother. John is elated, declaring, “I always knew I had a brother!” Now that it is clear that “John” is, in fact, a man of legitimate parentage, Lady Bracknell must approve of his union with Gwendolen. This leaves one last wrinkle: Gwendolen wants to know John’s name now that he has “become someone else.” Lady Bracknell says that she is sure that John was named after his father, General Moncrieff, but cannot recall what his name was. Conveniently, John has the military records from the last forty years. Finding the volume listing generals with surnames starting with M, he reads aloud that his father’s surname was Ernest John. (Some productions play this as something that John makes up, others make it a convenient coincidence of fate). John – nee Ernest – turns to Gwendolen and asks if she can forgive him for unwittingly telling the truth his entire life. She replies that she will forgive him, for she feels he is sure to change. John and Gwendolen embrace, prompting Algernon and Cecily to embrace as well. Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism follow in kind, making a third romantic pair. Lady Bracknell calls “John”/Ernest her nephew, telling him that he seems “to be displaying signs of triviality.” John responds, “On the contrary, Aunt Augusta, I’ve now realised [sic] for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest.”
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