The Importance of Being Earnest Beat Sheet
Written by: Oscar Wilde
Publisher: Avon Books, 1965 (my edition), play first performed in February 1895
Total pages: 160
STC Genre: Fool Triumphant (with a touch of Buddy Love, thanks to the triple romances)
The comic genius of Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900) has been lauded for generations, and his witty masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest, has inspired countless stage play revivals, multiple film and television adaptations, radio shows, and even musicals/operas. When a playwright describes his own work as “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People,” the audience ought to expect a few hours of pure enjoyment and theatrical escapism.
I’ve personally seen several versions of this story on film, read the play aloud with my high school classmates, and attended about a half dozen live performances of the show—most memorably in 1993 at London’s Aldwych Theatre. The inimitable Dame Maggie Smith (of Harry Potter and Downton Abbey fame) was cast in that production as Lady Bracknell and, as you might imagine with an actress of her caliber, Smith played her character to hilarious perfection. I’d love to see her in that role again—she was brilliant!
The play itself is set in Wilde’s “present day” of 1895, which became a tumultuous and tragic year for him in his real life. However, he was at his professional peak when the play premiered on that Valentine’s Day and even the critics who complained about the “lack of morality” of the characters—given Jack’s and Algernon’s duplicity when it came to their identities and their avoidance of tedious Victorian obligations—were unable to deny Wilde’s talent for farce and social satire.
Although there are actually three romantic parings in this play, I believe the genre fits most neatly into the Fool Triumphant category, rather than in Buddy Love, owing to the story possessing all of the victorious underdog elements present in this STC genre. It has a protagonist who’s a fool, in the sense that Jack/Ernest Worthing is overlooked by society and only his “insider” friend, Algernon, has been paying close attention to his actions. Jack is pitted against an establishment (Victorian society and its norms, in this case, in the form of Lady Bracknell). And there’s most definitely a transmutation that occurs, where our hero becomes someone else and, with it, acquires a new name. However light and fluffy the plot may be, witnessing the triumph of this fool is always great fun.
A quick note on the page numbers. Although the Avon/Bard Book edition has text from page 1 to 160 and includes an introduction at the beginning and critical commentaries at the end, the play portion only runs from page 27 to 109. Thus, the beats below reflect that. Here is my take on them:
Opening Image (page 27): Algernon “Algy” Moncrieff is lounging lazily in his flat while his manservant arranges afternoon tea for the arrival of Algy’s first cousin Gwendolen and her mother Aunt Augusta (aka Lady Bracknell).
Set-Up (pages 27 – 32): The story’s main character, Ernest Worthing, shows up at his friend Algy’s flat, but it’s really Gwendolen he wants to see. He hopes to be there when she arrives, and he tells Algy that he’s in very much love with her and intends to propose that day. Algy, however, says he won’t give his consent to the match. Ernest is both infuriated and perplexed, and he demands to know why.
Theme Stated (page 30): Algernon states, “The very essence of romance is uncertainty.” Turns out, there’s quite a lot of uncertainty in regards to all three of the romances in the story, whether the relationships are major or minor ones.
Catalyst (pages 32 – 34): Algy—stepping deftly into his role as a jealous “insider” to Ernest’s “fool”—presents a dilemma for his friend to solve. Algy is in possession of Ernest’s cigarette case, which Ernest thought had been lost. Algy won’t return it to him, however, despite knowing it belongs to him, because the inscription inside reads, “From little Cecily, with her fondest love to her dear Uncle Jack.” Algy demands an explanation for the difference in name and wishes to know more about this “little Cecily,” too.
Debate (pages 34 – 37): As it happens, Ernest has a secret: He goes by the name Jack in the country, at his estate there, where his young ward Cecily Cardew also lives, but he uses the name Ernest in the city, which he tells Cecily is the name of his younger, troublemaking brother. But, of course, there is no brother, just a convenient person that Jack can use as a device to get himself into the city and away from his country responsibilities.
Algernon confesses to having an ill fictional friend named Bunbury, whose frequent poor health gets Algy out of various social obligations in the city and allows him to go into the country for fun and frolic. Ernest/Jack and Algy debate the necessity of keeping these fictional persons “alive” and the merits/problems of the institution of marriage.
Break into Two (page 37): Aunt Augusta/Lady Bracknell and her daughter Gwendolen Fairfax arrive.
B Story (pages 38 – 40): The first of the three romances (Ernest/Jack’s and Gwendolen’s) begin here. Algy had promised his friend time alone with his fair cousin if Ernest/Jack explained the mystery of the cigarette case inscription and, thus, Algy leads his aunt out of the room and the lovers are alone together.
Fun and Games (pages 40 – 69): Jack proposes to Gwendolen and she, thinking he’s really named Ernest, tells him that she loves him, especially because of his wonderful name. She agrees to marry him and he, not wanting to disappoint her, secretly plans to get christened as “Ernest” as soon as possible. However, all plans for name changes and matrimony are put on hold when Lady Bracknell returns to the room and forbids the match. Gwendolen’s mother, while reasonably accepting of Mr. Worthing’s financials and politics, is not impressed with his inability to locate either of his parents. When Ernest/Jack explains that he’s lost them, Lady Bracknell retorts, “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”
These and other delightful witticisms and bantering punctuate the Fun and Games section, which soon transitions from the city into the country. After Jack is forced to explain that he was actually found in a handbag and brought up by a charitable gentleman named Mr. Cardew (whose daughter, Cecily, Jack now has guardianship over), Algy’s aunt leaves in a huff. Gwendolen sneaks back in to talk with Jack and asks for his country address, which Jack tells her. Algy, sneakily eavesdropping, makes note of the address and embarks on a visit to Jack’s country estate… pretending to be Jack’s rascally brother Ernest Worthing.
Meanwhile, beautiful 18-year-old Cecily has been daydreaming for months about Uncle Jack’s mischievous brother. Her infatuation with “Ernest” even has her imagining that the two of them are engaged. Miss Prism, her governess and at one time the writer of an unpublished novel, is unable to get Cecily to focus on her studies. While Miss Prism is off talking to (read: flirting with) the reverend, Dr. Chasuble, who should appear? None other than Algernon-as-Ernest. He is instantly taken with the pretty Cecily. This is a particularly surprising turn of events for Jack, who’d just “killed off” his brother Ernest and has announced his young brother’s death to the governess and the reverend. When Cecily tells Jack that his brother has arrived, Jack is forced to pretend that Algy is, indeed, Ernest. (Alive and well! It’s a miracle!)
Midpoint (pages 70 – 71): False defeat for Jack, who tries to make Algy leave the country estate, but Algy is far too taken with Cecily to do that. Algy’s presence makes it difficult for Jack to get rid of the “Ernest” character he created or to enact the next step in his plan to make Gwendolen his wife, that is, his christening.
Bad Guys Close In (pages 71 – 87): Algernon and Cecily profess their love for each other, and Cecily confesses that she began falling for him the minute she heard that Uncle Jack had a brother named Ernest. This puts Algy in a bind because, of course, he’s not really named Ernest either. He realizes he must get christened at once in order to officially change his name. He departs to find the reverend.
Almost as soon as he’s out of sight, Algy’s cousin Gwendolen arrives in search of Jack. He’s nowhere to be found, so the servant brings Gwendolen to Cecily instead.
The two ladies meet, amicably at first, but they soon discover they’re both engaged to “Mr. Ernest Worthing.” The tea party takes a bad turn—and quickly. When Jack and Algernon finally appear on the scene, they’re able to clear up the misunderstanding of which man is engaged to which woman, but they must also confess that neither of them are actually named Ernest. The ladies bond in solidarity over this deception, leave the men, and furiously escape into the house.
All Is Lost (pages 87 – 90): Both Jack and Algy have lost their fiancées. Jack’s made-up younger brother is no longer, and Algy’s fictitious Bunbury can’t be used as an excuse either. There will be no more “Bunburying.”
Dark Night of the Soul (page 91 – 94): Keeping in mind that this is a classic British farce, “dark” here is a relative term. The men enter the house in search of their women. Gwendolen and Cecily (briefly) grill their beloveds about their intentions and their reasons for lying. Both ladies are stunningly quick to forgive their men, however, the issue of their given names remains a problem. Both Jack and Algy assert that they intend to be christened that very afternoon and will soon each be legitimately known as “Ernest.”
Break into Three (page 94): Lady Bracknell arrives at Jack’s country estate in search of her daughter and confronts both couples: Gwendolen and Jack, along with her nephew Algernon and Cecily, his intended.
Finale (pages 94 – 108): Lady Bracknell insists that an engagement between Gwendolen and Jack is impossible. She confronts Algy, who’s holding Cecily’s hand, and demands to know who the young woman is. Jack explains that Cecily is his ward, and Algy proclaims his love for her and intention of marrying her. Lady Bracknell, while not immediately on board with the idea, soon grows quite fond of Cecily when she realizes what a tremendous inheritance the young lady possesses and gives her consent to the couple. Jack, however, strongly forbids the match, saying that Algy cannot marry Cecily unless he’s allowed to marry Gwendolen.
Lady Bracknell will not relent. Just as she and her daughter are set to depart, the reverend Dr. Chasuble enters and informs Jack and Algy that everything is ready for their christenings. Jack tells him it’s unlikely that service will be necessary now. Dr. Chasuble says that he’ll return to the vestry then, as Miss Prism is waiting for him.
Upon hearing the name Miss Prism, Lady Bracknell becomes quite agitated and insists on meeting the governess at once. Upon the two elder women coming face to face, the story’s major mystery is unraveled. Miss Prism, once the nanny of Lady Bracknell’s sister’s baby, in a moment of distraction, put her three-volume novel in the perambulator and the baby in a handbag, which had been left at Victoria Station.
Stunned by this turn of events, Jack produces the very same handbag that once belonged to Miss Prism and discovers that he was that long-lost baby—the eldest son of Lady Bracknell’s sister and her husband the General. Most surprising of all, this means that Jack is not only Algernon’s older brother, it means he was actually christened after their late father, whose name was Ernest.
Final Image (page 109): Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism embrace. Algy and Cecily embrace. And then Gwendolen and Jack, who is really and truly named Ernest, also embrace. The complete unpredictability of romance is proven in triplicate, and there’s love all around. Jack/Ernest tells Lady Bracknell, who he realizes is his own Aunt Augusta now, that he’s not showing “signs of triviality” as she claims but, rather, he finally understands “the vital Importance of Being Earnest.”