The following analysis of The Importance of Being Earnest was originally published in The British and American Drama of Today. Barrett H. Clark. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1915. pp. 59-62.
A farce is a comic play in which the audience is asked to accept impossible or highly improbable situations for the time being. It differs radically from comedy, in that the audience must believe, for if the personages are to appear real -- and they must, as character is of prime importance in comedy -- they must move about in real situations, or at least such as we can give credence to. In a farce, then, what the characters do is of more importance than what they are. The Importance of Being Earnest is a farce, one of the best ever written, cleverly constructed and delightfully amusing. There is only the slightest attempt at the sketching of character, while most of the personages are at best but caricatures; the author's skill is brought to bear chiefly upon the situations and the lines. It so happens that this farce contains more clever lines, puns, epigrams, and deft repartees than any other of modern times, but these are after all accessory. A farce may be written without these additions -- it might well be pure pantomime. Wilde has thrown them in for full measure.
The first act should be carefully studied after a reading of the entire play. Notice especially how the very comic scene in the second act -- where Jack enters "in the deepest mourning" -- is prepared for and led up to. In order that this scene shall be a surprise, and that the appearance of Jack, without a spoken word, shall evoke a series of recognitions in the mind of the audience, and a correlation of hitherto-unknown facts, the preparation in the first act must be skilfully done. The very casualness and apparent triviality of the dialogue tend to throw us off our guard. This is in a manner comparable with the art of the magician who, while calling attention to a dexterous feat of legerdemain with his right hand, prepares the next trick with his left. So, in the first act, we are scarcely aware of the importance of Algernon's disquisition on "Bunburying," or of Algernon's writing the address which Jack gives to Gwendolyn "on his shirt-cuff," so nonchalantly are these points introduced. Yet, when the scene in question -- in Act II -- comes, we are perfectly acquainted with the necessary facts.
That farce can be independent of clever dialogue is, as we have said, true, but when this can be added and made to fit into the action and further it, so much the better for farce. Oscar Wilde could not resist the temptation to be witty, though this practice was often detrimental to the rest of the work. In Lady Windermere's Fan, indeed, the wit covers occasional bungling in the plot. But in The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde found a form which he could make "personal," and plot and wit go hand in hand. Take, for instance, the following dialogue from the first act:
ALGERNON: Well, my dear fellow, you need not eat as if you were going to eat it all. You hehave as if you were married to her already. You are not married to her already, and I don't think you ever will be.
JACK: Why on earth do you say that?
ALGERNON: Well, in the first place, girls never marry the men they flirt with. Girls don't think it right.
JACK: Oh, that is nonsense.
ALGERNON: It isn't. It is a great truth. It accounts for the extraordinary number of bachelors that one sees all over the place. In the second placle, I don't give my consent.
The epigram is not forced, as many epigrams are forced in the first act of A Woman of No Importance; it is in keeping with the characters and situation. At the same time it serves the ends of drama, by advancing the story and affording some insight into the character of the personages.
The third act of a farce -- and it is extremely dangerous to extend a farce to more than three acts -- is usually difficult. The effort to maintain interest for two acts often leaves a dramatist exhausted by the time he comes to conclude.
How well has Wilde succeeded in accumulating his interest in the third act of this play? Has he relied upon the wit of the lines, or has he carefully brought together the threads of action and given sufficient raison d'être to his summing up? Compare the third act of The Importance of Being Earnest with the fourth of Lady Windermere's Fan. Which is better, and why?
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