edited by Russell Jackson
Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is presented here in the New Mermaids series, complete with its scholarly annotation and context.
Wilde’s ‘trivial play for serious people’, a sparkling comedy of manners, is the epitome of wit and style. The play employs and parodies the conventions of romance, farce and melodrama: identities are discovered, long lost family ties reinstated, and coincidences are savoured.
John (‘Jack’) Worthing lives in the country with his ward Cecily, and her governess, Miss Prism. There he is an exemplary character, a sober and upright member of the community and a Justice of the Peace. But he spends as much time as he can in London, claiming that he has a scapegrace of a younger brother, Ernest, whose frequent scrapes call for Jack’s attendance in town. There, Jack is known to his friends – including Algernon Moncrieff – as Ernest. Algernon, as it happens, has invented a permanent invalid called Bunbury, whose frequent crises of health give Algernon an excuse to gallivanting round the country. When Algernon turns up at Jack’s country house, claiming to be ‘Ernest’, and Jack arrives to announce the death of his dissipated brother, their double lives begin to catch up with them.
The verbal brilliance of the play's highly self-conscious characters hides deep anxieties about social and personal identity. This neatly constructed satire, with its celebrated characters and much quoted dialogue, turns accepted ideas inside out and is generally regarded as Wilde’s masterpiece.