Sunday 31 January 2016

The Importance of Not Being Earnest: The Opening of Oscar Wilde’s Most Famous Comedy

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is one of the most famous comedic plays in English and one that has enjoyed popularity since its first performance in 1895.

The play is admired for its quotable quips, farcical plot twists and exaggerated characters, but this week I’ll be looking at what Wilde does in his opening scene to engage and entertain his audience right from the start.

The cast of the 2002 film adaptation
Anyone who has ever acted in a comedy, done stand up or been part of an improv group will know that getting the first laugh is all-important. It settles the audience, establishes the mood and allows those watching and the performers to relax. But how to set up a joke so quickly when the characters and situation are new to your audience? Here’s how Wilde does it:

Morning-room in Algernon’s flat in Half-Moon Street.  The room is luxuriously and artistically furnished.  The sound of a piano is heard in the adjoining room.

[Lane is arranging afternoon tea on the table, and after the music has ceased, Algernon enters.]

Algernon.  Did you hear what I was playing, Lane?

Lane.  I didn’t think it polite to listen, sir.

Two lines of dialogue are all it takes for Wilde to make us laugh, but why do we?

First up, he opens with a comedic type—the sarcastic servant. Lane’s position is established immediately by what he is doing (‘arranging afternoon tea’) and how Algernon addresses him. His response to his master (‘I didn’t think it polite to listen, sir’) is sardonic but shrouded in politeness, bringing us instantly into the dynamic between these characters.

Second, Wilde ensures that we side with Lane from the outset, by placing us in an analogous position to him.  When the curtain rises, an audience hushes and is much more attentive than it will be in the middle of the play, when a lot may be going on. Those watching must assess what they can see and hear to be sure they are following. Because of this they will have been listening (like Lane) to Algernon’s piano playing quite intently and the idea of someone wilfully not listening will appear all the more ridiculous.

Once you’ve won your first laugh there is still work to be done to bring an audience on the journey with you. Introducing important character names early, without being overwhelming, is important in this. Over the next stretches of dialogue we are given the names Lane, Lady Bracknell, Ernest, Algy, Gwendolen and Cecily, gifting us with a run down of the cast and establishing the characters’ relationships to each other.

As well as setting up the cast, Wilde also hints at the laws of his universe. This is a world where masters are intrigued rather than angry about servants taking their champagne:

Algernon.  Oh! . . . by the way, Lane, I see from your book that on Thursday night, when Lord Shoreman and Mr. Worthing were dining with me, eight bottles of champagne are entered as having been consumed.

Lane.  Yes, sir; eight bottles and a pint.

Algernon.  Why is it that at a bachelor’s establishment the servants invariably drink the champagne?  I ask merely for information.

Lane.  I attribute it to the superior quality of the wine, sir.  I have often observed that in married households the champagne is rarely of a first-rate brand.

And where characters are unabashed at their hypocritical behaviour:

Algernon. Please don’t touch the cucumber sandwiches.  They are ordered specially for Aunt Augusta.  [Takes one and eats it.]

Jack.  Well, you have been eating them all the time.

Algernon.  That is quite a different matter.  She is my aunt. 

Another way in which Wilde pulls his audience in, using a technique that is the hallmark of his comedy, is by reversing the familiar, especially through altering common phrases and proverbial maxims. Here are a couple of examples from the first scene:

Algernon. Really, if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?  [Wilde applies to the ‘lower orders’ a role usually designated to the ‘higher orders’.]

Algernon. Divorces are made in Heaven [Wilde applies the language of marriage to divorce.]

Once you’ve set up your first laugh, introduced your most important characters, established rules for your world and pulled your audience in by building on, or reversing, information that is familiar to them, there’s one more thing that most comedies do—they set up a running joke, a comedic through line, which will keep the audience laughing even as further complications are added. In The Importance of Being Earnest, the cucumber sandwiches fulfil this role and it is these, rather than early gags about the piano or the institution of marriage, which the audience is most likely to remember.

What else do you think Wilde does in the early scenes of the play to pull his audience in? Why is it that Earnest remains so popular today? I’d love to hear your opinions so comment here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

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