The Importance of Being Earnest (the full title of which is The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People) is a comic play in three acts by the Irish writer Oscar Wilde. It was first performed at St. James's Theatre, London on February 14, 1895.
The two main characters in the play, gentlemen of leisure from wealthy backgrounds named Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrief, both adopt the alias of Ernest Worthing at different times. It is revealed that, for some time, Jack Worthing has been leading a double life, going by the name of Jack in the country and pretending to be his non-existent brother Ernest in London. When his friend Algernon, who has been telling similar lies himself for a considerable time, finds out about this, he decides to pretend to be Ernest in order to see Jack's eighteen-year old ward Cecily. Algernon becomes engaged to Cecily under the name of Ernest. Jack has already become engaged to Algernon's cousin Gwendolen under the name of Ernest also. When the two women meet, they naturally believe that they are both engaged to the same man.
The title is a pun on the name "Ernest", both Gwendolen and Cecily agreeing that they could only love a man by that name, and the word "earnest", meaning "serious".
The Importance of Being Earnest can be enjoyed as a simple farce, although it has also been interpreted as a satire on the upper classes of Victorian Britain and the values of that society.
There have been numerous adaptations of the play for television and radio and as an audiobook. Movie versions of The Importance of Being Earnest were released in 1952, 1992, 2002 and 2011. Operas based on the play were performed in 1963 and 2013.
The play opens in the London home of Algernon Moncrief. Algernon is waiting for his aunt and his cousin, Lady Augusta Bracknell and her daughter Gwendolen Fairfax, to come over for tea. The butler Lane announces that Algernon's friend, a man whom he knows as Ernest Worthing, has arrived. Algernon's friend is happy to hear that Gwendolen will be coming over because he wishes to propose to her. Algernon asks his friend if Cecily could get in the way of the engagement. He reveals that he has his friend's lost cigarette case, with the inscription "from your little Cecily". However, when he looks at the cigarette case again, Algernon concludes that it does not belong to his friend because it is inscribed "To Uncle Jack".
Algernon's friend has to admit the truth. His real name is John Worthing and he prefers to be called Jack. Cecily Cardew is the granddaughter of Thomas Cardew, the man who raised him. After Mr. Cardew died, Jack was made Cecily's legal guardian. Jack finds himself obliged to always set a good moral example when he is at his Hertfordshire home with Cecily. He invented his fictitious wicked younger brother Ernest to give him an excuse to go to London at any time, always claiming that his younger brother was in trouble and that he had to help him. Algernon is not too surprised to hear this news because he has been telling similar lies for some time. He pretends to have a sick friend called Mr. Bunbury who lives in the country. Whenever Algernon wants to get out of any obligation, he simply says that Bunbury is ill again and that he has to visit him.
Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen arrive. Algernon finds an excuse to take Lady Bracknell out of the room so that Jack and Gwendolen can be alone. Jack proposes to Gwendolen. She happily accepts because, as she reveals, she had always wanted to love someone named Ernest. She says that she could never love anyone named Jack or John. Jack decides that he will have to get baptized under the name of Ernest.
Having returned and found Jack on his knees, Lady Bracknell sends Gwendolen away and interviews him to determine if he will make a suitable husband for her daughter. She is largely happy with what Jack tells her about himself, until the question of his family comes up. Jack reveals that he does not know who he is by birth. He was raised by Thomas Cardew who found him in a handbag when he was a baby. The bag was given to Mr. Cardew by mistake at the cloak room in Victoria Station. Mr. Cardew gave the baby the surname Worthing because he had a ticket to the Sussex seaside resort town of Worthing in his pocket when he was given the bag. Lady Bracknell refuses to allow her daughter to marry somebody who does not know who his parents were.
Algernon asks Jack if he told Gwendolen the truth about his brother Ernest. Jack says that he did not but that he intends to kill Ernest off, saying that he died abroad to avoid having to have a funeral. Algernon asks again about Jack's eighteen-year old ward Cecily. Jack does not like the interest that Algernon is taking in her.
Cecily returns. She tells Jack that her mother has forbidden her from marrying him but that she will always love him anyway. She asks Jack to give her his address in Hertfordshire. Algernon overhears and writes the address on his shirt cuff.
The second act opens in the garden of Jack Worthing's Hertfordshire home. His ward Cecily is supposed to be having a German lesson from her tutor Miss Prism, although she is more interested in writing in her diary. Miss Prism does not approve of diaries, preferring to rely on memory. For her part, Cecily thinks that memories are usually false and must be "responsible for nearly all the three-volume novels". Miss Prism says that she once wrote a three-volume novel but lost the manuscript.
The clergyman Dr. Chasuble arrives. Knowing that Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble are fond of each other, Cecily says that Miss Prism has a headache and should take a stroll with Dr. Chasuble to recover.
The butler Merriman announces that Ernest Worthing has arrived. Cecily is excited at the prospect of meeting her guardian's wicked younger brother for the first time. Algernon, who is pretending to be Ernest, appears. He says that, unfortunately, he will have to leave before his brother Jack comes on Monday. Cecily finds him fascinating. She is disappointed when he denies being wicked but nevertheless pleased when he promises to change his ways for the better.
Jack returns unexpectedly early, wearing mourning clothes. He tells Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble that his brother Ernest died in Paris and will be buried there. He also asks Dr. Chasuble about the possibility of being baptized later that day.
Cecily returns, surprised to see her guardian dressed in black. She announces the good news that Ernest Worthing has arrived. Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism are happy to hear that Jack's brother is not dead after all. Jack grudgingly shakes hands with Algernon. He is not happy to hear that Algernon intends to stay for a week or that he has been telling Cecily about his friend Mr. Bunbury. He arranges for a carriage to take Algernon to the train station as soon as possible.
Algernon and Cecily sadly say good-bye to each other. The conversation between them quickly turns romantic, so much so that Algernon orders the carriage away and the two become engaged. Cecily tells Algernon that she had been fascinated by him from the moment she first heard about him, having always wanted to love a man named Ernest. She tells Algernon that, in her imagination, they had already been engaged for five months. She shows him her diary entries about the engagement, the engagement ring and other presents that she bought herself and the love letters which she wrote herself. Algernon asks if she could marry a man with another name, such as Algernon. Cecily says that she could not. Algernon concludes that he will have to get baptized again to take the name of Ernest. He goes to make arrangements for his christening.
Merriman announces the arrival of Gwendolen, whom Cecily rightly guesses is an acquaintance of Jack's from London. The two women try to behave in a friendly manner, although they clearly dislike each other from the start. Gwendolen is unhappy to hear that the pretty young Cecily is Mr. Worthing's ward. Her relief at hearing that Cecily is the ward of Jack Worthing, not Ernest Worthing, is short lived when she hears that Cecily and Ernest have become engaged. Both women claim to be the rightful fiancée of Ernest, showing each other their respective diary entries to prove it.
When Jack and Algernon both return, the truth is revealed. Cecily and Gwendolen both want Jack to say where his brother Ernest is, since they are both engaged to him. Jack has to confess that he does not have a brother and Ernest was simply his own invention. The two women go into the house together to console each other.
The two men tell each other that their respective lives of deception have come to an end. They also both announce their plans to shortly get baptized and take on the name of Ernest.
Cecily and Gwendolen make up their minds to forgive Algernon and Jack. Cecily asks Algernon why he pretended to be Ernest. She is pleased with his answer that he did so in order to go to Hertfordshire and meet her. Gwendolen asks Jack why he pretended to be his brother Ernest, suggesting that it was in order to have an excuse to go to London and see her. Jack agrees. The two women continue to say that the men's names are a problem, although both men say that they are going to change their names to Ernest when they get baptized that afternoon.
Lady Bracknell arrives to bring Gwendolen home. She insists that Gwendolen and Jack are not engaged and will never see each other again. However, she is pleased when she finds out that her nephew Algernon is engaged to Cecily, a young lady with an annual income of one hundred and thirty thousand pounds. The upcoming wedding of Algernon and Cecily appears to be a certainty, until Jack reminds Lady Bracknell that he is Cecily's legal guardian. Cecily cannot marry without her guardian's consent until she comes of age and, according to Thomas Cardew's will, Cecily will not come of age until she is thirty-five. Jack says that he will only allow Cecily to marry Algernon if Lady Bracknell allows him to marry Gwendolen. Lady Bracknell still refuses.
Dr. Chasuble arrives, only to be told that the two baptisms he expected to perform will not now take place. He says that Miss Prism is waiting for him at the church. Lady Bracknell recognizes the name. When Miss Prism arrives, Lady Bracknell sees that she is indeed the same woman whom she knew twenty-eight years earlier. She demands that Miss Prism tell her what happened to the baby that she lost. Miss Prism says that she mistakenly put the manuscript of her three-volume novel in the baby carriage and put the baby in her handbag, which she left at Victoria Station.
Jack fetches the handbag in which he was found. Miss Prism confirms that it is hers. It is revealed that, since he was the baby who Miss Prism lost, Jack is the son of Lady Bracknell's sister and Algernon's older brother. Lady Bracknell is now happy to agree to the marriage of Gwendolen and Jack, although Gwendolen insists that she still could not marry someone who is not called Ernest.
It is revealed that Jack was baptized as a baby and given the same name as his father. Unfortunately, Algernon does not know the name of the father who died when he was less than a year old. Lady Bracknell does not know his name either, saying that even his wife, her sister, only ever referred to him as the General. Fortunately, Jack has a book which lists all officers in the British Army for the last forty years. He discovers that General Moncrief's name was Ernest. Consequently, it is his name too.
Jack and Gwendolen, Algernon and Cecily and Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism all embrace. Lady Bracknell accuses Jack of being frivolous, to which he replies, "On the contrary, Aunt Augusta. I've now realized for the first time in my life the vital importance of being earnest."
- Text of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest on Wikisource.
- Quotations from The Importance of Being Earnest on Wikiquote.
- Free public domain audiobook of The Importance of Being Earnest from LibriVox.
- The Importance of Being Earnest on the SparkNotes website.
- Importance of Being Earnest.co.uk.