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Encyclopedia > The Importance of Being Earnest
The original production of The Importance of Being Earnest in 1895 with Allan Aynesworth as Algernon (left) and George Alexander as Jack (right)

The Importance of Being Earnest is a play by Oscar Wilde, a comedy of manners on the seriousness of society in either three or four acts (depending on edition) inspired by W. S. Gilbert's Engaged.[1] It was first performed for the public on February 14, 1895 at the St. James's Theatre in London. Allan Aynesworth (born Edward Abbot-Anderson, April 14, 1864 in Berkshire; died August 22, 1959 in Surrey) was a British actor of the late Victorian era. ... this is an article about George Alexander the actor, for the 2000th US soldier killed in Iraq, see George Alexander (US Army soldier) Sir George Alexander (né George Samson) (June 18, 1858 - 1918) was a British actor and stage manager born in Reading, England. ... Oscar Fingal OFlahertie Wills Wilde (October 16, 1854 – November 30, 1900) was an Irish playwright, novelist, poet, and author of short stories. ... The comedy of manners satirizes the manners and affectations of a social class, often represented by stock characters, such as the miles gloriosus in ancient times, the fop and the rake during the Restoration, or an old person pretending to be young. ... Sir William Schwenck Gilbert Sir William Schwenck Gilbert (November 18, 1836 – May 29, 1911) was an English dramatist, librettist and illustrator best known for the fourteen comic operas produced in collaboration with the composer Sir Arthur Sullivan. ... A promotional poster from the Library of Congress collection. ... is the 45th day of the year in the Gregorian calendar. ... Year 1895 (MDCCCXCV) was a common year starting on Tuesday (link will display full calendar) of the Gregorian calendar (or a common year starting on Sunday of the 12-day-slower Julian calendar). ... The St Jamess Theatre was in King Street, St Jamess London. ... This article is about the capital of England and the United Kingdom. ...

Set in England during the late Victorian era, its primary source of humour is based on characters maintaining fictitious identities to allow them to escape from social obligations. For other uses, see England (disambiguation). ... The Victorian era of the United Kingdom marked the height of the British Industrial Revolution and the apex of the British Empire. ...

Wilde's plays had reached a pinnacle of success, and anything new from the playwright was eagerly awaited. The press were always hungry for details and would pursue stories about new plots and characters with a vengeance. To combat this Wilde gave the play a working title, Lady Lancing. The use of seaside town names for leading characters, or the locations of their inception, can be recognised in all four of Wilde's society plays (Jack's surname, Worthing, is itself taken from the town where Wilde was staying when he wrote the play). It has been suggested that this article or section be merged with The Importance of Being Earnest. ... For other uses, see Worthing (disambiguation). ...



Algernon, a young Londoner, pretends to have a friend named Bunbury who lives in the country and is frequently in ill health. Whenever Algernon wants to avoid an unwelcome social obligation, or just get away for the weekend, he makes an ostensible visit to his "sick friend". In this way he can feign responsibility, while having the perfect excuse to avoid it. He calls this practice "Bunburying". Bunburying is a term introduced by Oscar Wilde in the play The Importance of Being Earnest. ...

Algernon's real-life best friend lives in the country but makes frequent visits to London. Algernon knows him as Ernest Worthing, but when he leaves his silver cigarette case in Algernon's rooms, Algernon finds an inscription in it: "From little Cecily, with her fondest love to her dear Uncle Jack".

This forces Jack to disclose that he too is a "Bunburyist". In the country, he goes by the name of Jack (which he understands to be his real name), and pretends that he has a wastrel brother named Ernest, who lives in London and requires his frequent attention. When in the city, he assumes the name – and behaviour – of the profligate Ernest. In the country Jack assumes a more serious attitude for the benefit of his young ward, the 18-year old heiress Cecily. In law, a ward is someone placed under the protection of a legal guardian. ...

Jack wants to marry Algernon's cousin Gwendolen, but faces two obstacles: First, Gwendolen seems to love him only because she believes his name is Ernest, which she thinks is the most beautiful name in the world. Second, Gwendolen's mother, the terrifying Lady Bracknell, does not particularly approve of Mr Worthing, and is further horrified to learn that he was adopted as a baby after being discovered in a handbag at a railway station. In her opinion it is absolutely below the standards of her daughter to "marry into a cloakroom and form an alliance with a parcel".

Meanwhile, Jack's description of Cecily has so appealed to Algernon that he resolves to meet her, in spite of Jack's firm opposition. He visits Jack's house in the country in the guise of Ernest Worthing. Cecily has for some time imagined herself in love with the mysterious Ernest, and is soon swept off her feet by Algernon.

Jack has decided to give up his Bunburying, and returns to his country estate with the news that his brother Ernest has died. He is forced to abandon this claim by the presence of "Ernest", who threatens to expose his double life if Jack doesn't play along.

Gwendolen flees London and her mother to be with her love. When she and Cecily meet for the first time, each indignantly insists that she is the one engaged to "Ernest". Once Lady Bracknell arrives in pursuit of her daughter, she and Jack reach stalemate as she still refuses to countenance his marriage to Gwendolen, while he, in retaliation, denies his consent to the marriage of her penniless nephew Algernon to his heiress ward Cecily.

The impasse is broken, in deus ex machina fashion, by the reappearance of Miss Prism. As she and Lady Bracknell recognize each other with horror, it is revealed that, when working many years previously as a nursemaid for Lady Bracknell's sister, Prism had inadvertently lost a baby boy in a handbag. When Jack produces the identical handbag, it becomes clear that he is Lady Bracknell's nephew and Algernon's older brother. For other uses, see Deus ex machina (disambiguation). ...

With Jack's provenance established, only one thing now stands in the way of the young couples' happiness: in view of Gwendolen's continued insistence that she can only love a man named Ernest, what is Jack's real first name? Lady Bracknell informs him that he was named after his father, a general, but cannot remember the general's name. Jack looks eagerly in a military reference book and declares that the name is in fact Ernest after all, and he has all along been telling the truth inadvertently.

As the happy couples embrace in turn (including also Prism and Chasuble), Lady Bracknell complains to Ernest, "My nephew, you seem to be displaying signs of triviality." "On the contrary, Aunt Augusta," Ernest replies, "I've now realised for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest."


  • John ("Jack") Worthing: In love with Gwendolen. Bachelor. Adopted when very young by Thomas Cardew.
  • Algernon ("Algy") Moncrieff: First cousin of Gwendolen. Bachelor. Nephew of Lady Bracknell.
  • Lady (Augusta) Bracknell.
  • Hon. Gwendolen Fairfax: daughter of Lady Bracknell.
  • Cecily Cardew: granddaughter of Thomas Cardew and ward of Jack Worthing. Lives at Jack's country house in Hertfordshire.
  • Miss Prism: governess to Cecily.
  • Rev Canon Frederick Chasuble, D.D.: a minister who lives near Jack’s country house.
  • Lane: butler to Algernon.
  • Merriman: butler to Jack.

Doctor of Divinity (D.D., Divinitatis Doctor in Latin) is an academic degree. ...


The comedy has been successful even when performed in translation. The title being translatable only to a few languages—it relies on "Ernest" and "earnest" being homophones in English—it is then usually staged under the title Bunbury. This article is about the term in linguistics. ...

In some languages, the title loses its character as a pun. In Norwegian it is staged as Hvem er Ernest?, which means "Who is Ernest?" In Spanish-speaking countries, the title is translated as La importancia de llamarse Ernesto (The Importance of Calling Yourself Ernest).

Several languages—German, Dutch, French, Hungarian, Czech—offer equivalent puns. In Germany the play and the 2002 movie are called Ernst sein ist alles ("Being Earnest is everything"), keeping precisely the original pun (Ernst being both a first name and a German word for serious). In Dutch it has been translated as Het belang van Ernst, in which the pun is also fully functional. In French, the play is known as De l'importance d'être Constant, Constant being both a mildly uncommon first name and the quality of steadfastness; the pun is preserved but with a slightly different meaning.

The Italian L'importanza di essere Ernesto, or L'importanza di essere Franco ("The Importance of Being Frank"), similarly preserves punning with a slight twist. In Catalan it is also, as in Italian, "La importància de ser Franc" ("The Importance of Being Frank").

The same approach has been used in Hungarian: the title has been translated as Szilárdnak kell lenni ("One Must Be Steadfast"), Szilárd being also an uncommon first name meaning "steadfast". Similarly, in Basque it has been titled Fidel izan beharraz ("On the need to be Fidel"), fidel being both the Basque word for "faithful" and a first name. In Czech, the title is translated as Jak je důležité míti Filipa ("The Importance of Having Phillip"), which is an idiom for being clever, and Filip is a quite common name. In Polish, however, the title is 'Brat Marnotrawny'(The Prodigal Brother), an allegory to The Prodigal Son (in Polish- Syn Marnotrawny). Hebrew owns it as 'Hashivuta shel retsinut' (The importance of seriousness). The word Hebrew most likely means to cross over, referring to the Semitic people crossing over the Euphrates River. ...

Four-act version

When Wilde handed his final draft of the play over to theatrical impresario George Alexander it was complete in four acts. The actor manager of the St. James' Theatre soon began a reworking of the play. Whether to provide space for a 'warmer' or a musical interlude, as was often the bill, is not entirely clear. However, Wilde agreed to the cuts and various elements of the second and third acts were combined. The "missing" extra act, coming between the current second and third, was heavily cut. The greatest impact was the loss of the character Mr Gribsby, a solicitor, who turns up from London to arrest the profligate "Ernest" (Jack) for his unpaid dining bills. Algernon - who is going by the name "Ernest" at this point - is about to be led away to Holloway Jail unless he settles his accounts immediately. The four-act version was first played on the radio in a BBC production and is still sometimes performed. The 2002 film includes the Gribsby scene from the missing act.

Rare Book Find

On 19 October, 2007, a rare first edition of the play was discovered in a branch of Oxfam in Nantwich, Cheshire appropriately in a handbag. Staff at the shop said they had no idea who donated the items. The book has a mark on the inside cover stating that it was numbered 349 out of 1,000 copies and was sold for £650.[1] For other uses, see number 19. ... For other uses, see October (disambiguation). ... Year 2007 (MMVII) is the current year, a common year starting on Monday of the Gregorian calendar and the AD/CE era in the 21st century. ... Oxfam International logo Oxfam International is a confederation of 13 organizations working with over 3000 partners in more than 100 countries to find lasting solutions to poverty and injustice. ... Nantwich is a market town in south Cheshire, England, in the Borough and parliamentary constituency of Crewe and Nantwich. ... For other uses, see Cheshire (disambiguation). ...

Possible inside jokes

Some have implied that Wilde's use of the name Ernest might possibly be an inside joke. John Gambril Nicholson in his poem "Of Boy's Names" (Love in Earnest: Sonnets, Ballades, and Lyrics (1892)) contains the lines: " Though Frank may ring like silver bell, And Cecil softer music claim, They cannot work the miracle, –'Tis Ernest sets my heart a-flame." The poem was promoted by John Addington Symonds and Nicholson and Wilde contributed pieces to the same issue of The Chameleon magazine.[2]. Theo Aronson has suggested that the word "earnest" became a code-word for homosexual, as in: "Is he earnest?", in the same way that "Is he so?" and "Is he musical?" were also employed. [3] John Gambril Francis Nicholson (6 October 1866 - 1 July 1931) was an English school teacher and Uranian poet. ... John Addington Symonds was the name of a father and son, both English writers. ...

The words bunbury and bunburying, meanwhile, which are used to imply double lives and as excuses for absences are, according to a letter from Aleister Crowley to Sir R. H. Bruce Lockhart, an inside joke conjunction that came about after Wilde boarded a train at Banbury on which he met a schoolboy. They got into conversation and subsequently arranged to meet again at Sunbury. [4] Aleister Crowley, born Edward Alexander Crowley, (12 October 1875 – 1 December 1947, pronounced ) was a British occultist, writer, mountaineer, philosopher, poet, and mystic. ... Sir Robert Hamilton Bruce Lockhart, (2 September 1887 - 27 February 1970), was a journalist, author, secret agent, British diplomat in Moscow and footballer. ...

Contrary to claims of explicit homosexual terminology, the actor Sir Donald Sinden, who had met two of the play's original participants in the 1940s: Irene Vanbrugh, the first Gwendolen; Allan Aynesworth, the first Algy; as well as Wilde's lover Lord Alfred Douglas, wrote to The Times to dispute that the words 'Earnest' or 'bunburying' held any sexual connotations, or that 'Cecily' was a synonym for a rentboy: "Although they had ample opportunity, at no time did any of them even hint that Earnest was a synonym for homosexual, or that Bunburying may have implied homosexual sex. The first time I heard it mentioned was in the 1980s and I immediately consulted Sir John Gielgud whose own performance of Jack Worthing in the same play was legendary and whose knowledge of theatrical lore was encyclopaedic. He replied in his ringing tones: "No-No! Nonsense, absolute nonsense: I would have known."[5] The latter remark gains additional salience from the fact that Gielgud himself was well-known in theatrical circles to be gay. Sir Donald Alfred Sinden, CBE (born Plymouth, 9 October 1923) is an English stage and film actor. ... Dame Irene Vanbrugh DBE (2 December 1872–30 November 1949), born Irene Barnes, was an English actress. ... Allan Aynesworth (born Edward Abbot-Anderson, April 14, 1864 in Berkshire; died August 22, 1959 in Surrey) was a British actor of the late Victorian era. ... Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas (born October 22, 1870; died March 20, 1945) was the third son of John Sholto Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry, and the former Sibyl Montgomery. ... Male prostitution is the sale of sexual services by a male prostitute (commonly called a hustler or rentboy; see below for other expressions) with either male or female clients. ... Sir Arthur John Gielgud, OM, CH (14 April 1904 – 21 May 2000), known as Sir John Gielgud, was an English theatre and film actor. ...

All of this said, the fact that Jack and Algernon both lead "double lives" would undoubtedly have held special meaning for a married homosexual in Victorian London, like Wilde himself.

Related facts

  • John Gielgud was considered to be the greatest Jack Worthing of the twentieth century, and his 1947 Broadway production won the only Tony Award ever given for Best Foreign Production.
  • Lady Bracknell's line, "A handbag?", has been claimed to be the single quotation in English drama that has given rise to the most varied interpretations, ranging from incredulous through scandalized to just plain baffled. There is scarcely an actress who has not tried to put her own personal stamp on it, but the most famous is that of Edith Evans in the 1952 film The Importance of Being Earnest, who delivered the line loudly in a mixture of horror, incredulity and condescension.
  • The Marquess of Queensberry, father of Wilde's male lover Lord Alfred Douglas, attempted to enter the theatre on the play's opening night to publicly expose Oscar Wilde's homosexuality, but Wilde was tipped in advance and Queensberry was refused a ticket. Due to Wilde's personal troubles, however, the play was closed after only 83 performances, despite its success.
  • The name 'Miss Prism' is a pun on 'misprision', which has two definitions.[citation needed] The older is very dark, involving the concealment of official neglect, crime or possibly treason. The more modern meaning closely resembles the character's multiple misunderstandings.
  • At the time the play was written Victoria Station in London was actually two adjacent terminal stations sharing the same name. To the east was the terminal of the decidedly ramshackle London, Chatham and Dover Railway and to the west, the much more fashionable London, Brighton and South Coast Railway—the Brighton Line. Although the two stations shared a dividing wall, there was no interconnection: it was necessary to walk out into the street to pass from one station to the other. Jack explains that he was found in a handbag in the cloakroom at Victoria Station and tries to mitigate the circumstance by assuring Lady Bracknell that it was the more socially acceptable "Brighton line."
  • Tom Stoppard's 1974 comedy play Travesties, set in Zurich during the First World War, takes as the starting point for its fictional embellishments a troubled production of The Importance of Being Earnest, that was historically undertaken by an amateur company whose business manager was the writer James Joyce.
  • The famous Spanish singer, Enrique Bunbury, named himself after Algernon's imaginary friend Bunbury.
  • The names of Cecily and Gwendolyn Pigeon in Neil Simon's comedy The Odd Couple were inspired by the Cecily and Gwendolen of Wilde's play.
  • In one of his final television appearances, comedian Jim Varney appeared on "Viva Variety" in a sketch that parodied Wilde's play. In this case, the "Ernest" in question was Varney's signature character, Ernest P. Worrell.

Sir Arthur John Gielgud, OM, CH (14 April 1904 – 21 May 2000), known as Sir John Gielgud, was an English theatre and film actor. ... Broadway theatre is often considered the highest professional form of theatre in the United States. ... What is popularly called the Tony Award (formally, the Antoinette Perry Award for Excellence in Theatre) is an annual award celebrating achievements in live American theater, including musical theater, primarily honoring productions on Broadway in New York. ... Blue plaque at 109 Ebury Street, London Dame Edith Mary Evans DBE (8 February 1888–14 October 1976) was an Academy Award nominated and Golden Globe award winning actress. ... The Importance of Being Earnest is a 1952 British film adaptation of the play by Oscar Wilde. ... John Sholto Douglas (1844-1900) was an eccentric Scottish nobleman, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry and Viscount Drumlanrig. ... Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas (born October 22, 1870; died March 20, 1945) was the third son of John Sholto Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry, and the former Sibyl Montgomery. ... Misprision (from O. Fr. ... Victoria station in London is a London Underground and National Rail station in the City of Westminster. ... Crest of the LCDR on the first Blackfriars Railway Bridge The London, Chatham and Dover Railway (LCDR) was a railway company that operated in south-eastern England between 1859 and 1923 before grouping with three other companies to form the Southern Railway. ... The LB&SCRs coat of arms, displayed above the entrance to Gipsy Hill railway station. ... Sir Tom Stoppard, OM, CBE (born as Tomáš Straussler on July 3, 1937)[1] is an Academy Award winning British playwright of more than 24 plays. ... Travesties is a comedic play by Tom Stoppard, first produced in 1975. ... This article is about the writer and poet. ... Enrique Ortiz de Landázuri Izardui (a. ... Walter Matthau and Art Carney in the 1965 Broadway production The Odd Couple was a hit 1965 Broadway play by Neil Simon, followed by a successful film and television series, as well as other derivative works and spinoffs, many featuring one or more of the same actors. ... James Albert Varney Jr. ... Viva Variety was a short-lived show on Comedy Central mocking variety shows. ... Ernest P. Worrell was a fictional character portrayed by American actor Jim Varney in a series of television commercials and later in a television series and a series of motion pictures. ...

Film versions

The Importance of Being Earnest is a 1952 British film adaptation of the play by Oscar Wilde. ... The Honourable Anthony Asquith (November 9, 1902-February 20, 1968) was a respected British film director. ... John Michael Terence Wellesley Denison CBE (November 1, 1915 - July 22, 1998) was educated at Harrow School. ... Sir Michael Scudamore Redgrave CBE (March 20, 1908—March 21, 1985) was an English actor of great renown. ... Blue plaque at 109 Ebury Street, London Dame Edith Mary Evans DBE (8 February 1888–14 October 1976) was an Academy Award nominated and Golden Globe award winning actress. ... Dame Dorothy Tutin Order of the British Empire|DBE (8 April 1930–6 August 2001), was a highly-regarded English actress of stage, film, and television. ... Joan Greenwood (4 March 1921 – 27 February 1987) was an English actress. ... Dame Margaret Rutherford DBE (11 May 1892–22 May 1972) was an English Academy Award-winning character actress who first came to prominence following World War II in the film adaptations of Noel Cowards Blithe Spirit, and Oscar Wildes The Importance of Being Earnest. ... The Importance of Being Earnest is a film directed by Oliver Parker, based on Oscar Wildes classic comedy of manners of the same name. ... Colin Andrew Firth (born 10 September 1960) is an English film, television and stage actor. ... Rupert James Hector Everett (born May 29, 1959) is a Golden Globe-nominated English actor and a former singer. ... Dame Judith Olivia Dench, CH, DBE, FRSA, (born 9 December 1934), usually known as Dame Judi Dench, is an Academy Award, Golden Globe, Tony, three-time BAFTA, and six-time Laurence Olivier Award-winning English actress. ... Laura Jeanne Reese Witherspoon[1] (born March 22, 1976) is an Academy Award-winning American actress. ... Frances OConnor (born on 12 July 1967 in Wantage, Oxfordshire) is an Australian actress who attended Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts as well as earned a BA in literature from the Curtin University of Technology in Western Australia. ... Anna Massey, CBE (born August 11, 1937) is a British actress. ... This article is about the English actor. ... English film/tv writer, born 1969 in London, England. ...


  • In 1963, Erik Chisholm completed his opera based on the play with Wilde's text as the libretto.
  • A musical based on the play called Ernest in Love opened off-Broadway in 1960 to glowing reviews. It starred John Irving as Jack and Louis Edmonds as Algernon.[6] The show was later revived and translated into Japanese in 2005 for the Takarazuka Revue in Japan.

For other uses, see 1963 (disambiguation). ... Dr Erik William Chisholm (4 January 1904, Glasgow, Scotland — 8 June 1965, Cape Town, South Africa) was a Scottish composer and conductor often known as Scotland’s forgotten composer. ... Ernest in Love is a musical by Anne Croswell (book and lyrics) and Lee Pockriss (music), based on Oscar Wildes comedy The Importance of Being Ernest. ... Louis Edmonds (born September 24, 1923 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; died March 3, 2001 in Port Jefferson, New York) was an American actor. ... This article does not cite any references or sources. ...


  1. ^ Feingold, Michael, "Engaging the Past" (Note the last paragraph, where Feingold writes, "Wilde pillaged this piece for ideas.")
  2. ^ D'arch Smith, Timothy: Love In Earnest: Some Notes on the Lives and Writings of English "Uranian" Poets from 1889 to 1930 (1970)
  3. ^ Aronson, Theo: Prince Eddy and the Homosexual Underworld (1994).
  4. ^ D'arch Smith, Timothy: Bunbury - Two Notes on Oscar Wilde (1998).
  5. ^ The Times, 2 February 2001
  6. ^ Louis Edmonds in Ernest in Love

is the 33rd day of the year in the Gregorian calendar. ... Year 2001 (MMI) was a common year starting on Monday (link displays the 2001 Gregorian calendar). ...

External links

Oscar Wilde Portal 
Wikisource has original text related to this article:

  Results from FactBites:
Queer As Folk Addiction | Gale Harold | The Importance of Being Earnest (762 words)
Earnestness -- that is, a high-minded and serious devotion to duty and virtue -- was a quality advocated by such central Victorian figures as Arnold and Tennyson, but it was mocked as a trait of the rigidly moralistic middle class by other Victorians who found middle-class values self-serving and middle-class tastes dull.
It is a play built upon a pun over the name "Earnest." John Worthing is "Jack" in the country and "Earnest" in the city.
In this satire, being earnest is made as superficial a trait as possible; it means simply having the name Earnest.
  More results at FactBites »



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