I read it in college, and enjoyed it for its zingers. What overly dramatic Anglophile undergraduate can resist such lines as:
“In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.”
“I don’t play accurately–any one can play accurately–but I play with wonderful expression.”
“Oh! it is absurd to have a hard-and-fast rule about what one should read and what one shouldn’t. More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.”
I am still amused at the high wit, but what most interested me was the play viewed as a statement about art and artifice. Particularly, to butcher Simone de Beauvoir, the artist is made not born. Self-created.
Some Evidence. This will be heavy on the quotes because they are delicious.
* The created names/identity of the Ernests and Bunbury that Jack and Algernon use. It being revealed that Jack was actually named Ernest at birth is immaterial. As he says, “Gwendolen, it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth. Can you forgive me?”
* Cecily’s imagined courtship with Ernest.
Cecily. You silly boy! Of course. Why, we have been engaged for the last three months.
Algernon. For the last three months?
Cecily. Yes, it will be exactly three months on Thursday.
Algernon. But how did we become engaged?
Cecily. Well, ever since dear Uncle Jack first confessed to us that he had a younger brother who was very wicked and bad, you of course have formed the chief topic of conversation between myself and Miss Prism. And of course a man who is much talked about is always very attractive. One feels there must be something in him, after all. I daresay it was foolish of me, but I fell in love with you, Ernest.
Algernon. Darling! And when was the engagement actually settled?
Cecily. On the 14th of February last. Worn out by your entire ignorance of my existence, I determined to end the matter one way or the other, and after a long struggle with myself I accepted you under this dear old tree here. The next day I bought this little ring in your name, and this is the little bangle with the true lover’s knot I promised you always to wear.
Algernon. Did I give you this? It’s very pretty, isn’t it?
Cecily. Yes, you’ve wonderfully good taste, Ernest. It’s the excuse I’ve always given for your leading such a bad life. And this is the box in which I keep all your dear letters. [Kneels at table, opens box, and produces letters tied up with blue ribbon.]
Algernon. My letters! But, my own sweet Cecily, I have never written you any letters.
Cecily. You need hardly remind me of that, Ernest. I remember only too well that I was forced to write your letters for you. I wrote always three times a week, and sometimes oftener.
* My favorite – The baby being replaced by a book in the handbag. Here Wilde replaces procreation with artistic creation.
Miss Prism. Lady Bracknell, I admit with shame that I do not know. I only wish I did. The plain facts of the case are these. On the morning of the day you mention, a day that is for ever branded on my memory, I prepared as usual to take the baby out in its perambulator. I had also with me a somewhat old, but capacious hand-bag in which I had intended to place the manuscript of a work of fiction that I had written during my few unoccupied hours. In a moment of mental abstraction, for which I never can forgive myself, I deposited the manuscript in the basinette, and placed the baby in the hand-bag.
*Wilde also sets up a city/country dichotomy, the city being the home of art/artifice, and the country nature/the natural:
Gwendolen. I had no idea there were any flowers in the country.
Cecily. Oh, flowers are as common here, Miss Fairfax, as people are in London.
Gwendolen. Personally I cannot understand how anybody manages to exist in the country, if anybody who is anybody does. The country always bores me to death.
Cecily. Ah! This is what the newspapers call agricultural depression, is it not? I believe the aristocracy are suffering very much from it just at present. It is almost an epidemic amongst them, I have been told. May I offer you some tea, Miss Fairfax?
…and the famous –
Cecily. Do you suggest, Miss Fairfax, that I entrapped Ernest into an engagement? How dare you? This is no time for wearing the shallow mask of manners. When I see a spade I call it a spade.
Gwendolen. [Satirically.] I am glad to say that I have never seen a spade. It is obvious that our social spheres have been widely different.
There are tons of examples.
If I read the play like an allegory for self-making and art-making, it’s wonderful. If I think about the characters as real people, it’s quite a bit sad. I hold Self-Creation on very high pedestal (as Algernon says, “If I am occasionally a little over-dressed, I make up for it by being always immensely over-educated.”), but what I didn’t find in the play was Love. No one really cares about each other! Maybe Algernon loves muffins, but that is the extent of the feelings in the play. Wilde’s play completely works as a statement about Art, but not about Life, and I think it’s a mistake to read it as such. Remember, Wilde was also a master of the fairy tale. A regular ole person can really get in trouble acting like a Princess! Don’t say I didn’t warn you.