Oscar Wilde's subtitle for The Importance of Being Earnest, "A Trivial Comedy for Serious People," pokes fun at those who mistakenly think that his work is mere fluff. They may endow their own lives with the utmost significance, but of course they're deluded. In the long view, whatever we busy ourselves about is small-time, while Wilde's comedy (playing at Lake City Playhouse in Coeur d'Alene from Oct. 4-20) is in Earnest about the real meaning of social classes, etiquette, gender and identity.
The plot follows the courtships of two fashionable young men about town: John Worthing ("Jack") and Algernon Moncrieff ("Algy"). Jack is in love with Gwendolyn Fairfax, Algy's cousin and the daughter of his formidable aunt, Lady Bracknell. Later in the comedy, Algy will be smitten by Jack's ward, 18-year-old Cecily Cardew, who lives out in the country.
Both men are leading double lives. While in London, Jack calls himself "Ernest"; when he's at his manor house in Hertfordshire overseeing Cecily, he tells her that he has a wicked brother Ernest who lives in the city. Algy, meanwhile, has invented a friend named "Bunbury," who is forever catching one illness or another, giving Algy the opportunity to escape to the country, away from London and the overbearing Lady Bracknell.
The Importance of Being Earnest is arguably the greatest comedy in the English language. Wilde wrote it at the peak of his career, the culmination of 25 years of notoriety in London's upper crust. Within a year, he had been imprisoned, bankrupted and ruined; within five years, at the age of 46, he was dead. But because of its satiric nonchalance about sacred cows and its sparking wit, Earnest lives on.
Wilde's bon mots arrive rapid-fire, and his witticisms range wide in focus. About truth, he says that it "is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility." Or death: When Jack grieves that he has "lost both my parents," Lady Bracknell rejoins with, "To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness." Algy scolds Jack for excessive earnestness: "What on earth you are serious about I haven't got the remotest idea. About everything, I should fancy. You have such an absolutely trivial nature." Jack returns the favor, saying to Algy, "You never talk anything but nonsense." But the final word belongs to Algy: "Nobody ever does."
This last exchange, from the very end of Act One, exemplifies Director Scott Lockwood's claim that Wilde "builds to the quip, to the final payoff. It's like one of those old cartoons, where the whole point of a rambling story is to get to some stupid pun at the end. Here's it's as if the entire two hours is just meant to get us to that final line about being earnest."
Shawn McBride, who will play Algy in the Lake City production, recognizes how earnest these characters are about themselves: "Everything that comes out of their mouths is of such vital importance to them, be it the fashionableness of a particular side of a London street, or whatever, even down to the eating of muffins. Yet to an outside look they're utterly trivial. None of these people are making jokes at all."
In that sense, Wilde's masterpiece, full of wordplay that pops the bubble of our vanity, could reverse its subtitle: it's also a serious comedy about trivial people.