Lady Bracknell’s retort to Jack Worthing (Act I, The Importance of Being Earnest)
Oscar Wilde died on November 30, 1900, in a run-down hotel in Saint-Germain-des-Pres, Paris, having fallen on hard times after his release from prison in 1897 and exile in France. He had suffered ignominy and ostracism, and it’s thought by some that the meningitis that claimed him was related to the eardrum injury he sustained at Wandsworth prison.
He was 46. Just five years earlier, the forces of law and order had been on his side – 20 policemen were on hand outside the St James’s theatre to bar Lord Queensberry (outraged father of Alfred Douglas, Wilde’s lover) from gatecrashing the first night of The Importance of Being Earnest.
His fourth major stage comedy was a success so resounding that years later Allan Aynesworth, who created the role of Algernon Moncrieff, stated that “In my 53 years of acting, I never remember a greater triumph... The audience rose in their seats and cheered and cheered again.”
The vengeful Marquess of Queensberry would, four days later, set in train the events that led to Wilde’s swift downfall (through the playwright’s ruinous pursuit of him for libel and subsequent trials for indecency) but his toxic triumph has been fast undone by time.
Wilde stands as one of the most important cultural figures of the modern age, and the genius of Importance remains undimmed: is it not in fact the wittiest, most accomplished English stage comedy ever written?
While it’s hard to identify the crowning jewel in its treasure-trove of quotable epigrammatic delights, the perfectly phrased indignation that seizes its most famous character, Lady Bracknell, in Act I represents the quintessential expression of Wilde’s subversive verbal revelry.
Jack Worthing (who has invented a fictional brother named Ernest, whom he impersonates when visiting London) is visiting his bachelor friend Algernon to propose to the latter’s cousin Gwendolen – who’s mainly smitten with Jack because of his adopted name. He’s vetted by Gwendolen’s gorgonish mater – Algie’s Aunt Augusta. This stickler for social status whips out her notepad and fires character-deciding questions at him, displaying an unnerving line in counter-intuitive approval.
The sudden stumbling block is his admission that both his parents are unknown (“To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness”) and the scandalising fact that he was found as a baby in a handbag (“A handbag?”) in the cloakroom at Victoria Station, “the Brighton Line”.
What’s in the speech?
“The line is immaterial. Mr Worthing, I confess I feel somewhat bewildered by what you have just told me. To be born, or at any rate bred, in a handbag, whether it had handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution. And I presume you know what that unfortunate movement led to?
“As for the particular locality in which the handbag was found, a cloakroom at a railway station might serve to conceal a social indiscretion – has probably, indeed, been used for that purpose before now – but it could hardly be regarded as an assured basis for a recognised position in good society.”
Why is it so powerful?
Lady B brings a damning decision down on the suitor’s head in a guillotine fashion – thereby ensuring the plot must be developed across the ensuing acts. The speech is like that baby-stuffed handbag: there’s much to unpack. In a few pithy phrases of this “trivial comedy for serious people”, Wilde makes us laugh at Bracknell’s eccentric cast of mind, allied to drawing-room affectation, while landing satirical blows.
“The line is immaterial” is at once ornate and judicial: Bracknell is passing sentence. She inverts his passive provenance (“To be born, or at any rate bred”) into an active outrage (“display a contempt”), before racing to the incongruous (and therefore comic) climax of “French Revolution”. But that reference betrays the (mad-eyed) thinking of her class: lacking a verifiable, approvable identity, Jack embodies a threat to the social order (the ancien regime, if you will). Bracknell is humourlessly incapable of finding anything amusing in the baby Worthing’s swaddling – that makes it funnier, but her earnestness expresses her power: she pronounces him an interloper, and ejects him as a suitable candidate. Wilde was just such an intruder on the status quo, acquiring a tenuous foothold through his wit, at once inside polite society and courting ejection from it by ingeniously mocking it. (“Earnest”, it is worth noting, was a Victorian slang-word for homosexual.)
Why it matters now
Sadness lurks in the wings of Wilde’s last masterpiece – so uncannily prescient at points about his downfall (the non-existent brother Ernest is described as having died in a Paris hotel). Yet it offers such sustained, scintillating gaiety that it’s not only a pleasure on the page, and in most of its recorded incarnations, but will surely be top of the list for revival once the theatres re-open.
Restagings are occasionally jeered at for being too obvious a choice, but I suspect we will now embrace the play like an old friend, realising, as if for the first time in our lives, the importance of The Importance of Being Earnest.
The Daily Telegraph