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The Importance of Being Earnest is a comic play by Oscar Wilde. It premiered on 14 February 1895 at the St. James's Theatre in London.

Set in Englandmarker during the late Victorian era, the play's humour derives in part from characters maintaining fictitious identities to escape unwelcome social obligations. It is replete with witty dialogue and satirizes some of the foibles and hypocrisy of late Victorian society. It has proved Wilde's most enduringly popular play.

The successful opening night of this play marked the climax of Wilde's career but also heralded his impending downfall. The Marquess of Queensberry, father of Wilde's lover Lord Alfred Douglas, attempted to enter the theatre, intending to throw vegetables at the playwright when he took his bow at the end of the show. Wilde was tipped off and Queensberry was refused admission. Nonetheless, Queensberry's hostility to Wilde was soon to trigger the latter's legal travails and eventual imprisonment. Wilde's notoriety caused the play, despite its success, to be closed after only 83 performances. He never wrote another play.


Algernon Moncrieff, an aristocratic young Londonermarker, is visited by his best friend, whom he knows as Ernest Worthing. Ernest arrives from the country with the intention of proposing to Algernon's cousin, Gwendolen. Algernon refuses to grant Ernest his permission until he explains why the cigarette case he left in Algernon's flat bears the inscription, "From little Cecily, with her fondest love to her dear Uncle Jack." "Ernest" is thus forced to disclose that he is leading a double life: in the country, he goes by the name of John (or Jack), pretending that he has a wastrel brother named Ernest living in London and requiring his frequent attention. He assumes a serious attitude for the benefit of his ward, Cecily, the granddaughter of Jack's late adoptive father, but in the city, he assumes the name and behaviour of the libertine Ernest. Algernon reveals that he engages in a similar deception: he pretends to have an invalid friend named Bunbury in the country; whenever Algernon wants to avoid unwelcome social obligations, he "goes Bunburying" instead.

Lady Bracknell arrives with Gwendolen, her daughter, and invites Algernon to dine with them, but he uses his Bunbury excuse to get out of the situation. As he distracts Lady Bracknell in another room, Jack proposes to Gwendolen, who accepts, but seems to love him only for his professed name of Ernest; Jack decides to be christened as Ernest. Lady Bracknell walks in on them and insists on thoroughly questioning Jack as a suitor. She is horrified to learn that he was adopted as a baby after being discovered in a handbag at a railway stationmarker. She refuses him and forbids her daughter from ever seeing him. Gwendolen, however, sneaks back to the house to tell Jack that she will always love him, and asks his address in the country. When Jack gives it to her, Algernon writes it on the cuff of his sleeve; Jack's description of his pretty young ward has so appealed to him that he is resolved to meet her.

At Jack's country house, Cecily's governess, Miss Prism, is going over her German lesson with her. However, the rector Dr. Chasuble, an admirer of Miss Prism, arrives, and Cecily manages to get out of her work by setting up a romantic walk between Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism. Algernon arrives, announcing himself as Ernest Worthing. Cecily has for some time imagined herself in love with her Uncle Jack's "wicked" younger brother (even fantasising that they are engaged), and Algernon easily sweeps her off her feet. Like Gwendolen, though, Cecily loves her "Ernest" at least in part for his name, and thus Algernon asks Dr. Chasuble to christen him.

Jack, meanwhile, has decided to put his life as Ernest behind him. He arrives at his country house in mourning clothes claiming that Ernest has died in Paris of a "severe chill", but is forced to abandon this claim by the presence of Algernon in the role of "Ernest".

Gwendolen arrives, having fled London and her mother to be with her love. When she and Cecily meet, in the temporary absence of the two men, each indignantly insists that she is the one engaged to "Ernest". When Jack and Algernon reappear, their deceptions are exposed. When the men explain themselves, they are forgiven, and the women agree not to break off the engagements when each man announces his intention to be re-christened.

Now Lady Bracknell arrives in pursuit of her daughter. She is surprised to find Algernon there instead of with "Bunbury", but is distracted when she learns that Algernon and Cecily are engaged. Any initial doubts over Cecily's suitability as a wife for her nephew are dispelled when the size of Cecily's trust fund is revealed. However, stalemate transpires when Jack denies his consent to the marriage of his ward to Algernon until Lady Bracknell consents to his own marriage to Gwendolen.

The impasse is broken by the appearance of Cecily's governess, Miss Prism. Lady Bracknell recognizes Miss Prism, who twenty-eight years earlier had been a family nursemaid. One day she left Lord Bracknell's house with a baby boy in a perambulator and never returned. Miss Prism explains that, in a moment of "mental abstraction", she had put the manuscript of a novel she was writing in the perambulator, and put the baby in a handbag, which she had left at Victoria Station. Jack produces the very same handbag, showing that he is the lost baby, the elder son of Lady Bracknell's late sister, and thus Algernon's elder brother. Lady Bracknell informs Jack that, as the firstborn son, he must have been named after his father, General Moncrieff, but cannot remember the general's first name. Jack looks in the Army Lists and discovers that his father's name - and hence his - was in fact Ernest after all. As the happy couples embrace - Ernest and Gwendolen, Algernon and Cecily, and Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism - Lady Bracknell complains to her new-found relative: "My nephew, you seem to be displaying signs of triviality."

"On the contrary, Aunt Augusta," he replies, "I've now realized 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 Bracknell (Augusta Fairfax):Mother of Gwendolen, very controlling of her daughter.
  • Hon. Gwendolen Fairfax: daughter of Lady Bracknell. Engaged to Jack Worthing.
  • Cecily Cardew: granddaughter of Thomas Cardew and ward of Jack Worthing. Lives at Jack's country house in Hertfordshire.
  • Miss Laetitia Prism: Cecily's governess.
  • Reverend Canon Frederick Chasuble, D.D.: Rector of the church near Jack’s country house.
  • Lane: Algernon's manservant.
  • Merriman: Jack's butler.
  • Gribsby: a solicitor (only present in the variant four act version of the play).

Alternative 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 for a musical interlude, as was often the bill, is not entirely clear). Wilde agreed to the cuts and various elements of the second and third acts were combined. The ensuing three act play is the version that opened in London and also the version usually performed and published ever since.

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" (i.e. 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 Jailmarker unless he settles his accounts immediately. Jack finally agrees to pay for Ernest — everyone thinking that it is Algy's bill when in fact it is his own.

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.


The Importance of Being Earnest has been translated into many different languages. However, in most languages its title is untranslatable, since it relies on the fact that "Ernest" and "earnest" are homophones in English. Translators have found various solutions to this problem, and the play is sometimes staged under the title Bunbury.

In some languages, the translator removes the pun from the title; in Norwegian it is rendered as Hvem er Ernest? ("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 and Slovak — offer equivalent puns. In Germany the play and the 2002 movie are called Ernst sein ist alles ("Being Ernst is everything", Ernst being both a first name and the German word for serious). 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"). In Dutch it has been translated as Het belang van Ernst, in which the pun is also fully functional. In French, the play is commonly known as De l'importance d'être Constant, Constant being both a (mildly uncommon) first name and also the quality of steadfastness; the pun is thus preserved but with a slightly different meaning. However, French dramatist Jean Anouilh translated the play under an alternative title: Il est important d'être Aimé (Aimé is both a name and the French for "beloved").

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". 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. 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. Likewise, in Esperanto, the play is called La Graveco de la Fideliĝo (the importance of becoming faithful/becoming Fidel).

In Polish, however, the title is Brat Marnotrawny ("The Prodigal Brother"), an allusion to the parable of the Prodigal Son (in Polish: Syn Marnotrawny). In Hebrew it is known as Hashivuta shel retsinut ("The Importance of Seriousness").

Possible inside jokes

Early in his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde and his wife visited Douglas' mother, Lady Queensberry, who wanted to talk to them about her son's lack of academic achievements (he left Oxfordmarker without a degree) and extravagant habits. It has been suggested that for Wilde the visit "had all the embarrassment associated with meeting one's beloved's mother". Lady Queensberry lived in Bracknellmarker.

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. 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.

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 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.

Contrary to claims of homosexual terminology, the actor Sir Donald Sinden, who in the 1940s had met two of the play's original participants (Irene Vanbrugh, the first Gwendolen, and Allan Aynesworth, the first Algy), as well as Wilde's lover Lord Alfred Douglas, wrote to The Times to dispute suggestions that 'Earnest' held any sexual connotations: "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." Gielgud's comment carries added weight given that he was himself well-known in theatrical circles to be gay.

Related facts

  • John Gielgud was possibly the most famous Jack Worthing of the twentieth century, performing the role in several different productions on the English stage, and also in two sound recordings with Dame Edith Evans, certainly the best-remembered Lady Bracknell (see below). His 1947 Broadwaymarker 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 line 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, seen both on stage and in the 1952 film The Importance of Being Earnest, who delivered the line loudly in a mixture of horror, incredulity and condescension.
  • The name 'Miss Prism' is a pun on 'misprision', which has two definitions. 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 Stationmarker 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".
  • 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 (the surname of the play's leading character, Worthingmarker, is itself taken from the town where Wilde was staying when he wrote the play).
  • Based on his own research, Michael Feingold claims that Wilde drew inspiration for his plot from W. S. Gilbert's Engaged.
  • 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 Spanishmarker 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 characters Cecily and Gwendolen in Wilde's play.
  • The play has been previously performed at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival five times beginning in 1975 with William Hutt playing "Lady Bracknell" in both the 1975 and 1976 productions. In the current 2009 production, Brian Bedford plays "Lady Bracknell".
  • On 19 October, 2007, a rare first edition of the play was discovered in a branch of Oxfam in Nantwichmarker, Cheshiremarker, coincidentally in a handbag; ironically mimicking the discovery of Jack Worthing as an infant. 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.

Film versions


See also


  1. Oscar Wilde by Richard Ellman, published in 1987
  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. See, e.g.,,,2245343,00.html
  7. Feingold, Michael, "Engaging the Past" (Note the last paragraph, where Feingold writes, "Wilde pillaged this piece for ideas.")
  8. BBC NEWS | England | Staffordshire | Rare book found in charity shop
  9. Louis Edmonds in Ernest in Love
  10. The Importance of being Earnestina

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