In conversation with Granville Barker, George Bernard Shaw once bragged that the comedy of his plays was the sugar that he employed to disguise the bitter socialist pill. How clever of the audience, replied Barker, to lick off the sugar and leave the bitter pill unswallowed. Of no play in the whole repertory of well-loved drama could this be more truly said than Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece in three acts, The Importance of Being Earnest. First performed in 1895, to applause that has never died away, it coincided with Wilde’s challenge to the infamous Marquess of Queensberry and with his decision to face his tormentors in court. That drama, which also fell into three acts (Wilde’s suit; Queensberry’s counter-attack; the prosecution of Wilde himself for immorality on the evidence of the first two trials) marked his utter eclipse and decline. In this centennial of Wilde’s triumph and ignominy, what can be done to honor his play as it should be honored?
The Importance is so diverting and witty and fast-moving, and so replete with imperishable characters and mots, that it has been a staple of Anglo-American drawing-room comedy for generations. And, despite the cloud under which its author languished for so long (a cloud, as someone once observed, hardly bigger than a man’s hand) the play has been deemed fit for even the most demure school productions and amateur fiestas. It is a safe bet that Wilde would have appreciated the joke, because we know that he concealed at least one and—I would argue— probably two subtexts in his brittle dialogue.
The first subtext is of course a homosexual one. To be “earnest” in Victorian London was to be gay in the slang of the underworld and the demi-monde (“I hear he’s frightfully earnest”) so that one of the coded laughs at least was up in lights in the middle of the most ostensibly moral and bourgeois capital in history. But the game is deeper than that. The two young men who feature as the play’s central rivals, Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieffe, are both portrayed as leading double lives, and as adopting alter egos, in order to pursue their true desires. The name Bloxam is used for a minor character, but those in the know would have recognized Jack Bloxam, editor of a high-risk homosexual aesthetic magazine to whom Wilde had promised Phrases and Philosophies For the Use of theYoung (“The first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible. What the second duty is no one has as yet discovered”). The magazine, which ran to exactly one edition, was suggestively entitled The Chameleon.