Aestheticism, Performance and The Importance of Being Earnest
|Algernon and Jack
“I could deny it if I liked. I could deny anything if I liked.”
-Jack Worthing, Act II
“In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.”
– Gwendolen Fairfax, Act III
“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?”
-Jack Worthing, Act III
This paper links Oscar Wilde‘s play, The Importance of Being Earnest, to aestheticism, the movement to which Wilde belonged. It explores the idea of performance, specifically, how the main characters’ personalities both change and remain unchanged within these performances. The first goal is to establish Algernon and Jack as opposite characters who are both artificial because they both put on a performance, or pretend to be Ernest. It then aims to demonstrate that artificiality should be morally neutral because every human being is required to be artificial in life. After coming to this realization, we are able to disregard the characters’ artificial natures and finally conclude that Jack is moral and Algernon is immoral solely on the basis of their personalities, rather than on any degree of artificiality they display.
The Importance of Being Earnest, is truly a product of its time, an artistic testament to the values of the aesthetic movement. It was first performed at the St. James’ Theatre in London on February 14th, 1895. This era, the end of the Nineteenth Century, is typically described as fin de siècle– a French word that literally means the end of the century, but which implies much more. Bergonzi notes that the phrase was “applied to a wide range of trivial behavior, provided it was sufficiently perverse or paradoxical or shocking” (19). In order to behave in this manner, many aesthetes adopted a conscious mode of performance, as it took effort to “shock” others. Their reason for doing so was mostly to disrupt, or counteract, the strict morality that characterized the Victorian Age. The aesthetes, and many others, sought an alternative lifestyle, or one that was not subjected to the Victorian perception of morality.
Performance is a central theme in The Importance of Being Earnest. Both of Wilde’s main characters, Jack and Algernon, lead double lives, which means that they are each pretending to be someone they are not, or performing. Jack creates a younger, troublesome brother for himself, named Ernest, whom he pretends to be in the city. After discovering Jack’s secret, Algernon also takes on the role of Ernest, though he is no stranger to the double life. (Algernon had already invented an invalid friend named Bunbury, whom he pretended to visit frequently.) Essentially, both Jack and Algernon become actors in their own lives and have to craft separate performances for these additional roles. When they do become these alternative characters, however, they do not completely abandon their old selves. Jack and Algernon retain many of they key aspects of their original personalities within their performances.
Algernon Moncrieff: Intensely Wicked
Algernon, as a member of the upper-class, is both idle and indulgent. He never attends to his responsibilities nor does he keep his commitments. In fact, he frequently uses Bunbury as a means of escaping dinner parties which he has promised to attend. Wilde uses Algernon as a means of criticizing the elite of his society and to condemn the old Victorian values to which aestheticism was strongly opposed. In order to do so, he has Algernon deliver many hypocritical lines, such as, “[the lower orders] seem, as a class, to have absolutely no sense of moral responsibility” (Wilde 184). Such a statement would have been extremely ironic at the time, as it was the upper classes to which Algernon belongs, that were identified as suffering from moral degradation (Huggins 589-590).
Algernon is also a charming, playful character, which implies that he has a certain knack for performance. His charm comes in the form of many brilliantly witty statements that are intended to both “shock” and amuse his audience. In Act One, he declares, “You don’t seem to realize, that in married life three is company and two is none” (Wilde 190). Algernon implies that in order to have a successful marriage, one must have another person on the side. He is referring to his own “bunburying,” which means that the third person is actually himself. It is this ambiguity that allows Algernon to pull off such an indecent statement. He is able to suggest the necessity of infidelity without actually committing to his suggestion.
Another of Algernon’s personality traits is selfishness. He allows his dear friend, Jack, to dig himself into a hole in regards to the cigarette case, before admitting that he suspected Jack of being a “bunburyist” all along (188). He is deeply amused by Jack’s unsuccessful attempts to conceal the truth and is unaffected by Jack’s discomfort.
When Algernon acts as Ernest, these personality traits intensify. Upon his arrival in the country, it is made clear that he will continue to neglect his responsibilities. He says to Jack’s ward, Cecily, “I have a business appointment that I am anxious… to miss” (209). He also continues to treat life in a playful, trivial manner. When Cecily calls him her Uncle Jack’s “wicked” brother, Algernon denies it (208). After sensing that Cecily is quite disappointed that this is not true, Algernon quickly retorts, “Oh! Of course I have been rather reckless!” (209) With this interaction he exposes both his ability to adapt quickly and to say precisely what one would like to hear, which are both indicative of strong improvisational skills. Since Algernon is aware that Cecily has shown an interest in Ernest, he puts his skills to use in wooing her. He tells her, “I want you to reform me. You might make that your mission, if you don’t mind, cousin Cecily” (209-210). Algernon’s attempts to charm Cecily reemphasize his selfish nature, as he does so without Jack’s permission. Furthermore, he is fully aware that Jack intends to “kill off” Ernest, yet he disregards the difficulties his arrival will cause Jack in doing so.
Moreover, Algernon’s affections for Cecily seem implausible as they have just met. In professing his intent to marry her, he completely negates the cynical remarks he previously made about marriage. Therefore, Algernon’s tendency to indulge reaches a climax as he throws himself into more hypocrisy. Previously, he was eating and drinking freely, now he is professing his love for another without restraint. Proving to be the ideal match for Algernon, Cecily emphasizes Algernon’s personality traits by mirroring them to an extent. For example, she claims to return his love and admits that she has felt this way since her Uncle Jack first started talking about how “wicked” he was. She has even given herself gifts and letters from Ernest, which Algernon pretends to have sent, although both characters know that this is a complete fallacy. This shows that neither of the characters places much value on pursuing the truth. They make whatever appeals to them most at the time their own truth, and furthermore, they are delighted by the dramatics and the performance involved in carrying on an unwelcome love affair. Their resolve to create their own reality is emphasized when Cecily asks Algernon, “I hope your hair curls naturally, does it?” He replies “Yes, darling, with a little help from others” (219). Rather than pointing out the obvious contradiction in his response, Cecily simply responds, “I am so glad” (220). Therefore, Algernon’s personality traits carry over into his performance as Ernest. Though he pretends to be more “wicked” than he really is, he maintains most of his own characteristics. His mode of performance is more of an amplification of his own personality rather than the crafting of an entirely new character.
Jack Worthing: Unwittingly Earnest
Whereas Algernon is idle, hypocritical, playful, and selfish, Jack is almost the complete opposite. Wilde emphasizes their opposing natures by having Jack contradict many of Algernon’s more ridiculous statements. For example, Algernon claims, “The only way to behave to a woman is to make love to her, if she is pretty, and to someone else if she is plain.” Jack replies, “Oh, that is nonsense” (186). Jack repeats this retort frequently throughout the First Act, which in turn, causes the audience to identify him as their source of sense.
Jack even expresses a certain reluctance to continue living a double life. He claims that he will “kill off” his brother Ernest, as soon as Gwendolen accepts his marriage proposal. Algernon, however, says that “Nothing will induce [him] to part with Bunbury…” (190). These lines show that Jack understands the consequences of carrying on such a lifestyle and that he desires to be truthful with Gwendolen, whereas Algernon refuses to take himself and his lifestyle seriously. Jack is also sincere in his affections for Gwendolen. He professes his love only after courting her for an acceptable amount of time, which makes his assertion much more dependable than Algernon’s.
When it comes to caring for Cecily, Jack is very responsible. Not only does he outline a strict course of study for her, but he also provides a perfect example of sobriety with his own demeanor. In fact, her teacher, Miss Prism, claims to “know no one who has a higher sense of duty and responsibility” (205). However, Jack is not an untouchable, stoic figure in her life. He shows tenderness and general concern for Cecily. For example, in Act Two, Jack refuses to shake Algernon’s hand. He eventually overcomes his own pride and does so, but only after Cecily says that she will never forgive him if he doesn’t (215).
When Jack acts as Ernest, he lets loose a little, but still manages to maintain his respectability. For example, when Lady Bracknell separates Gwendolen and Jack, the stage directions indicate that they “blow kisses to each other behind Lady Bracknell’s back” (196). Such an action seems foolish for a respectable man like Jack, but the audience can over-look this instance simply because his love for Gwendolen comes across as sincere.
He even seems to mimic Algernon’s indulgent personality to some extent. When Algernon asks why he is in London, Jack responds, “Oh, pleasure, pleasure! What else should bring one anywhere?” (184). We can see from these lines that he is much more carefree as Ernest and not weighed down by the pressure of providing a good example for Cecily. Unlike Algernon, however, Jack is not over-indulgent. He only comes to town after he has attended to his duties in the country.
Jack also loses some of his composure in portraying Ernest. When being badgered by Lady Bracknell, who wishes to discern whether or not he is a suitable match for Gwendolen, he initially remains calm but is still firm in his responses. For example, when Lady Bracknell says that his lack of family history is unsuitable, he responds, “May I ask you then what you would advise me to do? I need hardly say I would do anything in the world to ensure Gwendolen’s happiness” (199). He refuses to give up his pursuit of Gwendolen, but still questions Lady Bracknell in a polite fashion. Eventually Jack does lose his temper with her, which causes her to storm out of the room indignantly (199). By this point, however, Lady Bracknell has become so ridiculous in her inquiries that one can hardly blame Jack for getting upset. Therefore, when Jack acts as Ernest, he is slightly more playful, indulgent, and less composed, yet he is still respectable.
In performing, or in acting as Ernest, both Jack and Algernon alter their personalities, yet they do not fully abandon their original personalities. Essentially, Jack and Algernon are two very different characters; they are almost opposites. This fact will be important in trying to discern the morality of each character.
Artificiality & Morality
Performance, or pretending to be something that one is not, is a type of artificiality. Therefore, though Jack and Algernon are two very different characters, each is artificial as they both pretend to be someone they are not– Ernest. Furthermore, we tend to view artificiality as a negative attribute, even deeming it as “immoral” since it requires one to be dishonest. Under these constraints, both the disreputable Algernon and the respectable Jack would be immoral characters.
Wilde would disagree with this negative view of artificiality and with the consequential negative judgement of his characters. The opening remarks in his Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young, are as follows, “The first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible. What the second duty is no one has as yet discovered.” He justified such an assertion through the aesthetic belief that life should imitate art. Essentially, this means that each person becomes an actor and the world becomes a stage on which he must perform. A fellow aesthete, Arthur Symons, remarked that “[Wilde’s] intellect was dramatic, and the whole man was not so much a personality as an attitude… without being an artist, he maintained the attitude of an artist, and it was precisely in his attitudes that he was most sincere” (Miyoshi 24). Every word that Wilde spoke and every action he took was carefully planned out in order to portray himself in the manner he desired. He felt it was important to exercise control over one’s own image, and he did so by embracing artificiality, or by becoming a master of performance.
Though we may not all be masters of performance, we are all performing nonetheless. Therefore if it is impossible to be authentic, how can one be deemed immoral for being artificial? Wilde and the aesthetes would have resolved this issue by calling for a complete divide between artificiality and morality. For them, artificiality was morally neutral. They arrived at this conclusion by way of the aesthetic belief that art should be autonomous, or separate from any type of moral instruction. Vernon Lee explains, “to appreciate a work of art means, therefore, to appreciate that work of art itself, as distinguished from appreciating something outside it, something accidentally or arbitrarily connected with it” (qtd. in Evangelista 5). Algernon and Jack’s performances, as well as all of ours, are a form of art, and as a result, should not be subjected to any type of moral judgment.
Within the play, Wilde arrives at this conclusion by having Jack question whether or not one is truly capable of being honest and authentic. When Jack is forced into admitting that he never had a brother named Ernest, he says, “It is very painful for me to be forced to speak the truth. It is the first time in my life that I have ever been reduced to such a painful position, and I am really quite inexperienced in doing anything of the kind” (227-228). Beyond the obvious humor in these lines, there is a serious philosophical statement being made. Jack transcends his own character and speaks for all of humanity. He is simply repeating Algernon’s earlier assertion that “the truth is rarely pure and never simple” in a more personal and purposeful way (189). With these lines, Jack points out how absurd it is to be forced to tell the truth because humans are incapable of deciphering and pinpointing a thing as complex as the truth. Essentially, artificiality, a form of dishonesty, is a universal trait of humanity.
Therefore, Jack and Algernon must be judged for what lies beneath their artificialities– their personalities. As discussed above, Jack possesses all the traits of a moral figure. He is sensible, responsible, and sincere. On the other hand, Algernon is the immoral figure. He is idle, indulgent, playful and selfish. Wilde solidifies Jack’s morality by having all of his lies become truths at the end of the play. He finds out that he is actually Algernon’s older brother and that his name was meant to have been Ernest. Therefore, his two major lies, the creation of a brother and his role-playing as that brother, become the truth. This revelation proves that the acts of being artificial and truthful are not necessarily mutually exclusive, as Jack ends up being honest despite his artificiality. In a classically Wildean fashion, the play leaves us with the paradoxical understanding that the only way to be natural is to be artificial.
Clips from the South Coast Repertory’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest. Specific examples of performance as discussed above begin around the 00:57 mark.
Algernon and Jack photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Bergonzi, Bernard. The Turn of a Century; Essays on Victorian and Modern English Literature. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1973. Print.
Evangelista, Stefano. British Aestheticism and Ancient Greece: Hellenism, Reception, Gods in Exile. Great Britain: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. Print.
Huggins, Mike J. “More Sinful Pleasures? Leisure, Respectability and the Male Middle Classes in Victorian England.” Journal of Social History 33.3 (2000): 585-600. JSTOR. Web. 22 Feb. 2010. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3789212>
Miyoshi, Masao. The Theme of the Divided Self in Victorian Literature. Diss. New York University, 1963. Ann Arbor: Photocopy, 1968. Print.
The Important of Being Earnest video clips courtesy of South Coast Repertory. Video can be found on their YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/SouthCoastRepertory
Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays. New York: Modern Library, 2003. Print.
Contributor: Delanie Laws