Books: Classic of the Week – The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

‘Everybody is clever nowadays… The thing has become a public nuisance. I wish to goodness we had a few fools left’

Callie White gives a little nod towards the opening of The Merry Wives of Windsor with a review of another classic comedy.

The Importance of Being Earnest is by far the most famous, the most laugh-out-loud, of all Wilde’s plays and for that reason is not recommended for public reading. We are at a sad point in history where solitary, public laughter is deemed insanity, and for that reason the library, the park, and even the pub are out of bounds. You don’t believe literature can be that hilarious? You’ve clearly been reading the wrong things.

Despite that, the prospect of actually having to sell this wonderful play is beyond me purely because it so effortlessly sells itself and I do not believe a review could ever do justice to its gem-like nature. The premise is this: Algernon and Jack leave their eccentric life in town to go Bunburying around the countryside, causing havoc, stuffing their faces, and falling in love. It is a tribute to wealth and extravagance, cucumber sandwiches and the glorious comedy of misunderstanding.

Plays are often considered unappealing because they are assumed to be hard-work but with this dazzling, light-hearted comedy nothing could be further from the truth.

An example of the sparkling wit that shines on each line can be seen in the very first lines of Wilde’s opening:

Algernon: Did you hear what I was playing Lane?
Lane: I didn’t think it polite to listen, sir.
Algernon: I’m sorry for that, for your sake. I don’t play accurately… but I play with wonderful expression.

Even if you sidestep everything else we recommend in this tremendous section this year, do yourself a favour, and read this. Never again will you hear someone exclaim about a handbag with quite as much emotion.


The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays is, as ever, available from Oxford World’s Classics.

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