Reflecting on The Importance of Being Earnest

I’ve read Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest three times. The first was in high school for a drama class. We read the play, and then were put into pairs to prepare and perform a scene for the play. The second time was for a theatre class at Notre Dame. We both read and watched a recording of the play to talk about staging and costumes. The third time was for this class, and it’s the only time that I’ve read the play with a specific focus on Oscar Wilde.

If I’m being totally honest, I have a hard time with this play. The first time I read it, I knew that it was considered a great comedy and I didn’t understand what I was missing because I did not find it funny at all. There were witty lines, but nothing that made me laugh out loud and, if anything, I was more annoyed by Wilde’s witticism than amused by it. I had a similar reaction the second time that I read it, and, at this point, think that that is just the way that I react to reading this play.

However, I loved watching the play. That was when the comedy really clicked with me, and I understood why people love The Importance of Being Earnest so much. The Importance of Being Earnest is so farcical and a lot of the comedy is physical. Even though it’s not slapstick, moments like when Cecily gives Gwendolen the opposite of what she asks for at the tea party thrive when you can see the actors make the decision or react to what has happened.

The difference in my reaction to reading versus watching (or even performing a scene) The Importance of Being Earnest made me think about theatre in general and the way in which we approach studying plays. I act in my free time, and there is a lot of value with sitting with a script and really thinking through the language. I think it requires you to move slowly and notice things you might otherwise skim over. However, I think it is equally important to consume art as it was designed to be consumed. Plays are written to be watched and performed, and it is in that setting when they really soar. Plays come to life when they are put onstage, so in order to develop a full opinion of a play, I think it is most fair to watch it and then to go back to the script to read through key moments.

My outlook on this question is shaped by the fact that I have been involved with theatre for most of my life, and the setting in which I have read The Importance of Being Earnest has always–until now–been in a drama class. I may be missing a key element of reading plays that a person coming at it from a different perspective may see.

2 thoughts on “Reflecting on The Importance of Being Earnest”

  1. I agree with you all the way. Plays are meant to be performed. This is something often missed, especially Shakespeare. He did not write his plays to be read. They were, each and every one, written to be performed. In fact, he didn’t even care to get them published. It was two actors who worked with him that, after he died, gathered all the scripts to create “The First Folio”. So anybody that only wants to read Shakespeare is missing the blood and guts of Shakespeare. And I’d go that far with anyone who only wants to read a play. Plays are meant to be seen and experienced. The only advantage to reading a play is avoiding a bad production, but that is the risk you take when you see live theater.

  2. I feel like The Importance of Being Earnest may contrast An Ideal Husband in this regard. In An Ideal Husband, there was a lot of value in the stage directions that would be missed in visual performance. The character descriptions were meant to be read. In The Importance of Being Earnest, the slapstick humor can only be fully realized on stage. Since An Ideal Husband premiered first, I wonder if Wilde adjusted his writing to better suit visual performances or if this contrast occurs for another reason.

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