The Four-Acts of “The Importance of Being Earnest”

While reading “The Importance of Being Earnest,” I watched a play version of the text to follow along on YouTube. It is performed by Bethany Lutheran College ( It was only halfway through the play in Act II that I saw the divergence between both versions, which made me turn back to the introduction written by Vyvyan Holland. In the introduction, he writes, “Wilde originally wrote the play in four acts, as he had written his other three major plays. He submitted this form to George Alexander, who, with the object of making room for a ‘curtain raiser,’ as was usual in those days, asked Wilde to cut it to three acts… As Mr. Phillip Drake, who is responsible for this edition of Wilde’s works, remarked, it seems a pity that George Alexander should have a permanent influence on the play” (13). Vyvyan also notes how the three-act version is typically reprinted, published, and referred to. I became curious about the differences between both versions of the plays and their comparison.

            In the four-act version of the play, Gribsby, a solicitor with many quips and amusing lines, issues a writ to Mr. Earnest Worthing, who is Algernon but actually Jack, for racking up an extravagant bill while dining. He would be incarcerated for twenty days if he could not pay his bill. Jack claims he has “never saw such reckless extravagance in all my life,” ironic precisely because he is the cause of the extravagance and the bill when under his persona of Earnest (350). He ends up paying the bill when Algernon refuses to do so, praised for his “generosity [which is] quite foolish,” according to Miss Prism (352). As many have been saying in their blog posts, Wilde satirizes the aristocracy, but in the same subtle way as he did in “An Ideal Husband.” Since this was the original play and Wilde intended for his audience of English high society members to experience this scene, it is a bold move because it shows how excess extravagance has legal implications, like being incarcerated. Although Jack can pay off the bill (a critique of aristocracy and how they can use money to get out of such situations), he was still under the threat of incarceration. I wonder what others think about this scene and how Wilde himself would view people reprinting the three-act-version, with the four acts primarily forgotten. It is also interesting considering this scene in the context of Wilde being incarcerated for gross indecency quickly after “The Importance of Being Earnest” opened. How do incarceration and class status interact in this English society?

2 thoughts on “The Four-Acts of “The Importance of Being Earnest””

  1. It is very interesting that this particular scene was cut in the thee-act version of the play. This moment is the closest any of the characters come to facing repercussions for their actions. Even though nothing came of it, I imagine that even the threat of incarceration was a scandalous endeavor for the upper classes. The removal of this scene is also interesting because of Wilde’s own incarceration, as you noted. Was the three-act version of the play created before or after his incarceration?

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