The Importance of Metatheatricality
The metatheatricality of The Importance of Being Earnest constantly establishes and tests the societal norms of Victorian England. Oscar Wilde’s hides societal satire beneath an aesthetic façade characterized by hilarity and romance. In this theatrical piece, Wilde’s witty and vivid characters push their assigned roles in a manner reminiscent of his Victorian society. As well as these norms, relationships and education are examined in Wilde’s play, pointedly through Jack Worthing and Cecily Cardew. Jack’s masquerade as Ernest establishes a performance within the play while Cecily’s studies and interactions with others interfere with Lady Bracknell’s definitions of a proper society.
Lady Bracknell, introduced early on as Algernon’s aunt and socialite, is depicted as the personification of proper Victorian society. Her comments are pointed and precise, taking it upon herself to approve and disapprove of the attitudes and behaviors of others. She declares that she “does not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance” as her stance on education that remains relevant throughout the play. When the masses are educated, their attention turns to the aristocracy, and as she points out, the French Revolution did not end well in this respect. Her connections to other members of high society are asserted through her list of eligible bachelors for her daughter, for she has the “same list as the dear Duchess of Bolton has” (352). The societal network that Lady Bracknell efficiently navigates allows her character to be the voice of the expected social norms the upper class must adhere to. She even takes a defensive tone against her nephew when she tells him “Never speak disrespectfully of Society, Algernon. Only people who can’t get into it do that” (380).
Further examples of these social norms about manners and education are given throughout the play by various other characters. Miss Prism describes the fictional brother, Ernest as an “unfortunate young man” not at all like his brother Jack whose “gravity of demeanor is especially to be commended in one so comparatively young as he is” (358). Here the emergence of metatheatricality comes into play. The character of Ernest never changes although who is playing him does. Cecily comments that her uncle is “so very serious”, his responsibility and demeanor exemplifies a proper Victorian man (358). Ernest, either portrayed by Algernon or Jack, is a lighthearted man leading a bachelor’s life. His manners aren’t as refined as those expected in high society. Lady Bracknell’s comments on the importance of appearance and manner in her remark, “we live, I regret to say, in an age of surfaces” (379). It is the emphasis on manner, appearance, and proper conduct that Wilde’s upper class Victorian society regards as expected and essential.
When Gwendolen and Cecily meet, they are cordial and friendly to each other, each acting their role in society. Their initial meeting reinforces Lady Bracknell’s comment of an age of “surfaces” when Cecily tells Gwen “I am very fond of being looked at” (370). After the Ernest misunderstanding arises, and the ladies begin to become more acquainted, Gwen’s frustration builds up and she tells Cecily, “I warn you, Miss Cardew, you may go too far” (372). Their “shallow mask of manners” drops and they break their character of a polite young woman.
Cecily and Gwen are not the only two play-acting for society; Jack plays the largest part, which gives Wilde’s play its name. Jack explains, “In order to get up to town I have always pretended to have a younger brother of the name Ernest” (347). His masquerade as Ernest, an outgoing individual, is the prime example of metatheatricality in Wilde’s play. This character allows Wilde to examine two aspects of society; country and town life through the bouncing back and forth between personalities. After Jack and Algernon admit that they’ve both been lying about their name, there is suddenly no Ernest or earnestness anymore.
Throughout the play, Ernest constantly appears and disappears, signifying the loss and habitual reemergence of truth. Jack attempts to kill Ernest off in an endeavor to put the façade behind him, then Algernon arrives as his estranged younger brother and their true identities later become known. The irony of the situation grows when Cecily tells Algernon “there is something in the name [Ernest] that seems to inspire absolute confidence” (368). The play on the name Ernest and its equivalence to earnestness is an outlet Wilde uses to tease the role of truth and identity in the upper classes.
When Jack learns his name is indeed Ernest, and his character had become his truth, he tells 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?” (385). This is a comment on Wilde’s societal commentary. Throughout the play, Wilde presents society satirically; on the surface, there is an entertaining farce, beneath it lies a critique of the ridiculousness and splendor of high society. At the end of the play for Wilde to admit to speaking the truth the entire time, his production succeeded in beguiling the audience and imposing his critique of the Victorian societal norms. He used this witty form of theatre to test the predetermined roles of his characters in a way entertaining to the masses.
The reaffirmation of truth and one’s role in society throughout the play allows Wilde to test these same social norms through his characters. One such instance is how power plays an interesting role in the plot structure, particularly in the romantic plot. The Victorian era was a patriarchal society, despite this, Cecily holds the power in the romance between her and Algernon. After Cecily and Gwendolen learn the truth behind Ernest’s identity, they decide to question the men. The women decide to speak at the same time so that they are equal in their interrogation. They tell the men that “much depends on your reply”, in reference to their engagement (377). The women are in complete control of their relationship at this moment; they are able to choose if they wish to proceed in their engagement with these men. Furthermore, after learning that neither of the mens’ names are Ernest, Gwendolen and Cecily both say, “your Christian names are still and insuperable barrier” (377). Both men jump to say that they will be christened under the name Ernest to appease the women.
This control of the relationship is furthered by Cecily’s forwardness. When Algernon proposes to Cecily, she replies, “You silly boy! Of course. Why we have been engaged for the last three months” (367). In this society, it is the man’s place to propose to the woman, not for the woman to surprise the man with their secret preexisting engagement. Lady Bracknell explains “An engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise”, not the other way around (352). When Algernon excuses himself to leave, Cecily tells him “Considering that we have been engaged since February the 14th, and that I only met you today for the first time, I think it is rather hard that you should leave me for so long a period as a half hour” (369). This forwardness that Cecily has allows her to take control of her relationship with Algernon. Wilde uses Cecily to push against patriarchal norms, and create uniquely strong-willed female characters who interact with each other.
Lastly, The Importance of Being Earnest discusses education with a grain of salt. Lady Bracknell says, “German sounds a thoroughly respectable language” in regard to upper class language studies (350). This juxtaposes Cecily’s dislike of her studies, screaming “Horrid Political Economy! Horrid Geography! Horrid, horrid German!” (360). Where Lady Bracknell thought German was a suitable language, Cecily detests it and avoids her study, even telling Ms. Prism, “I don’t like German. It isn’t at all a becoming language. I know perfectly well that I look quite plain after my German lesson” (358). Cecily’s argument against her study is effective since it calls back in to question the “world of surfaces”. In a society that values appearances above all else, anything that derives from a perfect appearance should be considered improper, such as a German lesson. Cecily’s lack of emphasis on education further leads her to choose Algernon, she says, “Oh I don’t think I would care to catch a sensible man. I shouldn’t know what to talk to him about” (361). Algernon, who would rather play the piano with passion than accuracy, fits her description. Where Lady Bracknell expects a lady to be educated and sensible, Cecily ‘s actions illustrate her deviance from this social norm.
Oscar Wilde used theatre as an outlet for his voice to be heard. Through his sharp-tongued characters he was able to reflect society in a sardonic way that challenged social roles. Cecily’s quick wit and social disposition defy the submissive, proper role of a lady in high society, while Jack’s alter ego, Ernest, creates a metatheatrical element in this work. Definitions of a proper society are brought up throughout the play, personified through the character of Lady Bracknell, but it is the denial of these norms that make the Importance of Being Earnest a social breakthrough.