Sunday, June 3, 2007

The Importance of Being Earnest

Delightful play. I've used The Portable Oscar Wilde for references throughout. Here's the study guide.

Some thoughts to jump-start our brains:
  • The class issues that are brought up, most notably by Lady Bracknell, are also paralleled in Pygmalion. In particular, both challenge the notion of "class" and manners, suggesting that the ability to perform and pretend social roles successfully is all that determines one's social position. A contrast to this view could be Emma, which has a more complex portrait of society: there are social strata, in all classes one finds admirable people but there is only a certain amount of mixing that is proper and beneficial. Neither class nor manners are sufficient, however.
  • Performance and identity are at issue in Shakespeare's As You Like It. Rosalind's unclear sexuality -- and her deliberate staging of the final marriage scene -- query whether one's identity is a matter of choice or presentation (being or becoming). Wilde's play clearly toys with this idea as he satirically derides the Victorian assumption that the exterior and the interior reflect each other; he reveals instead that hypocrisy and repression are rampant in human souls. Naming, too, where Rosalind takes on the name of Ganymede, who then takes on the name of Rosalind contributes to this discussion. Names reflect one's social identity and Rosalind and Jack's appropriations of other names represent an attempt to manipulate it, both to liberate themselves from society's strictures.

What else, folks?

1 comment:

Josh said...

I haven't gone back through _Earnest_ yet -- I will soon -- but it strikes me that the big question we'll have to deal with here is the wit of the play. After all, this is one of the most quoted and quotable plays out there -- can we tie the brilliant language of the play into its social context? The eventual coupling of Algernon and Jack with Gwendolen and Cecily maintains some sort of social propriety -- the mystery of the heritage and the handbag in the train station is solved -- but through the intentionally absurd result of "Ernest" reappearing. It seems as though in a way the reconciling, perhaps conservative aims of comedy are achieved in a consciously preposterous way. Or maybe part of the point is how Wilde lampoons such a sober-minded analysis of such a delightful comic situation.

Also, a fun poem from Dorothy Parker, entitled "Oscar Wilde":

"If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it."