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‘the Tone Says Life Is Fun. the Undertone Suggests Life Is a Catastrophe’. to What Extent Do You Think Eric Bentley’s Comment About the Dramatic Genre of Comedy Is Relevant to Oscar Wilde’s the Importance of Being Earnest?

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‘The tone says life is fun. The undertone suggests life is a catastrophe’. To what extent do you think Eric Bentley’s comment about the dramatic genre of comedy is relevant to Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest?

The philosopher and literary critic Sigmund Freud agreed with Bentley’s statement on the dramatic genre of comedy, agreeing that ‘every joke contains an element of seriousness; a joke is never just a joke’. Wilde uses many aspects of comedy to back this opinion.

The character of Lady Bracknell was created as a comic tool by Wilde to generate fun for the audience; her dialogue is essentially a way of creating humour, despite her domineering nature which is made absurd and ridiculous to mock the upper classes. This creates a light hearted tone. However, Wilde also uses the character of Lady Bracknell to express the undertone of catastrophe through her unwittingly funny comments on serious subjects. As soon as Lady Bracknell enters in Act one Wilde uses her as a tool to mock marriage. She talks about Lady Harbury who has recently lost her husband and, Lady Bracknell comments, ‘she looks quite twenty years younger’. Lady Harbury looking well is certainly due to the restraints of her strict Victorian marriage being broken, so she can now live ‘for pleasure’. In the 21st century if your husband died you would mourn his death, because modern marriages are mainly for love, not to gain status and money. This is part of the tone which Wilde has set of frivolity over sincerity. During Bracknell’s interrogation of Jack after his proposal to Gwendolyn, Wilde fills the dialogue with quips at the aristocracy which is an excellent example of satire. In just four lines Bracknell manages to turn more than one issue with Victorian society into a joke. For example, ‘A man should always have an occupation of some kind. There are far too many idle men in London as it is.’ This mocks how the lower orders were often unemployed; a serious issue as much of the population was in poverty, but Wilde made it comic by having Bracknell believe smoking is a worthwhile occupation for the aristocracy. On the other hand Wilde deliberately chose a habit prevalent in society to create farce since smoking could hardly be deemed a worthy profession. Another example is when Wilde uses Lady Bracknell’s interrogation of Jack to voice education's ability to divide the classes in the pun, ‘at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever.’ This line negates the purpose of education as it is supposed to teach man everything, however Bracknell declares a man ‘should know… nothing’ and even if he had been educated it would have produced ‘no effect whatsoever’ anyway. That education produces no `effect’ implies that the voices of education in Wilde's society neither ‘produced’ nor allowed the sentiment he labels as his talent in the third line of the play, which is the freedom of expression over academic accuracy. However, this sentiment could be interpreted as frivolity.

To further display the split in society between the frivolous and the serious Wilde chooses the play’s subtitle as ‘a trivial comedy for serious people’ which refers to the inversion of crucial parts of society into something negligible. Wilde displays this frivolity by belittling the class system when Algernon says at the beginning of Act 1 after hearing Lanes ‘Somewhat lax’ views on marriage ‘Really, if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them? They seem, as a class, to have no sense of moral responsibility.’ Wilde has subverted the roles of the upper and lower classes-the upper class should be the ones setting a good example to the lower classes not the other way round. Also, we know because of Algernon’s ‘Bunburying’ to escape appointments which he is ‘eager to miss’, it is in fact him and other members of the upper class who have ‘no sense of moral responsibility’ because they avoid it by creating an imaginary character. This is enforced by the irony of Algernon’s words when he learns Jack’s true identity ‘you are the most earnest-looking person I ever saw in my life’ which we know he definitely is not; he is pretending to be Ernest and using it as an excuse to avoid responsibility. Wilde also belittles marriage in the 19th century through Lane’s and Algernon’s satirical conversation at the beginning of the play. Wilde uses Lane’s supercilious attitude to mock marriage, Algernon asks Lane ‘is marriage so demoralising’ to which Lane replies ‘it is a very pleasant state’ but he goes on to contradict himself implying that to be married many times is the decadent social norm and admitting that he married not for love, but as ‘a consequence of a misunderstanding’. Wilde is making marriage and divorce sound like a frivolous act by having Algernon claim people propose ‘for practice’ and ‘divorces are made in heaven’ inverting the opinion of most members of the Church of England which consisted largely of the upper classes. Also, Wilde was born in Ireland which was predominantly Catholic, in Catholicism divorce is considered a sin therefore divorces cannot be made in heaven. Furthermore, divorces were very rare in Victorian society as they were expensive and entailed the loss of property and wealth, which Lane, who has practised both divorce and marriage, would not have been able to afford as a member of the lower class. Wilde introduces this idea to set the play’s theme ‘a trivial comedy for serious people’.

Wilde also expresses the tone of ‘life is fun’ with an undertone of catastrophe through the use of wordplay. The most important use of wordplay by Wilde is the name ‘Ernest’. The name refers to the characteristic of being ‘Earnest’ - to conduct yourself in a serious and sincere way - which the characters of Algernon and Jack obviously are not as they purposefully avoid responsibility by ‘Bunburying’ or in Jacks case creating a brother ‘Ernest’ who was created so Jack could escape his duties as Cecily’s guardian and go to town instead. Wilde is suggesting aristocrats such as Jack and Algernon avoid facing their responsibilities and neglect their duties and go ‘Bunburying’. However, neglect will always end in ‘catastrophe’. Wilde uses this neologism to create a childish air around the comedic aspect of evasion by creating other characters which both protagonist and antagonist partake in. As we learn later in the play, by dabbling with deceit Algernon and Jack experience discord when their lack of earnestness is revealed taking the fun out of ‘Bunburying’ and leaving them in a ‘catastrophe’. As a result the characters of Jack and Algernon understand the errors of their ways and become ‘earnest’. This is effectively highlighted in the last line of the play ‘I’ve now realised for the first time in my entire life the vital importance of being Earnest’. This is part of the comic structure which is conventionally held to be a movement from misfortune, and separation towards good fortune, reconciliation and restoration of order. This is part of ‘restoration comedy’ as the events leading to the restoration of the monarchy, the root of restoration comedy, follow the order previously stated. This agrees with Eric’s statement as the structure of comedy relies on the undertone of catastrophe to create a vital passing point for the play to move into discord.

Role reversal is also used to create the tone of ‘life is fun’ and expresses catastrophe through the role reversal of Lady Bracknell and her husband. The fact that she is the one to question Mr Worthing after his proposal to Gwendolyn earlier in Act 1 rather than her husband, as would usually be the case in the strongly patriarchal Victorian society, places her in a dominant position which would not normally have been adopted by a woman. This is one of the reasons she is frequently played by a male actor, almost in the style of a pantomime dame. Due to the most serious character being portrayed in such a melodramatic way, the forthright presence of Lady Bracknell is lost in absurdity making it secondary to the humour. When Algernon announces that he cannot dine with her that evening, she complains that it would “put my table completely out” and ‘your uncle would have to dine upstairs. Fortunately he is accustomed to that.’ This suggests that Lord Bracknell is acquiescent because he prefers to avoid such occasions and is practising his own form of ‘Bunburying’. This idea is heightened when we learn that Lord Bracknell is often ill seemingly in the same way as Bunbury and this is doubling, which is frequently seen in the play. Even today, it is very ‘British’ to want to avoid an invitation and make an excuse not to go. Wilde has successfully given something as rude as purposefully avoiding social gatherings a tone of humour, through Lady Bracknell’s ignorance to what her husband is really practising.

Overall, Eric Bentley’s comment about the comic genre applies greatly to Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest as Wilde uses the tone of fun with the undertone of catastrophe to highlight what he believed to be wrong with Victorian society.





Helen Jeal

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