Jack proceeds to let the audience know "…the vital importance of Being Earnest."
Distortion, Moral Conduct, and Restoration Comedy
Of course, deception and frivolity are part of a farce, and the way that Wilde has written the play characters switch identities as a way for the theme to be deliberately distorted. So this bothers critic Mary McCarthy, who complained that the play has the character of a "…ferocious idyll" and insists that the only moral alternatives offered by Wilde are "selfishness and servility" (Parker, 1974). By "deliberately distorting actuality" Wilde is actually expressing what most people can see is a "comic version of the human condition," Parker writes in the Modern Literature Quarterly. Parker explains that though McCarthy is using standards that don't really fit with a farcical play (particularly in that era), she may be onto something with her assertion that the play is about selfishness because indeed the heroes of "Restoration comedy" match up with the characters in Wilde's play.
Restoration comedy is that period between 1660 and 1710 in England. For 18 years prior to 1660 the Puritan powers that were in charge banned public stage performances, according to a scholarly article in the Princeton University Website. Once public play performances were no longer banned, the "restoration" of live plays featured "a renaissance of English drama"; and that renaissance featured "…sexual explicitness" which appealed to socially diverse audiences, "their servants and hangers-on, and a substantial middle class" group as well.
So, while Parker is not saying that Wilde's play exactly duplicates restoration comedy, the play clearly does "…owe something to the Restoration comic tradition" (p. 1). In that genre of comedy the selfish man is considered to be the "generous one," Parker continues, because he is "not repressed," he has a "good nature," and moreover the character Algernon in "Earnest" makes bold statements that sound like they are right out of a Restoration play:
"My duty as a gentleman has never interfered with my pleasures in the smallest degree" (Parker, p. 1). The male characters in Restoration comedy match up well to Wilde's characters and Parker uses this example as a way to counteract McCarthy's assertions and to help explain Wilde's play as well. The bottom line for Parker in this regard is not that Algernon and Jack (or "John" or "Earnest" if you will) are to be admired for their "roguishness" and sexual exploits. Rather, Algernon and Jack are given their characterizations by Wilde because their behaviors have symbolic value too.
What Wilde was really saying in this play, Parker asserts, beyond just poking fun at Victorian values, is that "…aristocratic young men [in the Victorian era] needed to abandon conventional morality and get back to basic impulse" (Parker, p. 1). That is to say, if the young men of the Victorian era were to avoid being "…annihilated by commercialism and Puritanism"; their wild behaviors proved that they were free and hence, even being selfish is satirical (Parker, p. 1).
Silliness (regarding how quickly situations change) is also part of the amusing nature of the play; when Gwendolen and Cecily first meet they are of course suspicious of one another, Parker points out. But when they realize they both have been deceived, they become affectionate to one another. Suddenly as the dynamics of the situation with Lady Bracknell reach an emotional peak, Cecily and Gwendolen detest each other but soon are back as bosom buddies. "The joke [that Wilde plays on the audience] is that those two women "are neither distressed nor surprised at their own changeability"; to Wilde, love is totally based on impulse and imagination, which it isn't but that's the point of the play.
In conclusion, Wilde's play has been put down by some critics because it is a farce that has no real moral lesson (as apparently critics expect that some ethical or moral value should emerge even from a farce). But taken for what it is, a masterful series of improbably strange coincidences and incidents -- and strange circumstances -- in which characters' real identities are not revealed until the close of the play.
Parker, D. (1974). Oscar Wild's Great Farce: The Importance of Being Earnest. Modern Literature Quarterly, 35(2), 173-186.
Princeton University. (2008). Restoration Comedy. Retrieved June 28, 2013, from…