The importance of being funny

On Monday this week, my 19th Century literature class went to see a screening of the British play “The Importance of being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde. If you have never seen this play, or a film version of it, I implore you to do so.

This particular version is hilarious with David Suchet as Lady Bracknell, and the other actors all putting their particular ‘bent’ on the roles, making the play absolutely come to life.

Oscar Wilde was a brilliant man who was born and raised in Dublin. His father was also a brilliant man and a talented surgeon, who was knighted for his medical service. He founded a hospital to treat the poor and funded it out of his own pocket. Oscar’s mother, Jane was a talented linguist and poet. So Oscar came from good stock.

Oscar Wilde was an Oxford scholar who loved to promote the aesthetic movement. That is that art should be for arts sake, for pleasure. He was all for making people laugh. He also authored many popular children’s stories and short stories which were popular with society.

Although Wilde was a member of the Elite Society, I think he would have abhorred being associated with it. His play, ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ was making fun or satirising the very society of which he was a part. He thought that “polite society” was all too serious (or earnest) about things that one should not be serious about at all.

The play opened to rave reviews and much applause. It seems that people liked to have a laugh at themselves. On the opening night of the play however, The Marquess of Queensberry left a card calling Oscar Wilde a  somdomite(sic). At the time Wilde was in a relationship with the son of the Marquess, Lord Alfred Douglas. With the encouragement of some young friends, Oscar then sued the Marquess for libel; a case he lost.

It seems that throughout the History of Britain, politicians and Royalty have found homosexuality to be desirable.Way back in the first century A.D. ( I refuse to use BCE), the Emperor Hadrien, of the wall fame, himself had a male lover. King Edward II and King James I both had homosexual lovers. However polite society of the 19th century did not talk about things that were unpleasant or serious, preferring to be serious about the mundane, giving off an air of naivety of the unpleasant. It was OK to be homosexual, just don’t talk about it.

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Oscar Wilde was never one to obey rules. He bucked and kicked through tradition until tradition changed. His fashion sense was decidedly effeminate, and he was quite open about his relationships with younger men. The basis of the relationships, his defence from the docks, was that the relationships he had with the young men were not primarily sexual but took the form of a mentorship.  His letters and writing were produced by the prosecution, confirming what people already knew; that despite being married with 2 boys of his own, Oscar indeed preferred the company of men. He stated that one could not help but love some men of such beauty, innocence and purity. Unfortunately, he was convicted of Gross Indecency (buggery could not be proved). He was sentenced to 2 years hard labour.

Oscar Wilde Quotes - poets-and-writers Fan Art

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Oscar Wilde became a persona non grata in society even after he served his time. He was forced to go live in France, where he died not long after. At the time, the works of Oscar Wilde were no longer found on the shelves of those in society, he was not talked about, it was as if history had forgotten him. But time indeed has a way of healing old wounds and the great works he wrote seemed to fight through the condemnation that society metted out. Dorian Gray being heralded as one of the best novels ever written, and ‘Earnest’ one of the best plays.

I think society has changed somewhat since then. We have started to accept that while  a person may be bad, we admit (not out loud), that the work they create can be brilliant. Look at the artwork of former hitman Roy ‘Red Fox’ Pollitt for example, or the writings and other activities of Mark  “Chopper” Read. There was even a comedy event called “Comedians with a Criminal Record” in the US.

It is indeed Important to be Earnest, but it is also important to laugh.


many thanks to

Mark Brandon Chopper Read

and Miss Mermaid Blue for her constructive criticism.




Filed under 19th Century Literature, Comments and classwork, literature

2 responses to “The importance of being funny

  1. The thing that I notice immediately with The Importance of Being Earnest, is what a camp sense of humour Oscar had. I wonder why?

    Gay law reform was certainly a good thing for Western societies. Sadly, it came a little too late for Oscar. . .

  2. This is a wonderful entry on Wilde David. I can see that you are making a wonderful meal out of this opportunity to Blog. This is truly showcase material! Thank you for all your efforts here.

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