ALGERNON. Why is it that at a bachelor’s establishment the servants invariably drink the champagne? I ask merely for information. LANE. I attribute it to the superior quality of the wine, sir. I have often observed that in married households the champagne is rarely of a first-rate brand. ALGERNON. Good heavens! Is marriage so demoralising as that?
Algernon discusses household finances with his manservant, Lane. The scene establishes a relationship familiar to stage comedies and light operas, that of the indolent, self-indulgent aristocrat and his worldly, wily servant. The audience would expect the servant to try to keep his master from marrying, so as not to cut off his own comforts. The informality between the supposed master and his servant suggests that they share at least some of their vices.
JACK. I am in love with Gwendolen. I have come up to town expressly to propose to her. ALGERNON. I thought you had come up for pleasure? . . . I call that business. JACK. How utterly unromantic you are! ALGERNON. I really don’t see anything romantic in proposing. It is very romantic to be in love. But there is nothing romantic about a definite proposal. Why, one may be accepted.
Jack confides in Algernon about his intentions toward Gwendolen, Algernon’s cousin. Algernon’s response reveals his aristocratic attitude that marriage functions primarily as a financial arrangement. Algernon also maintains a confirmed bachelor’s antagonism toward marriage in general. Jack’s feelings seem sincere, until we recall he has assumed the identity of Ernest, his fictional dissolute younger brother. Jack courts Gwendolen under false pretenses, while accusing Algernon of being unromantic. Jack’s behavior suggests that Algernon’s cynicism has merit.
CHASUBLE. The precept as well as the practice of the Primitive Church was distinctly against matrimony. MISS PRISM [Sententiously]. That is obviously the reason why the Primitive Church has not lasted up to the present day. And you do not seem to realise, dear Doctor, that by persistently remaining single, a man converts himself into a permanent public temptation. Men should be more careful; this very celibacy leads weaker vessels astray.
Doctor Chasuble, a rector, attempts to fend off a matrimonial attack from Miss Prism, the governess of Cecily Cardew. The reluctant rector and the aging, marriage-mad spinster do battle through witty repartee. He pleads his clerical vow of celibacy, which leads Miss Prism to counter with a rebuke of his bachelor status as a moral temptation. Her suggestion that Doctor Chasuble is irresistible to women shows a skilled and practiced hand at flirting. The dialogue assumes that men naturally fear marriage and women naturally feel intent upon attaining a husband.
CHASUBLE [To Miss Prism]. Lætitia! [Embraces her.] MISS PRISM [Enthusiastically]. Frederick! At last! ALGERNON. Cecily![Embraces her.] At last! JACK. Gwendolen! [Embraces her.] At last!
Like all good romantic comedies and melodramas, the play ends with marriage—in this case, of three couples. However, the plot plays with the conventional happy ending. Miss Prism gets the reward of marriage and escapes any punishment for having mislaid a baby. Readers may also infer that Miss Prism’s marriage serves as her punishment. The other two marriages reward the grooms more than the brides. Jack, now revealed to be secretly aristocratic by birth, marries into the landed gentry. Algernon marries a woman with a fortune large enough to support his indolent lifestyle. The audience doubts any of them will live happily ever after.