Nothing will induce me to part with with Bunbury, and if you ever get married, which seems to me extremely problematic, you will be very glad to know Bunbury. A man who marries without knowing Bunbury has a very tedious time of it.
The play opens in the morning room of Algernon Moncrieff’s flat in the fashionable Mayfair section of London’s West End. As the curtain rises, Algernon’s butler, Lane, is onstage laying out afternoon tea while Algernon, offstage, plays the piano badly. Before long, the music stops and Algernon enters talking about his playing, but Lane says ironically that he didn’t feel it was “polite” to listen. Algernon briefly defends his musicianship, then turns to the matter of Lane’s preparations for tea. Algernon asks particularly about some cucumber sandwiches he has ordered for Lady Bracknell, his aunt, who is expected for tea along with her daughter, Gwendolen Fairfax, Algernon’s cousin. Lane produces the cucumber sandwiches, which Algernon begins to munch absentmindedly, casually remarking on an extremely inaccurate entry he’s noticed in the household books. He speculates aloud on why it is that champagne in bachelors’ homes always gets drunk by the servants. There follows some philosophical chat about the nature of marriage and the married state. Then Algernon dismisses Lane and soliloquizes briefly on the moral duty of the servant class.
Lane reenters and announces the arrival of Mr. Ernest Worthing, the play’s protagonist, who shortly will come to be known as Jack. Algernon greets Jack with evident enthusiasm, asking whether business or pleasure has brought him to town. Jack says pleasure. He notices the elaborate tea service and asks whom Algernon expects. When Algernon tells him Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen will be coming by, Jack is delighted. He confesses that he has come to town for the express purpose of proposing to Gwendolen. A brief debate follows as to whether this purpose constitutes “business” or “pleasure,” and in the course of it, Jack reaches for one of the cucumber sandwiches. Algernon reprimands him, saying that they have been ordered expressly for his aunt. Jack points out that Algernon has been eating them the whole time they’ve been talking. Algernon argues that it’s appropriate for him to eat the sandwiches since Lady Bracknell is his aunt and suggests that Jack help himself to the bread and butter, which has been ordered for Gwendolen. When Jack begins eating the bread and butter a bit too enthusiastically, Algernon accuses Jack of behaving as though he were already married to Gwendolen. He reminds Jack he isn’t yet engaged to her and says he doubts he ever will be. Surprised, Jack asks what Algernon means. Algernon reminds Jack that Gwendolen is his first cousin and tells him that before he gives his consent to the union, Jack “will have to clear up the whole question of Cecily.” Jack professes bewilderment and says he doesn’t know anyone named Cecily. By way of explanation, Algernon asks Lane to find “that cigarette case Mr. Worthing left in the smoking room the last time he dined here.”
The cigarette case, when it arrives, causes Jack some consternation and Algernon much glee. Jack seems to have forgotten that the case bears an inscription from “little Cecily” to “her dear Uncle Jack.” Algernon forces Jack to explain what the inscription means, and Jack admits his name isn’t really Ernest at all—it’s Jack. Algernon pretends to be incensed and disbelieving. He points out that Jack has always introduced himself as Ernest, that he answers to the name Ernest, that he even looks as though his name were Ernest. He pulls out one of Jack’s visiting cards and shows him the name and address on it, saying he intends to keep the card as proof that Jack’s name is Ernest. With some embarrassment, Jack explains that his name is “Ernest in town and Jack in the country.”
Algernon is still unsatisfied. He tells Jack he has always suspected him of being “a confirmed and secret Bunburyist,” a term he refuses to define until Jack explains why he goes by two completely different names, and he requests that the explanation be “improbable.” Jack protests that his explanation is not improbable. He says the old gentleman who adopted him as a boy, Mr. Thomas Cardew, in his will made him guardian to his granddaughter, Miss Cecily Cardew, who lives on Jack’s country estate with her governess, Miss Prism, and addresses Jack as her uncle out of respect. Algernon slips in questions about the location of Jack’s estate, but Jack refuses to answer and continues with his explanation.
Jack says that anyone placed in the position of legal guardian must have moral views about everything, and since the utmost morality doesn’t bring great happiness, he has always pretended to have a troublesome younger brother named Ernest who lives at the Albany Hotel and who frequently gets in trouble. This false brother gives Jack an excuse to go to town whenever he wants to.
Algernon counters by telling Jack a secret of his own. Just as Jack has invented a younger brother so as to be able to escape to London, Algernon has invented a friend called Bunbury, a permanent invalid whose sudden and frequent relapses afford him a chance to get away to the country whenever he wants. Bunbury’s illness, for instance, will allow Algernon to have dinner with Jack that evening, despite the fact that he has been committed, for over a week, to dining at Lady Bracknell’s. Algernon wants to explain the rules of “Bunburying” to Jack, but Jack denies being a “Bunburyist.” He says if Gwendolen accepts his marriage proposal he plans to kill off his imaginary brother, and that he’s thinking of doing so in any case because Cecily is taking too much interest in Ernest. Jack suggests that Algernon do the same with Bunbury. While the two men argue about the uses and merits of a married man’s “knowing Bunbury,” Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen are announced.
The opening scene of The Importance of Being Earnest establishes a highly stylized, unrealistic world in which no one talks the way ordinary people talk and very little seems to matter to anyone. Algernon and Lane, as well as most other characters in the play, are both literary constructs, that is, literary devices created solely to say particular things at particular moments. They have almost no life or significance apart from the way they talk. Their language is sharp, brittle, and full of elegant witticisms and mild, ironic pronouncements. Lane’s first line, for example, regarding Algernon’s piano playing, is an insult couched in polite, elegant language. We can see the play’s lack of realism in the way Algernon and Lane behave over Lane’s inaccurate entry in the household books. Lane has entered considerably more wine than was actually drunk to cover the fact that he himself has been drinking huge amounts of expensive champagne on the sly. Algernon shows no more concern over the stealing than Lane does over its having been discovered, and both men seem to take for granted that servants steal from their masters. In the world of the play, the deception is simply an expected daily nuisance.
A central purpose of the scene between Algernon and Lane is to lay the foundation for the joke about the cucumber sandwiches, an incident that marks the first appearance of food as a source of conflict as well as a substitute for other appetites. Algernon has ordered some cucumber sandwiches especially for Lady Bracknell, but during the scene with Lane, he absentmindedly eats all the sandwiches himself. In this particular scene, food substitutes for the idea of sex. Algernon’s insatiable appetite, his preoccupation with food, and his habit of wantonly indulging himself politely suggest other forms of voraciousness and wanton self-indulgence. This idea becomes apparent in the early exchange between Algernon and Jack over the question of whether Jack should eat cucumber sandwiches or bread and butter. Here, Algernon interprets eating as a form of social, even sexual, presumption. Algernon can eat the cucumber sandwiches because he’s Lady Bracknell’s blood relation, but Jack, who hardly knows Lady Bracknell, should stay away from them. When Jack demonstrates too much enthusiasm for the bread and butter, Algernon reproaches him for behaving as though he were “married to [Gwendolen] already,” as though he had touched her in an aggressive or salacious manner.
Though Jack’s double life is amusing and light in many ways, his deception also suggests he has a darker, more sinister side, and to this extent his actions reveal the vast separation between private and public life in upper-middle-class Victorian England. Algernon suspects Jack of leading a double life when the play opens, and he goads him, asking where he’s been. He asks Jack pointed questions about his house in Shropshire, knowing full well that Jack’s country estate isn’t in Shropshire, although this seems to be what Jack has always claimed. Algernon doesn’t let on that he knows Jack is lying, and he lets Jack get deeper and deeper into his lie. The idea of a man not knowing where his best friend lives is absurd, of course, and this sort of unrealism gives The Importance of Being Earnest its reputation as a piece of light, superficial comedy. In fact, Jack’s deception is more sinister than Algernon’s rather innocent “Bunburying,” and he ultimately misrepresents the truth to all those closest to him. Jack is in many ways the Victorian Everyman, and the picture he paints about social mores and expectations is, beneath the surface, a damning one.