In The Importance of Being Earnest, characters often use words such as bad and wicked and make pronouncements about what is and isn’t acceptable behavior. Do true virtue or wickedness appear in the play?

One of the most interesting aspects of this play is the total absence of either virtue or evil. In earlier Wilde plays, like Lady Windermere’s Fan and An Ideal Husband, he includes acts of kindness—usually on the part of the dandy, who steps in and saves the hero and heroine from some looming crisis. However, no one in The Importance of Being Earnest shows any real sympathy or concern for anyone else, and vice and wickedness are remarkably tame. Algernon’s voracious eating, which at its worst is a spectacle of low-grade rudeness, is as close as anyone comes to actually misbehaving, except for the scene in which Gwendolen and Cecily try their hardest to insult one another, again over food. Even the substance of “wicked” brother Ernest’s fictional transgressions is left undefined, while the whole question of exactly what it is that Jack and Algernon go off and do when they escape from their respective social obligations is left to the imagination. The absence from the play of action with any real moral content means, on the one hand, that there is never really very much at stake one way or the other in the world of the play. At the same time, the play’s ambiguity about what actually constitutes vice forces the audience or reader to conceptualize the transgression.

Gwendolen’s father, Lord Bracknell, never appears in the play, yet Lady Bracknell mentions him often. What picture of his life and marriage do we get from the things she and Gwendolen say about him?

Lady Bracknell’s offstage marriage is one of the play’s running gags, and Lord Bracknell is the butt of a good many of its jokes about marriage. He seems to be the victim of a kind of abstract domestic abuse—ignored, unconsidered, hidden away, and relegated to the status of an idiot or invalid child. When Lady Bracknell tells Algernon that his absence from the dinner party will require her husband to dine “upstairs,” she means “not with the servants.” The implication is that she usually makes him eat in the kitchen, away from the family or from company. Lord Bracknell seems to lead the life of a recluse and to have taken refuge from his domineering wife and daughter in a chronic invalidism. Lacy Bracknell makes vague, off-hand references to his failing health, and Gwendolen tells Cecily that “Outside the family circle, papa . . . is entirely unknown,” adding, “I think that is quite as it should be.” The image of the offstage Lord Bracknell, faint though it is, seems in keeping with the play’s depiction of gender roles, which posit a reversal of the Victorian expectations of the two sexes: women are competent and aggressive and men are weak, ineffectual creatures, to be warehoused or treated like children. Thirty years after Algernon and Jack’s father’s death, no one can even remember his name.

A play differs from a novel or film in that it requires a performance by live actors pretending to be characters they are not before a live audience that allows itself to be fooled. What is gained by the fact that The Importance of Being Earnest was written as a play?

Stories about people deluding themselves or deceiving one another have always been popular subjects for the stage because they lend themselves to the dramatic form. Theater operates on two levels, and that which is seen both is and isn’t what it appears to be. That is, only when we forget we’re watching a play is the action what it appears to be. When we come to our senses for a moment, we realize that the action isn’t what it appears to be. Through their very form, plays constantly demonstrate the phenomenon of willing self-delusion. Consequently, when actors impersonate characters who are themselves either deceived or dissembling, the audience thinks about the phenomenon of illusion itself. The Importance of Being Earnest has a good deal to say about the nature of deceptive or superficial appearances, including the illusion of virtue that Jack projects and the signs of elegance, status, and propriety that Gwendolen, Lady Bracknell, and Miss Prism covet, as well as the phenomenon of hypocrisy, a word that derives from the ancient Greek word for “actor.” The play also applauds superficiality and artifice, both in the figure of the dandy (the self-confessed apostle of triviality and surface elegance) and in the figure of the man or woman who uses his or her wit or imaginative capacity to reinvent life.

If Wilde’s play takes aim at the society that persuades itself that it is virtuous and right-thinking while in reality being cold, harsh, and self-serving, it also celebrates the human ingenuity that allows people to make of themselves what they will and to enter imaginatively into another frame of reference or reality, a world in which wit and artifice are paramount. These, after all, are the qualities of which an audience is most aware, having been alternately amused, provoked, and delighted, when it leaves the theater at the end of the evening.