ALGERNON. Did you hear what I was playing, Lane? LANE. I didn’t think it polite to listen, sir. ALGERNON. I’m sorry for that, for your sake. I don’t play accurately—any one can play accurately—but I play with wonderful expression. As far as the piano is concerned, sentiment is my forte. I keep science for Life. LANE. Yes, sir.
After announcing himself with a piano fanfare, Algernon Moncrieff makes his stage entrance and addresses his butler, Lane. Algernon incorporates his inaccurate playing into his public persona. He tries out his lines on Lane, who doesn’t seem particularly impressed. Algernon serves as an archetype of the indolent young aristocrat, an indispensable character in melodramas, operas, and romance novels.
ALGERNON. My dear boy, I love hearing my relations abused. It is the only thing that makes me put up with them at all. Relations are simply a tedious pack of people, who haven’t got the remotest knowledge of how to live, nor the smallest instinct about when to die.
Algernon reassures Jack that he need not apologize for speaking badly about Lady Augusta Bracknell. As usual, Algernon’s remarks seem rehearsed. He always carefully projects the persona of bored superiority, and his main concern appears to be delivering a well-polished line. In reality, Algernon dines frequently at his aunt’s house and shares her social circle and many of her snobbish values.
JACK. The Manor House, Woolton, Hertfordshire. [ALGERNON, who has been carefully listening, smiles to himself, and writes the address on his shirt-cuff. Then picks up the Railway Guide.]
Algernon eavesdrops on a supposedly private conversation between Jack and Gwendolen and learns the actual location of Jack’s country house, which is also the address of the mysterious Cecily. The stage directions call for a strong visual clue to the audience that this address bears importance. The audience already knows about Algernon’s habit of visiting his fictional friend Bunbury and thus easily predicts the next development in the melodramatic plot.
[LANE presents several letters on a salver to ALGERNON. It is to be surmised that they are bills, as Algernon, after looking at the envelopes, tears them up.] ALGERNON. A glass of sherry, Lane. LANE. Yes, sir. ALGERNON. To-morrow, Lane, I’m going Bunburying. LANE. Yes, sir.
The stage direction has Algernon tearing up the envelopes Lane brings as if they were bills while Lane receives the trash. Their unspoken communication plays up the partnership between the effete aristocrat and his long-suffering butler. The staff preserve stoicism at all costs, showing no opinion of their employer’s actions.
[Enter ALGERNON and CECILY hand in hand. They come slowly up to JACK.] JACK. Good heavens! [Motions Algernon away.] ALGERNON. Brother John, I have come down from town to tell you that I am very sorry for all the trouble I have given you, and that I intend to lead a better life in the future. [JACK glares at him and does not take his hand.]
Algernon confronts Jack with a comic dilemma. Algernon now masquerades as Ernest, Jack’s younger brother, and takes advantage of Cecily’s infatuation with this romantic, reckless—and entirely fictional—hero. Jack had intended to retire the fictional Ernest and now can’t denounce Algernon as a liar without revealing his own duplicity. He can’t refuse to forgive the fake Ernest without revealing his own hypocrisy.
ALGERNON. Well, my own dear, sweet, loving little darling, I really can’t see why you should object to the name of Algernon. It is not at all a bad name. In fact, it is rather an aristocratic name. Half of the chaps who get into the Bankruptcy Court are called Algernon. But seriously, Cecily . . . [Moving to her] . . . if my name was Algy, couldn’t you love me?
Algernon tries to steer Cecily away from her obsession with the name Ernest. He has become trapped in the web of his own lie, because she believes Ernest to be his real name. Algernon’s joke about his name shows his confidence that he can overcome that objection. But he realizes he must secure her affection under his real name to accomplish his goal of marrying her.
ALGERNON. When I am in trouble, eating is the only thing that consoles me. Indeed, when I am in really great trouble, as any one who knows me intimately will tell you, I refuse everything except food and drink. At the present moment I am eating muffins because I am unhappy. Besides, I am particularly fond of muffins.
Algernon explains to Jack why he is bingeing on muffins. Ernest Worthing has just been exposed as a fiction. Cecily and Gwendolen feel furious at Algernon and Jack, and Jack feels furious because Algernon just sits and eats. Algernon justifies his behavior as a coping mechanism for stress. Self-indulgence serves as his answer for any problem.
ALGERNON [Stammering]. Oh! No! Bunbury doesn’t live here. Bunbury is somewhere else at present. In fact, Bunbury is dead. LADY BRACKNELL. Dead! When did Mr. Bunbury die? His death must have been extremely sudden. ALGERNON [Airily]. Oh! I killed Bunbury this afternoon. I mean poor Bunbury died this afternoon.
Algernon informs his aunt Lady Bracknell that he’s killed his fictional invalid friend Bunbury. Lady Bracknell tracked Algernon down at a most inopportune time, right after Cecily forgave him for masquerading as Ernest. He does not dare let Cecily find out that he is a lying hypocrite even in his true character as Algernon. So Bunbury, once invaluable to Algernon, now has to go.
CECILY. Gwendolen, your common sense is invaluable. Mr. Moncrieff, kindly answer me the following question. Why did you pretend to be my guardian’s brother? ALGERNON. In order that I might have an opportunity of meeting you. CECILY [To Gwendolen]. That certainly seems a satisfactory explanation, does it not?
Once again Algernon gets himself out of trouble with a true statement. He counts on Cecily to interpret his explanation romantically. To the audience, Algernon’s statement serves as a reminder that he has been earnest in his purpose ever since he learned that his wealthy friend Jack had a beautiful young ward. Ironically, Algernon can’t help being a hypocrite even when he’s telling the truth.