A few weeks ago I mentioned I was getting through some of Oscar Wilde’s works and since then I’ve finished his plays, “Salome,” “The Importance of Being Earnest,” “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” “A Woman of No Importance” and “An Ideal Husband.” With the exception of “Salome,” I’ve found almost all of his works — called the four society comedies or his society plays — to play out like episodes of a Victorian sitcom.
A lot of plots in sitcoms come from poor communication between characters, misunderstandings and secret relationships that lead to comical situations. “The Importance of Being Earnest” is generally accepted to be the best of the four society comedies, and I would agree: It has the wittiest dialogue, the most interesting plot, the best developed characters and perfectly fits the mold of a sitcom episode.
Many people think you need an understanding of Victorian society for Wilde’s plays to land with you but I disagree somewhat. He definitely pokes fun at the upper class and social norms of his time, they’re described as being satires of Victorian society, but I find it’s still relatable in this day and age, in that I think many people are still concerned with appearances of wealth, gentility and culture more than in any actual substance. Understanding Victorian society might help get more of the jokes, but it’s definitely not a requirement to enjoy the plays.
“The Importance of Being Earnest,’’ “Lady Windermere’s Fan” and “A Woman of No Importance” all have mistaken or unknown identities at their core which then play out in hilarious ways, or in a combination comedic/dramatic way in the latter two. While the audience knows the identity of the mysterious character and their relationship to the others, most of the characters themselves do not. In fact, in “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” the identity is never revealed, but the resolution doesn’t feel any less satisfying despite it.
“The Importance of Being Earnest” is definitely the funniest of the four, with very little emotional drama. In that way, like I said, it is probably the purest sitcom play. It has a number of sitcom tropes: the mistaken identity, an initial lie that must be supported by other lies resulting in a ridiculous construct of falsehoods, a straightforward plan that goes hilariously awry, wisecracking characters, the overbearing matriarch and bachelors who get in over their heads with women.
“An Ideal Husband” is probably the least sitcom of the four, with very little true comedy and a lot more drama. I also think it’s the weakest play in general, without any of the strong intrigue the others have and a character whose only purpose seems to be to move the plot forward, without any internal logic or personality of their own. It’s generally just a criticism of Victorian society, and a very straightforward one at that.
“Lady Windermere’s Fan” and “A Woman of No Importance” are also heavier on the drama, but they are still funny and interesting. They both involve a female character with a secret that has important implications for the other characters, but due to general misunderstandings and an odd need to always adhere to decorum, the telling of the secret gets put off over and over, leading to a series of comedically disgraceful moments for the pitifully uninformed. It’s very similar to the sitcom trope of a character meeting a very important and distinguished person without knowing and repeatedly insulting them or saying/doing embarrassing things around them.
Although the plays were written in the late 19th century, I think they’re worth revisiting today if you’re at all interested in British dry wit and sharp humor.
Johanna Armstrong is the editor of the Lifestyle section.