The Importance of Being Earnest – Act I, Part One

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.
(See Important Quotations Explained)

Summary
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.
Analysis
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.