The Importance of Being Earnest is the most renowned of Oscar Wilde’s comedies. It’s the story of two bachelors, John ‘Jack’ Worthing and Algernon ‘Algy’ Moncrieff, who create alter egos named Ernest to escape their tiresome lives. They attempt to win the hearts of two women who, conveniently, claim to only love men called Ernest. The pair struggle to keep up with their own stories and become tangled in a tale of deception, disguise and misadventure. The elaborate plot ridicules Victorian sensibilities with some of the best loved, and indeed bizarre, characters to be found on the modern stage. Wilde originally wrote it in four acts, but during the first rehearsals George Alexander persuaded him to shorten it down to three.
The play begins with Algernon ‘Algy’ Moncrieff welcoming his friend John ‘Jack’ Worthing to his home, whom he knows as Ernest. ‘Ernest’ has come from his country estate to propose to Algy’s cousin, Gwendolen. Algy refuses consent until Ernest explains an inscription on his cigarette case which calls him ‘Uncle Jack’. ‘Ernest’ admits to creating an alter ego. He is Jack in the country, guardian of his ward Cecily, but regularly leaves for London to visit his pretend brother Ernest. Whilst in London he pretends to be Ernest, a flirtatious socialite. Algy also admits to creating a fictitious invalid friend called Mr Bunbury, whom he visits in the country to get away from London.
Gwendolen and her terrifying mother Lady Bracknell arrive to visit Algy. Jack quietly proposes to Gwendolen, who accepts, saying she could never love a man who wasn’t called Ernest. Lady Bracknell finds them alone together and quickly interviews Jack for his suitability. She learns he was adopted after being found in a handbag at Victoria Station, and refuses the marriage because he has no direct relations. Gwendolen says she still loves Jack and he gives her his country address. Algy secretly reads it.
Cecily is studying with her governess, Miss Prism, on her uncle Jack’s esate. Algy arrives and pretends to be Ernest, Jack’s brother. Cecily has never met Ernest, she falls in love with his secretive nature and they become engaged. Like Gwendolen, she claims to only love men called Ernest.
Meanwhile, Jack decides to give up his alter ego and arrives on his estate to declare the sudden death of his brother Ernest. Algy, however, is pretending to be Ernest, so Jack has to go along with his story for fear of revealing his own lies. Both men secretly plan to be officially christened as ‘Ernest’ by the local vicar Dr Chusable. Gwendolen then arrives at the estate having escaped from Lady Bracknell. She meets Cecily and they both declare to be engaged to men called Ernest. Jack and Algy’s lies are exposed.
Lady Bracknell arrives, having followed her daughter, and is shocked to find Algy and Cecily engaged. She is easily won over, however, after learning about Cecily’s trust fund. Jack refuses to give consent unless Lady Bracknell agrees to him marrying Gwendolen.
Miss Prism enters and Lady Bracknell instantly recognises her. She was a family maid who took Lady Bracknell’s baby nephew out in his pram 28 years ago but mysteriously vanished. Miss Prism admits that she had absentmindedly put a novel she was writing in the pram, and the baby in her handbag, which she left at Victoria Station. Jack announces he is the lost baby and therefore Algy’s brother. Lady Bracknell accepts his and Gwendolen’s marriage because he has found his relations.
Gwendolen is confused as to her lover’s real name. Lady Bracknell says he would have been named after his father, General Moncrieff. Jack examines the army lists and finds that his father’s name was in fact Ernest. All the couples embrace, even Miss Prism and Dr Chasuble who have harboured feelings for each other for the entire play.