Creating Humour in
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde:
A Post-Reading Revision Exercise
In his plays, Oscar Wilde made use of a variety of comic techniques to create humour and amuse his audiences. It is important to remember that he only used selective elements/aspects of the different genres of comedy and then combined them with social satire, irony, witty repartee, hyperbole, subversions of social convention, etc. to create his particular brand of sophisticated humour. Below is a selection of important techniques to be found in Earnest.
Your task is to revise the meaning of each term, locate examples in the play and then explain/describe how their comic effect works. This is a revision exercise and will stand you in good stead for your examinations.
- Comedy of Manners: is a sub-division of Comedy, a genre which is associated with drama whose primary aim is to entertain and where happy endings for the characters with whom the audience sympathise is assured. Comedy of manners focuses on the love intrigues of cynical and sophisticated young aristocrats in high society. It relies heavily on verbal wit rather than elements of slapstick or farce. [Although Wilde deviates from this at times by incorporating elements of farce in his work – e.g. in the cigarette-case scenario].
- Farce: a kind of drama intended chiefly to provoke laughter using exaggerated characters and complicated plots [Is Earnest’s plot complicated?], full of absurd episodes, ludicrous situations and some knockabout action. Mistaken identity is often an element of the plot. Farce, unlike satire, has no moral purpose and is not censorious.
- Melodrama: Important genre in the 19th Century and originally contained music as part of the play. Later, melodrama dropped its musical component and focused on the sensational with simple, flat characterisation – vicious villains plotting to trap virtuous maidens, blood thirsty actions, foundlings. An example of melodrama in Earnest is when Gwendolen says to Cecily: “My poor wounded Cecily.” and Cecily replies: “My sweet wronged Gwendolen.”
- Satire and Social Satire: Satire is literature which examines a vice or a folly and makes it appear ridiculous. Although satire often appears in comic writing, it has a serious purpose in that it seeks to show that the vice it is satirising is wrong. Laughter is used as a force to attack its subjects, rather than just allowing its audience to laugh for pleasure.Social satire uses the weapon of satire to attack a particular society and its moral values. Satire can therefore be used as an instrument of social critique, an explicit or implicit criticism of society.
- Irony: consists of saying one thing and when you mean another, often its direct opposite. Irony is achieved through understatement, concealment and allusion, rather than direct statement.
- Dramatic Irony: occurs when the development of the plot allows the audience to possess more information about what is happening than the characters involved. The effect of this can be either comic or tragic.
- Repartee [French: ‘reply swiftly’]: is a term that comes from fencing and indicates swift, witty replies often, but not always, mildly insulting. Typical conversational mode of the comedy of manners. Often used as ‘witty repartee’.
- Stock Characters: a particular kind of character that becomes associated with a particular genre. [Western – slow speaking, fast-drawing loner who saves the town/farm/girl from the really bad guys.] Stock characters in comedy of manners genre might include a dissolute rake, a young female ingénue, a comically ineffectual old lady, older battle-axe, etc.
- Ingénue: [French – innocent] is a stock character in comedy of manners. A country girl with country manners and ways: innocent, naïve, artless, and easily manipulated. The ingénue is contrasted with the urban sophistication of the other characters. Wilde plays with these contrasts with Cecily and Gwendolen.
- Pun: play on words – is the simplest form of ambiguity where a single word is used with two sharply different meaning for comic effect.
- Paradox: an apparent self-contradictory statement or a statement that seems in contradiction with logic or general opinion.
- Hyperbole: emphasis by exaggeration
- Euphemism: unpleasant, embarrassing or frightening facts or words are concealed behind a euphemism, that is, a word less blunt, rude or frightening – in Earnest, the word ‘lost’ associated with Jack’s parents.
- Phatic language: words and phrases used in social situations to establish a relationship between people, to ‘open’ communications between people, e.g. “Charming day we’re having.” Its function is not to provide information, but simply to open the way.
- Stage Business: non-verbal action that takes place on stage. This can either be explicitly scripted in stage directions (as in Earnest Act 1, where Wilde has scripted slapstick around Jack’s cigarette case) or it can be the result of an acting or directorial decision.
- Subversion (of conventional/accepted beliefs, habits, traditions, etc.) : subversion is an umbrella term which includes within its ambit ideas of reversing, upending, overturning, inverting, upsetting (in the sense of upsetting the norm) accepted beliefs, traditions and habits prevailing within a society or classes and groups within that society. A consequence of an upending is to compel a re-evaluation of habits and traditions, i.e. things that are usually taken completely for granted and acted out. In Wilde’s case, he is concerned with the quirks and foibles of Victorian society (mainly its ‘high society’) and he subverts in order to bring into view what is hidden/obscured (the truth or reality behind a habit) in society. He does so with great wit and humour.
- Reversals in social relations between servants and masters (Algernon and Lane in Act 1).
- Reversals in conventional relations between the sexes (Lady Bracknell – takes over husband’s role in the suitor interview; Cecily’s has set up her engagement with ‘Ernest’ before even meeting him and Ernest/Algy accepts it and goes along with it.)
- Reversals in what constituted ‘manliness’. It was the Age of Empire and the stereotyped upper-class male was responsible, had a well-paid occupation in addition to inherited wealth and property, was a ‘man-of-the-world, a leader with strong sense of social responsibility, and so on. Jack and Algy are both dandies and only Jack qualifies on the wealth side.
Find other examples of these reversals in the play.
Useful expressions for discussing Subversion/ Reversals/Inversions
- Witty reversals of expected norms e.g. Algernon – Lane relationship
- Direct reversals of the usual assumptions about ______________
- Reversal of power relations between the sexes e.g. Lady Bracknell playing her husband’s role in interviewing Jack
- Paradoxical reversal of standards are a common verbal strategy throughout the play e.g. Gwendolen says to Algernon that she wanted to speak in confidence to Jack so naturally he would listen – which is the reversal of what is usually believed.
- Conversation is highly stylised and artificial, not intended to portray reality truthfully or accurately.
How does Wilde makes use of the conventions governing conversation in polite Victorian society for comic effect?
Some conventions of polite society:
- Extreme politeness is the height of good manners when conversing with social equals. No ill will should be shown no matter how cross or irritated you may be feeling. When speaking to someone of a lower social position than you, these rules need not apply. cf.how Lady Bracknell starts speaking to Jack once she discovers that he is ‘found’, possibly the result of a ‘social indiscretion’ and, thus, not of socially acceptable origins/parentage.
- Pauses in conversation are considered ill-mannered and need to be avoided at all costs. Each participant in a conversation is aware of this and will try, at all costs, to fill potential pauses with talk. A conversation in danger of running out of things to talk about would quickly turn to small talk to keep the silence at bay, no matter how inane or superficial the words. Why is silence to be avoided?
- Often in Comedy of Manners plays, the point in conversations between characters is not so much to communicate than to score points off each other using witty repartee – it has more to do with competition than communication. Cf. some Gwendolen-Cicely conversations, as well as those of Jack-Algernon.
- Language is carefully wrought and polite, but it often disguises self-interest and cynicism.
- In the elite social group of the time, the style of language was almost more important than what was said. Style and keeping up appearances were essential components of good breeding. Wilde’s characters speak a highly artificial form of speech. Natural language is filled with hesitations, corrections and false starts; Wilde has deliberately not made use of natural speech for his characters. Why is that, do you think?
For more on Oscar Wilde’s life, plays and dramatic techniques, please go HERE.
For additional help with analysing plays, my book “Analysing a Literary Text the A* Way” provides detailed notes on developing an effective approach to studying literary texts in all genres.