A/N: A Close Reading of the character of Cecily Cardew in Ocar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest. If anyone is interested in reading the play, it can be found online for free.
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde is a humorously satirical play that premièred in 1895 at the St. James’ Theatre in London. With its witty dialogue and high farce it is as humorous today as it was at the time of the première, where the critical reception was positive, and the production was considered hugely successful. The actor who played the part of Algernon Moncrieff stated that “I never remembered a greater triumph, the audience rose to their seats and cheered and cheered again” (Moss).
The selected production for the extract chosen for this close reading is a videotaped recording from February 14, 2013, directed by Chris Kauffman Gettysburg and played by the Gettysburg College’s The Owl and Nightingale Players.
The Importance of Being Earnest is about two friends, who both live deceitful lives. Algernon Moncrieff has invented a friend, whom he uses as an excuse whenever he wants to get out of an unwanted social event, while his friend Jack Worthing has invented an entire new persona; his wicked brother Earnest. This is done so he can live a less than perfectly moral life, while at the same time appear morally correct to his ward, the young ms. Cecily Cardew, which, however, gets the opposite effect as she fancies herself in love with Earnest through Jack’s stories about his wicked brother.
The chosen extract happens in act two of the play, where Cecily believes that she is finally meeting her infamous cousin, who is in truth Algernon pretending to be the non-existent Earnest in order to meet his friend’s pretty ward. Unbeknown to Jack, Algernon has travelled to Jack‘s home in the country, where he pretends to be the brother, whom Jack has told so many stories about.
The chosen passage is a dialogue between Cecily Cardew, who is portrayed by Taylor Andrews, and Algernon Moncrieff, portrayed by David Wemer. Every line is a clear example of the humour the play as well as the author is so renowned for. The humour of the play as well as Cecily’s fascination of the wicked Earnest are shown even before the meeting, as Cecily is waiting for Algernon to be shown into the garden, where she waits in anticipation.
Cecily says to herself that “I have never met any really wicked person before. I feel rather frightened. I am so afraid he will look just like every one else” (line 973-975). She is clearly actually fascinated rather than frightened, and her sassy nature is shown already in her first line to Algernon after he calls her “my little cousin Cecily” (line 978), where she retaliates by saying that “You are under some strange mistake. I am not little. In fact, I believe I am more than usually tall for my age” (line 980-981). This kind of sassy attitude found in females was generally not appreciated in Wilde’s time, where women were to be seen rather than heard, but rather than being annoyed with Cecily, Algernon quickly becomes infatuated through her quick wit.
He clearly wishes to make a good impression on her, so when she calls him “My wicked cousin Earnest” (line 984), he promptly assures her that “I am not really wicked at all, cousin Cecily. You mustn’t think that I am wicked” (line 985-986).
However, he rapidly realises his mistake by saying this as Cecily’s reaction is scornful rather than pleased as she states that: “If you are not, then you have certainly been deceiving us all in a very inexcusable manner. I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time. That would be hypocrisy” (line 987-991).
Algernon quickly guarantees her that he is indeed wicked by saying that “Of course I have been rather reckless” (line 992-993), and “In fact, now that you mention the subject, I have been very bad in my own small way” (line 995-996).
His growing admiration for Cecily is furthermore made clear later in the scene as he informs her that “You are like a pink rose, cousin Cecily” (line 1046), and “You are the prettiest girl I ever saw” (line 1050-1051).
Not only Algernon’s growing feelings for Cecily, but also her own personality are distinctly shown in the extract. Cecily is playful and ingenious; an unspoiled young woman, who has lived a privileged, if slightly tedious, life, which has formed her enthralment for the sinful. Though being in possession of a distinct predisposition for the name Earnest, which one of the key points of the plot in the play, she has mostly fallen in love with Algernon through her fascination of his iniquitous nature.
She is imaginative and a romantic, while simultaneously being bored with the social expectations of the time. Exactly how little she thinks of sensibility is demonstrated clearly as she states that “I don’t think I would care to snatch a sensible man. I shouldn’t know what to talk to him about” (1055).
All of these qualities are what make her a idealised match for Algernon, and the dialogue between the two character flows rapidly and naturally. This second natured back-and-forth dialogue emphasises how well they fit together as a couple, though there are distinct differences between them.
Algernon speaks far more epigrammatically, while Cecily’s speech seems more natural and recognizable, which could be a method of Wilde’s to show us Cecily’s youth and inexperience of life. Not that Cecily never employs epigrammatically speech: “Well, I know, of course, how important it is not to keep a business engagement, if one wants to retain any sense of the beauty of life” (line 1007-1009).
It is arguable whether or not Cecily is a feminist character as she has fancied herself in love with a man merely through stories about him, and her main purpose in the story is to be Algernon’s love interest, while at the same time having a sassy wit that can be compared with an iconic feminist figure such as Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, as well as being in possession of a scandalous indifference to the social norms of her time as the illustrious Jo March in the well-known classic Little Women.
Cecily is furthermore one of the most well-rounded characters of the play; though the performances of Taylor Andrews and David Wemer bring life and humour to both of the fictional characters. Though especially Wemer’s facial expressions are occasionally quite exaggerated, they solely serve to convey the humour of the farce.
His look of contempt as he exclaims “Australia! I’d sooner die” (1018), as Cecily informs him of Jack’s plans to send him to Australia, as well as his exaggerated arms movements as he assures Cecily that “I have been very bad” (995-996) only helps to bring out the humour in the situation.
Andrews herself also brings life to her character through her chosen tone of voice as well as her facial expressions, which is shown in instances such as her look of disappointed disdain as she scorns Algernon for “pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time” (line 989-990), as well as her tone of voice as she says “good” (990), which informs the audience that she regards being good as anything but a compliment. The peculiar mixture of her sentiments over the word in comparison to the actual meaning once again brings laughter to the assemblage.
The setting in the selected execution of the dramatic composition is simple, though not minimalistic. What appears to be little more than a cardboard background as well as a couple of small, potted trees allow the audience to know that they are looking at a garden.
The props consist of a table with two chairs and a garden bench, props that, though used, could easily be cut out of the play.
The artificial light in usage lets us know that it is daytime, and it is clear through the simplicity of the setting that it is the characters as well as the dialogue the audience should pay attention to.
The most important factor of the setting is the clothes, which puts us in the correct period of time more promptly than a monologue or dialogue would be capable of. It also informs us of the social standards of the two characters, who are both dressed well, if not royally so. Cecily is wearing a light pink dress – no doubt a reference to Algernon calling her a pink rose – while Algernon himself is dressed in a nobleman’s clothes, which consist of a white shirt, an embroidered vest, a pin-striped suit and a flamboyant neck tie.
The extract chosen is not only a perfect illustration of the satirical humour that Wilde was known for; it is also an essential part of the plot as it is the meeting that causes Algernon to fall in love with Cecily, thereby for the first time giving him something to lose.
It also causes Algernon and Jack to fall out over who gets to use the name Earnest. The theme of The Importance of Being Earnest is beauty, honesty and irony; irony being the most pronounced. After all; it is extremely ironic how both Algernon and Jack’s web of life end up centring around the very name that means honesty.
The chosen extract also serves as a medium of irony already in the beginning, where Algernon’s attempt to win Cecily over by assuring her that he is a good man nearly causes her to lose her interest in him.
The humorous irony in the extract is a perfect example of the mastery Wilde possesses for writing this kind of satire in not only The Importance of Being Earnest, but also in his other work; hereunder his widely criticised novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.
But the two plays are in possession of important differences, hereunder the complete and utter lack of feminist characters in The Picture of Dorian Gray, where there is only to be found a weak character in Sibyl Vane in comparison to the witty nature of Cecily Cardew.