On Being Earnest

Do I know what it is to be Earnest?

I’m afraid not. I couldn’t. Not unless I were christened.

Oscar Wilde’s marvellously confusing play caught my fancy when I read an abridged version of it in school. It had been conveniently removed from the syllabus as our hallowed, haloed batch entered Class 10, to be replaced by a play about an android with a Bengali-sounding name and an apocalypse and some such thing; even somebody besotted with science fiction would have been bored to tears by it. It was the perfect foil to the other play we had to study, A Christmas Carol, one of the most delectable stories ever written.

We complained to our English teacher, and she broke the news of the delightful story of Earnest having been relegated in favour of this more contemporary (or futuristic) piece of ‘sci-fi’. We begged a copy of the previous year’s textbook off her and settled down one afternoon (skipping some dud class we were supposed to attend) to a comfortable perusal of The Importance of Being Earnest.

We took on roles to read it out loud. Cecily Cardew fell to my lot- pretty, dumb, romantic Cecily. I have a history of ending up with not the brightest characters. When we read Robin Hood, I was Friar Tuck- we weren’t so particular about the gender of the character- and reading some other play in class in middle school, I was the character who invariable guessed the identity of a criminal wrong. And there is no resemblance whatsoever to reality. I am quite observant, really.

Reading the complete version of The Importance of Being Earnest brought that pleasant winter afternoon back to my mind. I remember how confusing the play had seemed then, how we had to stop and discuss Jack and Algernon’s foibles to make sense of what they were really up to, to figure out who Gwendolen and Cecily were really in love with. I’d completely forgotten the story, eight long years having elapsed since, and the revelation towards the end did come as a surprise.

Laced with wit and sarcasm for Victorian hypocrisy, the play entertains with its sharp repartees and clever plots. Rediscovering it is definitely one of the better things I’ve done this week.

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