I’m directing a scene from Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer for a class this semester, and I wanted to find a slightly different example of some aristocratic humor to show to the actors. I chose the opening scene in The Importance of Being Earnest, where Algernon and his butler, Lane, have a hilarious deadpan exchange on class and marriage.
While doing some searches for a good performance, a little tidbit on one page about the play caught my eye. It claimed that “Ernest” was a Victorian slang term for a “rent boy” or male prostitute. Now Oscar Wilde’s homosexuality is well known, but the fact that he might have been encoding sly asides into his plays brought me up short. “Why didn’t anybody tell me this before?” I wondered.
A few hours of additional research turned up a variety of things: that “Cecily” was also a code word (possibly for transvestite), that “aunt” and “uncle” had double meanings, that Algernon’s address in London was in a “suspect” area, the unexpected cigarette case in the play relates to Wilde’s habit of paying for sexual favors with similar objects, and that one could infer that the “cloakroom at Victory Station” might have had a reputation similar to highway rest stops in the US. Even the word “bunburying” took on suggestive overtones.
When I consulted the scholarly databases and found that not everyone agreed with the Ernest/Cecily derivations (Wilde apparently had a real-life niece named Cecily), I realized those individual words didn’t even matter. It was clear that the concept of a double-life was deeply embedded in the play. On the surface, of course, Ernest is Algy’s convenient excuse to get out of boring social occasions, but he really is two separate people, one in the country and one in the city, just as Wilde himself was both a married family man and someone with a male lover.
Understanding Algy (and probably Jack as well) as closeted also makes sense of their respective romances. It always struck me as odd that Algernon should fall for a schoolgirl like Cecily. She’s physically attractive in most productions, which always smooths over the objections a bit, but it makes far more sense for Algy to see her as a very convenient beard. Cecily’s naive notions of marriage and romance are easily satisfied by Algy’s charm and erudition, leaving him unencumbered to go bunburying at any time, despite the play’s insistence that the imaginary Bunbury is finally dead.