Laughter almost ever cometh of things most disproportioned to ourselves and nature. Laughter hath only a scornful tickling.—Philip Sidney, 1582
Gwendolen: I am engaged to Mr. Worthing, Mama.
Lady Bracknell: Pardon me, you are not engaged to anyone. When you do become engaged to someone, I, or your father, should his health permit him, will inform you of the fact. An engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be. It is hardly a matter that she could be allowed to arrange for herself…And now I have a few questions to put to you, Mr. Worthing. While I am making these inquiries, you, Gwendolen, will wait for me below in the carriage.
Gwendolen: [reproachfully] Mama!
Lady Bracknell: In the carriage, Gwendolen! [Gwendolen goes to the door. She and Jack Worthing blow kisses to each other behind Lady Bracknell’s back. Lady Bracknell looks vaguely about as if she could not understand what the noise was. Finally turns round.] Gwendolen, the carriage!
Gwendolen: Yes, Mama. [goes out, looking back at Jack]
Lady Bracknell: [sitting down] You can take a seat, Mr. Worthing. [looks in her pocket for notebook and pencil]
Jack: Thank you, Lady Bracknell, I prefer standing.
Lady Bracknell: [pencil and notebook in hand] I feel bound to tell you that you are not down on my list of eligible young men, although I have the same list as the dear duchess of Bolton has. We work together, in fact. However, I am quite ready to enter your name, should your answers be what a really affectionate mother requires. Do you smoke?
Jack: Well, yes, I must admit I smoke.
Lady Bracknell: I am glad to hear it. A man should always have an occupation of some kind. There are far too many idle men in London as it is. How old are you?
Lady Bracknell: A very good age to be married at. I have always been of the opinion that a man who desires to get married should know either everything or nothing. Which do you know?
Jack: [after some hesitation] I know nothing, Lady Bracknell.
Lady Bracknell: I am pleased to hear it. I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square. What is your income?
Jack: Between seven and eight thousand a year.
Lady Bracknell: [makes a note in her book] In land, or in investments?
Jack: In investments, chiefly.
Lady Bracknell: That is satisfactory. What between the duties expected of one during one’s lifetime, and the duties exacted from one after one’s death, land has ceased to be either a profit or a pleasure. It gives one position, and prevents one from keeping it up. That’s all that can be said about land.
Jack: I have a country house with some land, of course, attached to it, about fifteen hundred acres, I believe; but I don’t depend on that for my real income. In fact, as far as I can make out, the poachers are the only people who make anything out of it.
Lady Bracknell: A country house! How many bedrooms? Well, that point can be cleared up afterward. You have a townhouse, I hope? A girl with a simple, unspoiled nature, like Gwendolen, could hardly be expected to reside in the country.
Jack: Well, I own a house in Belgrave Square, but it is let by the year to Lady Bloxham. Of course, I can get it back whenever I like, at six months’ notice.
Lady Bracknell: Lady Bloxham? I don’t know her.
Jack: Oh, she goes about very little. She is a lady considerably advanced in years.
Lady Bracknell: Ah, nowadays that is no guarantee of respectability of character. What number in Belgrave Square?
Lady Bracknell: [shaking her head] The unfashionable side. I thought there was something. However, that could easily be altered.
Jack: Do you mean the fashion, or the side?
Monkeys as Judges of Art, by Gabriel Cornelius von Max, 1889. Bayerische Staatsgemaeldesmmlungen, Munich, Germany.
Lady Bracknell: [sternly] Both, if necessary, I presume. What are your politics?
Jack: Well, I am afraid I really have none. I am a Liberal Unionist.
Lady Bracknell: Oh, they count as Tories. They dine with us. Or come in the evening, at any rate. Now to minor matters. Are your parents living?
Jack: I have lost both my parents.
Lady Bracknell: Both?…That seems like carelessness. Who was your father? He was evidently a man of some wealth. Was he born in what the radical papers call the purple of commerce, or did he rise from the ranks of the aristocracy?
Jack: I am afraid I really don’t know. The fact is, Lady Bracknell, I said I had lost my parents. It would be nearer the truth to say that my parents seem to have lost me…I don’t actually know who I am by birth. I was…Well, I was found.
Lady Bracknell: Found!
Jack: The late Mr. Thomas Cardew, an old gentleman of a very charitable and kindly disposition, found me, and gave me the name of Worthing, because he happened to have a first-class ticket for Worthing in his pocket at the time. Worthing is a place in Sussex. It is a seaside resort.
Lady Bracknell: Where did the charitable gentleman who had a first-class ticket for this seaside resort find you?
Jack: [gravely] In a handbag.
Lady Bracknell: A handbag?
Jack: [very seriously] Yes, Lady Bracknell. I was in a handbag—a somewhat large, black leather handbag, with handles to it—an ordinary handbag, in fact.
Lady Bracknell: In what locality did this Mr. James, or Thomas, Cardew come across this ordinary handbag?
Jack: In the cloakroom at Victoria Station. It was given to him in mistake for his own.
Lady Bracknell: The cloakroom at Victoria Station?
Jack: Yes. The Brighton line.
Lady Bracknell: The line is immaterial. Mr. Worthing, I confess I feel somewhat bewildered by what you have just told me. To be born, or at any rate bred, in a handbag, whether it had handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that remind one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution. And I presume you know what that unfortunate movement led to? As for the particular locality in which the handbag was found, a cloakroom at a railway station might serve to conceal a social indiscretion—has probably, indeed, been used for that purpose before now—but it could hardly be regarded as an assured basis for a recognized position in good society.
Jack: May I ask you then what you would advise me to do? I need hardly say I would do anything in the world to ensure Gwendolen’s happiness.
Feast in an Inn (detail), by Jan Havicksz Steen, 1674. Louvre, Paris, France.
Lady Bracknell: I would strongly advise you, Mr. Worthing, to try and acquire some relations as soon as possible, and to make a definite effort to produce at any rate one parent, of either sex, before the season is quite over.
Jack: Well, I don’t see how I could possibly manage to do that. I can produce the handbag at any moment. It is in my dressing room at home. I really think that should satisfy you, Lady Bracknell.
Lady Bracknell: Me, sir! What has it to do with me? You can hardly imagine that I and Lord Bracknell would dream of allowing our only daughter—a girl brought up with the utmost care—to marry into a cloakroom and form an alliance with a parcel? Good morning, Mr. Worthing! [Lady Bracknell sweeps out in majestic indignation.]
From The Importance of Being Earnest. Wilde welcomed the satirical portrait of himself in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience—“There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about”—and the play’s producer arranged an American lecture tour for him in 1882: “Nothing, except my genius,” he is said to have replied when asked if he had anything to declare at customs. He published his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, in 1891. Convicted of charges of gross indecency in 1895, Wilde was sentenced to two years of servitude with hard labor.