About half way through reading Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest I came to the rather shocking realization that I had, apparently, neither read nor had seen this previously. Obviously, as an English Major, I was familiar with the title, and the general concept that it was Wilde at his best, but it rang no bells. At this stage of my life, it should not come as such a surprise that I've "missed" key bits of the various areas I've studied, but I still feel somewhat abashed when something as "classic" as this managed to avoid me for all those decades. And, given what a delight this is, I feel a sense of loss in having not seen it performed in the many years that I was actively attending the Theater, as I'm sure that (in the right hands) this play would be quite a delight.
The Importance of Being Earnest certainly owes a debt to the comedies of Shakespeare, as it has the same sort of mixed up relationships, secrets badly kept, timely entrances and exits, as in The Bard's comedic works. I wouldn't say this was stolen from any particular play (although my recall of the details of that portion of Shakespeare's works has faded over time), but the ambiance here clearly brings those to mind. The two main characters, a Mr. Jack Worthing, and a Mr. Algernon Moncrieff, are two young gentlemen seemingly of "the leisure class" (albeit one due to investments and one preferring to sponge off of family and friends over work) enjoying all the pleasures of Victorian-era London. Each of these fellows has been leading a "double life", one inventing a brother (Earnest) whose difficulties keep demanding Jack's presence in the capitol, and the other inventing an associate who is always in very ill health and requiring his (Algernon's) assistance. These fabrications allow them a freedom to follow their whims, but, ultimately, create a web of (comedic) complications. They both end up much enamored of a pair of young ladies, each who is connected to the other's family, and attempt to press engagements during the course of the play. Unfortunately, each has taken the identity of the fictitious Earnest to do so, and both of the young ladies are (somewhat inexplicably) much entranced with the name (to the extent that they completely dismiss the suitability of anybody by the actual names of the gentlemen).
Assorted additional characters take part in the confusion, as both fellows seek to be christened as "Earnest", and, as these things do, everything comes close to destruction before getting cleared up. If there was one part of this that I "had issues" with, it was how tidy the "tying up the loose ends" was ... as it turns out that what had seemed to have been a purely fictitious "tall tale" in the telling was the absolute truth of one of them, and that there was a very specific "importance" in "being Earnest".
What is also often charming in these Dover Thrift Editions is that they are frequently unabridged or even facsimile copies of much older books, in this case, it is a re-issue of an 1895 edition of the play, complete with information on the theater at which it was being staged, and the long-dead actors playing the parts. This sort of "window back in time" is always a nice bonus in these volumes.
This edition of The Importance of Being Earnest is quite current, however, and is available. Unfortunately, the odds are (as I've noted before) unlikely that a "brick & mortar" vendor will stock it, as the retail mark-up on a book bearing a $1.50 cover price is not likely to support even the scant shelf space it would require. Which brings me back to the first point above ... stash it on your on-line vendor's "wish list" and have it ready to go the next time you find yourself ordering a couple of $11.99 books and need something to nudge that up into the free shipping promised land.