The comedy of manners has a long history beginning with Menander in Greek literature. This type of comedy flourished in England during the Restoration period. These plays are usually set in upper class society and make fun of the people who consider themselves socially superior. This comedy generally uses witty dialogue and complex scenes to comment on false social beliefs. Usually, it deals with the subject of marriage. The characters are types rather than individuals. The plot is rather complex with rapid twists in events.
The play, ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ is set in high class society in London. Lady Bracknell and her daughter, Gwendolen are the true representatives of Victorian aristocracy. They are highly educated women who take much interest in fashions and mannerisms of the city life. Similarly, the other characters, Mr. Jack Worthing, Algernon Moncrieff and Cecily also belong to upper class society.
The dramatist presents all these characters in such a way that the audiences hardly succeed in laughing at their hollow mannerisms and empty sophistication. For example, there are two young girls, Gwendolen and Cecily, who are shown to be mad about the name ‘Ernest’, Both of them were so fascinated by ‘Ernest’ that they were even ready to disobey their parents. It is particularly true of Gwendolen who runs away from the home and reaches to the country house of Mr. Worthing only with the hope of marrying ‘Ernest’. However, it turns out that both the gentlemen were not ‘Ernest’.
The dramatist has made an ample use of witty dialogues to expose the false beliefs of his characters. The plot is full of complex scenes like that of Jack’s meeting with Gwendolen, Lady Bracknell’s intrrogation of Jack, Algernon’s clever observation of Jack’s cigarette case, his noting down the address on the sleeve, Miss Prism’s pretentious walk with Dr. Chasuble and others.
The play deals with the subject of marriage. Towards the end, the audiences meet three couples – Jack and Gwendolen, Algernon and Cecily, Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism – who are wainting for the ringing of the marriage bells. Though these characters are cleverly drawn, all of them lack individuality. They are types rather that individuals. During the Victorian period one would come across such types in abundance all around oneself.
The dramatist has woven all these characters cleverly together and made his plot complex. There are turns and twists all over the plot. For example, Miss Prism’s disappearance from the scene twenty eight years ago with a baby boy, Mr. Thomas Cardew’s bringing the baby home and appointing hin as the caretaker of his daughter, Miss Prism’s chance meeting with Lady Bracknell again in the third Act, and Jack’s being ‘Ernest’.
Thus, the play ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ employs almost all the characteristic features of a comedy of manners and hence it can be called as a typical comedy of manners.