Lies in Gross Indecency and The Importance of Being Earnest
Deception and leading a double life is a common theme found in Gross Indecency by Moises Kaufman and The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, with societal pressures being the suggested cause for these lies. Ironically enough, Gross Indecency is written about Oscar Wilde himself, who was trialed and found guilty of committing homosexual acts that were defined as being indecent. “Jack” and “Earnest” are the same man in Wilde’s play, with Earnest merely creating the character of Jack so he may misbehave when he wishes while still maintaining his respectable reputation at the same time. Perhaps Wilde understood the importance of being able to master a double life, as he ended up being jailed for committing acts of “gross indecency”, which he doesn’t personally define as immoral. Wilde also claims that he has no definition of an immoral book, claiming, “In writing a play or a book, I am concerned entirely with literature, that is, with art. I aim not at doing good or evil, but at making a thing that will have some quality of beauty” (Kaufman 30). It becomes up to the reader to decide what is moral or immoral, based on what they read and the opinions they bring to the reading itself, and this becomes evident in both the dramatization of Wilde’s trial and the unraveling plot of The Importance of Being Earnest.
Cecily, while still believing she is engaged to Ernest when she is engaged to Algernon, tells him, “You must not laugh at me, darling, but it had always been a girlish dream of mine to love someone whose name was Ernest… There is something in that name that seems to inspire absolute confidence. I pity any poor married woman whose husband is not called Ernest” (Wilde 485). This is funny to the reader, of course, because they are aware that Algernon’s name is not Ernest at all, and Algernon must now worry that she will no longer like him once she learns the truth about his real name. At this point in the play, the implications of leading a double life become quite clear, as the truth can only be kept hidden for so long. Eventually, the person responsible for the lie has to decide whether or not they will come clean or stick with their created lie until they are forced to do otherwise.
Oscar Wilde, in his actual life, is said by Douglas to have never been “in the least bit ashamed of his homosexuality” (Kaufman 38). However, the truth is said to be more complicated, since he also claims “we didn’t have that word back then. But he talked openly about his desire for men. He gloried in it. He never denied it except, as George Bernard Shaw points out, ‘when legal fictions were necessary in the courts of law’” (Kaufman 38). Oscar Wilde’s truth is altered due to external forces, as he was unable to live how he truly wanted to without being penalized. He does not go as far to create an alter ego for himself like the characters in his play, but the perilous situation he lived in mirrors his characters’ need to falsify their lives in order to protect themselves. Whether or not these responses are immoral is entirely up to the reader to decide, but one could imagine what Wilde’s view on them would be, given the fact that he lived in a society that was so restrictive, one had to be very careful about what they could conceal and make well-known.
Kaufman, Moisés. Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. New York: Vintage, 1998. Print.
Wilde, Ocsar. “The Importance of Being Earnest.” The Importance of Being Earnest. CELT: The Corpus of Electronic Texts, 2008. Web. 08 Dec. 2014.