Shakespeare aside, is there any playwright more quotable than Oscar Wilde? And, of all his plays, is there any more quoted than his 1895 comedy of manners, The Importance of Being Earnest? And of the famously feckless characters who populate this Wildely famous play, is there any who delivers more of those quotable quotes than Lady Bracknell?
Small wonder that this classic comic role was attractive enough to lure David Suchet into a corset. Well, actually, it’s debatable whether Lady B does have the majority of the pithy epigrams. By my own calculations, Algernon Moncrieff (played by Philip Cumbus), Bracknell’s rogue nephew, has just as many…
My own calculations, by the way, simply entailed me frantically scribbling while I chuckled as the lines were spoken by the well-drilled cast in Adrian Noble’s smart new production, now transferred to the West End’s Vaudeville Theatre following a record-breaking tour. And by that method, I have deduced that there are 39 top quotes, one-third of which come from Lady Bracknell’s mouth, another third from Algernon’s and the final third from everyone else.
(And 23 of the 39 quotes all landed in Act One – but maybe that’s as much about my hand cramping as the night wore on?)
If you peruse Wikiquote, Cliff Notes or a dictionary of quotations, you may well find others – “A handbag?!”, of course. I’ve left that one off my list because, interestingly, Suchet chooses to swallow utterance, or smother it in girlish giggles – which made me realise that line, in any case, is not really about wit but merely about delivery. Other lines are far more memorable and, as Suchet and Noble obviously decided too, more worthy of emphasis.
If you agree or disagree, do feel free to add to my list below. You can peruse the full script of The Importance of Being Earnest here.
The Importance of Being Earnest continues at the West End’s Vaudeville Theatre until 27 November 2015.
Imogen Doel as Cecily and Philip Cumbus as Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest
Act One quotes
Algernon: Really, if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them? They seem, as a class, to have absolutely no sense of moral responsibility.
Jack: Oh, pleasure, pleasure! What else should bring one anywhere?
Jack: When one is in town one amuses oneself. When one is in the country one amuses other people. It is excessively boring.
Algernon: The very essence of romance is uncertainty.
Algernon: Girls never marry the men they flirt with. Girls don’t think it right… It is a great truth. It accounts for the extraordinary number of bachelors that one sees all over the place.
Algernon: The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility!
Algernon: The amount of women in London who flirt with their own husbands is perfectly scandalous. It looks so bad. It is simply washing one’s clean linen in public.
Algernon: Ah! that must be Aunt Augusta. Only relatives, or creditors, ever ring in that Wagnerian manner.
Jack: I hate people who are not serious about meals. It is so shallow of them.
Lady Bracknell: I think it is high time that Mr. Bunbury made up his mind whether he was going to live or to die. This shilly-shallying with the question is absurd. Nor do I in any way approve of the modern sympathy with invalids. I consider it morbid. Illness of any kind is hardly a thing to be encouraged in others. Health is the primary duty of life.
Gwendolyn: My ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence.
Gwendolyn: I pity any woman who is married to a man called John. She would probably never be allowed to know the entrancing pleasure of a single moment’s solitude.
Lady Bracknell: Mr. Worthing! Rise, sir, from this semi-recumbent posture. It is most indecorous.
Lady Bracknell: 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.
Lady Bracknell: 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.
Lady Bracknell: To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.
Lady Bracknell: To be born, or at any rate bred, in a hand-bag, whether it had handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution.
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.
Lady Bracknell: 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 cloak-room, and form an alliance with a parcel?
Algernon: Relations are simply a tedious pack of people, who haven’t got the remotest knowledge of how to live, nor the smallest instinct about when to die.
Algernon: All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That is his.
Algernon: The only way to behave to a woman is to make love to her, if she is pretty, and to some one else, if she is plain.
Algernon: It is awfully hard work doing nothing. However, I don’t mind hard work where there is no definite object of any kind.
Michele Dotrice as Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest
Act Two quotes
Cecily: But I don’t like German. It isn’t at all a becoming language. I know perfectly well that I look quite plain after my German lesson.
Miss Prism: The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.
Algernon: Australia! I’d sooner die.
Miss Prism: And you do not seem to realise, dear Doctor, that by persistently remaining single, a man converts himself into a permanent public temptation. Men should be more careful; this very celibacy leads weaker vessels astray.
Algernon: If I am occasionally a little over-dressed, I make up for it by being always immensely over-educated.
Gwendolyn: I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.
Cecily: When I see a spade I call it a spade. Gwendolen: I am glad to say that I have never seen a spade. It is obvious that our social spheres have been widely different.
Michael Benz as Jack and Emily Barber as Gwendolen in The Importance of Being Earnest
Act Three quotes
Gwendolyn: In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing.
Gwendolen: I have the gravest doubts upon the subject. But I intend to crush them. This is not the moment for German scepticism.
Lady Bracknell: I do not know whether there is anything peculiarly exciting in the air of this particular part of Hertfordshire, but the number of engagements that go on seems to me considerably above the proper average that statistics have laid down for our guidance.
Lady Bracknell: Until yesterday I had no idea that there were any families or persons whose origin was a Terminus.
Lady Bracknell: Three addresses always inspire confidence, even in tradesmen.
Lady Bracknell: Never speak disrespectfully of Society, Algernon. Only people who can’t get into it do that.
Lady Bracknell: Algernon is an extremely, I may almost say an ostentatiously, eligible young man. He has nothing, but he looks everything.
Gwendolyn: I never change, except in my affections.
Jack: Gwendolen, it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth. Can you forgive me?