London, and a country house in Hertfordshire, England; the 1890s
Jack Worthing, gentleman of the Manor House; also known as “Ernest”
Celcily Cardew, Worthing’s pretty young ward
Algernon Moncrieff, Worthing’s friend
Lady Augusta Braknell, Algernon’s aunt
Gwendolen Fairfax, Lady Bracknell’s daughter
The Reverend Canon Chasublc, Rector of Woolton
While Algernon Moncrieff and his manservant prepared for a visit froi-n his aunt, the formidable Lady Bracknell, their conversation turned to the question of marriage. Observing the servant’s somewhat lax views on the subject, Algernon declared, “Really, if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?”
This chat was interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Algernon’s friend, Ernest Worthing Worthing was pleased to hear that Lady Bracknell – and her beautiful daughter Gwendolen – would be appearing for tea. But Algernon warned, “I am afraid Aunt Augusta won’t quite approve of your bein here.” Mildly insulted, Ernest demanded to know why. “My dear fellow,” Algernon answered, “the way you flirt with Gwendolen is perfectly disgraceful.
It is almost as bad as the way Gwendolen flirts with you.” At this point Worthing announced that he intended to propose marriage to Gwendolen, but was taken aback by Algernon’s response: “I don’t give my consent.” Worthing, would first have to explain a certain “Cecily” in his life. As evidence of this relationship, he produced a cigarette case left behind by Worthing on an earlier visit – devotedly inscribed from “Cecily” to her loving “Uncle Jack.”
“Well,” admitted Worthing, “my name is Ernest in town and Jack in the country.” It happened, he said, that Cecily was his ward, who lived in his country home under the watchful eyes of a stern governess, Miss Prism.
But to escape the stuffy constraints of country living, Jack had invented an alter ego: ” . . . In order to get up to town I have always pretended to have a younger brother of the name of Ernest, who lives in Albany, and gets into the most dreadful scrapes.” Thus, Jack was often “called away” to the city to “rescue” irrepressible Ernest.
Smiling, Algernon now confessed that he too was a “Bunburyist,” a friend of the equally fictitious “Bunbury,” a “permanent invalid,” whom he visited whenever he chose to get away.
When Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen arrived, Algernon took his aunt aside, leaving “Ernest” and Gwendolen alone. “Miss Fairfax,” Worthing stammered, “ever since I met you I have admired you more than any girl – I have ever met since – I met you.” Gwendolen admitted to returning these warm feelings, in part because “my ideal has always been to love someone of the name of Ernest.” Would she still love him, asked Jack, if his name were, say, “Jack”? “There is very little music in the name Jack,” observed Gweildolen. Before more could be said, Jack knelt and asked her to marry him. At that moment Lady Bracknell entered, and the couple announced their engagement.
Highly displeased, Lady Bracknell requested a private conference with Mr. Worthing, in which she asked about his income, his politics, and, finally, his parentage. “I don’t actually know who I am by birth,” lack explained; as a baby he had been found in a handbag in the coalroom of the train station. Lady Bracknell was shocked. Neither she nor her husband, she huffed, could allow Gwendolen to “marry into a cloak-room, and form an alliance with a parcel.”
Now Jack considered his predicament.
At least, he decided, he could deal with the complication of Ernest. His imaginary brother must soon “dic” of a severe chill. Deep in these new intrigues, he left.
Meanwhile, Algernon, his curiosity piqued by jack’s mysterious young ward, decided he must meet this Cecily.
At the Manor in Hertfordshire, Miss Prism and Cecily were talking in the garden. Cecily expressed the hope that Jack would soon allow his reprobate brother Ernest to visit: “We might have a good influence over him.
” Miss Prism discouraged this idea, but just a few moments after she had left for a stroll with her own admirer, Dr. Chasuble, the local minister, the butler announced the arrival of Mr. Ernest Worthing, and .