Jack Worthing, under the assumed name of Earnest Worthing, has arrived in London in order to propose to Gwendolen Fairfax. He visits his friend, Algernon Moncrieff, who lives in a luxurious Mayfair flat. But the discovery by Algy of Jacks cigarette case, left in his apartment on his last visit, leads Algy to realise that his friend has a double identity: he is Earnest in the city and Jack in the country. Jack explains that, in order to leave his country home whenever he wishes, he has invented a fictitious younger brother called Earnest, who lives in London and gets into so much trouble that Jack often has to come and rescue him. Algy admits that he, too, leads a double life - he has invented a friend called Bunbury who lives in the country and is a permanent invalid. This allows Algy to escape the city whenever he wishes.
Already Wilde has firmly established the mood of innocence, largely through his choice of dialogue. This is what marks out The Importance of Being Earnest primarily as a nonsense play rather than a comedy of manners. The best examples of this latter category Congreves The Way of the World (1700) and Sheridans The School for Scandal (1777) present characters who behave immorally, but do so in such a delightful way that the audience are prevented from passing moral judgement. Evil is present in a comedy of manners, but is rendered harmless- we do not feel that it is real evil, just as in The Importance of Being Earnest. But where Wildes work differs is that he is not interested in satirising the society of his time. Instead, he seeks to reduce this society to the level of childlike innocence in attempt to escape from evil, and does this mainly by his essentially nonsensical dialogue.
The Importance of Being Earnest is full of nonsensical statements, and Act I begins them early on, for instance in the examination of Jacks cigarette case:
"ALGERNON: (retreating to back of sofa) But why does she call herself little Cecily if she is your aunt and lives at Tunbridge Wells? (Reading) From little Cecily with her fondest love.
JACK: (moving to sofa and kneeling upon it) My dear fellow, what on earth is there in that? Some aunts are tall, some aunts are not tall. That is a matter that surely an aunt may be allowed to decide for herself."
Wilde is here in the vein not of social satire, but of the new nonsense writing exemplified by Lewis Carrolls Alice in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1872), and Edward Lears Book of Nonsense (1846).
Algy accuses his friend of being a confirmed Bunburyist that is someone who uses another persona in order to indulge in covert pleasurable activity. This could be seen to reflect (and playfully suggest) the lengths needed to go to in order to conduct homosexual affairs. But Jack rejects this accusation
"JACK: Im not a Bunburyist at all. If Gwendolen accepts me, I am going to kill my brother, indeed I think Ill kill him in any case."
In the short story "Lord Arthur Savilles Crime", Arthur had to commit a crime before he could marry Sibyl. Jack here also finds himself forced to murder someone as a prelude to marriage. Arthurs murder of Podgers was a real crime, despite Podgers symbolic status, while Jacks brother is entirely a product of his imagination. The murder that Jack commits, then, is a totally harmless parody of Arthurs crime, and, perhaps, of Dorian Grays murder of Basil Hallward.
This section of the act parodies a similar scene in An Ideal Husband in which Lord Goring finds Mrs Cheveleys snake-bracelet. Her attempts to retrieve it expose her as a thief and defeat her. In The Importance of Being Earnest, the exposure of Jack is shrouded in innocence and does not harm his social position or his chances of marrying Gwendolen. On the contrary, it deepens his friendship with Algy, a fellow Bunburyist.
The doorbell rings and Lady Bracknell and her daughter Gwendolen enter. Though Gwendolen is clearly a child too, Lady Bracknell, though a child pretending to be a British aristocrat, is someone who has