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  • Writer's pictureJoe Pace

Favorite Fictional Characters, #249: Algernon Moncrief

"Why all these cucumber sandwiches?"

Oscar Wilde's 1895 play The Importance of Being Earnest is a popular work, and for good reason. It's funny, scathing social satire, widely considered the pinnacle of Wilde's career. It is a biting commentary on hidebound Victorian obsession with institutions, behavior, and etiquette, and uses the absurdity of farce to poke fun at a structure that virtually requires people to practice deceit to find any freedom or pleasure in life.

Algernon Moncrieff might as well have been Wilde himself - a vain, narcissistic bachelor of the upper class, a hedonistic aesthete repressed by the restrictive social and sexual mores of fin-de-siecle England. In order to escape the ordered existence of cucumber sandwiches and wallpapered women, Algy creates the alter ego of Bunbury to facilitate countryside romps far from the prying eyes of home. It's an idea he shares with his friend Jack (the play's titular Earnest). Apparently the only way for a wealthy young London libertine to really cut loose was to be someone else (something Wilde well knew).

The play traverses a byzantine plot of engagements and secrets and misunderstandings worthy of a whole soap opera season, peppered throughout by lightning-wit dialogue and non-stop self-satisfied self-indulgence by the privileged, idle protagonists. Love and marriage are almost secondary concerns to ripping off a swift bon mot, to the duel of verbal rapiers. It's brilliant and trivial and yet a sharp insight into a reality that might be all too familiar to many of us with the advent of social media. After all, there's our real life and then the life we advertise and display on Facebook or Twitter or other platforms. What is Facebooking, after all, other than modern-day Bunburying?

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