My father Scott Bates may have celebrated his 88th birthday recently (on June 13, the day after mine), but his mind never stops probing. To honor him, I share here some of his discoveries about a gay subtext to Oscar’s Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Given the momentous decision on Friday by the state of New York to allow same sex couples to marry, this seems a good occasion.
As you probably know, the play involves two double identities. One character pretends to be the respectable John (or Jack) Worthing when he’s in the country, but when he is in the city he tells everyone that he is Earnest. He also informs his ward Celia that he must regularly visit the city on account of his scapegrace younger brother, whose name he says is Earnest.
Another character, Algernon, pretends that he has an invalid friend in the country named Lord Bunbury, and whenever he wants to avoid a tiresome engagement he claims that his friend’s sickness has flared up again, at which point he goes off “Bunburying.” Discovering John’s secret, Algernon visits his house pretending to be Earnest and discovers Celia. By the end of the play, the two men discover that they are brothers (so John really does have a scapegrace younger brother in the city) and that John’s name really is Earnest.
The play, which is a masterpiece of light wit, was wildly popular when it came out in 1895, in large part because it poked light-hearted fun at ponderous Victorian earnestness. Early on, however, there were rumors that it was not all that it seemed. Were these double identities suggesting something else? Was “Earnest” a code word for “homosexual,” giving an extra special meaning to the play’s concluding line, “I’ve now realized for the first time in my life the vital importance of being Earnest”? For that matter, was “Bunburying” a double pun for sodomy? In terms of the plot, this second interpretation makes sense, what with John assuming an alias when he’s in the city meeting up with Earnest and Algernon escaping from his respectable relatives to engage in Bunburying.
One can imagine how delightful such a second reading would be to those forced to hide their gay identities. The satisfaction would be akin to that experienced by African American slaves upon hearing stories of Br’er Rabbit outwitting Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear. There’s an extra delight in being in on a joke that those in power don’t get.
Many have vigorously denied this double reading, including actor John Gielgud, who called it “absolute nonsense.” My father’s research suggests otherwise.
Examining Victorian erotic literature at the Kinsey Sex Institute at the University of Indiana, my father found that “Earnest” was indeed a slang term for homosexual in the late 19th century. He also came across a book of homosexual love poetry that an Oxford classmate of Wilde (John Gambril Nicholson) wrote entitled Love in Earnest (1882). A repeating line in one of the poems goes, “While Ernest sets my heart aflame.”
And then, although this evidence is more circumstantial, high profile homosexual trials were underway in Germany at this time. A German name like Earnest could have plugged into those events. Also, there is a poem by French poet Guillaume Apollinaire (my father’s scholarship speciality) that links the name to homosexuality.
To further buttress his reading of the play, my father also notes that Wilde and his lover Lord Douglas had sex with a busboy named Earnest, who testified at the trial. Wilde also had a friend when he was at Oxford (how close my father can’t say) named “Bunbury.”
A quick digression on Bunbury: we Bateses have connection with a Lord Bunbury, albeit not with Wilde’s friend. My great-great grandfather, Thomas Scott, was the steward for a Lord Bunbury, whose descendents continue on. Scott’s daughter Eliza married Edwin Fulcher, who came to the States, and their daughter Eleanor (my grandmother) married Alfred Bates.
Back to the subtext. One doesn’t need to read “Earnest” as “homosexual” to enjoy the play. I didn’t know any of this when I fell in love with The Importance of Being Earnest in high school. But such jokes can comfort those who are marginalized and repressed, letting them know someone is thinking of them.
Luckily, our new openness about homosexuality, including the new New York law, means that such comfort is not as necessary as it once was.
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