FIRST ACT (cont)
Algernon. My dear fellow, it isn’t easy to be anything nowadays. There’s such a lot of beastly competition about. [The sound of an electric bell is heard.] Ah! that must be Aunt Augusta. Only relatives, or creditors, ever ring in that Wagnerian manner. Now, if I get her out of the way for ten minutes, so that you can have an opportunity for proposing to Gwendolen, may I dine with you to-night at Willis’s?
Jack. I suppose so, if you want to.
Algernon. Yes, but you must be serious about it. I hate people who are not serious about meals. It is so shallow of them.
Lane. Lady Bracknell and Miss Fairfax.
[Algernon goes forward to meet them. Enter Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen.]
Lady Bracknell. Good afternoon, dear Algernon, I hope you are behaving very well.
Algernon. I’m feeling very well, Aunt Augusta.
Lady Bracknell. That’s not quite the same thing. In fact the two things rarely go together. [Sees Jack and bows to him with icy coldness.]
Algernon. [To Gwendolen.] Dear me, you are smart!
Gwendolen. I am always smart! Am I not, Mr. Worthing?
Jack. You’re quite perfect, Miss Fairfax.
Gwendolen. Oh! I hope I am not that. It would leave no room for developments, and I intend to develop in many directions. [Gwendolen and Jack sit down together in the corner.]
Lady Bracknell. I’m sorry if we are a little late, Algernon, but I was obliged to call on dear Lady Harbury. I hadn’t been there since her poor husband’s death. I never saw a woman so altered; she looks quite twenty years younger. And now I’ll have a cup of tea, and one of those nice cucumber sandwiches you promised me.
Algernon. Certainly, Aunt Augusta. [Goes over to tea-table.]
Lady Bracknell. Won’t you come and sit here, Gwendolen?
Gwendolen. Thanks, mamma, I’m quite comfortable where I am.
Algernon. [Picking up empty plate in horror.] Good heavens! Lane! Why are there no cucumber sandwiches? I ordered them specially.
Lane. [Gravely.] There were no cucumbers in the market this morning, sir. I went down twice.
Algernon. No cucumbers!
Lane. No, sir. Not even for ready money.
Algernon. That will do, Lane, thank you.
Lane. Thank you, sir. [Goes out.]
Algernon. I am greatly distressed, Aunt Augusta, about there being no cucumbers, not even for ready money.
Lady Bracknell. It really makes no matter, Algernon. I had some crumpets with Lady Harbury, who seems to me to be living entirely for pleasure now.
Algernon. I hear her hair has turned quite gold from grief.
Lady Bracknell. It certainly has changed its colour. From what cause I, of course, cannot say. [Algernon crosses and hands tea.] Thank you. I’ve quite a treat for you to-night, Algernon. I am going to send you down with Mary Farquhar. She is such a nice woman, and so attentive to her husband. It’s delightful to watch them.
Algernon. I am afraid, Aunt Augusta, I shall have to give up the pleasure of dining with you to-night after all.
Lady Bracknell. [Frowning.] I hope not, Algernon. It would put my table completely out. Your uncle would have to dine upstairs. Fortunately he is accustomed to that.
Algernon. It is a great bore, and, I need hardly say, a terrible disappointment to me, but the fact is I have just had a telegram to say that my poor friend Bunbury is very ill again. [Exchanges glances with Jack.] They seem to think I should be with him.
Lady Bracknell. It is very strange. This Mr. Bunbury seems to suffer from curiously bad health.
Algernon. Yes; poor Bunbury is a dreadful invalid.
Lady Bracknell. Well, I must say, Algernon, that 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. I am always telling that to your poor uncle, but he never seems to take much notice . . . as far as any improvement in his ailment goes. I should be much obliged if you would ask Mr. Bunbury, from me, to be kind enough not to have a relapse on Saturday, for I rely on you to arrange my music for me. It is my last reception, and one wants something that will encourage conversation, particularly at the end of the season when every one has practically said whatever they had to say, which, in most cases, was probably not much.
Algernon. I’ll speak to Bunbury, Aunt Augusta, if he is still conscious, and I think I can promise you he’ll be all right by Saturday. Of course the music is a great difficulty. You see, if one plays good music, people don’t listen, and if one plays bad music people don’t talk. But I’ll run over the programme I’ve drawn out, if you will kindly come into the next room for a moment.
Lady Bracknell. Thank you, Algernon. It is very thoughtful of you. [Rising, and following Algernon.] I’m sure the programme will be delightful, after a few expurgations. French songs I cannot possibly allow. People always seem to think that they are improper, and either look shocked, which is vulgar, or laugh, which is worse. But German sounds a thoroughly respectable language, and indeed, I believe is so. Gwendolen, you will accompany me.
Gwendolen. Certainly, mamma.
[Lady Bracknell and Algernon go into the music-room, Gwendolen remains behind.]
Jack. Charming day it has been, Miss Fairfax.
Gwendolen. Pray don’t talk to me about the weather, Mr. Worthing. Whenever people talk to me about the weather, I always feel quite certain that they mean something else. And that makes me so nervous.
Jack. I do mean something else.
Gwendolen. I thought so. In fact, I am never wrong.
Jack. And I would like to be allowed to take advantage of Lady Bracknell’s temporary absence . . .
Gwendolen. I would certainly advise you to do so. Mamma has a way of coming back suddenly into a room that I have often had to speak to her about.
Jack. [Nervously.] Miss Fairfax, ever since I met you I have admired you more than any girl . . . I have ever met since . . . I met you.
Gwendolen. Yes, I am quite well aware of the fact. And I often wish that in public, at any rate, you had been more demonstrative. For me you have always had an irresistible fascination. Even before I met you I was far from indifferent to you. [Jack looks at her in amazement.] We live, as I hope you know, Mr. Worthing, in an age of ideals. The fact is constantly mentioned in the more expensive monthly magazines, and has reached the provincial pulpits, I am told; and my ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence. The moment Algernon first mentioned to me that he had a friend called Ernest, I knew I was destined to love you.
Jack. You really love me, Gwendolen?
Jack. Darling! You don’t know how happy you’ve made me.
Gwendolen. My own Ernest!
Jack. But you don’t really mean to say that you couldn’t love me if my name wasn’t Ernest?
Gwendolen. But your name is Ernest.
Jack. Yes, I know it is. But supposing it was something else? Do you mean to say you couldn’t love me then?
Gwendolen. [Glibly.] Ah! that is clearly a metaphysical speculation, and like most metaphysical speculations has very little reference at all to the actual facts of real life, as we know them.
Jack. Personally, darling, to speak quite candidly, I don’t much care about the name of Ernest . . . I don’t think the name suits me at all.
Gwendolen. It suits you perfectly. It is a divine name. It has a music of its own. It produces vibrations.
Jack. Well, really, Gwendolen, I must say that I think there are lots of other much nicer names. I think Jack, for instance, a charming name.
Gwendolen. Jack? . . . No, there is very little music in the name Jack, if any at all, indeed. It does not thrill. It produces absolutely no vibrations . . . I have known several Jacks, and they all, without exception, were more than usually plain. Besides, Jack is a notorious domesticity for John! And 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. The only really safe name is Ernest.
Jack. Gwendolen, I must get christened at once—I mean we must get married at once. There is no time to be lost.
Gwendolen. Married, Mr. Worthing?
Jack. [Astounded.] Well . . . surely. You know that I love you, and you led me to believe, Miss Fairfax, that you were not absolutely indifferent to me.
Gwendolen. I adore you. But you haven’t proposed to me yet. Nothing has been said at all about marriage. The subject has not even been touched on.
Jack. Well . . . may I propose to you now?
Gwendolen. I think it would be an admirable opportunity. And to spare you any possible disappointment, Mr. Worthing, I think it only fair to tell you quite frankly before-hand that I am fully determined to accept you.
Gwendolen. Yes, Mr. Worthing, what have you got to say to me?
Jack. You know what I have got to say to you.
Gwendolen. Yes, but you don’t say it.
Jack. Gwendolen, will you marry me? [Goes on his knees.]
Gwendolen. Of course I will, darling. How long you have been about it! I am afraid you have had very little experience in how to propose.
Jack. My own one, I have never loved any one in the world but you.
Gwendolen. Yes, but men often propose for practice. I know my brother Gerald does. All my girl-friends tell me so. What wonderfully blue eyes you have, Ernest! They are quite, quite, blue. I hope you will always look at me just like that, especially when there are other people present. [Enter Lady Bracknell.]
Lady Bracknell. Mr. Worthing! Rise, sir, from this semi-recumbent posture. It is most indecorous.
Gwendolen. Mamma! [He tries to rise; she restrains him.] I must beg you to retire. This is no place for you. Besides, Mr. Worthing has not quite finished yet.
Lady Bracknell. Finished what, may I ask?
Gwendolen. I am engaged to Mr. Worthing, mamma. [They rise together.]
Lady Bracknell. Pardon me, you are not engaged to any one. When you do become engaged to some one, I, or your father, should his health permit him, will inform you of the fact. An engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be. It is hardly a matter that she could be allowed to arrange for herself . . . And now I have a few questions to put to you, Mr. Worthing. While I am making these inquiries, you, Gwendolen, will wait for me below in the carriage.
Gwendolen. [Reproachfully.] Mamma!
Lady Bracknell. In the carriage, Gwendolen! [Gwendolen goes to the door. She and Jack blow kisses to each other behind Lady Bracknell’s back. Lady Bracknell looks vaguely about as if she could not understand what the noise was. Finally turns round.] Gwendolen, the carriage!
Gwendolen. Yes, mamma. [Goes out, looking back at Jack.]
Lady Bracknell. [Sitting down.] You can take a seat, Mr. Worthing.
[Looks in her pocket for note-book and pencil.]
Jack. Thank you, Lady Bracknell, I prefer standing.
Lady Bracknell. [Pencil and note-book in hand.] I feel bound to tell you that you are not down on my list of eligible young men, although I have the same list as the dear Duchess of Bolton has. We work together, in fact. However, I am quite ready to enter your name, should your answers be what a really affectionate mother requires. Do you smoke?
Jack. Well, yes, I must admit I smoke.
Lady Bracknell. I am glad to hear it. A man should always have an occupation of some kind. There are far too many idle men in London as it is. How old are you?
Lady Bracknell. A very good age to be married at. I have always been of opinion that a man who desires to get married should know either everything or nothing. Which do you know?
Jack. [After some hesitation.] I know nothing, Lady Bracknell.
Lady Bracknell. I am pleased to hear it. 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. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square. What is your income?
Jack. Between seven and eight thousand a year.
Lady Bracknell. [Makes a note in her book.] In land, or in investments?
Jack. In investments, chiefly.
Lady Bracknell. That is satisfactory. 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.
Jack. I have a country house with some land, of course, attached to it, about fifteen hundred acres, I believe; but I don’t depend on that for my real income. In fact, as far as I can make out, the poachers are the only people who make anything out of it.
Lady Bracknell. A country house! How many bedrooms? Well, that point can be cleared up afterwards. You have a town house, I hope? A girl with a simple, unspoiled nature, like Gwendolen, could hardly be expected to reside in the country.
Jack. Well, I own a house in Belgrave Square, but it is let by the year to Lady Bloxham. Of course, I can get it back whenever I like, at six months’ notice.
Lady Bracknell. Lady Bloxham? I don’t know her.
Jack. Oh, she goes about very little. She is a lady considerably advanced in years.
Lady Bracknell. Ah, nowadays that is no guarantee of respectability of character. What number in Belgrave Square?
Lady Bracknell. [Shaking her head.] The unfashionable side. I thought there was something. However, that could easily be altered.
Jack. Do you mean the fashion, or the side?
Lady Bracknell. [Sternly.] Both, if necessary, I presume. What are your politics?
Jack. Well, I am afraid I really have none. I am a Liberal Unionist.
Lady Bracknell. Oh, they count as Tories. They dine with us. Or come in the evening, at any rate. Now to minor matters. Are your parents living?
Jack. I have lost both my parents.
Lady Bracknell. To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness. Who was your father? He was evidently a man of some wealth. Was he born in what the Radical papers call the purple of commerce, or did he rise from the ranks of the aristocracy?
Jack. I am afraid I really don’t know. The fact is, Lady Bracknell, I said I had lost my parents. It would be nearer the truth to say that my parents seem to have lost me . . . I don’t actually know who I am by birth. I was . . . well, I was found.