Pinter's 'The birthday party' and Wilde's 'The Importance of Being Earnest' - a comparison

Term Paper 2005 13 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature



1. Introduction

2.1 Comedy- an overview
2.2 The Importance of Being Earnest
2.3 The aspect of comedy

3.1 Theatre of the absurd- an overview
3.2 Harold Pinter – the Birthday Party

4. Conclusion

1. Introduction

“Theatre of the absurd – a try of rejection from civil theatre”. This is what the Metzler’s Literatur Lexikon is saying under “Theatre of the Absurd”. Of course this is not everything but it is the first and most concise sentence.

It seems that the Theatre of the Absurd is not considered as civil theatre and that means that there must be big differences between the drama we know from Shakespeare or other famous authors and the work of Beckett and his companions.

This work is going to define the differences between a classic drama (a comedy) and a modern drama (theatre of the absurd) and it will make them clear using examples from both “The Importance of Being Earnest” and “The Birthday Party” written by Oscar Wilde and Harold Pinter, respectively.

Of course we first need to look closer at both types of writing before we look at the texts. This will be done before finding examples.

The third part will underline the differences and the last part will summarise the whole work and also look for similarities in the two dramas.

2.1 Comedy - an overview

Comedies originally came from Greece and the greek word “komodia” which means “singing”. Comedies were celebrations which honoured Dionysos.[1]

A comedy is, in contrast to the tragedy, a play with a happy ending. Comedy always comes together with humour which is supposed to entertain the audience.

Comedy belongs to the genre Drama. The Drama of the modern age emerged in the Rennaissance.

The piece we will look closer at belongs to the “Comedy of Manners”. This special sort of comedy satirizes characteristics, manners and artificialities of a social class, which is represented by stock- characters.

Typical themes for the comedy of manners are illegal love affairs or other kinds of scandals.

Comedy authors often use dialogues to show the funny character traits of the figures or the absurdity of the scene. Crude dialogues are also used in this sort of writing.[2]

2.2. The Importance of Being Earnest- parallels to reality

The piece represents in some way Wilde’s life or at least parts of it.

First of all, it is about the two lives that both Algernon and Jack have. This refers to Wilde's own experience. He used to live both together with his family and as a dandy away from them. He knew exactly what he was writing about, because he was familiar with this kind of situation.

Another thing from Wilde’s life is the name (lady)“Bracknell”. That was actually the name of the house where one of his friends’ (or affairs’) mother lived. We will come back to this person (lady B.) later in this work.

An interesting fact is also that Wilde called one of his main characters “Worthing”. Worthing was actually the town where Wilde really used to live.

But the strangest thing is, in my opinion, that Jack makes his brother die in Paris, exactly the same city where Wilde himself will die a while later.

2.3 The aspects of comedy

The Importance of Being Earnest is, according to the subtitle, a trivial comedy for serious people. This already shows the satirical side of the play. A Comedy is usually there to make people laugh and serious people are not kown for their sense of humour. It could be a link to the victorian way of living, when everything was serious and very strict. Wilde is trying to parody that.

We can find comical aspects throughout the text. Each person takes on an important role, even the less important ones such as Lane, Algernon’s butler:

Algernon. Did you hear what I was playing, Lane?

Lane. I didn’t think it polite to listen, sir.[3]

Lane’s comment that a butler is never listening to the private things is very absurd and funny. He copies the butler-ethos “never listen to private conversations” to every other situation- namely here the piano playing.

The next funny scene is following shortly afterwards.

Algernon’s friend Jack is arriving and the two of them are talking about Jack’s cigarette case:

Algernon. [...] now that I look at the inscription inside, I find that the thing isn’t yours after all.

Jack. Of course it’s mine You have seen me with it a hundred times, and you have no right whatsoever to read what is written inside. It is a very ungentlemanly thing to read a private cigarette case.[4]

That shows the interaction of two dialogue partners, which is very typical for this play.

The fact that Jack is comparing a case inscription with a private letter is totally absurd and also funny.

Another aspect which is characteristic for that play is the use of symmetry and twin motives. We have two dandies (Jack, Algernon), two places of action (London, Woolton), two partners (Cecily, Gwendolen) and two alibis (Ernest, Bunburry).

The two ladies both have someone to look after them as well as they both have the same dream: Finding someone called Ernest. This shows the absurdity of the dream.

And the twin motives make the piece even more absurd than it already is.

The reaction of the two dandies to their ladies’ wish is funny and absurd, too. One of them, Algernon, starts to “be” the fictive Ernest and both of them want to get christened to that special name, a very childish action.


[1] Greiner, Bernhard: Die Komödie, Tübingen, 1992

[2] available at: http://www.wikipedia.com 17.11.05.

[3] Wilde, Oscar: The Importance of Being Earnest, Stuttgart, 1990, p.5.

[4] Wilde, Oscar: The Importance of Being Earnest, Stuttgart, 1990, p.10.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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473 KB
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Institution / College
Humboldt-University of Berlin – Anglistik /Amerikanisitik
Pinter Wilde Importance Being Earnest Expressionism



Title: Pinter's 'The birthday party' and Wilde's 'The Importance of Being Earnest' -  a comparison