The Importance of Being Earnest opened in the West End of London in February 1894 during an era when many of the religious, social, political, and economic structures were experiencing change — The Victorian Age (the last 25-30 years of the 1800s). The British Empire was at its height and occupied much of the globe, including Ireland, Wilde's homeland. The English aristocracy was dominant, snobbish and rich — far removed from the British middle class and poor.
Many novelists, essayists, poets, philosophers and playwrights of the Victorian Age wrote about social problems, particularly concerning the effects of the Industrial Revolution and political and social reform. Dickens concentrated on the poor, Darwin wrote his theory of evolution describing the survival of the fittest, and Thomas Hardy wrote about the Naturalist Theory of man stuck in the throes of fate. Other notable writers such as Thackeray, the Brontes, Swinburne, Butler, Pinero, and Kipling were also contemporaries of Oscar Wilde. In an age of change, their work, as well as Wilde's plays, encouraged people to think about the artificial barriers that defined society and enabled a privileged life for the rich at the expense of the working class.
American writer, Edith Wharton, was also writing about the lifestyles of the rich during the same period. Her novels, such as Ethan Frome, The Age of Innocence, or The House of Mirth, explore the concepts of wealth and privilege at the expense of the working class on the American side of the Atlantic.
Although the themes in The Importance of Being Earnest address Victorian social issues, the structure of the play was largely influenced by French theatre, melodrama, social drama, and farce. Wilde was quite familiar with these genres, and borrowed from them freely. A play by W. Lestocq and E.M. Robson, The Foundling, is thought to be a source of Earnest, and it was playing in London at the time Wilde was writing Earnest. The Foundling has an orphan-hero, like Jack Worthing in Wilde's play. A farce is a humorous play using exaggerated physical action, such as slapstick, absurdity, and improbability. It often contains surprises where the unexpected is disclosed. The ending of Earnest, in which Jack misidentifies Prism as his unmarried mother, is typical of the endings of farces. Farces were usually done in three acts and often included changes of identity, stock characters, and lovers misunderstanding each other. Wearing mourning clothes or gobbling food down at times of stress are conventions that can be traced to early farces.
Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen also strongly influenced Wilde. Ibsen's innovations in A Doll's House, which had played in London in 1889, were known to Wilde. Wilde also attended Hedda Gabler and Ghosts, two other plays by Ibsen. While in prison, Wilde requested copies of Ibsen plays.
The theatre manager of the St. James where Earnest opened, George Alexander, asked Wilde to reduce his original four-act play to three acts, like more conventional farces. Wilde accomplished this by omitting the Gribsby episode and merging two acts into one. In doing so, he maneuvered his play for greater commercial and literary response.
Marriage plots and social comedy were also typical of 1890s literature. Jane Austen and George Eliot were both novelists who used the idea of marriage as the basis for their conflicts. Many of the comedies of the stage were social comedies, plays set in contemporary times discussing current problems. The white, Anglo-Saxon, male society of the time provided many targets of complacency and aristocratic attitudes that playwrights such as Wilde could attack.
Earnest came at a time in Wilde's life when he was feeling the pressure of supporting his family and mother, and precariously balancing homosexual affairs — especially with Lord Alfred Douglas. The Importance of Being Earnest opened at George Alexander's St. James Theatre on February 14, 1895. On this particular evening, to honor Wilde's aestheticism, the women wore lily corsages, and the young men wore lilies of the valley in their lapels. Wilde himself, an outside observer by birth in the world of elegant fashion, was festooned in a glittering outfit. It was widely reported that he wore a coat with a black velvet collar, a white waistcoat, a black moiré ribbon watch chain with seals, white gloves, a green scarab ring, and lilies of the valley in his lapel. Wilde, the Irish outsider, was dramatically accepted by upper-class London, who loved his wit and daring, even when laughing about themselves.
The aristocracy attending Wilde's play knew and understood the private lives of characters like Jack and Algernon. They were aware of the culture and atmosphere of the West End. It had clubs, hotels, cafes, restaurants, casinos, and most of the 50 theatres in London. The West End was also a red-light district filled with brothels that could provide any pleasure. It was a virtual garden of delights, and the patrons could understand the need for married men to invent Ernests and Bunburys so that they could frolic in this world.