The importance of drama and the attention that newly released plays got from the society can be gauged from the fact that in London alone there were 50 theatres. It is believed that Wilde wrote this play in Worthing, where he was on a brief vacation and the version of the play that was enacted was a briefer version, cut down on the advice of George Alexander; the actor-manager at St. James. Wilde had already written three other plays that had become instant successes. His third play An Ideal Husband had opened only a month before and was still being performed at the Haymarket Theatre, just a few blocks away from St. James. The play is set in the Victorian era in which it was written and relates the story of two very idle young men from upper classes who are leading a double life. Wilde introduces the character of Jack Worthing, a resident of Hertfordshire, where he lives a pious life taking care of his ward, the pretty Cecily Cardew. Cecily is the daughter of Thomas Cardew who found Jack in a hand-bag at a railway station and later brought him up. This same Jack, who is an epitome of uprightness, has invented and imaginary brother Ernest to whom he attributes all kinds of misadventures and vices and in order to free him from the scrapes that Ernest has a tendency to get into, he visits London, where he assumes the name Ernest for himself, quite often to enjoy the fashionable society and the freedom that the social atmosphere of London affords. He is also on the verge of proposing to Gwendolen Fairfax when his deception is discovered by Algernon Moncrieff_ Jack's friend and another character who leads a double life similar to Jack's. Algernon has invented a character called Bunbury, a nonexistent friend who is on his death-bed and is breathing his last most of the time. Algernon uses Bunbury whenever he wishes to escape from his relatives' company and visit the countryside. The double identities and the deceptions are revealed to all when Algernon visits Jack at Hertfordshire and proposes to Cecily. At this moment not only the real identities of the two heroes are revealed but also the fact that Jack is not the son of some unknown workman or clerk but is the son of Lady Bracknell's sister and is Algernon's elder brother.
The play boasts of an array of memorable characters. Jack and Algernon appear to be wonderful examples of idle, frivolous and foppish young men, with plenty of time at hand and no other productive activities to indulge in except frequenting theatres, visiting clubs, flirting with women and squandering inheritances. Although the play does focus more on Jack and his life yet Algernon comes out as someone more memorable with abundant dialogues of black humor and characterized by a roguish charm. Cecily and Gwendolen give the play an element of hilarity as Wilde characterizes the two women as vain, petty, coquette and devoid of any consistency and seriousness of conduct. Lady Bracknell provides the much needed antagonism and an obstacle in the way of the young lovers whereas, Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble serve to remind the audiences of the insincerity and hypocrisy of those who consider themselves enlightened, religious and moral.