At the song’s heart is the familiar idea that humans put up barriers between themselves and others in the form of masks. This “lonely game” of deception keeps us from making real contact with one another, and the result is especially problematic if we allow ourselves to play the game in a romantic relationship. In such a relationship it’s essential that we allow others access to the “real” self that lies behind the mask. Only when we let our masks fall can there be genuine “understanding” between us, the kind of understanding that’s an essential condition of love.
The metaphor of the mask belongs to a more general vocabulary that casts false behavior in the language of drama. Masks were worn in ancient Greek drama and in the Italian commedia dell’arte. We talk of a deceptive or insincere person in ordinary life as hiding behind a mask, playing a role, acting a part, behaving in a scripted manner. We suspect that a drama queen is putting on an act with all that emotion, perhaps in a deliberately staged effort to induce a certain view of themselves by creating a scene.
False people are ceaselessly performing. Instead of speaking from the heart, they hand us a line.
Even more broadly, we regard art itself as a metaphor for falsity. We value transparency over artifice. We want people to be their natural selves rather than artificial. We want genuine civility, not just the form of it. We prefer — or believe we prefer — sincerity over style.
It’s our familiarity with this language that makes it such a shock to read Wilde, in his “Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young,” suggesting that “The first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible,” that “One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art,” and that “In all unimportant matters, style, not sincerity, is the essential. In all important matters, style, not sincerity, is the essential.”
“Man is least himself when he speaks in his own person,” wrote Wilde in “The Critic as Artist.” “Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” This might simply mean that we need the protection of a mask to be willing to bare our souls. Yet in light of the quotations from “Phrases and Philosophies” it seems to point to another, more radical idea: that it’s the mask that actually brings the person into being. Without the mask, not only can I not express myself; I can’t be myself.
How can we make sense of this idea? And how should the idea influence our understanding of the synonym for sincere on which the humor turns in the play we’ve been reading? What, ultimately, for Wilde, is the importance of being earnest?