A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions

Oscar Wilde

The life of Oscar Wilde was as theatrical as his plays, and his downfall and death  more melodramatic than the stage of the Victorians who first celebrated him and then condemned him.   The centenary of his death in 1900, after his release from prison, was observed with the attention Wilde always sought -- knowing he deserved it.

“The Importance of Being Earnest” is not only a masterpiece, but an important  contribution to the tradition of English comedy of manners characterized by social observation and witty dialogue,  from Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” to Congreve’s “The Way of the World” and Sheridan’s “The Rivals.”

Paradox prevails in Wilde’s plays as it did in his life.   That the witty remarks of his characters are paradoxical -- seemingly trivial but actually true -- is what surprises and delights us, with the “punch” as an inversion at the end, like “She who hesitates is won.”

Although many productions celebrated the centenary,  his comedies are a perennial favorite, as the recent London production of “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” demonstrates. Directed by Peter Hall, it stars Vanessa Redgrave   and her daughter Joely Richardson, who plays the title role.  “An Ideal Husband” is the most recent film of many of Wilde’s works, of which the most popular on stage is ”The Importance of Being Earnest.”

“The Importance of Being Earnest” employs paradox in its plot as well as in almost every line of dialogue.  Interviewing Jack to determine his suitability for marriage with her daughter, Lady Bracknell suggests that “a man who desires to get married should know either everything or nothing.”  To Jack’s confession that he knows nothing, she replies, “I am pleased to hear it.  I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. . . .The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever.” She first questions him about his income and property, and then remarks, “Now to minor matters.  Are you parents living?”  Jack: “I have lost both my parents.”  Lady B: “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune—to lose both seems like carelessness.”

Capping a year of centenary celebrations of Wilde, the much-praised Chichester Festival production of “The Importance” was seen at London’s Savoy Theatre with  Patricia Routledge is Lady Bracknell. This popular production transferred from Chichester to the Theatre Royal Haymarket, after which it toured Australia and New Zealand before returning to England.          

Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin on October 16, 1854.  His father William was a distinguished eye doctor, consulted by crowned heads, including Queen Victoria.  His mother campaigned for women’s rights and for Irish independence.  After attending  private school and the Protestant Trinity College in Dublin, he won a scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford.  More than twenty years later he wrote from prison, “The two great turning points in my life were when my father sent me to Oxford and when Society sent me to prison.”

Graduating with a double First in classics, he was not offered a teaching position at Oxford, as was customary.  Undeterred, he decided to be “a poet, a writer, a dramatist.” Wilde declared: “Ill be famous, and if I’m not famous, I’ll be notorious.”  He patterned his appearance, considered outrageous by Victorian society, after the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, wearing long hair, Byronic collars, and velvet jackets.

In the 1881 Gilbert and Sullivan comic operetta “Patience,” the aesthete-poet  Bunthorne was actually patterned after Swinburne, but Wilde gleefully advertised himself as the model.  Not only the public but also the Doyle Carte management accepted the identification and sent Wilde on a lecture tour to America prior to the visit of the opera-satire, to demonstrate to Americans what aestheticism was.   Wilde argued the thesis of the movement: the function of art is to create beauty or harmony, not to deliver a moral or social message: “beauty is truth, truth beauty,” he insisted, noting that Keats’ dictum marked the beginning of the English aesthetic movement, a “renaissance” of English arts. 

When he returned to England, needing money, he embarked on a tour of Britain lecturing on “Impressions of America.”  “Of course America had often been discovered before Columbus,” he remarked, “but it had always been hushed up.”  Of Niagara Falls and its fame as a honeymoon spot: “The sight of the stupendous waterfall must be one of the earliest, if not the keenest, disappointments in American married life.” He also lectured on the importance of art and aesthetics in home furnishings.

 In 1894 he married Constance Lloyd, and they had two sons.  To support his growing family, he wrote short stories : ”It is the duty of every father to write fairy tales for his children,” he explained.  The best known are “The Happy Prince” and “The Selfish Giant,” published in 1888.  Apart from the fairy stories, he delighted in controversial writing, like the essay “The Decay of Lying” in which he declares, “The nineteenth century, as we know it, is largely an invention of Balzac.”  “Mr. Henry James,” he noted, “writes fiction as if it were a painful duty.”

His novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray” provoked an angry reaction from the critics.  In this variation of the Faust theme, Dorian Gray exchanges places with his portrait, to preserve himself as a work of art.  His portrait painted as a beautiful youth becomes more and more ravaged because of his “strange sins,” but Gray himself appears young and handsome until he dies, when he becomes hideous, and the portrait reverts to beauty.   “Each man sees his own sins in Dorian Gray.  What Dorian Gray’s sins are no one knows,” he wrote in reply to a harsh review.  When the novel was declared immoral because of its theme of homosexuality, Wilde defended it as moral: “In his attempt to kill conscience, Dorian Gray kills himself.”

Just as Gray’s sins are secret and undefined, so in the plays, comic as they are on the surface, there is always a secret that plagues the hero or heroine.  It may be Jack’s being “born or at least bred” in a handbag in “The Importance of Being Earnest” or Mrs. Erlynne’s past in “Lady Windermere’s Fan” or that of Sir Robert Chiltern, in  “An Ideal Husband.”  Is this feature a sub-text of social criticism for Victorians who condemned in public the sins they committed in private, or is it Wilde’s own “sin” society was bound to punish if it were not kept secret?

Alfred Lord Douglas, son of the Marquis of Queensberry, was Wilde’s undoing.  Slight in build, pale and blond, Douglas was not only temperamental but petty, mean, and vindictive.  Wilde’s passion for “Bosie” Douglas began at their first meeting and Douglas was quick to exploit it.  When his father forbade him to see Wilde, Douglas vented his hatred for his father by ignoring his strictures.  Then Queensberry left his card at Wilde’s club with a written accusation: “To Oscar Wilde posing Somdomite [sic].  Instead of ignoring the insult as his friends advised, Wilde listened to Bosie (who was delighted at the opportunity to harm his father) and swore out a warrant for Queensberry’s arrest on the charge of libel. 

As English law requires that the defendant in a libel case present his justification, more than twelve boys were named as being solicited by Wilde.  One of the boys to whom Bosie had given clothes, had found love letters from Wilde to Bosie, who  carelessly had left them in the pocket,  and these were read aloud in the court.  In fact, Bosie had seduced Wilde, who refused to let the younger man testify, although he would have enjoyed being the center of attention.  Because of the evidence presented, Wilde was then arrested for homosexual offences. 

In an atmosphere of near-hysteria, amid press and public condemnation, Wilde was brought to trial, found guilty, and condemned for indecent behavior and “corruption of the most hideous kind.”  He was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment at hard labor.  In prison, his letters to the press describing his suffering under the harsh conditions there  eventually led to prison reform, but not before his release in 1897.  Composed in prison, but published afterwards, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” which he signed only with his prison number, C.3.3, was an instant success.  In the style of Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner,” it recounts his distress and that of the other inmates, when a fellow prisoner is hanged for murder.  Also written in prison, De Profundis is a long, moving letter to Douglas, reflecting on their relationship. Boisie did not reply.

After his release, living in France, with little income, his wife and children (whom he was not permitted to see) having left him and changed their names, Wilde sought from Bosie the money that had been promised him, but not delivered, for the trial expenses.  Bosie, who had come into an inheritance from his father, refused.   At age 46, Wilde died penniless in a cheap Paris hotel on November 30, 1900.  He is buried at Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, where a monument by Jacob Epstein marks the grave.        

Among the centenary celebrations of Wilde in London are two plays in addition to “The Importance of Being Earnest” at the Haymarket, and three exhibits, while Ireland has issued a commemorative stamp.  The first stage event, at the Barbican, was Thomas Kilroy’s “The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde,” presented by the Abbey Theatre of Dublin.  The non-realistic work combined comedy and nightmarish tragedy, showing “Constance battling with her own demons, the secrets of her past, until she finally learns that ‘when one sups with the Gods, one must pay the full price of admission’.”

At the Royal National Theatre a double bill was presented at the Cottesloe.  “In Extremis” is a new play by Neil Bartlett, starring Corin Redgrave who also co-directed with Trevor Nunn.  “In Extremis” takes place in March 1895 when a society palm reader named Mrs. Robinson (Sheila Hancock) agrees to see Wilde who is seeking advice as to whether to sue the Marquis of Queensberry for criminal libel, as Bosie is urging, although Wilde’s friends have warned against such a court action.

As Bartlett sees Mrs. Robinson, she like many palmists tells Wilde what she discerns he wants to hear, that she foresees “a very great triumph for him.”  There is comic contrast between her tentative guesswork and Wilde’s sarcastic epigrams behind which his panic shines through.  In the second half of the program, Redgrave is a broken Wilde, in a grey arrow-marked  prison suit, delivering  “De Profundis,” the long, passionate, and accusatory letter written from prison to Boisie. 

London exhibitions commemorating Wilde were held at the British Library – an exhibit which transferred in 2001 to the Morgan Library in New York – and at the Geffrye Museum and the Barbican Gallery. 

The British Library mounted the largest Oscar Wilde exhibit ever seen,  displaying items from its own collection as well as from family and private archives.   There are letters, first editions, playbills, illustrations, photographs, and original manuscripts,  The exhibit presented Wilde’s dramatic life as a series of six acts, from his Irish childhood and student days, through his lecture tour in America, his family, and his fame as writer and social figure, followed by his fall from grace, the trials and imprisonment, exile, social ostracism, and death at age forty-six.  Probably the highlight of the exhibit and certainly the most moving item, was the original manuscript of De Profundis, the long, ink-smudged letter from prison to Boisie, in which Wilde confesses, “I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease – I became the spendthrift of my genius.”  At the Morgan, also on exhibit, was a typescript of the third and fourth acts of  “The Importance of Being Earnest,” with the author’s alterations. British Library website: www.bl.uk.

The Geffrye exhibited the influence of Wilde and the aesthetic movement upon the furnishing and decoration of the domestic, middle-class home, which changed from Victorian clutter to the simple lines of the Arts and Crafts movement and of Japanese painting.  “I find it harder and harder every day,” said Wilde, “to live up to my blue china.” 

The Barbican Gallery presented “The Wilde Years: Oscar Wilde and the Art of his Time,” highlighting Wilde’s work as art critic, journalist, and progressive political figure, illustrated by paintings, sculpture, photographs, and drawings, including works by Edward Burne-Jones and illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley for Wilde’s “Salome.”  Also at the  Barbican, was a season of films dealing with Wilde’s life and works, including silent films.