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.
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.”
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.”
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
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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
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.
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
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
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.
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’.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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