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Like Dr. Johnson, but without the aid of a Boswell, Oscar Wilde is an author whose personality endures more vividly than most of his writings. I hasten to add that The Importance of Being Earnest endures, and so do some of Wilde's essays and "The Ballad of Reading Gaol." But, like Rasselas, "The Vanity of Human Wishes," and Johnson's other permanently interesting writings, they comprise a rather modest residue for a lifetime of literary work.
If Wilde's personality has outlasted most of the words be put on paper, it is still a personality intimately connected with his writing. If we may believe his friends, he expressed himself best and most characteristically in his high-spirited, infinitely resourceful, ingenious conversation. When he first came to London, he was an ostentatious "character" who affected an outlandish costume, but his true reputation overcame this notoriety, only to be eclipsed in turn by the scandal that ended his career.
Among his many friends, Wilde enjoyed the greatest distinction as a wit, as an irrepressible dazzler on all occasions. Max Beerbohm told S. N. Behrman: "Well, in the beginning he was the most enchanting company, don't you know. His conversation was so simple and natural and flowing--not at all epigrammatic, which would have been unbearable. He saved that for his plays, thank heaven." Fortunately, Wilde knew enough to preserve his witticisms, and not only the epigrammatic ones. If his rapt listeners did not include a Boswell, he compensated for this deficiency by being his own Boswell, preserving his wit in his literary work. Connoisseurs among his acquaintances preferred hisjokes and stories in the- form he gave them as he spoke, but we who are Wilde's posterity are beggars who cannot be choosers. Accordingly, we read his novel, The Portrait of Dorian Gray, and such plays as Lady Windermere's Fan and An Ideal Husband, seeking the occasional plum, the bright remark couched in Wilde's distinctive style. But the witticisms work best in a setting that is worthy of them, and they got such a setting only in The Importance of Being Earnest. Only this work, Wilde's last completed play, is a feast of such plums, the only one of his plays that is consistently written in his highest and wittiest style, the conversational style that belonged peculiarly to Wilde himself.
Invariably, wit comments upon its opposites, slowness of thought and infelicity of expression; implicitly, it ridicules. dullness and solemnity. In his previous plays, Wilde had softened his attack upon ordinary reality by creating some good, dun people who carried on the necessary business of the main plot. But The Importance of Being Earnest, being wholly dedicated to wit, presents good, dull people only to caricature them. The brightly burnished style of this play directly comments upon the drabness of ordinary speech, and, indeed, it defies the real world. Defiance was always part of Wilde's public attitude, but only in The Importance of Being Earnest was he so bold as to make this defiance plain from the beginning to the end of the play. Even his two plain speakers embody a highly stylized plainness, Philistinism cubed, as it were, and the one plainer speaker disappeared while the play was being cut for performance. As it stands, this comedy is the fullest embodiment of Wilde's lifelong assault upon commonplace life and commonplace values. It was inevitable that the conventional world should strike back at Wilde, at his character and his ideas, if not specifically at his play, but the speed and cruelty of the world's retribution surpassed expectation. Four days after the opening of his last and finest comedy, the succession of events began that brought about his disgrace, imprisonment, and exile.
Wilde's defiance, it should be understood, was deeply personal. It was not at all the product of any seriously considered social criticism, but, rather, it stemmed from an individualism supported by a philosophy of art for art's sake. I find it significant that George Woodcock, in the principal study of Wilde's social thought, discovers some trenchant, if incidental, social criticism in the earlier plays, but next to nothing of this element in The Importance of Being Earnest, accordingly, he dismisses Wilde's masterpiece with a single sentence. But this play is not only Wilde's masterpiece; it also has the virtue of expressing its author more fully than any of his other dramatic or narrative writings. Mr. Woodcock to the contrary notwithstanding, it does criticize society, but not from the usual standpoint of social reform. Wilde attacks society on aesthetic grounds, in this play as in his previous works. What he recommends to us, and by implication only, is not social reform, women's suffrage, or child-labor laws, but style--a style of life, of behavior, and of speech. By showing the height of wit and manners, he criticizes their absence. This may not sound much like anyoneelse's's kind of social criticism, but it is Wilde's critique! of society, and it fulfills the logic of his life as an artist up to that moment.
The beginning of his life was surely conducive to individualism, if not to art. He was the product of an eccentric Dublin family--Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde, second son of a prominent physician, William Wilde, and Jane Elgee Wilde, who, as "Speranza," wrote articles and verses passionately urging liberty for Ireland. William Wilde was a notorious philanderer and the father of several illegitimate children; once his wife wrote a private letter chiding one of his former mistresses and was promptly sued by the lady in question in an action that anticipated Oscar Wilde's suit against the Marquis of Queensbury for libel by private correspondence. The dramatist was born October 16, 1854, but later so that he might seem even more of a prodigy than he really was, he represented himself as having been born in 1856, a year that is still sometimes recorded as the date of his birth.