"[The Importance of Being Earnest] has a strong claim to being the most perfect comedy in the English language." —Daily Telegraph
Wilde’s classic comedy of manners, The Importance of Being Earnest, a satire of Victorian social hypocrisy and considered Wilde’s greatest dramatic achievement, and his other popular plays—Lady Windermere’s Fan, An Ideal Husband, and Salome—challenged contemporary notions of sex and sensibility, class and cultural identity.
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The Triumph of Artifice
Oscar Wilde's short run of success with his brilliant social comedies was one of the most remarkable episodes in literary history. In a span of just three years, from 1892 to 1895, Wilde established himself, alongside George Bernard Shaw, as the premier playwright of England. Then, just as quickly and brilliantly as he had ascended, Wilde plunged into obscurity. After three scandalous trials centering on the issue of Wilde's homosexuality, The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband were shut down in the middle of their lucrative runs, and Wilde's career as a playwright was over. His writing was obscured by prurient rumor, homophobia, and hypocritical shock and condemnation.
It took decades for Wilde's work to reemerge as worthy of study. When it did, his readers found that the plays that had delighted Wilde's contemporary audiences had a doubled life on the page. What seemed on the surface to be merely ridiculous situations and nonsensical paradoxes designed to get a laugh revealed themselves to be subtle experiments in social critique and philosophy. Wilde's plays move expertly from the subject of faith in marriage to political power to motherhood and back to romance, desire, and identity. When scholars have returned to Wilde's life to mine its fascinating contradictions for insight into the quicksilver genius of the plays, they have found parables of identity, codes of gay life, and commentary on truth and art. Looking at Salomé, the only play presented in this volume that was banned from production in England, they found further evidence of Wilde's bold imagination, complexity, and tolerance for endless paradox.
For more than one hundred years, Wilde's comedies have retained their fresh laughter and their delicate grace, and Hollywood, whose worship of style and glamour could have been invented by Wilde himself, turns out new productions of them on a regular basis. Salomé's weird sensuality and chilling perversity still shock and enthrall theatergoers in an age when it sometimes seems there are no taboos left. Wilde's epigrams, which have turned ever more from nonsense to truth as the years have progressed, are regularly quoted (and misquoted) by those who have no idea that they were written by Wilde, let alone which play they come from. To enter the world of these plays is to be lifted into Wilde's strange and surprising world and to realize how thoroughly his sensibility has become our own.
Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born on October 16, 1854, to the Irish nationalist and writer Speranza Wilde and eye-and-ear doctor William Wilde. Young Oscar did exceptionally well at school, earning scholarships and taking high honors at both Trinity College Dublin and Oxford. While at Oxford, he met his teacher and mentor, Walter Pater, and became an enthusiastic follower of the aesthetic movement Pater championed.
After graduating from Oxford in 1874, Wilde moved to London. He quickly gained notoriety for his sharp wit and flamboyant style of dress he was especially famous for wearing a dyed-green carnation, a French symbol of decadence and homosexuality, in his lapel. In addition to writing plays and criticism, Wilde traveled in London's most brilliant social circles, becoming a local celebrity. When he traveled to America to speak on aestheticism in 1882, he thrilled audiences from New York City socialites to western miners. By the time he returned to London, he was a transatlantic sensation.
In the early 1880s, Wilde was regularly publishing plays and poems, but they were received badly. It wasn't until the late 1880s and early 1890s that he published some of his best-loved works, including The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888), as well as a number of influential critical volumes, including Intentions (1891) and The Soul of Man under Socialism (1891).
Wilde married Constance Lloyd in 1884. They had two sons, Cyril (1885) and Vyvyan (1886). Wilde had been married only two years when he met Robert Ross, who claimed to have initiated him into physical homosexuality. Whether or not he did, Ross became a close and loyal friend to Wilde and later was his literary executor.
In 1891, the thirty-seven-year-old Wilde was captivated by handsome, spoiled, twenty-year-old playboy Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas and began the major affair of his life, one whose volatility soon would endanger him. The same year, Wilde's greatly expanded version of the "Dorian Gray" story was published as the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. Dorian's sensual life caused enormous controversy almost as much as Wilde's life itself. Together, Dorian and Bosie spelled disaster for Wilde.
Wilde's relationship with Douglas infuriated the latter's father, the Marquess of Queensberry. When Queensberry left a card for Wilde at his club, addressed to "Oscar Wilde, Somdomite [sic]," Wilde foolishly sued for libel. He lost, and Queensberry retaliated by instituting proceedings against Wilde for homosexuality. Waving aside opportunities to flee England, Wilde stood two trials. The first ended without a verdict. At the end of the second trial, Wilde was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison. Because Queensberry forced him into bankruptcy, all his possessions were auctioned. Tragically, Wilde's downfall came at the height of his career. An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest had been playing to full houses in London.
Although he was allowed only one sheet of paper at a time while in prison, Wilde managed to compose De Profundis, a chronicle of his spiritual quest. During his years in prison, his mother died, and his wife, Constance, moved abroad and took the name of Holland for herself and their sons. After her death in 1898, Wilde was denied access to his sons. When he had served his sentence, a greatly weakened Wilde moved to Paris and took the name Sebastian Melmoth, after the protaganist of Melmoth the Wanderer, a novel about a man who sells his soul to the devil, written by Wilde's relative Reverend Charles Maturin. In the final years of his life, Wilde wrote little besides "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," which he signed only as "C.3.3," the number of his cell. Wilde died in a hotel room, either of syphilis or of complications from an ear infection and meningitis, in Paris on November 30, 1900.
The late Victorian era
Wilde's life and work belong to the late Victorian era, a period marked by both genteel country house parties and growing political unrest. The complicated tangle of political matters known as the "Irish Question" was particularly urgent. Home Rule, the idea that the Irish could and should rule themselves, was one of the great controversies of the day. The great wave of the Industrial Revolution had swelled England's cities with underpaid, exploited workers who lived in teeming slums. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had published their famous works The Communist Manifesto and Capital and the question of the laborer and his role in society was fiercely debated, especially as some workers gained the vote and the labor movement became an important force in politics. The "New Woman" was growing increasingly vocal in her demands for freedom, education, political power, and clothes that allowed her to move and breathe easily while she campaigned for equality. Abroad, the great British Empire, ever more important to the "luster of the crown" in the popular imagination, drifted in and out of crisis.
Fin de siècle, Decadence, and Symbolism
In addition to being a part of this tumultuous era, Wilde's plays also responded to the mood special to the 1890s, or the fin de siècle ("end of the century"), as it was known in France. Exhausted by nearly a century of cultural, economic, political, technological, and religious change, Victorians on the brink of the century's turn affected a jaded weariness and searched out fresh sensations and spectacles to relieve their ennui. In France, the fin de siècle expressed itself in the Decadence movement, which sought beauty in that which mainstream society rejected as gruesome, immoral, and perverse, and in the experiments of the Symbolist poets and playwrights, who rejected the tenets of Realism and sought instead to provide a link to the inexpressible. Rather than emphasizing meaning and plot, the Symbolists experimented with patterns of color, sound, and synesthesia. The experimental, color-coded lyricism of Salomé owes much to the Symbolists Wilde conceived of the play while in Paris and originally wrote it in French. The father of the Decadence movement was Symbolist poet Charles Baudelaire, author of Les fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil, 1857), which provided the Symbolists with their pattern. Joris-Karl Huysmans's 1884 novel A rebours (Against the Grain), referred to as "the little yellow book," was a virtual textbook for Decadence and profoundly influenced Wilde. Other poets associated with the Decadence movement include Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, and Stéphane Mallarmé.
While Decadence reigned in France, Aestheticism flourished in England. Wilde's teacher and friend at Oxford, Walter Pater, was regarded as the founder of the movement. In Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873), Pater had explored in intimate, seductive detail the pleasures of a life devoted to the appreciation of beauty and had called for his readers to fan the "hard, gem-like flame" of self-fulfillment through a devotion to their senses. In the context of a Victorian culture devoted to efficiency, the bottom line, and the suppression of sensuality in all its forms, this was a radical idea. Pitting themselves directly against the moralizing sentimentality of didactic Victorian art and literature (such as the "three volume novels" mentioned in The Importance of Being Earnest), the Aestheticists argued that art's role was not to be moral or useful or to teach "lessons" but to be an object of beauty that transcended humans and human questions. The Aestheticists strove to make their lives works of art, an idea typified by Wilde's devotion to the artful dress and speech of the dandy.
"Well-made plays" and the new social realism
In the mid-Victorian age, the theater had fallen into disrepute and had been replaced by that enchanting new literary genre, the novel. But by the late Victorian age, the respectable middle class had been wooed back to the theater by pleasant entertainments such as Gilbert and Sullivan's musicals and the "well-made plays" patterned after French playwright Eugene Scribe's template. These fashionable, lavishly produced, technically adroit, but insubstantial comedies and melodramas were the Hollywood films of their day. They provided thrills, chills, spills, and happy endings (or a good, moral cry). Although these works often dabbled in immorality adultery was a common subject transgressors were always punished, villains and heroes were easily identified, and the more dangerous subjects were set safely in ancient history. In the early 1890s, the new Social Realism of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen arrived to baffle and scandalize the fans of well-made plays with thrillingly intense examinations of the dark side of middle-class life. Wilde admired Ibsen's daring critique, but, like the Symbolists, he rejected the tenets of Realism, choosing instead to subvert the well-made plays to his own end in the same ways in which his dandies subvert their social worlds without ever leaving them.
Supplementary materials copyright © 2005 Simon & Schuster, Inc.