Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born and grew up in Dublin. He was the son of a surgeon, Sir William Wilde and the writer Jane Francesca Elgee.
From his school days and certainly at Oxford University, the beginnings of his fanatical aestheticism could be found in his extravagant dress sense and consummate style. Until his first expression of homosexual feelings in 1886, Oscar Wilde's works were shallow or derivative.
However, his sexual revelation seemed to be a turning point: his productivity increased, and the quality improved. The guilt he felt about his homosexuality and his treatment of his wife, Constance (who he had married in 1884), and their two children, could be seen to have completed his ability to write on the themes of evil, crime and suffering. He wrote The Importance of Being Earnest (his last play) in 1886.
By 1890, Wilde seemed to have come to the conclusion that the 'evil' in himself could not be controlled, and so explored the theme not within the safe confines of a fairytale, but in a dark, sinister novel with a tragic ending: The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891).
Oscar Wilde was one of the most famous writers of the nineteenth century. He was an author, playwright and great wit. He preached the importance of style in both life and art, and he attached Victorian narrow-mindedness and complacency. Most writers, whatever their professions, wrote with something of the emphasis and authority of the schoolmaster addressing his pupils. In spite of this common feature, Victorian writers are very different in their styles. They were individualists, and each had his own personality, which was strongly presented in his style.
Oscar Wilde was one of the Victorian aesthetes* and tried to write the work that should be beautiful in its colour and cadence. His writing is highly wrought. Despite the fact that O.Wilde has probably been written about more than most nineteenth-century writers, his place and reputation continue to be uncertain.
Wilde’s extraordinary personality and wit have so dominated the imaginations of most biographers and critics that their estimates of his work have too often consisted of sympathetic tributes to a writer whose literary production was little more than a faint reflection of his brilliant talk or the manifestation of what a reviewer for the “Times Literary Supplement” called his “lawlessness”. Indeed, Wilde’s remark that he had put his genius into his life and only his talent into his art has provided support to those who regard his life as the primary object of interest.
Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1854 year. His full name was Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde. Oscar named in honour of his godfather, King Oscar I of Sweden – would eventually drop his three middle names. He said that a name that was destined to be in everybody’s mouth must not be too long. He was going to be famous.
At 20, Wilde left Ireland to study at Oxford University where he had a brilliant career, where he took a first-class both in classical moderation and in literature, and also won the Newdigate Prize for English verse for a poem on “Ravenna”. Even before he left the University in 1878 Wilde had become known as one of the most affected of the professors of the aesthetic movement, which advanced the new concept of “Art for Art’s Sake”.
Wilde was a man of great originality and power of mind. He quickly became a prominent personality in literary and social circles, but the period of his true achievement did not begin until he published “The Happy Prince and other tales” in 1888. In these fairy tales and fables, Wilde found a literary form well suited to his talents. There nine stories all together (originally published in two volumes – “ The Happy Prince” – 1888 and “A House of Pomegranates” – 1891) – five in the first volume and four in the second. These stories review and uneasy blend of the moral and the fantastic.
Wilde’s only novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1890), attracted much attention, and his sayings past from mouth to mouth as those of one of the professed wits of the age. This novel is about a youth, whose features, year after year, retain the same youthful appearance of innocent beauty, while the shame of his hideous vices become mirrored, year after year, on the features of his portrait. This novel covers the whole range of human experience and imagination.
The career of Oscar Wilde was brief, but, from its beginnings, success smiled on him and he quickly achieved a triumph. Some of his works, his verse, his essays – “Intentions”, his fairy tales, his poems in prose “The House of Pomegranates”, “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, had affirmed that he was a pure artist and a great writer, for certain of his pages are as beautiful as the most beautiful in English prose. But these works were only amusements for him, and versatile mind, so brilliant, so delicately ironic, so paradoxical, found a medium of expression, which perfectly suited his uncommon gifts; it was the theatre.
The theatre played the very important role in Wilde’s life. English drama was reborn near the end of the Victorian age. From the late 1700-s to the late 1800-s, almost no important dramas were produced in England. But by 1900-s a number of playwrights have revived the English theatre both with witty comedies and with realistic dramas about social problems of the time.
Many critics said that Wilde was perhaps less then a mature poet, but a good critic, and a splendid playwright. Oscar Wilde held particularly to his reputation as a dramatist, and this with some reasons. At the time successes, William Archer, the influential and enlightened critic, had placed him apart and above other contemporary authors; and Wilde believed himself to be unquestionably the equal of Ibsen, the famous Norwegian dramatist. When Wilde turned to the theatre, he concerned himself with a social class, which had not yet been presented on stage. Arthur Pinero, the glittering English dramatist, had achieved notoriety with place drawn from middle-class life and a large number of others were producing popular dramas.
With the perfect sense of the theatre, Oscar Wilde took his characters from high society; he set his elegant marionettes in motion with such mastery that his comedies can be regarded as the wittiest that have been written in a very long time.
When his career was so sadly and so tragically interrupted, Oscar Wilde had given the theatre his real works of art.
Wilde’s first dramatic works appeared in the beginning of the eighties. His early tragedies “Vera; or the Nihilists” (1880) and “The Duchess of Padua” (1883), imitative and artistically weak, had no stable success on the stage. Then there were published his brilliant novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and the critical essays “The Intentions”. In these books there were reflected the basic principles of Wilde’s aesthetics.
Oscar Wilde denied the traditional criterions of the bourgeois ethics. He thought that the only moral value was the ideal of beauty in nature and in person. However, he said that beauty was not the reflection of realistic life in the people’s minds, but contrary, it was just the product of artist’s imagination. That is why he confirmed that art was existing independent of the life and was developing according to its own laws. He was known as a poet of graceful diction.
Oscar Wilde has contributed his most important works to the theatre: “Lady Windermere’s Fan” (1892), “A Woman of No Importance” (1893), “An Ideal Husband” (1895), “The Importance of Being Earnest” (1895) and “Salome” (1893).
Of the first four which had a success without precedent, it must be said that they are constructed with extraordinary skill; they are interesting for their settings, pathetic without evoking tears, witty to the point of excess, and written in a pure literary language. In these plays, Wilde brings together the social intrigues and the witticism. “Salome”, which was not presented in London and which “Theatre De L’Oeuvre” mounted deplorably in Paris, is especially a marvellous poem, which has nothing in common with the modern pieces of the author.
These first four plays are what one could call society plays, picture of fashionable life in which au unmistakable air of reality is happily wedded to playful satire. The greatest merit is their dialogue. In other words, Oscar Wilde did not dive very deeply below the surface of human nature. But found to a certain extent rightly, that there is more on the surface of life then is seen by the eyes of most people. He believed as much in veneer as in deep untarnishable colour. And as in the drama veneer is likely to please while depth of colour is often productive of dullness, he preferred to concentrate his acumen of the language rather then on the underline humanity of his place. In this he proved he knew himself for lightness of touch, not to say a certain flippancy, was a paramount feature of his gifted nature; and when he was all gaiety, sardonism, and persiflage, as in “The Importance of Being Earnest”, he was the happiest. The Aristophanic vein1 sparkled in it, and it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that this last English play of the unfortunate author was the wittiest comedy of the nineteenth century.
Wilde was spoken of as an aspiring dramatist long before any peers sighed by his name was acted. In the theatre the writing of society comedies, within the framework of a well-made play, was to provide him with his most stunning successes.
The first of these, “Lady Windermere’s Fan”, opened on 20 February 1892, to generally enthusiastic reviews, though to some critics Wilde’s paradoxical wit seemed a facile, easily constructed device.
Of the critical reviews, the most enthusiastic was by A.B.Walkley, one of the most respected and influential drama critics of his day, who found the play and its “brilliant talk” entirely successful. “Black and White”, a literary critical review, thought that the play, despite the obvious formula of the well-made play was very amusing, and the “Westminster Review”, another critical journal, opened its review with the observation that “Mr. Oscar Wilde is nothing unless brilliant and witty”2. Both of these journals questioned whether “Lady Windermere’s Fan” was a play or a series of brilliant paradoxes and epigrams, but concluded that if someone was interested in plays he should go at once to see it.
O.Wilde’s plays were written in a light satirical vein, cultured and refined, and in good taste. His characters served as the mouths to enunciate the author’s exquisitely funny remarks on society. The remarks of the cynical young men about life, love and society and the garrulous Duchess of Berwick, may show a keen appreciation of the vices of the upper-class society.
Surely a good moral woman, such as Lady Windermere is made out to be, would not desert her husband because of the mere gossip of a scandal-mongering old lady. Lord Windermere also would never have allowed matters to come to a crisis without taking his wife into confidence and explaining to her a little sooner his relationship with Mrs. Erlynne. But this is not Mr. Wilde’s idea. He was anxious to express to the world his reflections on things in general, to lash the pretty vices of people of fashion, and did not, in the least, wish to tell a good story. So, the plot does not matter, as the whole interest lies in the conversation, which is as if many Wildes, male and female, were talking together. The dialogue is exquisitely funny and successful. It is satirical without being aggravating to audience. It is beating, and at the same time genial and good-humoured. It is an original, clever and ridiculous piece portraying London society as it is seen through the spectacles of Mr. Oscar Wilde.
However, some reviewers were less impressed. The sullen Clement Scott (whom B.Shaw caricatured in his play “The Philanderer”, 1893) devoted much of his review in the “Illustrated London News” to chastising Wilde for bad manners in appearing before the curtain, after the play had concluded, with a cigarette in his hand and for the cynicism which he detected in his play.
Justin McCarthy’s signed notice in “Gentleman’s Magazine” was also concerned more with Wilde than with the play – an indication that, to these critics, Wilde, not the play, was the thing.
“Lady Windermere’s Fan” ran for five months before it was taken on tour of the provinces. An early indication that Wilde’s fame as a dramatist was known on the Continent occurs in a letter, dated 5 September 1892, to Wilde from J.T.Grein, a founder of the Independent Theatre, who drew up on Wilde’s behalf a contract with a Doctor O.Blumenthal for the sole right of production of “Lady Windermere’s Fan” in Austria and Germany, half of his fees and other royalties to go to Wilde3. Publication of the play occurred in November 1892, by the Bodley Head. The play was first translated into French in 1913.
When the New York production of the play opened on February 6, 1893, the drama critics of the leading dailies were generally restrained in their judgements. Despite the lack of critical enthusiasm, the play had a highly successful run of several months.
Following Wilde’s death revivals of the play at the St. James’s Theatre were given in 1902, 1904, 1911. Clearly, “Lady Windermere’s Fan” was a stunning recovery from Wilde’s two previous theatrical failures, and since this was his first play, produced in England. The triumph was of singularly greater significance.
His next venture, “Salome”, rehearsals for which were proceeding with Sarah Bernhardt in the leading role, encountered the displeasure of the Examiner of Plays for the Lord Chamberlain, who refused to license it since it contained Biblical characters.
This time, however, Wilde, who was perhaps the most talked-about writer in England, though not the most widely read, expressed his anger with less then his usual restraint, no longer concerned with merely humouring his detractors with witticisms. Wilde complained bitterly that the ordinary English newspapers were trying to harm “Salome” in every way, though they have not read it.
The play was published in French in 1893. In its review of the play “The Pall Mall Gazette” concludes that “Salome” lacks freshness in both idea and presentation, conceding, however, that it does have “cleverness” – that fatal word which reviewers relied upon in discussing Wilde’s works. “Salome” was first given in Paris in 1896. The play was not produced in England until 1905, when Max Beerbohm, reviewing it, found the staging faulty. Indeed, he was convinced that the play was read better than acted for the “tragic thrill” of the action had to be imaginatively experienced. On the Continent, “Salome” was performed in most of the major cities between 1902 and 1912, where it was widely regarded as Wilde’s masterpiece. But in America its first production in 1905 by an avant-garde group was poorly received.
“A Woman of No Importance”, Wilde’s second play produced in London, attracted a glittering first-night audience. Despite enthusiasm of some critics, the play ran until only 16 August, a month less then that enjoyed by “Lady Windermere’s Fan”. The reviews, as Max Beerbohm ironically indicates, were surprisingly good, considering the fact that the play was weaker than “Lady Windermere’s Fan”.
William Archer, contending that Wilde’s dramatic work “stands alone… on the very highest plane of modern English drama”, praised the play but lamented that Wilde’s “pyrotechnic wit” was one of the defects of his qualities. He added that he looked forward to the day when Wilde would “take himself seriously as a dramatic artist” – which for Archer would presumably mean that Wilde should become a disciple of Ibsen. Archer’s praise of Wilde brought such adverse criticism from various quarters that he had compelled to defend himself in a review of Pinero’s “The Second Mrs. Tanqueray”, in which he reaffirmed his contention that Wilde was a writer of the first rank4.
Walkley’s review praises Wilde’s “true dramatic instinct”, but he confesses that witty paradoxes begin to tire him by their sheer number. But the majority of critics were disappointed by it. Despite the minority opinion, the play was widely regarded as a success.
The purpose of Wilde’s idea is to show the decomposition of English society. It can be really seen in the words of Hester, an American young lady:
“You rich people in England, you do not know how you are living. You shut out from your society the gentle and the good. You laugh at the simple and the pure. With all your pomp and wealth and art you do not know how to live – you don’t even know that. You love the beauty that you can see and touch and handle, the beauty that you can destroy and do destroy, but of the unseen beauty of life, of the unseen beauty of a higher life, you know nothing. You have lost life’s secret. Oh, your English Society seems to me shallow, selfish and foolish. It has blinded its eyes and stopped its ears. It lies like a leper in purple. It sits like a dead thing smeared with gold. It is all wrong, all wrong”5.
The American production of “A Woman of No Importance” opened in New-York on 11 December 1893 to audiences that appeared to be amused, but to drama critics who seemed even more grudging in their reactions than before in their response to “Lady Windermere’s Fan”. The play’s audacity – particularly its sympathy for the unmarried mother – seemed particularly repugnant to some. The “New-York Times”, for example, referred to Wilde as one whose mind seemed to be as “impure as the river Thames by London Bridge”.
“A Woman of No Importance” is very interesting and has a great power of Oscar Wilde’s brilliant witticism.
In June 1894 Wilde published his lengthy poem “The Sphinx”, portions of which he had written as early as 1897, while a student at Oxford. Despite Wilde’s reputation as a dramatist it was not widely reviewed. The reviews included in this volume are characteristic of the lack of enthusiasm for the poem. “The Sphinx” did little to advance Wilde’s reputation. Coming after the success of “A Woman of No Importance”, it was perhaps an error of judgement on Wilde’s part to commit to print, at a high point in his career as a dramatist, a poem conceived and partly written in his youth.
B. Shaw defended Wilde; he said that Wilde’s wit and his fine literary workmanship are points of great value. In the year of his trial and imprisonment, Wilde saw his last two plays produced on the London stage.
“An Ideal Husband”, which opened January 3, 1895 at the Theatre Royal, did not draw praise from H.G.Wells and Clement Scott, who were never able to see much value in Wilde as a playwright. But Archer, Shaw, Walkley and William Dean Howells all agreed that it was a work the high order, despite some obvious weaknesses in its characterisation or the lessened output of Wilde’s “epigram-factory”, as Archer called it. But the majority of critics agreed that this play had an unmistakable success.
“An Ideal Husband” had a run of three performances, closing on April 6 (the day following Wilde’s arrest, though announcements had been made beforehand that the play would soon close to permit production of another play). It was reopened at the Criterion Theatre on April 13 and was withdrawn on April 27.
In New-York “An Ideal Husband”, which opened at the Lyceum Theatre on March 12, 1895, was judged by most of the critics as Wilde’s best play to date. A notable feature of the reviewers is that they contain fewer personal attacks than in the past. What particularly irritated the critics, however, was that the audiences seemed to enjoy the play.
With the production February 14, 1895 of “The Importance of Being Earnest”, Wilde achieved his greatest theatrical triumph. “The Importance of Being Earnest” is a drama. As we know, drama is an art form that tells a story through the speech and actions of the characters in the play. In most cases drama is performed by actors who impersonate the characters before an audience in a theatre. Although drama is a form of literature, it differs from other literary forms in the way it is presented. The drama achieves its greatest effect when it is performed. Some critics believe that a written script is not really a play until it has been acted in front of audience. Drama probably gets most of its effectiveness from its ability to give order and clarity to human experience. The basic elements of drama – feelings, desires, conflicts, reconciliation – other major ingredients of human experience.
“The Importance of Being Earnest” is widely recognised as one of the finest comedies of the English stage. But like all true comedies, the play reveals a variety of people, talks and events in a short period of time. This comedy also has a title “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People”. In this play Wilde departed from his standard formula of building up the high comedy farce. The characters do not take the life seriously and the result of it is a satire of the author on the English society shallowness. The play is very witty and with many epigrams and paradoxes.
The audience at the St. James’s theatre on opening night was deeply admired at this wonderful comedy. Most of critics were equally impressed. Wells, who had been disappointed with “An Ideal Husband”, found Wilde’s new play thoroughly delightful. Archer, intrigued by its curiously elusive wit, declared the play as “an absolutely wilful expression of an irrepressibly witty personality”. The newspaper “Truth”, observing that Wilde dominates the play, saw it as highly amusing precisely because he does. Indeed, in perceiving that Wilde makes no attempt at individual characterisation, the reviewer seems to grasp the nature of Wilde’s dandical world. Walkley, one of Wilde’s staunchest defenders says in his review that Wilde at last has found himself as an artist in “sheer nonsense… and better nonsense”.
But some critics dissented from this widespread praise. Bernard Shaw, who had delighted in “An Ideal Husband”, found “The Importance of Being Earnest” amusing but insisted that “the general effect is that of a farcical comedy dating from the seventies”. Moreover, added Shaw, the play lacked humanity – a quality, presumably, which Shaw would associate with his own drama of social and political reform. But, curiously, Shaw seems to have overlooked the obvious and significant point that Wilde, like Shaw himself, had taken conventional dramatic form and infused it with the new vitality.
Wilde was imprisoned for homosexual acts in 1895 and went bankrupt before he left the prison. Wilde died in 1900 but his name is still synonymous with the bohemian lifestyle, wit and comic theatre.
* Aesthete – is one who professes a special appreciation of what is beautiful, and endeavors to carry his ideas of beauty into practical manifestation (Oxford English Dictionary).
1 Aristophan was the great ancient Greek poet – comedian, the so called “Farther of the Comedy” (Oxford English Dictionary).
2 “The Critical Heritage” by K.Beckson, Great Britain, 1970, p.325
3 “The Critical Heritage” by K.Beckson, Great Britain, 1970, p.301
4 “Oscar Wilde” by R.Keith Miller, New York 1984, p.256
5 “Plays” by O.Wilde, Moscow, 1961, p.121