It has been often said about Wilde’s dramatic work that it doesn’t reflect almost at all the esthetical ideas asserted in the novel published almost in the same period and considered as an authentic manifesto of “art for art’s sake” movement. It is indeed true that neither “Lady Windermere’s Fan”, nor”An Ideal Husband”, for instance, don’t have in the history of English literature the signification of “The Portrait of Dorian Gray”. However, it can’t be denied that there can be found in his theatre the signs of a new direction, although less spectacular than in the novel. Fortunately, this happened in a very significant moment for the English scene, after a long period when the progress was slow and the hesitations were numerous.
According to a legend supported by his friend and biographer, Frank Harris, before he composed his first play, Oscar Wilde withdrew “fifteen days in the company of the most successful French dramatic works”. If the legend is true, it can’t be contested that the borrowings (including those which are more obvious from Dumas-the son,) are superficial. It is true, there can be detected some similarities in situation but what has the utmost importance as a result of his being acquainted with the Paris theatres is a certain preference for the melodrama.
first play, “Vera, or the Nihilists”,
a drama inspired from the activity of the Russian nihilists, forbidden in
“Lady Windermere’s Fan” presents in fact a situation that is more romantic than being in the spirit of the French theatre of Becque or Dumas-the son. The theme of the ingrate mother who finds her twenty years old daughter, after having abandoned her and eventually having rectified her mistake, compromising her reputation in order to save that of her daughter, it is, clearly, a variant of a romantic formula. But inside this framework the movement of ideas is alive, it is characteristic of Wilde’s contemporary epoch. This is because, far from being flat, as they may seem at first sight, far from gathering in violently opposed groups, the characters prove a complexity which testifies the influence of some symptomatic relationships for a special social moment. The Puritan Lady Windermere, unrelenting, refuses at first to receive Mrs. Erlynne, because her morality is contested. Eventually, however, the honesty of Lady Windermere is saved by the disdained woman and her gratitude is impressive. But appearance is not so simple, as in Dickens’s novels, where the good soul of Miss. Havisham, for example, affirms itself, in spite of her apparent cynicism and selfishness. The final rehabilitation of the denatured mother is not as complete as it seems; is she totally forgiven for the long-lasting blackmail she had exerted on her son-in-law? In her turn, the title of honourable woman that the grateful daughter agrees to give back to her mother is less convincing, as she ascertains Mrs. Erlynne’s generosity in a moment when she herself was in danger of being compromised in an adultery situation. The main framework of an apparently melodramatic play is an intricate game of hypocrisies during which the fetish of bourgeois honour is falling down.
Wilde wanted to transform “An Ideal Husband” into an apology of true love arguing that “all sins, except a sin against itself, love should forgive…all lives, save loveless lives, true love should pardon”. 13 This is because, above the danger of Sir Robert’s public dishonour, what really threatens this “ideal” husband is the loss of his virtuous wife’s love. Lady Chiltern couldn’t have forgiven a sin so serious as that of which the bitter Mrs. Cheveley holds evidence. If the solving of the first conflict belongs to the very development of the action (the intriguing woman is neutralised very likely by Lord Goring), the other danger, a sad denouement of the Chiltern marriage, is sent away by the wife’s generous wisdom.
Only “A Woman Of No Importance” succeeds thoroughly in presenting the failure of the Puritan moral, displayed in its most inflexible features. Melodrama is constructed around the figure of Mrs. Arbuthnot, a seduced and abandoned woman who gives birth to a son whom his father refused to give a name and who is later brought by the destiny close to his unknown father. He almost leaves his desperate mother in order to become Lord Illingworth’s private secretary. Wilde appeals to a melodramatic ending: Illingworth makes a bet with Mrs. Allonby that he will kiss the stern Miss Worsley and he wins. This is enough for the play to have a whole new denouement. Miss Worsley takes refuge in Gerald’s arms who is determined to revenge her. Then the hopeless voice of poor Mrs. Arbuthnot is heard: “Stop, Gerald, stop! He is your own father!”14 which can be seen as a genuine theatrical blow. This cry suddenly overthrows all existing relations and Illingworth leaves the scene covered in shame, becoming “a man of no importance”. In the ending of “A Woman Of No Importance”, for the triumph of the moral, one can detect those real layers of Wilde’s ethical consciousness, which his prose concealed so well.
One can observe that in all of Wilde’s plays the life of one of the characters hides a secret. Windermere’s secret is that he knows the circumstances of his wife’s birth, unknown to her. The secret of Mrs. Arbuthnot is Gerald. Robert Chiltern’s mystery is that, in his youth, had sold a state secret. Jack Worthing’s secret is his double life. Every time somebody discovers this secret and speculates upon it: Mrs. Erlynne, Mrs. Cheveley, Lord Illingworth, Algernon are the profiteers of the fear of public scandal, of the feeling of fake honour.
Wilde’s plays had become real pleadings for demonstrating how approximate are the ideas of good and evil, of virtue and sin in a world founded upon fake values and fetish. His aim was to catch some of the most representative moments of the social life and to make his characters speak for larger groups.
heroes speak about politics so easily that they seem totally ridiculous. The
theories emitted by Lady Hunstanton about the solving of the poverty existing
in East-End with the help of “a magic lantern an a missionary” are eloquent the
way Wilde regarded the representatives of an aristocracy that didn’t realise
what was happening around it. It is not about the conflict between beautiful
and ugly anymore but about the conflict between good and evil, between lucidity
and unconsciousness. One more proof that the writer was still interested in the
debate of more serious problems and that he rejected the easy success of the
drawing-room dramas or the romantic plays is that he didn’t make grand efforts
to bring on the stage “La Sainte
Courtisane”, a spectacular historical play. Thus this drama shared the fate
of another one of his plays, “A
Florentine Tragedy”, which never reached the stage either. And yet, what
was kept from this play namely the drama of the woman converted to faith after
having converted herself a hermit to life, demonstrates that it would have sold
full house. As a proof that Wilde didn’t look for applause there can be noticed
the similar fate of an earlier play, “The
Moreover, critics have put down another extremely revealing detail: ”Salomé” wasn’t destined to be played on the stage, it was just offered as a present to the great actress Sarah Bernhardt, to make it up to her as she had reproached Wilde that he hadn’t written a play especially for her. The drama ceases to be a conflict between moving characters and becomes a deep inner turmoil of tormented souls. Everything seems to be happening at the fascinating borders of an ardent dream of unleashed passions. The climax, when Salomé kisses the lips of the decapitated Jokanaan, lips that had been strongly refused to her until then, has a wonderful power of concentrating the beauty of an entire drama built upon harmonies for long decanted.
It is true that Wilde’s characters don’t live the great tragedies of humanity that appear in Ibsen’s works. Nevertheless this doesn’t mean that they are transformed in plain means of asserting Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic ideas, admitting diverse influences, from Gautier to Walter Pater. Above all else, Wilde’s theatre makes up an original creation that was said to have foreshadowed that of Shaw.
His plays, confronted obviously with a large audience, surpass deliberately Wilde’s aesthetic theories. Thus, they are not only an image of the writer’s soul, tormented by great doubts, but also an image of the world at the end of the nineteenth century, which he much despised for its hypocrisy and its lack of beauty. From this point of view Oscar Wilde’s plays are indeed comedies of society.
3.1. Wilde’s Comedies of Society
Wilde’s three Society comedies were
produced by different managers: “Lady
Windermere’s Fan” by George Alexander at the St James’s Theatre, “A Woman Of No Importance” by Herbert
Beerbohm Tree and “An Ideal Husband”
by Lewis Waller, both at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket. In the months before his
career collapsed in the witness box of the Queensberry libel trial, he was
sketching out a new play of modern life for Alexander and he was negotiating
with American producers such as Albert Palmer about a play “with no real
serious interest, just a comedy”, and with Charles Frohman for a ‘modern
“School for Scandal”’ style of play. This flurry of activity indicates both
Wilde’s perceived marketability on both sides of the
From one perspective, these three plays might seem to be concerned with a ridiculously circumscribed and skewed cross-section of English life. Wilde worked within the theatre conventions of his time, and with the world he knew, even if he did not belong to it. He saw it as a fantastic masquerade, highlighting aspects of English public life which themselves inhabited the dimension of theatre: the smart dance, the country house party, the Chilterns’ reception. At all of these there is a strong element of performance, and of audience, accentuated by the presence of almost silent ‘extras’, and a background of servants. In “An Ideal Husband”, the idea of real life as theatre is especially powerful, with Chiltern’s off-stage ‘performance’ in the House of Commons glowingly revived in The Times the following day. This imitation of Englishness is at once parodic and unnervingly accurate, a subtle form of insult. Wilde uncovers the relentless evasiveness of English speech, the attempts to make resounding definitions and statements of ideals within a world that is clearly no longer static and solid, attempts Wilde described as “the vice of sincerity”. Morality, private and public, is brought into question in these plays, and found wanting quite as radically as in the ‘stronger’ dramas of Ibsen.
It is interesting to note what Wilde leaves out. Art and literature, for example, are scarcely mentioned, except as jokes, or as possessions, in the case of Chiltern’s Corots. The middle classes, and the working classes, on the other hand, receive a surprising amount of coverage. In “A Woman Of No Importance” the earnest Kelvil’s defence of the House of Commons for having always shown great sympathy with the sufferings of the poor is dismissed by Lord Illingworth as its special vice, a philosophical point of view which coincided with Wilde’s; but the true responses of the ruling class come from Lady Hunstanton’s benignly inane assurance: “Dear Dr. Daubeny, our rector here, provides with the assistance of his curates, really admirable recreations for the poor during the winter. And much good may be done by means of the magic lantern, or a missionary, or some popular amusement of that kind” ; while the authentic voice of Empirespeak rings out in Lady Caroline Pontefract’s resort: “I am not at all in favour of amusements for the poor, Jane. Blankets and coals are sufficient. There is too much love of pleasure amongst the upper classes as it is” . No one, apart from the servants, works, or wishes to work, in these plays: Gerald longs to escape the horrors of a bank in a provincial town. It is a world claming to live exclusively on inherited wealth, though in reality needing to top up family money by marrying heirs to Australian canned-goods fortunes like Hopper’, or selling a state secret to a European financier. Perhaps the most ironic line in these three plays is Lady Chiltern’s solemn valedictory: “For both of us a new life is beginning”.
The interpretation of these plays as essentially
ironic exposures of English society, a society still ostensibly ruling a large
part of the world, forms part of the meanings which they convey: it is an
interpretation which is only intermittently made explicit. Wilde pursued
pleasure, and he enjoyed the pleasures which were available at the tables of
the English leisured classes:” I filled my life to the very brim with pleasure,
as one might fill a cup to the very brim with wine”. But he also saw through
them, with the detached, or semi-detached, perspective of his Celtic mind and
imagination. Like Maria Edgworth, he moved between
In “The Importance of Being Earnest”, by pushing neatness and coincidence to its outer limits, he came closer to revealing his method. In his short but intense burst of play-writing, he first made his people ‘real’. And then took his audiences through the looking glass into a world which seemed to reflect modern life, but which was a surreal improvisation upon it. It seems appropriate that his professional career as a fashionable writer drew to a close with two plays in West End London theatres running simultaneously, “An Ideal Husband”, with its echoes of contemporary politics, and “The Importance of Being Earnest”, an ostensible farce. You could look from one to the other, and back again, and wonder which represented English society more acutely. Wilde’s claim to have made the drama, “the most objective form known of art”, “as personal a mode of expression as the lyric or the sonnet”, has validity; it was a claim which society found it hard to accept, or to forgive.
3.1.1. Lady Windermere’s Fan
“Lady Windermere’s Fan” was Oscar Wilde’s first dramatic success and it contains
all the elements that are characteristic of his work, elements that we may find in his own life. There is a beautiful, austerely virtuous, but not very intelligent wife; and there is a husband who, like Byron’s Manfred, has a secret which he dare not divulge. How far Wilde was consciously drawing Lady Windermere from Constance, Lord Windermere from himself, is, of course, conjecture and may be fanciful and false. But it is notable that this situation of the beautiful and good and rather stupid wife, and the distinguished husband with a secret, recurs in “An Ideal Husband”. It is varied in “A Woman Of No Importance” where the austere woman, who has yielded to a distinguished, but essentially stupid, lover, has the secret to keep. There is one even in “The Importance of
Earnest”: the mystery of
Theatre program for “Lady Windermere’s Fan”,
Oscar Wilde’s first dramatic success.
All authors reveal themselves in their work, however detached they seem to be; and some reveal themselves without realising what they are doing. It is easy, when all the facts of an author’s life, so far as they are discoverable, are before us, to read into casual sentences, intentions or apprehension which were not in his mind when they were composed. We may suspect Wilde of a personal reference when he puts this speech into Lord Windermere’s mouth: “Misfortunes one can endure-they come from outside, they are accidents. But to suffer for one’s own faults-ah!-there is the sting of life”. Originally called “A Good Woman”, the title was changed when Lady Wilde suggested it was not sufficiently obscure.
was produced at the
Wilde, like Ibsen initially, worked within the dramatic conventions of his time. This was particularly evident in terms of plot. When “Lady Windermere’s Fan “was produced some of the critics leaped eagerly to proclaim its ancestry: Victorien Sardou was the name frequently thrown at Wilde, but other suspects included Haddon Chamber’s “The Idler”, recently performed at Alexander’s St James’s Theatre, While Sydney Grundy complained that he could not revive his own deservedly forgotten 1883 piece “The Glass Of Fashion” because Wilde had already done so, “under the title of Lady Windermere’s Fan”. Some of the situation, motifs and devices which Wilde employed-the woman concealed in the room of a man who is not her husband, the mislaid fan, the misdirected letter-are decidedly, even deliberately, familiar: in an early draft of the play, Wilde has Lady Windermere hide behind a screen, rather than a curtain, an obvious echo of Sheridan’s School for Scandal (a “quote” which might today be applauded as sophisticated intertextuality, the kind of theatrical echo which Stoppard deploys so skilfully ). Wilde was a master of conventions, and particularly the conventions of popular form: he did not hesitate to exploit any medium within which he chose to work.
with one eye on the dramatic genius of Ibsen and the other on the commercial
This world of ‘Society’, circumscribed by conventions, monitored by formidable dowagers such as the Duchess of Berwick, measured by the rituals of the English version of the tea ceremony, or the endless round of ‘small and early’ dances and luncheons, is created brilliantly by Wilde. Like Henry James in “The Portrait of a Lady” , or T.S. Elliot in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, he suggests both the comforting security and the terrible emptiness of the routines. This was a world Wilde was already confident about, and one he would become ever more familiar with after the success of this play; and he strove to get the details right. As he wrote in a letter to George Alexander, “details in life are of no importance, but in art details are vital”.20 His reproduction of wit, the polish and balance of the phrasing, the rhythm of the exchanges, suggest for much of the play a certain mocking detachment. The habits and rituals of the tribe have been adjusted, subtly exaggerated and heightened, until they are made transparent and so exposed to ironic scrutiny.
Wilde opens the play with a deliberately light sequence, as the young Society hostess arranges roses whole deflecting the charming compliments of the witty Lord Darlington, a Lord Henry Wotton with feelings. Significantly, she instructs the manservant that she is at home ‘to anyone who calls’, thus marking the visit as entirely innocent, though the effect of the instruction is to alert the audience to the subtext. As Darlington handles the fan which is Lord Windermwre’s twenty-first birthday present to his wife, and talks about covering the street with flowers for her to walk on, the tone is one of admiring and trivial flirtation, until the offer of friendship, “you may want a friend some day”, disturbs the innocent ritual momentarily, and reveals the unquiet reality beneath the smooth social patina. Wilde then introduces the Duchess of Berwick, a prototype for Lady Bracknell, to conduct a more formidable and broadly comic assault on the conventions of conduct and alliance. Her scorn for the new money of commerce is matched by her ruthless pursuit of the rich Australian, Hopper, as a suitable husband for her monosyllabic daughter. She has kindly called to warn Lady Windermere about her husband’s supposed affair with Mrs. Erlynne, and, with the additional confidence of her own experience, passes on to her the received wisdom – “Just take him abroad.” “Yes, dear, these wicked women get our husbands away from us, but they always come back, slightly damaged, of course”. What makes Lord Windermere’s conduct so particularly scandalous is that he has given away large sums of money – Berwick was “far too principled for that!”. Marriage is here seen as an economic transaction: the woman acquires security, and the wealth to maintain a conspicuous social position; in return, the man’s sexual infidelities are condoned, or at least overlooked. After the Duchess’s bombshell, Wilde shifts the tone to focus on the serious. Lady Windermere is given a soliloquy, its artificiality modified by her shocking action, as she cuts open her husband’s bank-book and discovers the ‘truth’ of the Duchess’s allegations. By the end of the night, she will have moved traumatically from idealised innocence to experience, a series of shifts highlighted by the ostrich-feather fan as it passes from hand to hand in this glittering comedy of masks and manners.
The juxtaposition of the comic and the serious is one of Wilde’s most successful dramatic techniques; once the absurd and the patently false have been established, the serious emotions and ideals which are explored have been given a context which prevents them from ever seeming too solemn. Inevitably, in what was his first attempt within the genre, Wilde has some awkward passages, perhaps more evident in Lady Windermere’s long soliloquy at the beginning of Act III, when she has fled to Lord Darlington’s rooms. In terms of achieving the right balance and tone, Alexander gave him good advice. It was at his suggestion that Wilde wrote an additional speech for Lord Augustus, “Well, really, I might be her husband already. Positively I might”, ensuring that Act II closed on a comic downbeat, rather than on Mrs. Erlynne’s strong and serious instruction. Alexander also persuaded Wilde to reveal Mrs. Erlynne’s identity as Lady Windermere’s mother gradually through the course of the play, rather than holding it back for a fourth-act revelation. Wilde resisted this suggestion fiercely: “I have built my house on a certain foundation, and this foundation cannot be altered” . However, after the first night, he agreed to the alteration, claiming that all his friends, “without exception”, thought that the psychological interest would be greatly increased by the disclosure of the actual relationship. In ways like these, Wilde achieved a subtle variation on what appeared to be a traditional plot, with a hidden secret which would be explained in the last act, accompanied by repentance and reconciliation. Wilde’s handling of the narrative elevates the art of concealment, if not of outright lying. Lady Windermere never discovers the identity of Mrs. Erlynne. Lord Windermere never knows that his wife had been prepared to throw herself into Lord Darlington’s arms. Lord Darlington and Lord Augustus Loring are both left in ignorance. Lady Windermere’s final comment to Lord Augustus, in contradiction to her husband’s po-faced put-down, “Well, you’re certainly marrying a very clever woman!” is: “Ah, you’re marrying a very good woman!”. The speech picks up the play’s subtitle (and original working title). This conventional ending works effectively as an expression of Lady Windermere’s coming-of-age, and her exposure to a new morality; it is also wonderfully ironic, a joke shared only between the audience and Mrs. Erlynne.
paid what was, for the English stage, unprecedented attention to dress and
accessories. The relationship between the
3.1.2. A Woman Of No Importance
formerly in the ranks of the smart and fashionable by the success of “LadyWindermere’s Fan”, Wilde was
courted to write a second social comedy by Herbert Beerbohm Tree. Initially, he
refused a characteristic put-down. “As Herod in my Salomé you would be admirable. As a peer of the realm in my latest
dramatic device, pray forgive me if I do not see you”.24 Tree’s argument, that he had been
admired as the Duke of Guisebury in Jones’s “The
Dancing Girl”, was hardly praised to convince Wilde; but Tree persisted,
and Wilde retired to the
Theatre program for “A Woman Of No Importance”.
“A Woman Of No Importance” premièred in April 1893, and was received with as much, if not more, adulation as its predecessor had been. The wicked Lord Illingworth, in particular, thrilled the audience, who discerned in the character something of its author’s self-portrait, and adored the dangerous charm Tree brought to the role for which he considered himself made. Lord Illingworth had the most disturbing portrait within the play, a ‘witty aristocrat’ whom Wilde described to Tree in these terms: “He is certainly not natural. He is a figure of art. Indeed, if you can bear the truth, he is MYSELF.”25 Tree, quite carried away with the role, took to playing it off-stage, which Wilde described as a wonderful case of nature imitating art: he himself did his best to make Tree less theatrical, attending rehearsals, and cutting and re-writing. Tree’s retrospective comment that he had produced the play with the interference of Wilde is likely to be less than the truth. The two men were much closer in temperament than, for example, Wilde and Alexander, and theirs was a fruitful collaboration.
Windermere’s Fan” centred on a woman who left her husband and so lost her
daughter, “A Woman Of No Importance”
features a father, Lord Illingworth, who seduced and abandoned a young girl,
and now tries to win back his son Gerald; a story taken, so Wilde claimed, from
“The Family Herald”: he professed not
to be interested in plot. The orphan is a recurrent motif in Wilde’s plays, and
this one has two of them, Gerald Arbuthnot and the beautiful American Puritan,
Hester Worsley. Challenging the stereotype, Rachel Arbuthnot, Wilde’s woman of
no importance, is both a woman with a past, an innocent victim, and the centre
of goodness and moral truth within the play; she is also extremely beautiful,
appearing after dinner at Hunstanton Chase in her black velvet gown, whose
colour was appropriate for a penitent, but whose close-fitting bodice and low
neckline conveyed a disturbingly ambivalent image, and stood out strongly in
grim, sombre majesty against the brilliant dresses of the butterfly women of
the play. Her name, Rachel, conveys her condition of grief. Her young American
counterpart’s first name, Hester, was deliberately chosen for its New England
Puritan ring, echoing Hester Prynne in
social and moral values of this play are so complex as the dress codes. Wilde
places his social world with great precision. The first act – a perfect act, he
claimed, because nothing happens in it – is set on the lawn in front of the
terrace of a great English country house, with guests sitting under a large yew
tree – an image of tranquillity, stability, wealth. There is little truly rural
about this evocation of English country life. Footmen move in and out with
shawls and cushions and letters, converting the lawn into an extension of the
house. As the act proceeds, the sense of unruffled calm becomes increasingly
disturbed. The make-up of the house party is immediately brought under
question: Lord Illingworth is a man of “high distinction” – but Mrs. Allonby is
“hardly a very suitable person”, declares Lady Caroline Pontefract though she
immediately defends her as “very well born” when Hester Worsley expresses her
dislike. Wilde introduces a number of value systems in the first two acts, and
invites the audience to place Lord Illingworth and Mrs. Allonby at the apex,
dandies who dominate by wit and assurance, who match each other in their
manipulation of words, and who define the fashionable and the modern. Yet they
are also associated with a sense of decadence: Mrs. Allonby leaves the lawn for
the conservatory, where, she has been told by Lord Illingworth, “there is an orchid as beautiful as seven
deadly sins”. “Yes, let us stay here”,
suggests Lord Illingworth to Mrs. Allonby, as an alternative to taking tea in
the Yellow Drowing-room; “The Book of
Life begins with a man and a woman in a garden”, Mrs. Allonby replies, “it ends with Revelations”. The flippant
joke is also prophetic. Mrs. Allonby’s challenge to Lord Illingworth to kiss
the pretty Puritan is the action which cracks open the fragile shell of this
flawed masquerade of civilisation. The barbed shafts directed at
There is only one married couple on stage, Lady Caroline Pontefract and her fourth husband, the quiescent Sir John. Mrs. Allonby mocks her absent husband, ominously named Earnest; Mr. Kelvil, the ludicrous Member of Parliament who expands on the subject of English home life, is only too happy to be absent from his wife and eight children. When Mrs. Allonby and Lady Hunstanton visit the “happy English home” of Mrs. Arbuthnot, in Act IV – “fresh natural flowers, books that don’t shock one, pictures that one can look at without blushing” – the contrast with the luxury of Hunstanton Chase is complete. Their visit is refused: Mrs. Arbuthnot pleads a convenient headache. The falseness of this happy English home is then laid bare: an unmarried mother with an assumed name; a bastard son; and an unrepentant seducer, who offers marriage as the price for his son. When his bid is rejected, Lord Illingworth is given a speech of unrivalled condescension: “It’s been an amusing experience to have met amongst people of one’s own rank, and treated quite seriously too, one’s mistress and one’s” – Mrs. Arbuthnot snatches up one of Illingworth’s gloves (he has been pulling on the other during his speech, with the fastidiousness of the dandy) and strikes him across the face with it, to prevent his uttering the word “bastard”. This private action echoes Lady Windermere’s threat to strike Mrs. Erlynne with her fan should she appear at her ball.
conclusion works on a number of levels. The blow has been postponed from the end of Act III, when Mrs. Arbuthnot
halts Gerald with the notoriously melodramatic “Stop, Gerald, stop! He is your own father!” coming from a woman, and unsignalled, hers is a far
more telling action; it is the traditional insult of one man to another, an
invitation to a challenge, but here wholly unanswerable: a spontaneous
subversion of a male code which is absurdly theatrical. Tree was praised by the
Pall Mall Gazette for his acting in this sequence, suggesting “a sudden
uncomfortable feeling of old age coming over the brilliant sinner – an old age that betrayed it self in
mere hints of speech and gait, and that contrasted grimly with the elaborate
youthfulness of dress”. Illingworth has been defeated by youth, by that ‘fin de
siècle person’, the pretty Puritan. His is the defeat of age, of
aristocracy, of the old
is a tension in this play, which arises from the language Wilde gives from time
to time to Mrs. Arbuthnot, and to Hester. Their expression of the new morality
is conveyed in terms and rhythms which seem too heavily reminiscent of
melodrama and the Bible to be aesthetically convincing; “What welcome would you
get from the girl whose lips you tried to soil, from the boy whose life you
have shamed, from the mother whose dishonour comes from you?”. The wit, and so
the play’s dynamic focus, seems to belong by natural right to Lord Illingworth,
or to his counterpart, in more serious mode, of the outrageously contrived
trivial ending of “The Importance of
Being Earnest”. There is something Chekhovian in this study of
injected a political and social agenda into the text and texture of “A Woman of No Importance”; the subject
of class, and related matters of wealth and morality, forms a recurrent topic
of conversation, a parallel to the analysis of relationships between men and
women. Even Lord Illingworth, arbiter of the idle classes, professes high
ambitions, and announces his intention to travel to
Both “Lady Windermere’s Fan” and “A Woman of No Importance” have a noticeable feminist bias in that they stress the innate strength of their central female characters, a strength which draws on, and finally masters, a certain Puritanism.
3.1.3. An ideal husband
Biographers suggest that a number of private events foreshadowing Wilde's downfall may inform “An Ideal Husband”. Around the time of its writing, Lord Alfred had given a suit to his friend, James Wood, who discovered a love letter from Wilde carelessly left in its pocket. Wood confronted Wilde with the intention of blackmail, but the unconcerned author was able to appease the would-be extortionist over dinner. Unfortunately Wood had also given a copy of the letter to two professional thugs, who also approached Wilde with demands for payment. Wilde nonchalantly dismissed them as well, however, reportedly telling the men that he found the idea of such a price being proposed for a piece of his writing quite the compliment.
respect to historical context, Wilde wrote “An
Ideal Husband” during the decade known as the “Yellow” or “Naughty
Nineties”, the twilight years of
In terms of dramatic history, “An Ideal Husband” should be situated in tension with the popular melodramas and farces that dominated the Anglophone stage of Wilde’s day. “An Ideal Husband”’s genius lies in the repetition of the melodramatic formula to ironic ends, one that thoroughly subverts what the melodrama would accomplish through its games of Wildean wit.
An Ideal Husband” is
structured in four acts. It opens during a dinner party at the home of Sir
Robert Chiltern in
the party, Mrs. Cheveley an enemy of Lady Chiltern's from their school days,
attempts to blackmail Sir Robert into supporting a fraudulent scheme to build a
When Mrs. Cheveley pointedly informs Lady Chiltern of Sir Robert's change of heart regarding the canal scheme, the morally inflexible Lady, unaware of both her husband's past and the blackmail plot, insists that Sir Robert renege on his promise. For Lady Chiltern, their marriage is predicated on her having an “ideal husband” – that is, a model spouse in both private and public life that she can worship: thus Sir Robert must remain unimpeachable in all his decisions. Sir Robert complies with the lady’s wishes and apparently seals his doom. Also toward the end of Act I, Mabel and Lord Goring come upon a diamond brooch that Lord Goring gave someone many years ago. Goring takes the brooch and asks that Mabel inform him if anyone comes to retrieve it.
In the second act, which also takes place at Sir Robert’s house, Lord Goring urges Sir Robert to fight Mrs. Cheveley and admit his guilt to his wife. He also reveals that he and Mrs. Cheveley were formerly engaged. After finishing his conversation with Sir Robert, Goring engages in flirtatious banter with Mabel. He also takes Lady Chiltern aside and obliquely urges her to be less morally inflexible and more forgiving. Once Goring leaves, Mrs. Cheveley appears, unexpected, in search of a brooch she lost the previous evening. Incensed at Sir Robert’s reneging on his promise, she ultimately exposes Sir Robert to his wife once they are both in the room. Unable to accept a Sir Robert now unmasked, Lady Chiltern then denounces her husband and refuses to forgive him.
Then the melodrama is held in check and pointed up by the brilliance of the comic structure, as the fast-moving series of visits – Lord Caversham, Mrs. Cheveley, Sir Robert Chiltern – and the accumulation of misunderstandings is coolly orchestrated by the Sphinx-like Ideal Butler, Phipps. Chairs fall, bells ring, letters are presented on salvers, burned, stolen: the act is visually framed by two deftly chosen stage emblems, male and female: Lord Goring’s fresh button-hole and Lady Chiltern’s letter on pink paper. The effect was well described by Shaw when he wrote of the play’s “subtle and pervading levity”. Wilde’s imitation of the English ruling class is sufficiently well informed and accurate to anchor it to reality; yet he is also engaged in an exercise in pastiche, lightly mocking the social structures and moral postures both from within, in the manipulations of Mrs. Cheveley and Lord Goring, and from without, by his overall control of the physical pattern and verbal tone.
In the third act, set in Lord Goring’s home, Lord Goring receives a pink letter from Lady Chiltern asking for his help, a letter that might be read as a compromising love note. Just as Goring receives this note, however, his father, Lord Caversham drops in and demands to know when his son will marry. A visit from Sir Robert, who seeks further counsel from Goring, follows. Meanwhile, Mrs. Cheveley arrives unexpectedly and, misrecognized by the butler as the woman Goring awaits, is ushered into Lord Goring’s drawing room. While she waits, she finds Lady Chiltern's letter. Ultimately, Sir Robert discovers Mrs. Cheveley in the drawing room and, convinced of an affair between these two former loves, angrily storms out of the house.
When she and Lord Goring confront each other, Mrs. Cheveley makes a proposal: claiming to still love Goring from their early days of courtship, she offers to exchange Sir Robert's letter for her old beau’s hand in marriage. Lord Goring declines, accusing her of defiling love by reducing courtship to a vulgar transaction and ruining the Chilterns’ marriage. He then springs his trap. Removing the diamond brooch from his desk drawer, he binds it to Cheveley’s wrist with a hidden device. Lord Goring then reveals how the item came into her possession: apparently Mrs. Cheveley stole it from his cousin years ago. To avoid arrest, Cheveley must trade the incriminating letter for her release from the bejewelled handcuff. After Goring obtains and burns the letter, however, Mrs. Cheveley steals Lady Chiltern’s note from his desk. Vengefully she plans to send it to Sir Robert misconstrued as a love letter addressed to the dandified lord. Mrs. Cheveley exits the house in triumph.
The final act, which returns to
The cumulative impact of the resolution of Act
IV is to reveal the gap between high moral posturing and the reality of
political control. Normal service can resume again, with luncheon, and a visit
Charles Hawtrey as Lord Goring in “An Ideal Husband ”.
“If there was less sympathy in the world there would be less trouble”.
Critics often describe Wilde’s characters as one-dimensional. This uni-dimensionality is on the one hand an effect of Wilde’s borrowing from stock characters of the popular theatre and his emphasis on artifice on the other. Notably, with regards to the latter, Wilde introduces his characters through playful references to art objects and aesthetic stereotypes. We will report on his characters accordingly.
The play’s “tragic” hero, Sir Robert Chiltern is an accomplished government official, considered by all as an ideal husband and model politician. As described in the stage notes, Sir Robert has effected a violent separation of thought and emotion in his personality; moreover, he suffers from divided loyalties. Though a portrait of distinction and good breeding, Sir Robert conceals a blemished past. Extremely ambitious, he succumbed to the nefarious advice of his mentor, Baron Arnheim, in his youth, coming to hold power over others as life’s primary pleasure and wealth as the age’s weapon toward winning it. To some extent, Sir Robert holds wealth and power in similar esteem today. At the same time, Sir Robert has had to conceal his past from his wife in hopes of keeping her love. Lady Chiltern’s love is predicated on the worship of his perfect image; so desperate is Sir Robert to remain in her esteem that he will even agree to resign from government in Act IV. Torn between his true and ideal selves, Sir Robert suffers from a nervous temperament throughout the play.
Sir Robert is a fairly static character, undergoing little development and ultimately receiving salvation through the machinations of Lord Goring. He does, however, give way to one major outburst once the balancing act between his secret past and ideal persona becomes untenable. Unmasked by Mrs. Cheveley at the end of Act II, he curses Lady Chiltern’s impossibly worshipful love as causing their ruin: in other words, because of her worship he could not descend his pedestal, so to speak, and admit his crimes to her earlier. Sir Robert considers himself a victim of what he identifies as “feminine” adoration. In contrast, he loves in a “masculine” fashion – that he can love his lover’s human imperfections and then forgive her faults:
“Sir Robert Chiltern: There was your mistake. There was your error. The error all women commit. Why can’t you women love us, faults and all? Why do you place us on monstruous pedestals? We have all feet of clay, women as well as men; but when we men love women, we love them knowing their weaknesses, their follies, their imperfections, love them all the more, it may be, for that reason. It is when we are wounded by our own hands, or by the hands of others, that love should come to cure us – else what use is love at all? All sins, except a sin against itself, Love should forgive. All lives, save loveless lives, true Love should pardon. A man’s love is like that. It is wider, larger, more human that a woman’s. Women think that they are making ideals of men. What they are making of us are false idols merely.”
Sir Robert thus becomes the vehicle of one of the play’s primary pronouncements on the theme of marriage. Like his wife, his is largely a melodramatic voice, the conventional nature of his speech – that is, conventional in terms of the popular Victorian stage – reflecting the conventional nature of its content.
Lady Gertrude Chiltern is the play’s upright and earnest heroine, embodying the ideal of Victorian new womanhood Wilde elaborated while editor of the Women's World magazine in the late 1880s. This new woman was best represented by an educated wife involved in women’s issues and supportive of her husband’s political career. Lady Chiltern certainly embodied these characteristics, and unlike Sir Robert, Lady Chiltern is not self-divided, but perfectly virtuous. Though a poised, charming, and dignified society wife, Lady Chiltern is naïve when it comes to the machinations around her. In this sense, she is Mrs. Cheveley’s steady victim.
Lady Chiltern undergoes a rather simple development through the course of the play, specifically with respect to the theme of marriage and, more precisely, the question of how women should love. Toward the end of Act I, she melodramatically delivers a speech to Sir Robert that introduces the idea of the “ideal husband” and establishes the nature of her love, a love described from the outset as “feminine”:
“Lady Chiltern: (thrusting him back with outstretched hands): No, don’t speak! Say nothing! Your voice wakes terrible memories – memories of things that made me love you – memories of words that made me love you – memories that now are horrible to me. And how I worshipped you! You were to me something apart from common life, a thing pure, noble, honest, without stain. The world seemed to me finer because you were in it, and goodness more real because you lived. And now – oh, when I think that I made of a man like you my ideal! The ideal of my life!”
As a woman, Lady Chiltern loves in the worship of an ideal mate, a mate who serves as model for both her and society at large. Thus she rejects Sir Robert upon the revelation of his secret past, unable to brook neither his duplicity nor the justification of his dishonesty as necessary compromise.
Ultimately she will learn from her counsellor, Lord Goring, that the loving woman should not so much idealise the lover as forgive him his faults. Goring will also teach her that Sir Robert – as a man – lives by his intellect and requires a successful public life. Thus Lady Chiltern will forgo her rigid morals and allow her husband to continue his career despite its ill-gotten beginnings.
Foil to the earnest Lady Chiltern, Mrs. Cheveley is the play's femme fatale: bitingly witty, fabulously well dressed, cruel, ambitious, opportunistic, and, above all, duplicitous. Repeatedly the play describes her as the product of “horrid combinations”, evoking her dangerous deceitfulness. Thus Lady Basildon recoils from her “unnatural” union of daytime genius and night time beauty; later, Cheveley appears as a “lamia-like” villainess – that is, part woman and part snake. Whereas Lady Chiltern is pure and undivided, Mrs. Cheveley is defined by deception, artifice, and falsehood.
Cheveley returns from
With this in mind, Mrs. Cheveley’s undoing in Act III avenges her crimes against the conjugal household. Called to account for a past crime, she finds herself trapped for a stolen wedding gift – the diamond brooch – by her ex-fiancé. The poetic justice in her arrest is clear. Moreover, this undoing also unmasks her as a monster. Once trapped by Lord Goring, Mrs Cheveley dissolves into a “paroxysm of rage” her loss of speech giving way to an agony of terror that distorts her face. For a moment, a “mask has fallen”, and Mrs. Cheveley is “dreadful to look at”. Her veneer of wit and beauty thus give way to the hidden beast.
Described as the first well-dressed philosopher in history, Lord Goring is the dandified hero of the play and a thinly veiled double for Wilde himself. As the stage notes from Act III indicate, he is in “immediate relation” to modern life, making and mastering it. He thus serves as bearer of Wilde’s aesthetic creed stressing amorality, youth, pleasure, distinction, idleness, and onward in rebellion against Victorian ideals. “An Ideal Husband” emphasises Goring’s modernity by posing him in a number of comic dialogues with his father, Lord Caversham in which the former urges his son to marry and claim responsibility while the latter outwits him with his repartee.
Within the play’s moral scheme, Goring delivers a number of the play’s more sentimental pronouncements on love and marriage, serving as helpmate to the Chilterns and teacher to the impossibly upright Lady Chiltern in particular. Thus he extols the importance of forgiveness and charity in married life, reconciling the Chilterns’ marriage according to new ideals of man and wife. At the same time, however, his own union with Mabel Chiltern is far less conventional, dispensing with the questions of duty, respectability, and the ideal roles of man and wife entirely. Alike in their amoral posture, Lord Goring and Mabel thus stand as foils to the Chilterns and their newly ideal marriage.
An exemplar of English prettiness, Mabel, Sir Robert’s younger sister, embodies what Wilde describes as the “fascinating tyranny of youth” and “astonishing courage of innocence”. Pert and clever, Mabel flirtatiously matches Lord Goring’s wit throughout the play and their somewhat unconventional union serves as a foil to the other marriages and would-be engagements that compose the plot. Mabel acts much like Cecily in “The Importance of Being Earnest”.
Father to Lord Goring, Lord Caversham, described as a “fine Whig type”, is a stuffy, serious, and respectable gentleman who is firmly opposed to the excesses of his dandified son. Continually he urges his son to marry and adopt a career, posing Sir Robert as model. Caversham appears as a figure for the old-fashioned against a son who makes and masters the art of modern living.
A pleasant and popular woman with “grey hair à la marquise and good lace”, Lady Markby appears at the dinner party in Act I and visits Lady Chiltern in II, both times with Mrs. Cheveley in arm. Lady Markby is emblematic of an older generation of Society women, bemoaning the effect of politics and the higher education of women on married life. In this sense, she counterpoises the Victorian new woman embodied by Lady Chiltern.
Lady Basildon and Mrs. Marchmont are described as “types of exquisite fragility” with an affection of manner of delicate charm, ideal subjects for the French Rococo painter Watteau. Never developed into major characters, these women frivolously banter on a number of topics throughout Act I; notable ones include the dreariness of politics, being serious, education, and so on. Like Watteau’s figures, they are perhaps more decorative than anything else, though – as the insightfulness of their conversations suggests – one can never underestimate the decorative on Wilde’s stage.
As the title might suggest, the play’s primary theme is marriage, a common premise for the pot boiler melodramas of Wilde’s day. The Victorian popular theatre provided stock story lines of domestic life that, after various crises, would culminate in the reaffirmation of familiar themes: loyalty, sacrifice, undying love, forgiveness, devotion, and onward. More often than not, this reaffirmation also involved the re-establishment of the conjugal household.
Though “An Ideal Husband” adopts these motifs, it also mocks, parodies, and ironies them with its more decadent and dandified characters. Thus we can organise the play’s treatment of marriage according to the “poles” these characters might represent.
Lady Chiltern, for example, would predicate marital life on worship, posing her husband as a pristine ideal in both public and private life. Notably this love is explicitly gendered as “feminine”. As the play progresses, Lady Chiltern’s love comes to appear unreasonable and – once Sir Robert’s secret sin is revealed – dangerous to the health of the domestic household. This opinion emerges most explicitly from Sir Robert and Lord Goring who offer a competing model of marital love that the two identify as “masculine”. If a woman loves in the worship of an impossible ideal, a man loves his partner for its human imperfections; his love includes charity and forgiveness whereas the woman’s does not.
Thus the play calls for the tempering of the woman’s overly idealising and morally rigid love for one that can pardon human fault. Somewhat paradoxically (but all too unexpectedly), it will ultimately assign the role of pardoner to the woman; as Lord Goring tells Lady Chiltern in Act IV, “Pardon, not punishment, is [women's] mission” in love. Thus the play, miming a conventional narrative arc of the Victorian popular theatre, in some sense ruins the ideal husband only to win his forgiveness from his virtuous wife. Re-establishing the conjugal household, this resolution numbers among the more sentimental and conservative of Wilde’s day. Obviously, its gender politics are unfortunate to say the least. The main obstacle to this reconciliation of married life, Mrs Cheveley, the play’s villainness, would subordinate and reduce to marriage to mercenary transactions. Schooled in Baron Arnheim’s gospels of power and wealth – gospels that privilege the domination of others over all else – she has no qualms blackmailing Sir Robert and potentially destroying his conjugal bliss to secure her financial investments. Moreover, we come to learn that she engineered a false courtship with Lord Goring in their youth to swindle him out of a settlement. Finally, she will offer to exchange her evidence against Sir Robert for Goring's hand in marriage; Lord Goring will then roundly condemn her for defiling the ideas of love detailed above. With these offences in mind, Mrs. Cheveley’s ultimate capture by a stolen wedding present – the diamond brooch – would revenge her crimes against marriage.
In contrast to both the Chilterns and Mrs. Cheveley, however, the play features a number of characters and conversations – especially those involving “banter” and other apparently frivolous speech – that mock its more conventional thematic. In particular, Lord Goring and Mabel Chiltern function as foils to the upstanding Chilterns. Throughout the play the pair assume an amoral pose, disparaging the demands of duty and ironising social convention. Notably then do the penultimate lines of the play, spoken by Mabel Chiltern upon accepting Goring’s proposal, dispense with the notion of ideal husband altogether. “An ideal husband!” she exclaims: “Oh, I don't think I should like that. It sounds like something in the next world.” Lord Goring is to be what he wants while Mabel would only be a “real wife”. In this sense, Mabel and Goring playfully reject the moral thematic described above, unconcerned with the question of what a man and wife should be ideally.
Though the title invites speculation on the ideal husband, different figures of womanliness appear throughout the play as well. “An Ideal Husband” relies on a simple opposition between the virtuous Lady Chiltern and the demonic Mrs. Cheveley, the latter’s wit and villainy making her a far more pleasurable character. Lady Chiltern appears as the model Victorian new woman, which Wilde elaborated while editor of the “Women's World” magazine in the late 1880s: morally upstanding, highly educated, and actively supportive of her husband’s political career. By Act IV, she will also emerge in the role of forgiver and caretaker (again, “Pardon, not punishment, is [women's] mission”), and thus meets the more conventional demands of Victorian womanhood as well. In terms of generational differences, she stands out against the old-fashioned Lady Markby, the embodiment of an older group of society wives.
Lady Chiltern’s primary foil, however, is of course the “lamia-like” Mrs. Cheveley. Whereas Lady Chiltern is naïve, candid, and always in earnest, the witty and ambitious Mrs. Cheveley is characterised by a sort of duplicitous femininity. As described in Act I, she is a “horrid”, “unnatural”, and – as quickly revealed – dangerous combination of genius and beauty. Having revealed her capacity to manipulate in Act I, the play dramatically unmasks her as a monster in Act III. Trapped by Lord Goring, Mrs. Cheveley dissolves into a “paroxysm of rage, with inarticulate sounds”, her loss of speech giving way to an agony of terror that distorts her face. For a moment, a “mask has fallen”, and Cheveley is “dreadful to look at”. Her veneer of wit and beauty thus give way to the hidden beast.
We should also note that the play relates Mrs. Cheveley’s duplicity with the artifices of the dandy, Lord Goring. Like Mrs. Cheveley, Lord Goring is artificial, amoral, cunning, and irrational, traits associated with the feminine. The two great wits and most flamboyantly dressed characters of the play, Lord Goring and Mrs. Cheveley are doubles for each other: their face-off is something of a climax. Indeed, Lord Goring is Mrs. Cheveley’s only match because he can play her game of wiles, just as the Chilterns are doomed to be her victims in their hapless earnestness. Notably, it also takes little for Sir Robert to conclude that they are co-conspirators.
With these parallels in mind, one might thus note that Lord Goring might share an unnatural or monstrous femininity with Mrs. Cheveley as well: the dandy is, after all, often considered the paragon of the effeminate male. The important difference, however, lies in Mrs. Cheveley’s unmasking. If Mrs. Cheveley’s mask is ultimately torn aside – in an echo, perhaps, of “ The Picture of Dorian Gray” – to reveal her cruelty and ambition, Lord Goring largely keeps his on, maintaining his dandified pose for most of the play.
The dandified Lord Goring of course exemplifies this stylisation of life as art, emphasising the beauty of youth and artifice, the importance of idleness, fashion, and social theatricality, and the ironisation of existing social conventions. Once again, we can pose the fine art of living against the sombre respectability and moral strictures of the Victorian age.
Wilde is famous for his humorous instances as well as for his witty remarks. He uses paradox, misunderstandings and ironical statements in order to obtain the comical effects he aims at. Joking with Lord Goring and Lady Basildon on the travails of having unendurably faultless husbands, Mrs. Marchmont at one point exclaims: “My poor Olivia! We have married perfect husbands, and we are well punished for it”. Lord Goring replies: “I should have thought it was the husbands who were punished”. As with many of Wilde’s jokes, Mrs. Marchmont’s relies on a scandalous reversal of expectations: the marriage of a perfect husband is less a boon than a bane, the ensuing married life being the wives’ punishment. To translate further: the perfect husband may be morally upstanding but is a dreadful bore. The ironical Mrs. Marchmont is only half-serious in tone, but one might take her joke seriously in light of a play that concerns itself with the dangers of the ideal spouse. Thus Mrs. Marchmont’s frivolous jest might in a sense “laugh off” the more sombre discussions of ideal husband that appear through the play. Ever the wit, Lord Goring matches Mrs. Marchmont by reversing the terms of her lament: the husbands, and not the wives, are the true victims of punishment. These continuous reversals and improvisations define what Wilde describes as the wit’s “playing” with the world. Tellingly, Mrs. Marchmont and Lady Basildon will subsequently declare themselves martyrs to their perfect husbands as well. Thus their exchange perhaps mocks Lady Chiltern’s impassioned speech and emergence as a martyred wife at the end of the act.
Stolen, mislaid, and misaddressed objects are stock elements of the Victorian popular stage, serving as devices for the complication of plot and development of dramatic irony. Despite the conventional nature of these devices, however, how these objects circulate and what they might symbolise invite further interpretation. “An Ideal Husband” features three notable objects in circulation, each playing fateful roles in the plot: Sir Robert’s letter to Baron Arnheim, Mrs. Cheveley’s diamond brooch, and Lady Chiltern’s pink note to Lord Goring. Notably, all at some point pass through the hands of Mrs. Cheveley and Lord Goring, emphasising how the two are the central actors of the play. Indeed, all three objects change hands between them at their confrontation in Act III, what one might identify as the play’s climax. As the “causes” of complication in the plot, it is fitting that all these objects emerge at the plot’s most tense moment .These objects are also rich in symbolic properties. To elaborate on a few that relate to the primary theme of marriage: the brooch, for example, is an agent of vengeance. A stolen wedding gift deployed by her ex-fiancé, it traps Mrs. Cheveley in blackmail, avenging both her near-destruction of the Chilterns’ marriage and betrayal of Lord Goring in their courtship. If the brooch avenges Mrs. Cheveley’s crimes against conjugal life, Lady Chiltern’s pink note attests to marriage’s restoration. Though written as a plea for help to Lord Goring, Sir Robert mistakes it as being a love letter addressed to him, facilitating his reconciliation with his wife. Tellingly, in the final scene, it serves as a sort of second marriage certificate, Gertrude putting Sir Robert’s name down as its addressee.
Wilde’s plays are often read for their witty epigrams; indeed, these epigrams are what make his plays “subversive”. “Wit” is defined here as the quality of speech that consists in apt associations that surprise and delight or the utterance of brilliant things in an amusing fashion; the epigram is a brief, pointed, and often antithetical saying that contains an unexpected change of thought or biting comment.
Delivered in a social intercourse that consists of rapid-fire repartee, the tone of Wilde’s epigrams are often “half-serious”, playing on the potential for the listener's misunderstanding –for example, taking a phrase literally, too seriously, or not seriously enough. Rhetorically, they tend to involve a combination of devices: the reversal of conventionally paired terms, irony, sarcasm, hyperbole, and paradox. Take then, for example, Lord Goring’s rejoinder to his father, Lord Caversham, when the latter accuses him of talking about nothing: “I love talking about nothing, father. It is the only thing I know anything about.” At one level, Goring’s epigram is clearly sarcastic; at another, it is paradoxical, as in a sense one cannot know anything about nothing. The epigram also shifts between conventionally valorised terms: whereas most people would hope to have something substantive to talk about, Goring loves to talk about nothing. As one might imagine, the “threat” in these games of rhetoric is the concomitant shift in the values – aesthetic, ethical, philosophical, or otherwise – taken up in conversation. Consequently, the apparently frivolous epigram becomes the primary vehicle by which the play mocks the values and mores of the contemporary popular stage.
In contrast to its witty, epigrammatic banter, “An Ideal Husband” also makes extensive use of the melodramatic speech. Such speeches reflect more conventional dialogue from the Victorian popular stage. Notable examples include Lady Chiltern’s plea to Sir Robert at the end of Act I, their confrontation in Act II, and reconciliation in Act IV. These rousing speeches – far longer in length than most of the dialogue – involve innumerable apostrophes (“Oh my love!” and so on), exclamations, and lyrical entreaties. Laden with pathos, they radically transform the tone and mood found in the scenes involving epigrammatic banter, representing moments in which poised and polished characters find themselves overcome with sentiment. If the epigram is the means by which the play subverts thematic conventions, the melodramatic speech tends to reaffirm it, serving as vehicle for the play’s pronouncements on love and marital life.
Act I takes place against the backdrop of a Rococo tapestry, a representation of François Boucher’s “Triumph of Love” (1754). The “Triumph” allegorises the victory of love over power: Venus points to Vulcan’s conquered heart, and the god gazes up at her like a love-sick boy.
Though the most obvious reading might consider the tapestry as prefiguring the defeat of Mrs. Cheveley and reconciliation of the play’s lovers, the significance of the allegory is not so self-evident. Indeed, it takes on a number of meanings. In the story the tapestry tells, Venus conquers Vulcan only to commit adultery with his brother, Ares. In this sense, Love’s triumph is more Mrs. Cheveley’s than the Chilterns’, the former having similarly betrayed Lord Goring in their youth.
Within the action of the play itself, the tapestry takes centre stage, so to speak, at the end of Act I, when the audience has just witnessed an argument that appears to foretell the doom of the Chilterns’ marriage. Horrified, Sir Robert sits in the dark, the tapestry left lit by the chandelier. In this case then, the image of Love’s victory is ironic as it would seem that intrigue is poised to ruin conjugal bliss.
We can chart one more mention of the Boucher tapestry in Act II. Telling Lady Chiltern of her plans for the day, Mabel will jest about standing on her head while playing tableau in the “triumph of something”. This joke perhaps prefigures Mabel’s own turning of love upside-down in her rather unconventional courtship with Lord Goring: recall that Goring and Mabel resist notions of love as duty and dispense with the questions of ideal marital life that consume the Chilterns.
The play’s other notable symbol is Mrs. Cheveley’s diamond brooch. Like the tapestry, it takes on multiple meanings through the course of the play. First, as a diamond snake, it symbolises the evil woman – a woman who resembles a skin-shedding reptile in her duplicity.
The brooch also functions as an agent of vengeance. Ultimately revealed as a wedding gift Mrs. Cheveley stole in her youth, the brooch returns as evidence of a past crime, entrapping a woman who would manipulate past wrongs to her own advantage and wreck marriages. The poetic justice in her arrest is clear.
Finally, one might comment on the “duplicity” of the brooch. As Goring notes, the brooch is nothing less than a “wonderful” – or, in modern parlance, “fabulous” – ornament, a luxurious object that metamorphoses into a trap. As noted above, the dandy operates by trickery and artifice – not force – and always with style. In this sense, the brooch is the only “weapon” one can imagine the dandy putting to use, emblematising his artfulness and guile.
Wilde's later plays both mirror the conventional themes of the Victorian popular stage – such as loyalty, devotion, undying love, duty, respectability, and so on – and undermine them through their brilliantly choreographed banter.
3.2. Oscar Wilde’s verse plays
Much is known about Wilde as the leader of the Aesthetic Movement, about him as the author of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” , about his witty plays such as “Lady Windermere’s Fan”, “A Woman of No Importance”, “An Ideal Husband” and “The Importance of Being Earnest”. Little is known, though, about his verse plays, “Vera, or the Nihilist”, “The Duchess of Padua” , ”Salomé”, “A Florentine Tragedy”, “La Sainte Courtisane”. They are all poetic dramas which did not receive much appreciation from the critics, showing us a Wilde that had not become a proper dramatist, but still displaying the gifts of a good playwright and the subtle talent of an exquisite poet.
Wilde as a poet is everywhere present in these plays. His taste for romantic, even Pre-Romantic Gothic elements, points to hidden aspects of his soul: sensitivity, delicacy, deep feelings.
3.2.1. Vera, or the Nihilists
“Vera or, the Nihilists” is Oscar Wilde’s earliest play. It is not very well-known, and many will say that its obscure place in the annals of Literature is justified. The play cannot, alas, rank with Wilde’s later work. It is, however, not below the standard of most contemporary popular dramas and it stands at the beginning of Wilde’s dramatic output.
”Vera” was accepted by the actress Mrs Bernard Beere, and the opening was planned for 17 December 1881. However, the recent assassinations of Czar Alexander II and President Garfield caused such outrage among the public that the play was withdrawn, probably under official pressure.
Wilde then tried his luck while on tour in
“Vera, or The Nihilists” is a drama in a Prologue and four acts and its conflict revolves around the Russian political realities which Wilde wants to render starting from a particular situation and reaching general humanistic truths. At first he presents the misfortune of a family, overwhelmed with sadness because of the loss of a son and brother, then he goes to display the sufferings of an entire nation, oppressed by an unfair regime.
The people of
the Czarevitch, is a Nihilist as well. He loves the people and thinks his
father is misgoverning
in the meantime, seems a promising Czar: he has ordered the return of the Siberian
exiles, among which Dmitri Sabouroff, and has dismissed the old clique that
used to surround his father. Vera has decided to kill him for breaking his
oath, but is mollified when the new Czar tells her he has accepted the crown
only in order that they might rule
“Vera, or the Nihilists” suffers from a strange discrepancy of styles within the work. On the one hand, there are the Nihilists, with first and foremost among them Vera Sabouroff and Prince Alexis. Their language is the rhetoric of noble heroism, which makes them sound rather stiff, old-fashioned and pompous. Their lofty phrases are hardly life-like, as shown in this empassioned speech of the Czarevitch in Act II:
“CZAREVITCH:  Boy as I am in years, I have seen wave after wave of living men sweep up the heights of battle to their death; ay, and snatch perilous conquest from the scales of war when the bloody crescent seemed to shake above our eagles.”
On the other hand, then, there are the courtiers, led by Prince Paul Maraloffski, and the Czar. Their lines are essentially funny. Even the cruel Czar has many characteristics of a comical figure: he is unconsciously ridiculous in his paranoia, and has lost all sense of proportion. He says about himself: “Am I a tyrant? I’m not. I love the people. I’m their father. I’m called so in every official proclamation.” It is the same with the aristocratic conversation where the reader can notice the superficiality and the corrupt nature of politicians and their constant desire to enlarge their fortunes, irrespective of the people’s sufferings and grievances:
“MARQUIS DE POIVRARD:
[T]alking of the taxes, my dear Baron you must really let me have forty
thousand roubles to-morrow; my wife says she must have a new diamond bracelet.
COUNT ROUVALOFF (aside to BARON RAFF): Ah, to match the one Prince Paul gave her last week, I suppose.
PRINCE PETROVITCH: I must have sixty thousand roubles at once, Baron. My son is overwhelmed with debts of honour which he can't pay.
BARON RAFF: What an excellent son to imitate his father so carefully!
GENERAL KOTEMKIN: You are always getting money. I never get a single kopeck I have got no right to. It's unbearable; it's ridiculous! My nephew is going to be married. I must get his dowry for him.
PRINCE PETROVITCH: My dear General, your nephew must be a perfect Turk. He seems to get married three times a week regularly.
GENERAL KOTEMKIN: Well, he wants a dowry to console him.
COUNT ROUVALOFF: I am sick of town. I want a house in the country.
MARQUIS DE POIVRARD: I am sick of the country. I want a house in town.
BARON RAFF: Gentlemen, I am extremely sorry for you. It is out of the question.
PRINCE PETROVITCH: But my son, Baron?
GENERAL KOTEMKIN: But my nephew?
MARQUIS DE POIVRARD: But my house in town?
COUNT ROUVALOFF: But my house in the country?
MARQUIS DE POIVRARD: But my wife's diamond bracelet?
BARON RAFF: Gentlemen,
impossible! The old régime in
COUNT ROUVALOFF: Then I shall wait for the resurrection.
PRINCE PETROVITCH: Yes; but, en attendant, what are we to do?”
Because Wilde is at his best in the play’s funny, ironical lines, the bad characters in “Vera” are definitely more enjoyable than the good characters. Vera and the Czarevitch are noble, but they lack the charm and mischievous attraction of the courtiers and the wit of Prince Paul. Also, the clash between their respective styles is rather awkward. The result is that the main characters seem a bit pale and hollow when confronted with the delightfully wicked secondary characters, most notable among which is Prince Paul.
If we may believe the other characters of the play, Prince Paul is the devil in disguise. Alexis believes that his father, the Czar, became a cruel tyrant only because he allowed Prince Paul, his Prime Minister, to influence him profoundly. Prince Paul is an aristocrat pur sang and cares nothing about the people, whom he consideres to be a mob of stupid Philistines. Prince Paul is also a political chameleon. He manages to adapt himself to the situation he finds himself in, and is a master of intrigue. Subtle, witty, he will always find a way to work himself up to the centre of power. When the new Czar banishes him, he becomes a Nihilist, explaining: “I would sooner annihilate than be annihilated.  As I cannot be a Prime Minister, I must be a Nihilist. There is no alternative.”
Prince Paul’s dry humour undercuts the seriousness of the Nihilists, as when he observes, “You have so many spies that I should think you want information”, or the pompous phrasing of characters like the Czarevitch:
“CZAREVITCH: The mighty brotherhood to which I belong has a thousand such as I am, ten thousand better still!  The star of freedom is risen already, and far off I hear the mighty wave Democracy break on these cursed shores.
PRINCE PAUL (to PRINCE PETROVITCH): In that case you and I must learn how to swim.”
Apart from being the saving (dis)grace of Vera, the character of Prince Paul is important in another respect: he is the prototype of that marvellous Wildean creature, the witty dandy. Wilde recycled several of the Prince’s lines in later works. Here are some samples of Prince Paul’s epigrams:
“Indifference is the revenge the world takes on mediocrities.”;
“Life is much too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it.”;
“To have friends, one need only to be good-natured; but when a man has no enemy left in the world, there must be something mean about him.”;
“In good democracy, every man should be an aristocrat.”;
“There are few things easier than to live badly and to die well.”
for the plot probably derived from an article that appeared in English
newspapers in 1878: in that year, a young woman called Vera Zassoulich shot the
chief of police of
Wilde must have found inspiration in his own background. His mother, Lady
Wilde, had written revolutionary poems and articles under the name of
“Speranza” in the late 1840s, when, as a result of the Great Famine, Irish
intellectuals began to stir a rebellion against
The play resembles a Greek tragedy in its main co-ordinates: a critical situation, struggle for one’s own rights, the need to escape exploitation, fight for freedom, self-sacrifice in order to serve a greater good. What makes Vera a tragic character is her power of detachment from any personal longing, her capability of total dedication to her beliefs, her passion for social justice, and finally her ability to disregard her own welfare in favour of the nation’s independence.
Although it has its drawbacks, the play is written in Wilde’s witty style and may be regarded as a primary step towards his later great achievements. Yet, its failure in the author’s time may have been due to its subject, not to its literary qualities. It didn’t arouse a great interest in the audience of Wilde’s contemporary society as not many people found the Russian political crisis as engaging and entertaining as their own history, their own development as a strong nation. Otherwise, Wilde’s sparkling witticism is still there, his intellectual humour can be easily spotted and if it hadn’t been for the political conjuncture, the play could have been a success, too.
3.2.2. The Duchess of
“The Duchess of Padua”, Wilde’s second play, is a blank verse tragedy which he wrote for the American actress Mary Anderson and it was seen in New York in 1891. The play shows us “a Wilde that had not become a proper dramatist, yet still displaying the gifts of a good playwright and the subtle talent of an exquisite poet.”26
Wilde’s “The Duchess of
“ACT II. Scene: A State Room in the Ducal Palace, hung with tapestries representing the Masque of Venus”; a large door in the centre opens into a corridor of red marble, through one can see a view of Padua; a large canopy is set (R.C.) with three thrones, one a little lower than the others; the ceiling is made of long gilded beams; furniture of the period, chairs covered with gilt leather, and buffets set with gold and silver plate, and chests painted with mythological scenes.”
The action of the play revolves
around a tormented soul that seeks revenge for a murdered father: Guido
Ferranti, instigated by Count Moranzone is determined to kill the Duke of
Padua. Everything about the origins and the death of his father is disclosed to
Guido, thus finding out that he is the son of the great Duke Lorenzo, “Whose banner waved on many a well-fought
field/ Against the Saracen, and heretic Turk,/ He was the Prince of Parma, and
the Duke/ Of all the fair domains of Lombardy/ Down to the gates of Florence;
nay, Florence even/ Was wont to pay him tribute-“, and of the Duchess of
Parma, who had died at childbirth after hearing the news about his husband’s
death. His father had been betrayed and murdered on the public scaffold by the
Lord of Rimini, Giovanni Malatesta, who had later become the Duke of Padua.
Count Moranzone plans the revenge and introduces Guido to the Duke as his
sister’s son, assuring his presence in the
The Duke is presented as a cruel tyrant, unscrupulous and uncaring about his people’s needs. The villainous duke mocks at the citizens’ grievances, nothing appeals to him, not even the Cardinal’s advice or his wife’s prayers. He totally disregards them, answering them in an ironical way and showing them no sign of pity, only despise, from the very beginning. As they are meanly dressed he says: “Am I a tailor, Madam, that you come/ With such a ragged retinue before us?”; when he is reproached that he gives them bread made of sorry chaff he replies mockingly: “And very good food too,/ I give it to my horses.”, when they complain about the unhealthy water he ironically advises them to “drink wine; water is quite unwholesome.”, and when they demand his compassion for they are poor he resorts cunningly to religion telling them to accept their fate: “If you are poor,/ Are you not blessed in that? Why, poverty/ is one of the Christian virtues, (Turns to the Cardinal.) /Is it not?/ …Is it not said/ Somewhere in Holy Writ, that every man should be contented with that state of life/ God calls him to? Why should I change their state,/ Or meddle with an all-wise providence,/ Which has apportioned that some men should starve/ and others surfeit? I did not make the world.”
As he manages to remain alone with the Duchess, he does not loose any moment and he declares his love to her. All the better as she confesses that she loves him too: “the first day that I saw you/ I let you take my heart away from me”. Wilde creates superb instances of poetry describing these two young hearts in love: “Methinks I am bold to look upon you thus:/ The gentle violet hides beneath its leaf/ And is afraid to look at the great sun/ For fear of too much splendour, but my eyes,/ O darling eyes! Are grown so venturous/ That like fixed stars they stand, gazing at you,/ And surfeit sense with beauty.”
The Duchess appears to be a kind-hearted, generous, merciful and intelligent woman. She is unhappy though in her married life as her husband takes her for granted, he disregards her needs and desires and makes her feel miserable. She takes control of her life and kills the Duke while he was sleeping. Love has a different impact upon her than on Guido. While he is able to give up his revenge in Love’s name, she is motivated by this pure feeling into killing her husband, freeing herself from his oppressive presence. She thinks that she acted rightfully and that Guido would understand and appreciate her sacrifice. Nevertheless, Guido despises her for doing it as he considers that she had lost her innocence and thus her right to experience love: “You never loved me./ Had it been so, Love would have stopped your hand,/ Nor suffered you to stain his holy shrine,/Where none can enter but the innocent.”
The action takes a radical turn as Beatrice, the Duchess of Padua, accuses Guido of murdering the Duke as a sort of vengeance for his abandoning her. He is taken to the Court of Justice where the Duchess makes everything possible to impede the finding of the truth while Count Moranzone tries to help Guido into being acquitted from the unfair charges. In spite of all of Beatrice’s attempts to stop Guido from talking, he is eventually permitted by Lord Justice to speak and defend himself. Yet he does not reveal the truth, but instead confesses that he had committed the crime as one more proof of his good-natured character, of his total sacrifice in the name of love. Beatrice is amazed and comes to her senses, realising that he truly loves her. She then decides to save him, goes to his cell in order to help him escape his death and kill herself instead. Guido is asleep in the dungeon and she goes by his side, drinks poison from a cup and sets it afterwards on the table. The noise wakens Guido, who starts up, and does not see what she had done.
The final scene brings forth the two unfortunate lovers who eventually realise that they care for each other but tragically everything is in vain; she confesses to have drunken the poison and there’s nothing more to do than to regard their grave as a wedding bed, as he decides to die, too. He stabs himself and the scene gets Shakespearian grandeur.
The play has many elements of a Gothic melodrama: discovered identities, lost parents, a cruel tyrant, disguise, mantles and veils concealing real identities, rings and daggers, a dungeon and a cup full of poison.
Though the play was not a success, it marks a moment apart in Wilde’s literary activity, as it brings something new as compared to the other closet dramas of the 19th century: a more colourful setting, a greater concern with obtaining a more deftly wrought unity of language and image, sound and colour.
3.2.3. A Florentine Tragedy
Like “Salomé”, “A Florentine Tragedy” is one of Oscar Wilde’s more florid contrivances, full of arch speeches weighed down by an ‘aesthetic’ vocabulary. Yet, as Strauss proved with his opera of “Salomé”, what is exotically inert on the page can be vivid and exciting in a musical setting that works on a text on its own terms. The play is only a fragment and was never completed, though the well-known poet Mr. T. Sturge Moore had written an opening scene for the purpose of presentation.
action is placed again, like in “The
The female character is almost treated as an object: her husband orders her around, (“Fetch me a stool, Bianca. Close the shutters. Set the great bar across”), he ignores her qualities and regards her as ordinary ( when Guido talks about Bianca’s charms, Simone protests “You flatter her. She has her virtues as most women have, But beauty is a gem she may not ware.”) and moreover, her would-be lover offers to buy her from Simone.
Yet, Simone proves to be much more cunning than the Prince would believe: “Guido: The man is but an honest knave,/ Full of fine phrases for life’s merchandise,/ Selling most dear what he must hold most cheap,/ A windy brawler in a world of words. I never met so eloquent a fool.” ; pretending to be a fool, a simple servant, willing to obey his master, Simone takes Guido by surprise, proving his strength of character and physical superiority as well.
After some time of double meaning conversation, Simone challenges the Prince to a duel, first by sword, then by dagger and ultimately killing him. The situation brings new understanding to the husband and wife, the final scene appearing as a sort of epiphany, the long-awaited moment of truth:
“Bianca: Why did you not tell me you were so strong?
Simone: Why did you not tell me you were beautiful?”
Wilde’s blank-verse drama of jealousy, revenge, and reconciliation, “A Florentine Tragedy”, is itself a play of appearances in which a husband and wife are reunited in passionate embrace over a lover’s death. This surprising “happy end”, with Bianca in awe of her husband’s strength, Simone mesmerised by his wife’s beauty, is a symbol of that tragic and eternal misunderstanding between the sexes. Wilde’s play, published posthumously, is a fragment, lacking both a crucial first scene and virtually all stage directions.
3.2.4. La Sainte Courtisane
At the time of Wilde’s trial, the nearly completed
manuscript of “La Sainte Courtisane or
The Woman Covered with Jewels” was entrusted to Mrs. Leverson, the well-known
novelist who in 1897 went to
Wilde immediately left the only copy in a cab, announcing that a cab was a very proper place for it. He looked on his works with disdain in his last years, though he was always full of schemes for writing others. All the attempts to recover the lost work failed. The extant passages are from some odd leaves of a first draft. The play is, of course, similar to “Salomé”, though it was written in English.
The play expanded Wilde’s favourite theory that when you convert someone to an idea, you lose your faith in it; the same motive runs through “Mr. W. H.”. From the very we may observe Wilde’s keen sense of beauty and aesthetic taste when he presents the scene, all the significant details are put into place, the background is made symbolical: “The scene represents a corner of a valley in the Thebaid. On the right hand of the stage is a cavern. In front of the cavern stands a great crucifix. On the left, sand dunes. The sky is blue like the inside of a cup of lapis lazuli. The hills are of red sand. Here and there on the hills there are clumps of thorns.” The scenery is dominated by natural and divine elements, a solitary environment where calmness reigns, yet untouched by human misery but still foreshadowing the signs of suffering in the red colour of the sand and the sporadic presence of the thorns.
This is the place
where the hermit Honorius dwells, in a cavern. His tranquillity will be
interrupted by Myrrhina, the daughter of the Emperor. She is the symbol of the
sinner, the tempter, a representative of the corrupted civilisation as she
comes clothed in “a purple cloak and her
hair is like threads of gold. She has birds’ wings upon her sandals, and her
tunic is the colour of green corn… Her nails are stained with henna”. She
is told by two men about the identity of the hermit and his healing powers.
Myrrhina grows more and more curious and wanting to meet him. Honorius, the
hermit, comes out from his cavern and falls in love with the courtesan who has come to tempt him, and he
reveals to her the secret of the love of God. He teaches her how unimportant
worldly things are and the power of God: “There
is no love like the love of God nor any love that can be compared to it…The
beauty of the soul increases until it can see God.” She immediately becomes
a Christian, and is murdered by robbers. Honorius the hermit goes back to
Two other similar plays Wilde invented in prison, “Ahab and Isabel” and “Pharaoh”; he would never write them
down, though often importuned to do so. “Pharaoh”
was intensely dramatic and perhaps more original than any of the group. None of
these works must be confused with the manuscripts stolen from
The legend of Salomé has its beginnings in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark (Matthew 14: 3–11, Mark 6: 17–28). Herod the Tetrach of Judaea beheads John the Baptist at the instigation of Herodias wife of Herod, who was angered by John’s charge that her marriage was incestuous. In both accounts, Herodias uses her daughter (unnamed in scripture but known to tradition, through Josephus, as Salomé) to exact the prophet’s execution. According to the Gospel of Mark:
“[W]hen a convenient day was come … Herod on his
birthday made a supper to his lords, high captains and chief estates of
Here, the guilt for John’s execution rests with Herodias, and such was the prevailing belief until the Baptist became a more widely venerated saint. John’s veneration brought with it the increasing denigration of Salomé.
Salomé legend was a prominent one in both literature and the visual arts until
the end of the Renaissance and then again with revival in the nineteenth
century, the era of
Wilde’s literary background ensures that he was aware of, if not intimately acquainted with, the large majority of “Salomé” treatments, and he made obvious reference to some of them in his 1892 drama. He was certainly familiar with the novels of Gustave Flaubert, most particularly with the short story “Hérodias”, which had appeared in “Trois Contes” (1877). As Robert Schweik has noted, however, Flaubert’s setting of the Salomé legend, however, bears only a superficial resemblance to Wilde’s own, depending largely on the carefully researched and minutely realistic social detail typical of Flaubert’s fiction. Many critics have argued that far more influential for “Salomé” ’s genesis of Wilde’s were the paintings of Gustave Moreau, whose strange and mystical themes laid the groundwork for later expressionist painting as well as for the poetry and art of the Decadents. In particular, Moreau’s “Salomé Dancing Before Herod” (1876) played a vital role for “Salomé” ’s interpreters. Moreau’s setting of Salomé’s dance does not merely recreate the biblical legend but abstracts her – in high Orientalist fashion – from biblical tradition and sets her in the theogonies of the Orient, placing in her hand a lotus blossom, the sceptre of Isis, and the sacred flower of Egypt and India, a phallic emblem or the token of a sacrifice of virginity. Denied any precise indications of race, faith, nation, or epoch, Salomé comes to rest in the French museum as a symbol of the Orient served up for the Western viewer’s consumption.
most famous literary encounter with Moreau’s Salomé is undoubtedly that of
Joris Karl Huysmans. A Dutchman writing in French, Huysmans gives a prominent
description of the Salomé painting, as well as its effect on the viewer, in his
decadent and influential novel “A
Rebours” (1884). The novel’s protagonist, des Esseintes, has acquired
Moreau’s painting, considering it to incarnate the very spirit of decadence: it
is one of the few works of art which send him into raptures of delight.
Huysmans’s anthropological musings were well known to Wilde, although they are
relegated to near insignificance in his play. Wilde’s love for Huysmans’s novel
was surpassed perhaps only by his admiration for the reigning French Symbolist
poet, Stephane Mallarmé. Although his writings are few in number, Mallarmé was
a driving force for the Symbolist movement throughout the 1890s, providing both
a model for other poets and a springboard for new ideas, many of them
formulated at one of the salons or café meetings that he organised in
It is important to note, however, that whereas Mallarmé’s Hérodiade is a frigid princess who aims to “triumph over all her longings”, Wilde’s Salomé lusts fiercely. Moreover, in Wilde’s play the figures of Salomé and Herodias are distinct; in many legends, by contrast, there was confusion as to the role of each woman. In most cases, Salomé had played a rather minor part usually as a young girl, subservient to the wishes of her mother, who became a pawn in the machinations between Herodias and Herod. Under Wilde’s pen, however, Salomé stands forth. Herodias, on the other hand, long the heroine of legend, loses her erotic attachment to John and gains in jealousy, anger, and stolid practicality: she is the antithesis of symbolic mysticism, placed in direct opposition to Herod and Salomé.
Another important Symbolist author to “Salomé” 's genesis was Maurice Maeterlinck, one of the first Symbolists to produce and theorise drama as well as poetry. Maeterlinck’s dramas, known more for their style than for their plots, emphasised a universal “mystery” and a sense of impending doom, as well as an awareness of the transitory nature of reality and existence. In accordance with this deliberate mysticism, the language of his plays almost forms its own idiom. His characters speak with the mechanical precision of marionettes: childish, simplistic, absurd. A number of critics, defending what some have read as the play’s childish prattle, have emphasised the possible similarities between Wilde and Maeterlinck’s use of language.
the most direct and at the same time least famous setting of the Salomé legend
comes from an American author, a contemporary of Wilde named J.C. Heywood. A
young Harvard graduate, his dramatic poem “Salomé”
was published in
reaction to Wilde’s effort has been mixed. Mallarmé, in a letter full of
praise, commended Wilde for his portrayal of the princess, as did Maurice
Maeterlinck. Other critics were less favourably impressed. William Butler
Yeats, though often an admirer of Wilde’s works, considered “Salomé” 's dialogue “empty, sluggish,
and pretentious”. Many have viewed Wilde’s “Salomé”
as a mere composite of earlier treatments of the theme overlaid with Belgian
playwright Maurice Maeterlinck’s characteristic diction. Typical of this
appraisal is an anonymous review appearing in a
wrote “Salomé” while frequenting the
symbolist circles of late nineteenth-century
have one instrument that I know and can command and that is the English
language”, Wilde said in an interview published in 1892. “There was another
instrument to which I had listened all my life, he explained, and I wanted once
to touch this new instrument to see whether I could make any beautiful thing
out of it.” Thus appeared in
here are representatives of virtually the entire Mediterranean world, there are
a Syrian, a Cappadocian, a Nubian; a Tigellinus has spent time in Rome; Caesar
has recently sent emissaries from Rome to Herod’s Palace; there are Jews,
engaged in impassioned disputation; there are allusions to Jesus and His
extensive travels through parts of the Mediterranean world; and, for good
measure, there are two Nazarenes. We should observe the parenthesis on the
Tetrarch’s wine. The Second Soldier lists Herod’s three wines in a series of
parallel structures, describing their colour and land of origin: purple from
Samothrace, yellow from
“The disorder is effectively dramatised from the outset: in character, language and action, Wilde depicts perverse, inordinate, illicit and impulsive desire and its clash with ultimate authority.”30 Desire does indeed lie at the very centre of the play, multivalent, chaotic and ungovernable.
The play unfolds on the terrace of Herod’s palace above the banquet hall. A gigantic staircase stands to the left; a cistern surrounded by a wall of green bronze appears at the back. The play begins with two voyeurs: the Syrian, who marvels at the beautiful princess, and the Page, mesmerised by the moon. Note the Page’s first line, an injunction to look: “Look at the moon!” As we will see, “Salomé” weaves an extensive network of metaphors around whiteness that links the moon, the princess, and the prophet. Key terms in this network include: an unearthly paleness, flowers, silver, and doves (in the case of Salomé), sepulchres, ivory, and statues (in the case of Jokanaan), and death. Salomé and the moon appear here as consummate – and consuming – objects of the look. The former fascinates “like the shadow of a white rose in a mirror of silver”. Indeed, Salomé, cast against the “painted” Greeks, “subtle” Egyptians, and coarse Romans, already appears in the spectacle that immortalises her: she wears a yellow veil, and one would “fancy” she was already dancing. Though both the Syrian and Page first appear lost in their own reveries, their respective monologues soon interweave, specifically around the pronoun “she”. This interweaving of dialogues, often marked by parallel structures, occurs through the play and has grounded some critics’ emphasis on the influence of biblical rhetoric on the play. The moon becomes a metaphor for the princess: she is a dead woman rising from a tomb, slowly moving and dancing. The link to the prophet, who will himself soon rise from the tomb-like cistern at the back of the stage, is clear.
Herodias’ page warns the Syrian that he looks at the princess too much. A noise is heard in the hall, and the Soldiers complain that the Jews are howling again about their religion. The First Soldier observes that the Tetrarch (King Herod) has a “sombre look”, and the soldiers wonder at whom he is looking.
Suddenly the voice of Jokanaan is heard from the cistern, proclaiming the coming of the Messiah: “The eyes of the blind shall see the day, and the ears of the deaf shall be opened”. His role as voice marks him bearer of the divine word. The First Soldier explains to the Cappadocian that Jokanaan is a prophet from the desert. It is impossible to understand what the prophet says, and the Tetrarch has forbidden the prophet being seen. The Cappadocian remarks that the cistern must make an unhealthy prison. The Second Soldier protests: Herod’s elder brother, Herodias’ first husband, lived there for twelve years without dying. Ultimately he had to be strangled by Naaman, the Negro executioner, bearing Herod’s death-ring.
The Young Syrian, Narraboth, who has recently been made captain of the guard, serves as a pivotal figure. The Syrian exclaims that Salomé approaches. She enters, insisting that she cannot stay with Herod looking at her all the while “with his mole’s eyes under his shaking eyelids”. To the Page’s horror, the Syrian invites her to sit. Salomé welcomes the moon, cold and chaste, with a virgin’s beauty. Jokanaan again announces the coming of the Lord. Salomé asks if he is the prophet Herod fears, the prophet who maligns her mother. As Jokanaan preaches on, Salomé insists that she speak to him. All attempt to dissuade her. She plies the Syrian to bring the prophet forth. Clearly, he is infatuated with Salomé, and, at first resisting but then wilting before her powerful determination, Narraboth issues the command that brings Jokanaan out of the hellish depths onto the stage.
The prophet emerges, and Salomé looks at him. Salomé exclaims that the prophet’s eyes are terrible above all, like “black lakes troubled by fantastic moons”. He is a wasted “ivory statue”, chaste like the moon. “Who is this woman who is looking at me?” protests Jokanaan, bidding Salomé begone. Salomé implores the prophet to speak on: his voice is like wine. She is “amorous of his body”. Jokanaan curses her anew. Having gone against the express order of Herod, and witnessing Salomé’s erotically charged confrontation with Jokanaan, the Syrian impulsively kills himself and falls between the prophet and princess, leaving a pool of blood on the floor that Herod will slip in and find ominous. The Young Syrian is thus both visually and actually a sacrifice to the opposing forces of Herod’s authority and Salomé’s will and, as such, a sign of the crisis yet to come.
Salomé continues to ask Jokanaan to let her
kiss him. He orders her to seek the Lord, refuses to look upon her, and
descends into the cistern. The prophet and princess’s encounter – one of the
most beautiful scenes of the play – is organised in counterpoint between
Salomé’s litany of Jokanaan’s body and Jokanaan’s curses. Against the prophet’s
wishes, Salomé would confer on him, through her look and voice, an erotic body.
Her praises proceed according to a violent logic of idealisation and
denigration, fixing on and extolling a part of Jokanaan, then cursing it upon
his repudiation. Thus she moves from his body to his hair and then to his
mouth. Her metaphors focus on colour: the whiteness of Jokanaan’s body that
surpasses all whiteness, the blackness of his hair that surpasses all
blackness, and the redness of his mouth that surpasses all redness. Again these
metaphors of colour evoke images of far, exotic, and vaguely ancient spaces:
In comparison, Jokanaan’s curses mime various forms of “biblical” speech. A consideration of these individual modes of speech (prophecy, condemnation, etc.) would undoubtedly yield much. We should at the very least pause on his oblique condemnations of Herod and Herodias. Throughout Jokanaan’s ranting, Herod will appear as the monarch whose “cup of abominations” is full and who will die in the face of the people in his kingly robes. “Salomé”’s images of the fallen monarch are of considerable interest for Wilde’s audience, particularly when they later come to invoke notions of the king’s vanity. As for Herodias, it is not lost on us that the queen too appears guilty of the crimes of sight: she has “seen the images of Chaldeans limned in colours” and given herself up “unto the lust of her eyes”.
The First Soldier insists that they transport the body of the Young Syrian lest Herod see it. Suddenly the court enters, and Herod calls for Salomé while Herodias reproaching him for always staring at her. Herod muses on the “strange look” of the moon, comparing her to a drunken madwoman looking for lovers. Herodias replies that the “moon is like the moon, that is all” and bids him inside. A proud, hard, and unsympathetic queen, Herodias abhors the prophet, who has slandered her as a wanton, incestuous harlot and remains alive against her wishes. Though not the instigator of his death, Herodias will cheer the prophet’s death in face of her husband’s horror. Herod refuses to go in, calling the servants to bring the festivities outside. Herod slips on the blood of the Syrian and gasps at the ill omen. For Herod, his slip portents death, serving perhaps as the counterpart and another prefiguring of Salomé’s dance of death. Visually, the Syrian’s blood, the trace of his corpse, remains as a stain, a mark of death on the palace and its system of looks that the king cannot efface. With the removal of the Syrian’s corpse, death only makes itself felt by other means. Herod complains of a wind and the sound of beating wings, sensing the invisible “angel of death” lurking behind them that Jokanaan heralds earlier. It is also of course in these scenes that Jokanaan foretells and demands Salomé’s death under the shields, a prophecy Herodias mistakes as her own.
The Soldiers feign that they do not know why he killed himself. Herod’s incestuous lust for his stepdaughter is evident from the moment he follows her on stage, concerned that she has disobeyed his command to return to the banquet inside. Herod’s evident desire for his wife’s daughter has a touch of the comic about it – and Herodias’ objections to his interest in her daughter have more than a touch – but the foreboding tension of the sequence is nonetheless clearly felt.
announces that what he has foretold has come to pass. Herodias asks Herod to
silence the prophet, since he is forever “vomiting
insults” against her. Herod most certainly fears him, and that is the main
reason that he does not deliver him to the Jews. Herod replies that the prophet
is a holy man who has seen God. A Jew rejoins that God has hidden himself, and
thus evil has come upon the land. Jokanaan announces the coming of the “Saviour of the world”. A Nazarene
declares that Jokanaan speaks of the Messiahs who works miracles. Herodias scoffs.
Jokanaan curses the daughter of
Increasingly distractedly by Salomé, Herod asks his daughter to dance for him. She refuses. He beseeches her, swearing to give her whatever she wishes. Salomé dances and it is the dance of death. Herod invites Salomé to ask for her reward, and she asks for the head of Jokanaan in a silver charger. Herodias applauds her. Aghast, Herod begs her to be reasonable. He offers her an emerald from Caesar that, if looked through, has telescopic properties. Salomé continues to demand Jokanaan’s head. Herod rejoins that Salomé only asks to punish him for looking at her. He will look no more, at neither things nor people. “Only in mirrors should one look, for mirrors do but show us masks”. He offers the implacable Salomé his flock of white peacocks with feet of gilded gold. Salomé is unmoved. Herod protests that Jokanaan might be a holy man and has foretold disaster on the day of his death. He offers all his hidden jewels; he would even give her the veil of the sanctuary to be released from his word. Salomé refuses.
Herod falls back and the Soldier bears his death ring to the frightened Executioner. Moments later, a huge black arm emerges from the cistern, bearing Jokanaan’s head on a silver shield. Salomé seizes it and tells the head that she will kiss its mouth now. But she wonders why Jokanaan refuses to look at her. He saw his God but never saw her. She hungers for his body, and nothing will quench her. She was a virgin, and she took his virginity. If he had looked at her, he would have loved her, and love’s mystery is greater than death’s.
Herod’s reaction is one of deep convulsion and fear, and he condemns Salomé as a monstrous person who has committed a crime against an unknown god. Herodias defiantly declares her approval of what her daughter has done, but Herod’s fears persist. Herod refuses to stay and calls for the servants to put out the torches. He will not look at things nor suffer them to look at him. “Put out the torches! Hide the moon! Hide the stars!” he exclaims. Herod begins to climb the staircase to the palace, and the stage goes dark. The voice of Salomé announces that she has kissed the prophet’s mouth. It tastes bitter, perhaps of blood or love. A moonbeam falls on Salomé, covering her with light. Herod turns and, upon seeing Salomé, orders the soldiers to kill her.
Salomé has transgressed the boundary between
living and dead reinforced by Herod earlier with regard to the Messiahs’
miracles, the Tetrarch insisting that no one resurrect the dead. Salomé’s
address to the prophet’s head would reanimate it through the voice, and their
abject kiss crosses the boundaries between them in full. The play thus delivers
Salomé up to the judgement of two gazes: the moon and the Tetrarch’s. The moon’s
gaze, though once apparently aligned with Salomé’s, now appears autonomous,
bearing death from a decidedly inhuman (though still feminine) realm. The moon
“chooses” Salomé as its victim, and Herod follows its command. Salomé, the
consummate spectacle, is condemned to death by obscurity, the princess
disappearing under the barrage of shields that smother her. Her demise is
ponderous and monumental as befits a biblical epic – note the decelerating
rhythm of the pronouncement of Salomé’s execution: “The soldiers rush forward and crush beneath their shields Salomé,
daughter of Herodias, Princess of
A number of critics believe Wilde’s Salomé to be an allegory for the work of art itself. As Wilde told a friend with regards to her essential representation – the dance of the seven veils – Salomé should appear “totally naked, but draped with heavy and ringing necklaces made of jewels of every colour, warm with the fervour of her amber flesh….” Salomé is left not naked, but bejewelled, transformed into a luxurious work of art: even her flesh becomes “amber”. Importantly, however, this seductive spectacle is also a harbinger of death.
“Salomé” presents a protagonist with a critical lack of self-knowledge, but one whose yearnings are too strong to overmaster. However perverse Salomé’s desire for Jokanaan’s head may be, the immutable strength of that desire itself – so great that it overcomes all the world and life itself – is, fundamentally, what the play is about. Almost at the end, Salomé utters an exceedingly long speech before the decapitated head of the Baptist. She acknowledges having at last got what she had asked for: the fulfilment of her desire to kiss the mouth of the prophet: “Ah! Thou wouldst not suffer me to kiss thy mouth, Jokanaan. Well! I will kiss it now.” She has triumphed over both Jokanaan’s scandalised refusal and Herod’s pusillanimity. The speech ends, true to her preoccupation, with Salomé’s declaration that the mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death: “Love only should one consider”. Only love is what matters, nothing else.
Salomé has acted with such single-mindeness of purpose and has remained so implacable in her desire that she has overmastered the weaker will of the patriarch, compromising his supreme power and stature in the kingdom and forcing him into the most extreme of actions: first, the killing of the prophet despite deep misgivings about the advisability of such a deed, and then the cowardly, vindictive murder of Salomé herself. Far from having been defeated, it is she who has defeated the patriarch; it is she who will live in myth and legend, and in the imaginations of all who have seen her dance.
And so “Salomé” deserves renewed consideration as a master work of dramatic authorial self-expression and, simultaneously, a powerful and exemplary piece for the modern theatre: these are the polarities, subjective and objective, of its nature as a work of symbolist art. Although it will never unseat “The Importance of Being Earnest”, as Wilde’s most perennially popular play, “Salomé” nevertheless challenges the Wildean audience to a fresh engagement with the generative forces of his dramaturgy.
3.3. A true comedy: The Importance of Being Earnest
First produced on the
“The Importance of Being
his exuberant parody of the ‘trivial comedies’ (his own amongst them) which the
‘serious people’ had established in the English theatre. It contains all the
features of Wilde’s earlier plays – the shameful secret (Worthing’s origin in a
handbag), the mistaken and assumed identities (Bunburying), and the sensational
dénouement in which
The playwright with
characteristic wit and tendency towards epigrams, satirises the British
nobility in the person of Lady Bracknell and the British clergy in the person
of the Reverend Canon Chasuble. The play centres around the aspiration of a
Wilde-like young aristocrat named Jack Worthing for the hand of the more
obviously blue-blooded Gwendolyn Fairfax. The marriage is opposed by the girl’s
mother, the imperious Lady Bracknell, because of Worthing's obscure origins: he
was found as an infant in a handbag in
The first act introduces Jack Worthing who, under
the assumed name of Earnest Worthing, has arrived in
Already Wilde has firmly established the mood of innocence, largely
through his choice of dialogue. This is what marks out “The Importance of Being Earnest” primarily as a nonsense play
rather than a comedy of manners. The best examples of this latter category -
Congreve’s “The Way of the World”
The Importance of Being Earnest is full of nonsensical statements, and Act I begins them early on, for instance in the examination of Jack’s cigarette case:
'ALGERNON: (retreating to back of sofa) But why
does she call herself little Cecily if she is your aunt and lives at Tunbridge
JACK: (moving to sofa and kneeling upon it) My dear fellow, what on earth is there in that? Some aunts are tall, some aunts are not tall. That is a matter that surely an aunt may be allowed to decide for herself.'
Wilde is here in the vein not of social satire, but of the new nonsense writing exemplified by Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” (1865) and “Through the Looking Glass” (1872), and Edward Lear’s “Book of Nonsense” (1846).
Algy accuses his friend of being a confirmed ‘Bunburyist’ - that is someone who uses another persona in order to indulge in covert pleasurable activity. This could be seen to reflect (and playfully suggest) the lengths needed to go to in order to conduct homosexual affairs. But Jack rejects this accusation: 'JACK: I’m not a Bunburyist at all. If Gwendolen accepts me, I am going to kill my brother, indeed I think I’ll kill him in any case.'
In the short story “Lord Arthur Saville’s Crime”, Arthur had to commit a crime before he could marry Sibyl. Jack here also finds himself forced to murder someone as a prelude to marriage. Arthur’s murder of Podgers was a real crime, despite Podger’s symbolic status, while Jack’s brother is entirely a product of his imagination. The ‘murder’ that Jack commits, then, is a totally harmless parody of Arthur’s crime, and, perhaps, of Dorian Gray’s murder of Basil Hallward.
This section of the act parodies a similar scene in “An Ideal Husband” in which Lord Goring finds Mrs Cheveley’s snake-bracelet. Her attempts to retrieve it expose her as a thief and defeat her. In “The Importance of Being Earnest”, the exposure of Jack is shrouded in innocence and does not harm his social position or his chances of marrying Gwendolen. On the contrary, it deepens his friendship with Algy, a fellow ‘Bunburyist’.
doorbell rings and Lady Bracknell and her daughter Gwendolen enter. Though
Gwendolen is clearly a child too, Lady Bracknell, though a child pretending to
be a British aristocrat, is someone who has learnt the rules of the game well,
and refuses to make a mistake. She apologises for the lateness in a typically
pompous manner and then continues the vein of inverted logic and
Algy had been expecting them, but has eaten all the cucumber sandwiches he prepared for Lady Bracknell. This emphasises Algy’s attitude to the world, treating it as if it were a giant playpen, unable to control his urges. At one point he says, 'I hate people who are not serious about meals. It is so shallow of them'.
While Algy and his aunt briefly leave the room, Jack seizes his chance to confess his passionate love for Gwendolen. His amazement to learn that the feeling is mutual is nothing to that which he feels when Gwendolen reveals that the main reason for her love is that his name is Earnest. Jack privately decides to christen himself Earnest and then proposes to Gwendolen, who accepts.
on his knees, Lady Bracknell re-enters and interrogates him thoroughly about
his wealth and social position. His answers are at first satisfactory, but when
asked about his parents, Jack admits that he does not know who they are. He
explains that he was found in a handbag by Mr Thomas Cardew in a cloakroom at
exchange between Jack and Lady Bracknell is justly famous, largely through its
witty, subtle nonsensibility. Jack focuses on unimportant details in his tale:
the explanation of the ticket to Worthing may be relevant because of his name,
but the geographical placing of Worthing as a seaside resort in
Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell in the 1952 movie
of “Earnest”. “Never speak disrespectfully of Society.
Only people who can’t get into it do that.”
Gwendolen, however, is undeterred by the story, so irresistible does she find the name Earnest. She asks for and notes down Jack’s country address. Algy, listening in the background, jots this down on his shirt cuff. The act end with Algy preparing to go on a ‘Bunbury’ to Jack’s country home in order to meet Cecily Cardew, of whose existence he has learnt.
two opens in the
Dr Chasuble appears and Miss Prism goes for a walk with him. He is a reduction to absurdity of John the Baptist as Wilde presented him in “Salomé”, constantly christening people and with a hidden lust, not for Salomé, but for Miss Prism. Throughout “Salomé”, the prophet makes statements that have a hidden meaning, and this is paralleled by Dr Chasuble’s slips of his tongue in order to hide his lust.
Even Chasuble’s name has a double meaning – both an ecclesiastical vestment worn at Mass and, in its pronouncement, ‘chase-able’, a suggestion that the Rector is capable of being chased very successfully by women. Though John the Baptist was beheaded at the end in “Salomé”, Dr Chasuble simply admits to himself that he is attracted to Miss Prism and embraces her.
Miss Prism is the embodiment of Victorian middle-class codes of morality and duty. She insists that fiction must preach morality - an attitude that especially irritated Wilde. She once wrote a novel in which 'the good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means'. However, her preoccupation with this means that is reality she lost a baby that she had been entrusted with. She is also attracted to Dr Chasuble, but, unlike Gwendolen and Cecily, hides her sexual feelings, though this leads her to make parallel slips of the tongue. Suggesting a mature woman for the Rector, she says: 'Maturity can always be depended on. Ripeness can be trusted. Young women are green'. She means an intellectual ripeness, but her words can be taken to refer to a sexual ripeness, which is how the Rector interprets them. In many ways she is the female counterpart of Dr Chasuble.
The butler Merriman enters to announce the arrival of Mr Earnest Worthington. Actually, the person who has arrived is Algernon, who has assumed the name and identity of Jack’s fictitious brother in order to meet Cecily. Having met, they converse for a while, and then enter the house. They share the same attitude to life, cocooned and cushioned, adverse to any work. When Cecily asks him if his hair curls naturally, he replies: 'Yes, darling, with a little help from others'.
afterwards, Miss Prism and Dr Chasuble return to the garden. Then Jack enters,
clad in black, and sadly announces that his brother has died in
with Algy, Jack demands his immediate return to
Algy’s manipulation of reality for his own ends easily, then, finds a match in that of Cecily. She stands reality on its head and inverts truth to return to childhood play through nonsense. When Algy informs Cecily that they must now part for a very short space of time she responds as follows: 'CECILY: It is always very painful to part from people whom one has known for a very brief space of time. The absence of old friends one can endure with equanimity. But even a momentary separation from anyone to whom one has just been introduced is almost unbearable.'
The idea, as outlined in “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and 'Lord Arthur Saville’s Crime', that no-one has any free will is dissolved into nonsense here as Algy discovers what his life has been like:
'ALGERNON: Darling! And when was the engagement actually settled?
CECILY: On the 14th of February last. Worn out by your entire ignorance of my existence, I determined to end the matter one way or another, and after a long struggle with myself, I accepted you under this dear old tree here. The next day, I bought this little ring in your name, and this is the little bangle with the true lovers’ knot I promised you always to wear.
ALGERNON: Did I give you this? It’s very pretty isn’t it?
CECILY: Yes, you’re wonderfully good taste, Earnest.'
Cecily is able to recount the events to him in such detail as she always brandishes a copy of here diary. Here, Wilde can parody himself and his literary contemporaries, who, he felt, could only actually commit to paper truths about there own personalities. Cecily says to Algy of her diary: 'It is simply a very young girl’s record of her own thoughts and impressions, and consequently meant for publication. When it appears in volume form I hope you will order a copy'.
Lord Arthur had been spiritually reborn after facing and defeating an evil streak within himself, and had put the seal on his rebirth by christening himself in the bathtub. Jack and Algy’s attempts to rechisten themselves reduce to absurdity Lord Arthur’s situation. The motives behind their actions render absurd and treat playfully the entire idea of spiritual rebirth. In the paradise of innocence that Algy and Jack inhabit, there is no need for any spiritual development whatsoever. There is no need for them to purge themselves of evil because evil is not a real thing.
Merriman enters to announce the presence of Miss Gwendolen Fairfax, who has come to see Mr Worthing on very important business. Cecily receives her and through the course of their conversation, they discover that they are both engaged to Mr Earnest Worthing. However, the return of Jack and Algy exposes the truth – Cecily reveals Jack’s real identity and Gwendolen unmasks Algy.
characters, Jack and Algy’s situation reduces to nonsense the serious and
dangerous double life that Dorian Gray led. In the country, Jack is Mr Jack
Worthing, Cecily’s guardian, and so forced to adopt a high moral tone on all
subjects. Cecily observes that her Uncle is so serious that she thinks he
cannot be quite well, while the morally pompous Miss Prism says that Jack’s 'gravity of demeanour is especially to
be recommended in one so comparatively young as he is. I know none who has a
higher sense of duty and responsibility'. But this identity is a mask,
and while in
The girls, who had been at each other’s throats a moment before, cling together for comfort and retreat scornfully into the house, while the men remain in the garden, arguing. The act closes with Jack and Algy nonsensically quarrelling over which of them is to eat a dish of muffins the girls had left behind. Here, Algy’s tremendous appetite reduces to innocence the sin-tainted feast in “Salomé”, which culminated in her ‘feasting’ on the severed head of a prophet. Algy’s appetite, however, does not lead him to do anything worse than eating Lady Bracknell’s cucumber sandwiches and Jack’s muffins. Unlike Salomé’s bloodthirsty sexual appetite, Algy’s is funny and harmless.
Act III opens with Cecily and Gwendolen sitting in the drawing room of Jack’s country house, longing for reconciliation with their respective partners. This is easily achieved when Jack and Algy enter soon after. The final obstacle is removed when they both announce that they are to be re-christened Earnest that afternoon. But then Lady Bracknell unexpectedly enters, absolutely refuses to allow Gwendolen to marry Jack and then starts to subject him to a severe questioning about Algy’s fiancée. When it emerges that Cecily has about £130,000 in the funds, her attitude changes dramatically and she gives her consent to the marriage of Algy and Cecily. Jack, however, in his capacity as Cecily’s guardian, forbids the marriage unless Lady Bracknell allows him to marry Gwendolen. This she refuses, and the situation seems hopeless until the arrival of Dr Chasuble.
Lady Bracknell’s attempts to keep Jack and Gwendolen apart render her monstrous and a parody of Lord Henry Wotton in “The Picture of Dorian Gray”. Here, Lord Henry functioned as Dorian’s private Satan, leading him ultimately to death and destruction. Jack says of Lady Bracknell earlier in the play: 'Never met such a Gorgon…I don’t really know what a Gorgon is like, but I am quite sure that Lady Bracknell is one. In any case, she is a monster, without being a myth, which is rather unfair'. But she is a harmless monster, for in this world, an unhappy ending is quite out of the question, and Lady Bracknell can emerge as a harmless, nonsensical Gorgon.
He mentions Miss Prism’s name, which excites Lady Bracknell, and she insists on meeting her. This is also another opportunity to emphasise Lady Bracknell’s snobbishness – she inquires if Miss Prism is 'a female of repellent aspect, remotely connected with education'. Dr Chasuble’s indignant reply is that, 'she is the most cultivate of ladies, and the very picture of respectability'. Lady Bracknell quickly retorts that it is 'obviously the same person'.
It turns out that twenty years earlier Miss Prism had been the governess of Lady Bracknell’s sister, and had been entrusted with a baby, which she had lost. Miss Prism confesses that she had accidentally placed the baby in a black leather handbag, which she had left in the cloakroom at Victoria Station. Jack produces the handbag in which he had been found and Miss Prism recognises it as the one she had mislaid.
She does so in a manner typical of the shocking nonsensibility of the play, not enquiring after the child she mislaid, but concentrating on the bag. 'I am delighted to have it so unexpectedly restored to me', she says. 'It has been a great inconvenience being without it all these years'.
Thus, Jack’s parentage is discovered – he turns out to be Algy’s elder brother, the son of Lady Bracknell’s sister and General Earnest John Moncrieff. It also emerges that his name is really Earnest, after all. All obstacles to marriage have now been overcome, and the play closes with Jack embracing Gwendolen and Algy embracing Cecily. Dr Chasuble also rejects his former views on celibacy and embraces Miss Prism.
When Jack praises Gwendolen for her perfection, she immediately rejects his claims, and for a rather nonsensical reason:
'JACK: You’re quite perfect, Miss Fairfax.
GWENDOLEN: Oh! I hope I am not that. It would leave no room for developments, and I intend to develop in many directions.'
his earlier fairy tale, 'Lord Arthur
Saville’s Crime', Wilde presented us with an apparently pure and
perfect girl, Sibyl, with whom Arthur was very much in love. Sibyl’s physical
and spiritual perfection meant that Arthur had to purge himself of evil before
he could marry her. In “The Importance of
Being Earnest”, Wilde parodies Sibyl through Gwendolen, who is deeply vain
and bad-tempered. When she discovers that Jack is a liar who periodically goes
When Algy makes a similar remark to Cecily in Act II, he is faced with a similar reaction that surprises him - echoing an establishment reaction to this subversion of the archetype of Sibyl.
Throughout The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde undermines the more chaste ‘perfection’ of his earlier works. His presentation of Jack and Algy, for instance, is a reduction to absurdity of the serious, sinful and dangerous life led in The Portrait of Dorian Gray.
The Importance of Being Earnest is a nonsense play, and in it Wilde renders absurd the various serious ideas he had expressed in his earlier works. In 'The Soul Of Man Under Socialism', Wilde argued in favour of the abolition of private property and stated rather wittily that this is in the interests of the rich since the ownership of large stretches of land is a great bother. In “The Importance of Being Earnes”t, Lady Bracknell, the main representative of the British aristocracy, is obviously a capitalist, inflexible in her insistent preservation of the class system. However, in Act I, she seems to agree with Wilde’s views on private property:
'LADY BRACKNELL: What between the duties expected of one during one’s lifetime, and the duties exacted from one after one’s death, land has ceased to be a pleasure or a profit. It gives one position, and prevents one from keeping it up. That’s all that can be said about land.'
Even the language here is nonsensical. Money is of no use to anyone after death. Wilde thus ridicules both his earlier, heavier works and the fashionable ideas of the day by reducing them to farce. A good example is his treatment of determinism. In 'Lord Arthur Saville’s Crime', Arthur was presented as predestined by an external force. In “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, Dorian is predetermined by an inner force, his characters and appetites. In “The Importance of Being Earnest”, Algy proposes to Cecily only to discover that he is already engaged to her, and receives a detailed history of their engagement. Algy’s future is so predetermined that it can occur without him.
“The Importance of Being Earnest”, despite its intellectual
content, cannot genuinely be considered a drama of ideas. But in its almost
complete break with melodrama, and its almost total originality, it stands as
one of the great nineteenth-century turning points in English drama. According
to George Sampson in “The Concise Cambridge History of English Literature”, “The Importance of Being Earnest” “is
one of the two best comedies written since the time of
4. Humour and Witticism in Oscar Wilde’s literary works
Oscar Wilde remained famous in the history of universal literature for his qualities as a studied conversationalist, a brilliant wit and a flamboyant aesthete. He succeeded in making the drama of the 19th century appreciated both by critics and audience as he superbly intermingled comic elements with witty dialogues and paradoxes. The effect was spectacular: laughter, meditation, applause, critical opinions, they all went together when Wilde staged one of his plays.
For instance, let us take two excerpts from two distinct plays in order to observe closer Wilde’s talent to create exquisite comic effects, the first from “Lady Windermere's Fan” (1892), in which Lord Darlington is eulogising the woman he loves:
CECIL GRAHAM: My dear fellow, what on earth should we men do going about with purity and innocence? A carefully thought-out buttonhole is much more effective.
DUMBY: She doesn't really love you then?
DUMBY: I congratulate you, my dear fellow. In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it. The last is much the worse; the last is a real tragedy!”33,
and the second from “The Importance of Being Earnest” (1895), where Miss Prism is cautioning Cecily:
MISS PRISM: I highly disapprove of Mr Earnest Worthing. He is a thoroughly bad young man.
CECILY: I fear he must be. It is the only explanation I can find of his strange attractiveness.
MISS PRISM (rising): Cecily, let me entreat of you not to be led away by whatever superficial qualities this unfortunate young man may possess.
CECILY: Ah ! Believe me, dear Miss Prism, it is only the superficial qualities that last. Man's deeper nature is soon found out.”34
One notes that all the speakers have the same kind of humour, and that each of these exchanges has a similar mechanism. In the first example, neither of Lord Darlington’s friends shows any interest in the point he is trying to make. In the second, Cecily does not acknowledge Miss Prism’s genuine concern. The characters are not even trying to understand one another. The second speaker is picking up a word or phrase employed by the first, and is capping it with an exhibition of his or her cleverness. In each case, the wit overrides the first speaker’s intention and meaning. By ignoring this, the second speaker prevents the possibility of an exchange of views.
Wilde’s humour is extravagant and paradoxical. It rests on the second speaker’s presuming that he or she understands something “better” than the original speaker. His characters escape the obligations of relationship by pronouncing witticisms from imaginary Olympian heights. The essence of Bunburyism is that it allows Jack to escape from reality and indulge in a fantasy-life as Earnest. Wilde’s wits all exhibit the same basic attitude as Dorian Gray – and attitude which implies the speaker’s identification with an archetypal “god-image”.
An archetypal theory of wit stands on the relation it can establish between a particular archetypal image and a comic principle. The Wildean dandy is an archetypal image, and thus represents a principle which can manifest itself in anyone and at any time. All of Wilde’s characters have in common that outstanding cleverness and passion for conversation that made them acquire the public’s appreciation as a new, modern type of heroes, distinguishing themselves as men of thought rather than of men action.
Oscar Wilde himself was a good representative of his characters’ personality, he was endowed with a brilliant mind, he was an aesthete in search of beauty and pleasure and he surely knew how to experiment and enjoy life. During his lifetime he gathered a reputation for eccentricity and still more, as a conversationalist. The writer’s son remembers a message from Sir Max Beerbohm who experienced and was aware of Wilde’s much praised talent: “I have had the priviledge of listening to many masters of table talk – Meredith and Swinburne, Edmund Gosse and Henry James, Augustine Birrell and Arthur Balfour, Gilbert Chesterton and Desmond MacCarthy and Hilaire Belloc – all of them splendid in their own way. But Oscar was the greatest of them all – the most spontaneous and yet the most polished, the most soothing and yet the most surprising…. Nobody was willing to interrupt the music of so magnificent a virtuoso. To have heard him consoled me for not having heard Dr. Johnson or Edmund Burke, Lord Brougham or Sidney Smith.”35 As one more proof of Wilde’s acknowledged gift, Vyvyan Holland also remarks: “Winston Churchill was once asked whom he would like to meet and talk with in after life, and he replied, without hesitation: <<Oscar Wilde>>.”
Here are some examples of the witty remarks that are so much discussed and highly praised:
“Men become old, but they never become good.”
Lady Windermere’s Fan
“I delight in men over seventy, they always offer on the devotion of a lifetime.”
A Woman of No Importance
“How many men there are in modern life who would like to see their past burning to white ashes before them!”
An Ideal Husband
“A man who moralises is usually a hypocrite, and a woman who moralises is invariably plain.”
Lady Windermere’s Fan
“I don’t like compliments, and I don’t see why a man should think he is pleasing a woman enormously when he says to her a whole heap of things that he doesn’t mean.”
Lady Windermere’s Fan
“One should never trust a woman who tells on her real age. A woman who would tell one that, would tell one anything.”
A Woman of No Importance
“Crying is the refuge of plain women but the ruin of pretty ones.”
Lady Windermere’s Fan
“Men know life too early. Women know life too late. That is the difference between men and women.”
A Woman of No Importance
“It takes a thoroughly good woman to do a thoroughly stupid thing.”
Lady Windermere’s Fan
“I don’t know that women are always rewarded for being charming. I think they are usually punished for it!”
An Ideal Husband
“I don’t think there is a woman in the world who would not be a little flattered if one made love to her. It is that which makes women so irresistibly adorable”
A Woman of No Importance
“My dear young lady, there was a great deal of truth, I dare say, in what you said, and you looked very pretty while you said it, which is much more impportant.”
A Woman of No Importance
“I prefer women with past. They’re always so damned amusing to talk to.”
Lady Windermere’s Fan
“Life is much too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it.”
Vera, or the Nihilists
“The Book of Life begins with a man and a woman in a garden. It ends with Revelations.”
A Woman of No Importance
“Life is never fair…And perhaps it is a good thing for most of us that is not.”
An Ideal Husband
“You must not find symbols in everything you see. It makes life impossible.”
“We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell.”
The Duchess of
“Nothing spoils a romance so much as a sense of humour in the woman – or the want of it in the man.”
A Woman of No Importance
“One should always be in love. That is the reason one should never marry.”
A Woman of No Importance
“To love oneself is the beginning of a life-long romance.”
An Ideal Husband
“To love oneself is the beginning of a life-long romance”, Wilde said. Indeed, Oscar Wilde’s witty self-praise underpins a long-running, if chequered love affair between the Irish poet and playwright and his public.
Wilde was born in
Wilde was a brilliant student
As such, he was an international celebrity long before he wrote the sinister “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, or “Lady Windermere’s Fan”, a social comedy which was far more successful with the public than his first play.
A sharp analysis of class, society and human nature was a feature of his best-known works like “The Importance of Being Earnest” and “A Woman Of No Importance”.
A relentless self-publicist, Wilde jokingly compared the modern press to the medieval rack. But he was so shrewd in using newsmen to build the cult of his own personality that his press interviews and recollections run to two volumes. But his life took a shocking downturn towards its end.
Instead of remaining a witty
Shortly thereafter American sculptor Jacob Epstein undertook the feat of designing the monument for Wilde’s grave. It took him approximately three years to complete, and in 1914 when Epstein finally unveiled his masterpiece, featuring an anatomically correct Egyptian-style male figure, the cemetery conservator deemed it indecent. A fig-leaf plaque was promptly fashioned to cover the sculpture’s private parts. However, the conservator’s decision was apparently “out-voted” by the public-at-large, and in 1922 the plaque was removed “without permission” by unknowns. Unfortunately, these unknowns carried out their mission a little hastily and ended up removing more than just the fig leaf.
In short Wilde was and remains as controversial a figure as ever. His grandson, Merlin Holland agrees that his legacy is a very difficult thing to put a finger on. He has said that, as well as a writer of stature his grandfather was also “a convict, a homosexual, a bankrupt and a charismatic figure prepared to stand up for what he believed in”. Whatever one thinks of Oscar Wilde, his celebrity or notoriety clearly endures. Exhibitions, plays, films and books about his life appear regularly and are avidly received. He said about himself: “I was a man who stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my ageThe gods had given me almost everything. I had genius, a distinguished name, high social position, brilliancy, intellectual daring; I made art a philosophy, and philosophy an art: I altered the minds of men and the colour of things: there was nothing I said or did that did not make people wonderI treated Art as the supreme reality, and life as a mere mode of fiction: I awoke the imagination of my century so that it created myth and legend around me: I summed up all systems in a phrase, and all existence in an epigram.”
Though born in the middle of the 19th Century, Oscar Wilde is a quintessentially modern figure. With his cutting wit, contempt for morality and obsessions with fame and fashion, he seems completely in tune with our age. It is an irony that Wilde himself would surely enjoy that he is now admired by actors and academics, gay activists and Catholic priests alike.
And as he famously said, “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about”.
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