Oscar Wilde 1854-1900
(Born Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde, also wrote under pseudonyms C. 3. 3. and Sebastian Melmoth) Irish playwright, novelist, essayist, critic, poet, and short story writer.
Wilde is recognized as one of the foremost figures of late nineteenth-century literature Aesthetic or “art for art's sake” movement, which defied convention, subordinating ethical instruction to aesthetic value. This credo of aestheticism, however, indicates only one facet of a man notorious for resisting any public institution—artistic, social, political, or moral—that attempted to subjugate individual will and imagination. Wilde is best known for his critical essays and popular plays, which are humorous comedies of manners that focus on upper-class English society.
Wilde was born and raised in Dublin, Ireland. He began his advanced education at Dublin's Trinity College and concluded it with an outstanding academic career at Oxford. In college Wilde was influenced by the writings of Walter Pater, who in his Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873) urged indulgence of the senses, a search for sustained intensity of experience, and stylistic perfectionism in art. Wilde adopted such aestheticism as a way of life, cultivating an extravagant persona that was burlesqued in the popular press and music-hall entertainments, copied by other youthful iconoclasts, and indulged by the avant-garde literary and artistic circles of London wherein Wilde was renowned for intelligence, wit, and charm. Wilde published his first volume of poetry in 1881. A few years later he married, and embarked on successful lecture tours of the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. In the 1880s, Wilde and his family settled in London, where he continued to crusade for aestheticism as a book reviewer and as the editor of the periodical Lady's World, whose name he immediately changed to Woman's World.
During this period of creativity, Wilde met and became infatuated with Lord Alfred Douglas, son of the Marquess of Queensbury. His relationship with Douglas, the Marquess's violent disapproval of this relationship, and his own ill-advised legal action against the Marquess scandalized London. The Importance of Being Earnest was in production at the time of Wilde's 1895 trial on charges of “gross indecency between male persons.” His conviction and subsequent imprisonment led to ignominy for Wilde and obscurity for his works. He continued to write during his two years in prison. Upon his release, however, Wilde was generally either derided or ignored by literary and social circles. At the time of his death in 1900, the scandal associated with Wilde led most commentators to discuss him diffidently, if at all. While critical response no longer focuses so persistently on questions of morality, Wilde's life and personality still incite fascination. Biographical studies and biographically oriented criticism continue to dominate Wilde scholarship.
Wilde arrived at his greatest success through the production of four plays in the 1890s. The first three—Lady Windermere's Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893) and An Ideal Husband (1895)—are well-made comedies of manners revolving around social codes of the English upper classes. They are distinctively Wildean for the epigrams and witticisms delivered at frequent intervals (a show of rhetoric which often brings the action of the drama to a standstill). A fourth play, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), marked the height of Wilde's popularity and is considered his best and most characteristic drama. Bypassing the more realistic characters and situations of its predecessors, The Importance of Being Earnest forms the apogee of Victorian drawing-room farce. Its stylish characters, stylized dialogue, and elegant artificiality are for many readers and critics the ultimate revelation of Wilde's identity as both man and author.
Wilde's plays have been popular with both audiences and critics, who praise his humorous and biting satire of English manners at the turn of the twentieth century. Analysis of sexuality in his work have been a rich area for critical discussion, as commentators investigate the role of androgyny and homosexuality in his comedies. Possible influences on and sources for his work has been another subject for critical study. Commentators on Wilde have also come to stress the intellectual and humanist basis of his plays. Traditionally, critical evaluation of Wilde's work has been complicated, primarily because his works have to compete for attention with his sensational life. Wilde himself regarded this complication as unnecessary, advising that “a critic should be taught to criticise a work of art without making reference to the personality of the author. This, in fact, is the beginning of criticism.”
Verna, or the Nihilists 1883
Guido Ferranti: A Tragedu of the XVI Century 1891
Lady Windermere's Fan 1892
A Woman of No Importance 1893
An Ideal Husband 1895
The Importance of Being Earnest 1895
A Florentine Tragedy [opening scene by T. Sturge Moore] 1906
The Picture of Dorian Gray 1913
Poems (poetry) 1881
The Soul of Man under Socialism (nonfiction) 1890
The Happy Prince, and Other Tales (short stories) 1891
A House of Pomegranates (short stories) 1891
Intentions (essays) 1891
Lord Arthur Savile's Crime, and Other Stories (short stories) 1891
The Picture of Dorian Gray (novel) 1891
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, and Other Poems (poetry) 1898
*De Profundis (letter) 1905
Collected Works. 14 vols. (poetry, essays, short stories, novel, plays, and criticism) 1908
The Letters of Oscar Wilde (letters) 1962
*This work was not published in its entirety until 1949.
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Criticism: General Commentary
SOURCE: Bristow, Joseph. “Dowdies and Dandies: Oscar Wilde's Refashioning of Society Comedy.” Modern Drama 37, no. 1 (spring 1994): 53-70.
[In the following essay, Bristow discusses the defining characteristics of Wilde's plays.]
“London Society,” according to Mrs Cheveley in An Ideal Husband (1895), is “entirely made up of dowdies and dandies.”1 Reported by Mrs Marchmont to Lord Goring, Mrs Cheveley's words have a far greater function than simply making her the centre of attention among this group of gossipy aristocrats and their various hangers-on. Her acute observations of London Society disclose that this particular milieu is dull and yet dazzling. Rather like the interest she manages to generate around her own persona, Mrs Cheveley's insights about this contrastive culture of “dowdies and dandies” have an element of sparkling wit about them while appearing not a little predictable to at least one of their company. For although Lord Goring tells Mrs Marchmont that Mrs Cheveley is in principle “quite right,” his dandiacal instincts compel him to qualify how one might affirm this lively view of London Society. “The men are all dowdies,” he says, “and the women are all dandies” (152). By this point, Mrs Marchmont is unsure whether or not she ought to agree. “Oh!” she exclaims, after a pause, “do you really think that is what...
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SOURCE: Sinfield, Alan. “‘Effeminacy’ and ‘Femininity’: Sexual Politics in Wilde's Comedies.” Modern Drama 37, no. 1 (spring 1994): 34-52.
[In the following essay, Sinfield explores Wilde's utilization of effeminacy and femininity in his plays.]
Lytton Strachey saw A Woman of No Importance revived by Beerbohm Tree in 1907:
Mr Tree is a wicked Lord, staying in a country house, who has made up his mind to bugger one of the other guests—a handsome young man of twenty. The handsome young man is delighted; when his mother enters, sees his Lordship and recognises him as having copulated with her twenty years before, the result of which was—the handsome young man. She appeals to Lord Tree not to bugger his own son. He replies that that's an additional reason for doing it (oh! he's a very wicked Lord!). … The audience was of course charmed.1
If the play had been read generally in this way, it could not have been performed on the West End stage, in 1907 or initially in 1893.
Silences, deconstruction has taught us, are significant; it might seem that this point has been well taken among commentators on Wilde, for any silence is likely to be read as a deafening roar about homosexuality. Now, Lytton Strachey's interpretation of A Woman of No...
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SOURCE: Stokes, John. “Wilde Interpretation.” Modern Drama 37, no. 1 (spring 1994): 156-74.
[In the following essay, Stokes surveys the critical reaction to three productions of Wilde's plays in the 1990s, finding insight into the theatrical scene of the 1890s.]
We live in an age of interpretation, a fact that is constantly mentioned in the theatrical journals. Some think that it has always been this way, that there never has been representation without mediation; others, like the director Jonathan Miller, that the power of interpretation is a recent phenomenon with complex origins. “[H]istorical change has accelerated so much in the last fifty years that the differences between ‘now’ and even a quite recent ‘then’ are much more noticeable” says Miller, “the bequests of the past arouse our interpretative energies as never before.” “Besides,” he goes on, “the life of the mind has now taken a distinctively ‘interpretative turn’, and with the development of self-consciously hermeneutic interests the problem of meaning assumes a paramount importance.”1
Hence, among many other things, the ascent of the theatre director, the individual who gives meaning to texts. Yet Miller also believes that acts of theatrical interpretation must, if they are to be valid, respond to elements already in the work, inherent in the initial choice of genre, and that all...
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Criticism: Guido Ferranti
SOURCE: Review of Guido Ferranti. Critic 15, no. 371 (7 February 1891): 73.
[In the following review of Guido Ferranti, the unnamed critic finds inconsistencies in the dialogue and acting.]
The degree of popular favor that has attended the performances of Oscar Wilde's five-act tragedy Guido Ferranti at the Broadway Theatre must be attributed to the effective theatrical quality of certain scenes, rather than to the poetic charm or power or dramatic interest of the work as a whole. Apart from the fact that it is written in smooth blank-verse, and contains isolated passages of indisputable imagination and vigor, it is nothing but an old-fashioned ‘blood-and-thunder’ melodrama, put together in a very unworkmanlike manner, and with a curious disregard for anything in the nature of probability. Guido Ferranti, the hero, is a youthful gallant who has been reared in luxury and instructed in all the accomplishments of his age (the sixteenth century), but knows nothing of his family or origin. One day he receives a mysterious summons to Padua, and there, in the market-place, he meets a dark and gloomy stranger, one Morozone, who reveals to him the startling fact that he is the son of the late Duke, and that his father was betrayed to death by a false friend, who thus secured the Dukedom for himself.
Hearing this Guido swears an oath of deadly vengeance, and, with...
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Criticism: Lady Windermere's Fan
SOURCE: “Oscar Wilde's Comedy.” Spectator 69 (26 November 1892): 767.
[In the following positive assessment of Lady Windermere's Fan, the reviewer asserts that “we are grateful to Mr. Wilde for a straightforward comedy which professes no purpose but comedy's best and truest—to entertain.”]
We shall not be suspected of any great sympathy with the methods and the feats of Mr. Oscar Wilde. In this journal we have always disclaimed respect for the forms of charlatanism in which it has pleased him to indulge, and which he would, we suspect, be about the first himself to admit. But a charlatan may be a man of conspicuous ability; and on the withdrawal from the stage for the present of his first-acted comedy, after a career of great success, it is but appropriate in us as it is fair to him to signalise the addition to our acted plays of a comedy of society-manners pure and simple which may fairly claim its place among the recognised names in that almost extinct class of drama. We have, indeed, too much amongst us of Ibsen and his parallels not to note it with satisfaction. We can ourselves find nothing in A Doll's House beyond a fairly interesting domestic drama, with a story and characters which are nothing if not old, a kind of Martin Chuzzlewit married to Dora Copperfield, and a type of such very old-fashioned heredity as belongs to a gentleman who has the gout because his father...
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SOURCE: Review of Lady Windermere's Fan. Critic 19, no. 573 (11 February 1893): 84.
[In the following mixed review of Lady Windermere's Fan, the critic discusses Wilde's dialogue as well written, but chides the production values.]
The faults and merits of Mr. Oscar Wilde's four-act comedy, Lady Windermere's Fan, just produced in Palmer's Theatre after successful careers in London and Boston, may be summed up briefly in the statement that the piece is smartly written and constantly amusing, but very badly made. Not only is the construction extraordinarily clumsy, when Mr. Wilde's long experience in theatrical matters is taken into account, but the whole plot is founded upon suppositions wholly at variance with human experience and commonsense. The story, as pretty nearly everybody knows by this time, deals with the adventure of a young wife and mother, of a devotional tendency and exquisite natural purity of character (these qualities being insisted on with great particularity), who flings herself into the arms of another man, because her husband has insisted upon inviting to her house a woman of whom she is jealous, and whom she believes to be of immoral character. That she might leave her home, in such circumstances, is conceivable, but that she should seek revenge in personal dishonor is absolutely inconsistent with the whole theory of her nature. Not less ridiculous is the...
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SOURCE: Nassaar, Christopher S. “Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray and Lady Windermere's Fan.” Explicator 54, no. 1 (fall 1995): 20-24.
[In the following essay, Nassaar views the four male characters in Lady Windermere's Fan as versions of the protagonist of The Picture of Dorian Gray.]
In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian develops from childlike innocence to a state of serious depravity in four states. The first stage is when he is still twenty and posing for Basil Hallward. Here he is the innocent young man who has not yet come in contact with evil. The second is when he is in love with Sibyl Vane. At this state evil has entered his life, but he is still largely innocent. The third is what might be called the “limited corruption” stage. Basil and Wotton become the opposing forces within him. Although he clearly leans toward Wotton, he is still balanced between good and evil, for his conscience is still alive and there are certain crimes, such as deliberate murder, that he would shrink from committing. In the fourth stage, all control is lost. He murders Basil, then tries to kill his conscience, which he identifies with his picture. Instead, he himself dies: human nature is “gray” and no one can become completely evil.
In Lady Windermere's Fan, Dorian Gray is fragmented and reincarnated in the four main characters, each of whom embodies...
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Criticism: An Ideal Husband
SOURCE: Mikhail, E. H. “Self-Revelation in An Ideal Husband.” Modern Drama 11 (1968): 180-86.
[In the following essay, Mikhail perceives An Ideal Husband as a reflection of Wilde's personal torment and a foreshadowing of the scandal that would ruin his career.]
Despite its apparent objectivity, An Ideal Husband is self-revelatory. In a letter to his friend Reginald Turner, written in 1899, Wilde said:
I read a great deal, and correct the proofs of An Ideal Husband, shortly to appear. It reads rather well, and some of its passages seem prophetic of tragedy to come.1
A sense of damnation, a foreboding of tragic failure, is to be found in the writings of Oscar Wilde long before it is sounded in An Ideal Husband. It is the theme of the sonnet Helas! as it is of The Picture of Dorian Gray. The motive of the outcast is conspicuous in Wilde's two previous comedies, Lady Windermere's Fan and A Woman of No Importance, where both Mrs. Erlynne and Mrs. Arbuthnot describe in moving words the lot of an outcast; but it reaches an ominous significance in An Ideal Husband, written shortly before Wilde's own fall. One cannot avoid the impression that An Ideal Husband is an oblique expression of Wilde's inner torment, using Sir Robert Chiltern as a mask. Wilde has...
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Criticism: The Importance Of Being Earnest
SOURCE: Review of An Ideal Husband. Athenaeum 105 (12 January 1895): 57.
[In the following excerpted review, the anonymous critic offers a favorable assessment of An Ideal Husband.]
One of the constituent elements in wit is the perception of analogies in things apparently disparate and incongruous. Accepting this as a canon and testing by it the pretensions of Mr. Oscar Wilde in his latest play, that writer might be pronounced the greatest of wits, inasmuch as he perceives analogies in things absolutely antagonistic. His presumable end is gained, since a chorus of laughter attends his propositions or paradoxes. It requires, however, gifts of a kind not usually accorded to humanity to think out statements such as “High intellectual pleasures make girls' noses large,” “Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast,” “All reasons are absurd,” and the like. Uttered as these things are by Mr. Charles Hawtrey, who for once is entrusted with fadaises instead of fibs, they pass muster and create amusement, and it is not until one turns to them again that one perceives how impertinent and extravagant they are. As parts of the trapping of a vigorously ridden hobby-horse of affectation, they beget amusement rather than offence. It is difficult to be angry with the author or displeased with his play. An Ideal Husband has a certain amount of story, the development of which proves not...
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SOURCE: Review of The Importance of Being Earnest. Critic 23, no. 688 (27 April 1895): 316.
[In the following review of The Importance of Being Earnest, the critic praises the play as lighthearted.]
This three-act farce, one of the latest productions of Oscar Wilde, which has been running successfully for a number of weeks in London, was presented at the Empire Theatre on Monday evening, and met with a most favorable and often very merry reception. The piece is of the lightest possible texture, and never was intended to be subjected to the test of serious consideration or analysis. Its story is a whim, and its personages are mere vehicles for the utterance of those epigrammatic conceits which constitute so large a share of its author's literary stock in trade. When the curtain rises, two young fashionable idlers are exchanging experiences. John Worthing, known in London as Earnest, confesses that in the country, where he lives in a fine house with a charming ward, he is called Uncle Jack and is regarded as the pink of all proprieties. When he wishes to enjoy an outing, he explains that he is obliged to go to town to lookafter the affairs of a troublesome and wholly imaginary brother called Earnest, who for many years has been the scapegoat for all his own derelictions. Algernon Moncrief, the younger man, conceives the idea of visiting Worthing's country retreat in the guise of Earnest and...
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SOURCE: Parker, David. “Oscar Wilde's Great Farce: The Importance of Being Earnest.” Modern Literature Quarterly 35, no. 2 (June 1974): 173-86.
[In the following essay, Parker offers a thematic and stylistic examination of The Importance of Being Earnest and places it within the context of nineteenth- and twentieth-century farces.]
It is generally agreed that The Importance of Being Earnest is Oscar Wilde's masterpiece, but there is little agreement on why it should be thought so or on how it works as a play. Though we can sense a solid substance beneath the frothy surface, the nature of that substance remains an enigma. Surprisingly little real criticism has been written about the play, and much of that which has is sketchy or tedious. One of the few critics whose mind seems to have been genuinely engaged by the play is Mary McCarthy, but she has written about it only briefly, and despite her admiration clearly finds it repugnant. “It has the character of a ferocious idyll,” she says, and complains that “Selfishness and servility are the moral alternatives presented.”1 Most of what she says about the play cannot be denied, yet there is a wrong note somewhere. Though it is almost always feeble to complain about critics using the wrong standards, I think we have to do so here. The Importance of Being Earnest does not tackle problems of moral conduct in...
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SOURCE: Stone, Geoffrey. “Serious Bunburyism: The Logic of The Importance of Being Earnest.” Essays in Criticism 26, no. 1 (January 1976): 28-41.
[In the following essay, Stone examines the metalinguistic aspects of Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest.]
A meta-language is a language you use to deal with given statements and their relations with actual facts. ‘In order to speak about the correspondence between a statement S and a fact F, we need a language (a metalanguage) in which we can speak about the statement S and state the fact F’ (Popper, Objective Knowledge, p. 316). Analogically the concept of meta-language can be extended into literature by differentiating between an actual and an implied statement or word-set. Meta-activity is occurring when actual and implied word-sets and the reality they both claim to relate to are being dealt with together. The concept is not empty; some examples may make its usefulness clearer.
The old ‘New Criticism’, for example, tended not to be metalinguistic, because it concentrated on the word-set (typically a poem) alone and often excluded any facts the ‘statement’ related to. It was a reaction against earlier criticism, which had decayed into total attention to supposedly related facts and almost complete inattention to the literary ‘statement’. The most valuable modern...
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SOURCE: Paglia, Camille. “Wilde and the English Epicene.” Raritan (winter 1985): 85-109.
[In the following essay, Paglia explores what she calls the “Androgyne of Manners” in Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest.]
Oscar Wilde is the premiere documenter of a sexual persona which I call the Androgyne of Manners, embodied in Lord Henry Wotton of The Picture of Dorian Gray and in the four young lovers of The Importance of Being Earnest. The Androgyne of Manners inhabits the world of the drawing room and creates that world wherever it goes, through manner and mode of speech. The salon is an abstract circle in which male and female, like mathematical ciphers, are equal and interchangeable; personality becomes a sexually undifferentiated formal mask. Rousseau says severely of the eighteenth-century salon, “Every woman at Paris gathers in her apartment a harem of men more womanish than she.” The salon is politics by coterie, a city-state or gated forum run on a barter economy of gender exchange.
Elegance, the ruling principle of the salon, dictates that all speech must be wit, in symmetrical pulses of repartee, a malicious stichomythia. Pope's complaint that Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and the epicene Lord Hervey had “too much wit” for him alludes to the icy cruelty of the beau monde, to which moral discourse is alien because it posits the superiority of...
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SOURCE: Sammells, Neil. “Earning Liberties: Travesties and The Importance of Being Earnest.” Modern Drama 29, no. 3 (September 1986): 376-87.
[In the following essay, Sammells links Tom Stoppard's play Travesties with Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest.]
David Rod has argued in Modern Drama that critics of Stoppard's Travesties have paid insufficient attention to the views on art and politics of Henry Carr, the minor consular official who regales us with his version of life as it most certainly was not in Zürich during the Great War.1 Carr, Rod insists, rejects the various idealisms of Tristan Tzara, James Joyce and Lenin to present an independent position of his own, founded upon a practical consideration of what art has been and what it has accomplished; Carr contributes tellingly to the debate as Stoppard creates a balance “among the four opposing aesthetic viewpoints presented in the play, a balance that does not tip in Carr's favor even though his memory controls most of the events in the play.”2 Rod is right to suggest that Stoppard does not allow any one of his antagonists to win the debate, but his remarks do less than justice to the complexity of Travesties. As important as what is said is how it is said; Rod's notion of a “balance” among the opposing viewpoints does not locate the real centre of...
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SOURCE: Raby, Peter. ‘“The Persons of the Play’”: Some Reflections on Wilde's Choice of Names in The Importance of Being Earnest.” Nineteenth Century Theatre 23, nos. 1-2 (summer-winter 1995): 67-75.
[In the following essay, Raby explores the sources and context of some of the character names in The Importance of Being Earnest.]
On 14 February 1995, part of The Importance of Being Earnest was performed in Westminster Abbey, during the service of dedication of a memorial window to Oscar Wilde in Poets' Corner. This constituted a significant moment in the reacceptance of Wilde by the English establishment, a kind of re-christening. The geographical distance from the Abbey to the site of the St James's Theatre cannot be more than a mile; the social and moral distance rather further. Certainly for the late Victorians, the idea of Wilde being publicly received into the tribal temple would have seemed grotesque and irreligious. Yet a century later, at the dedication service, Dame Judi Dench delivered Lady Bracknell's inquisition of Jack, and as she proceeded the extract became less of a reading than a performance, a performance of a text by now accepted as one of the few instantly recognized passages in English literature. Lady Bracknell's view that the whole theory of modern education is radically unsound produced the first collective, confident laugh: “Fortunately in England, at any...
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SOURCE: Mackie, W. Craven. “Bunbury Pure and Simple.” Modern Drama 41, no. 2 (summer 1998): 327-30.
[In the following essay, Mackie proposes the obituaries as a source for the name Bunbury, a character in Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest.]
Sometime in late July 1894 Oscar Wilde wrote to George Alexander requesting an advance of £150 so that he might go away to write a comedy. In that letter he outlines a scenario of the play that within a month and a half would become a rough draft of The Importance of Being Earnest. In this early untitled version the names of Jack Worthing, Algernon, Cecily, Gwendolen and Lady Bracknell have yet to be invented. There is yet no play upon the word earnest and no Bunbury.1
By early August, only a few days after writing to Alexander, Wilde had traveled with his family from London to the seaside resort of Worthing in Sussex, where he continued to work on the new play. In notes that quickly followed and expanded upon the first scenario, Wilde had come up with a working title, The Guardian. Further, he had settled on the names Worthing and Gwendolen, had introduced dialogue expressing Gwendolen's passion for the name Ernest and had noted “Mr Bunbury—always ill—.”2
Since 1960 there has been much speculation about the source for Bunbury. The earliest inquiry and assumption on the subject...
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SOURCE: Review of Salomé. Critic 21, no. 638 (12 May 1894): 331.
[In the following negative review of Salomé, the critic discusses Wilde's usage of dialogue and theme from various other literary sources.]
The downward course of a certain current in English literature and art has probably not reached an end in Oscar Wilde's Salomé. Some one will, doubtless, arise who shall be as incoherent as Blake, as hysterical as Rossetti, as incapable of decent reserve as Swinburne, and as great a humbug as Wilde. But it is doubtful whether the latter's cleverness in patching up sham monsters can go much farther. A large part of his material he gets from the Bible, a little has once belonged to Flaubert. He borrows from Maeterlinck his trick of repeating stupid phrases until a glimpse of meaning seems almost a flash of genius. But it must be admitted that he adds something of his own, and that what he has taken bears but the same relation to what he has made of it as does the farmer's pumpkin to the small boy's bogy lantern. A single example will perhaps suffice to show the nature of his improvements. There is a vulgar simile that likens a pair of black eyes to “burnt holes in a blanket.” This Mr. Wilde expands into:—“It is his eyes above all that are terrible. They are like black holes burnt by torches in a tapestry of Tyre.” The play was originally written in French, and Mr....
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SOURCE: Hale, Edward E., Jr. “Signs of Life in Literature.” Dial 17 (1 July 1894): 11-13.
[In the following essay, Hale contrasts Hamlin Garland's Crumbling Idols and Wilde's Salomé, providing a mixed review of Wilde's play.]
There are in Paris during the Spring of the year a good many exhibitions of pictures which trouble the soul of the conscientious lover of the arts. Not only at the two great Salons are there generally certain alarming manifestations, but there are also smaller collections gathered together by Independents, Rosicrucians, or other such persons, in which the wildest gymnastics in the name of art are not only allowed but encouraged. Dazed and antagonized by these indulgences, the feeling of many an ordinary and honest art-lover must be, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Philistine.” Fortunately, however, Paris herself furnishes an antidote to any such despair, in the annual exhibition of the pictures and sculptures entered in competition for the Prix de Rome. One goes to these shameless revelations of academic horror, and becomes in a great degree reconciled to the existence of new notions in art, however extravagant. They really do but little harm (except to their ingenious sponsors), and they are extremely useful in keeping up a healthy circulation of ideas.
Now I am not familiar with any evil things in literature analogous to these Prix de...
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SOURCE: Saunders, William. “Oscar Wilde's Salomé.” Drama Magazine 12, no. 10 (September 1922): 335.
[In the following essay, Saunders considers Salomé as “essentially Greek in character” and “one of the greatest tragedies of recent times.”]
About twenty years ago, after having completed the usual three years' course in French grammar and syntax, I devoted a year to reading practically nothing except modern novels and plays in the French language. The purpose I had in view in following out this self-imposed curriculum was the acquisition of as extensive a vocabulary as possible, and of such conversational fluency as an adequate study of contemporary dialogue in a foreign language alone can give. In making a choice of works for the purpose of this study, I adopted no system of purely scientific selection, beyond the fact that the periods of publication of the various works I made use of, had to be of comparatively recent date say, not later than ten years back. Within this category, all was fish that came to my net, and during that year I read several hundred plays. Yet although, as I have since had every reason to believe, I completely effected the aim I had set myself, I do not now remember more than a dozen of even the titles of the plays I devoured. But there was one of these plays which made so deep and vivid an impression upon my mind that it has to this day never been...
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SOURCE: Ellmann, Richard. “Overtures to Wilde's Salomé.” TriQuarterly 15 (spring 1969): 45-64.
[In the following essay, Ellmann traces the influence of Wilde's friendships with John Ruskin and Walter Pater on his Salomé.]
Salomé, after having danced before the imaginations of European painters and sculptors for a thousand years, in the nineteenth century turned her beguilements to literature. Heine, Flaubert, Mallarmé, Huysmans, Laforgue and Wilde became her suitors. Jaded by exaltations of nature and of humanism, they inspected with something like relief a Biblical image of the unnatural. Mario Praz, bluff, and skeptical of Salomé's allurements, seeks to limit them by arguing that she became the type of no more than the femme fatale. By type he means, he says, something “like a neuralgic area. Some chronic ailment has created a zone of weakened resistance, and whenever an analogous phenomenon makes itself felt, it immediately confines itself to this predisposed area, until the process becomes a matter of mechanical monotony.”1 But like most medical metaphors, this one doesn't apply easily to the arts, where repetition of subject is not a certain contra-indication to achievement. Most of these writers were conspicuous for their originality, and if they embraced so familiar a character from Biblical history, it was to accomplish effects they intended to make...
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SOURCE: Mitchell, Jason P. “A Source Victorian or Biblical?: The Integration of Biblical Diction and Symbolism in Oscar Wilde's Salomé.” Victorian Newsletter 89 (spring 1996): 14-18.
[In the following essay, Mitchell asserts that Wilde's diction in Salomé was borrowed from the Old Testament as well as the Belgian author Maurice Maeterlinck.]
The Salomé legend has its beginnings in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark (Matthew 14: 3-11, Mark 6: 17-28), which relate the beheading of John the Baptist at the instigation of Herodias, wife of Herod, who was angered by John's characterization of her marriage as incestuous. In both accounts, Herodias uses her daughter (unnamed in scripture but known to tradition, through Josephus, as Salomé) as the instrument of the prophet's destruction. According to the Gospel of Mark:
… when a convenient day was come, that Herod on his birthday made a supper to his lords, high captains and chief estates of Galilee. And when the daughter of the said Herodias came in, and danced, and pleased Herod and them that sat with him, the king said unto the damsel, “Ask of me whatsoever thou wilt, and I will give it thee.” And he sware unto her, “Whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, I will give it thee, unto half of my kingdom.” And she went forth and said unto her mother, “What shall I ask?” And she said, “The head of...
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SOURCE: Nassaar, Christopher S. “Wilde's Salomé.” Explicator 57, no. 2 (winter 1999): 89-90.
[In the following essay, Nassaar considers the symbolic significance of the fan in Wilde's Salomé.]
Lady Windermere's Fan was Oscar Wilde's first mature play, and it established him overnight as a successful playwright. It also created in the minds of playgoers an association between Wilde and the fan. Soon afterward, Wilde wrote a second play, Salomé, and he included in it eight references to a fan. The references constitute Wilde's signature—his constant reminder to reader and audience that he is the author of this new play. But the fan in Salomé also serves a functional and symbolic purpose, much like the one in Lady Windermere's Fan.
In Salomé the fan is associated with all four main characters. The first association is with Salomé herself at the beginning of the play. When she emerges into the moonlight after rejecting Herod's sin-infested banquet, the young Syrian, who sees Salomé as innocent and dovelike, says: “The Princess has hidden her face behind her fan!” (page 585). The symbolism of this is clear: The fan is a veil covering Salomé's true nature. Interestingly, the fan obscures Salomé's nature only in the eyes of the young Syrian; the page of Salomé's mother Herodias knows what is behind the fan. The Syrian's youth and...
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SOURCE: Thomas, David Wayne. “The ‘Strange Music’ of Salomé: Oscar Wilde's Rhetoric of Verbal Musicality.” Mosaic (March 2000): 15-38.
[In the following essay, Thomas investigates the function of verbal musicality in Wilde's Salomé.]
Thy voice was a censer that scattered strange perfumes, and when I looked on thee I heard a strange music.
—Oscar Wilde, Salomé
In the closing moments of Oscar Wilde's drama Salomé (1893, 1894), the matter of verbal music finds its nearest approach to explicit mention. Having performed her dance of seven veils before the lecherous Herod, Salomé comes to reflect on her dancer's reward—a silver platter bearing the head of the prophet Iokanaan—and she speaks of a “strange music” that had attended, in her imagination, the living presence of the prophet. Alarmed by the new silence, she laments, “There is no sound. I hear nothing” (327-28).1 Fled is that music, indeed, but I suggest that Salomé's final remarks, proffered in the absence of that music, only confirm a strange musicality that has informed the drama all along. In one sense, this claim has a simple historiographic justification: Wilde himself indicated the “recurring phrases of Salomé, that bind it together like a piece of music with recurring motifs” (Letters 590), and his...
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SOURCE: Nassaar, Christopher S., and Nataly Shaheen. “Wilde's Salomé.” Explicator 59, no. 3 (spring 2001): 132-34.
[In the following essay, Nassaar and Shaheen discuss stylistic and thematic aspects of Salomé.]
Wilde's Salomé has a tripartite structure. The moon-goddess Cybele, Salomé, and Herodias, for instance, represent the same principle in a descending order and are opposed respectively by Jesus, Jokanaan, and the Nazarenes. Jokanaan is associated with three colors—white, black, and red; Salomé in wooing him approaches him three times. The language often repeats basic words and phrases in groups of three. One of the significant tripartite associations of the play is Salomé's connection with mythic demonic creatures. In his attempt to dramatize Salomé as a symbol of pure evil, Wilde associates her with the vampire, the siren, and the werewolf.
The vampiric associations are made clear at the opening of the play, when the Young Syrian notes how pale Salomé is and the Page of Herodias says of her, “She is like a woman rising from a tomb. She is like a dead woman” (583). Symbolically she is dead and in search of a human to satisfy her raging desire for blood, like any vampire. She chooses Jokanaan, but his continuous rejection of her creates a tense and expectant atmosphere. Salomé claims Jokanaan's head, and in a moment of darkness, she kisses and bites...
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Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988, 680 p.
Highly acclaimed biographical study.
Winwar, Frances. Oscar Wilde and the Yellow 'Nineties. Garden City, NY: Blue Ribbon Books, 1940, 381 p.
Popular biography of Wilde.
Chamberlin, J. E. Ripe Was the Drowsy Hour: The Age of Oscar Wilde. New York: The Seabury Press, 1977, 222 p.
Examines Wilde in the social and artistic contexts of his time.
Ellmann, Richard, ed. Oscar Wilde: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1969, 180 p.
Critical essays and poetical tributes by W. B. Yeats, André Gide, Alfred Douglas, John Betjeman, Thomas Mann, and Jorge Luis Borges, among others.
Ericksen, Donald H. Oscar Wilde. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977, 175 p.
Discusses sources, plot, characterization, language, and critical reception of Wilde's best-known works.
Woodcock, George. The Paradox of Oscar Wilde. London: T. V. Boardman & Co., 1949, 239 p.
Explores the different perspectives of Wilde.
Additional coverage of Wilde's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale...
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