Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 594

Many of the more serious critics of Wilde’s day either ignored or were sparing in their praise of An Ideal Husband. By the time the play was staged, Wilde had many enemies, both major and minor. This was the result of his years as a dandy and his entire adult life as a cutting wit. On the one hand, he was thought frivolous and immoral; on the other, his wit often had as its target the very critics who were reviewing his work.

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The critics of Wilde’s time who were not impressed by the play thought it like its author: frivolous and lacking substance. Printed the day after the play opened, the review in London’s major newspaper, The Times, is a case in point. An excerpt reads as follows:

An Ideal Husband was brought out last night with a similar degree of success to that which has attended Mr. Wilde’s previous productions. It is a similar degree of success due to similar causes. For An Ideal Husband is marked by the same characteristics as Lady Windermere’s Fan and A Woman of No Importance. There is a group of well-dressed women and men on the stage, talking a strained, inverted, but rather amusing idiom, while the action, the dramatic motive, of the play springs form [sic] a conventional device of the commonest order of melodrama. Mr. Wilde’s ingenuity is verbal; there is none of this quality expended upon his plot and very little upon his characters, most of whom have caught the author’s trick of phrase.

Still, negative reviews were far fewer for An Ideal Husband than for the previous two social comedies (named above) because by now critics hesitated to fly in the face of public opinion. No matter what they wrote, Wilde’s comic plays had long runs and his supporters and audiences loved them.

Once Wilde was imprisoned, theaters ceased staging his plays for a time. But, within a decade or so, An Ideal Husband could be seen again. Reviews of these productions concentrated less on whether the plays deserved to be staged and more on the quality of the given production: Had the play been well directed? Well acted?

What would take more time to develop is academic scholarship on Wilde. With the exception of one or two studies, Wilde and his works did not begin receiving serious scholarly attention until the last decades of the twentieth century. A number of factors contributed to this academic interest: Wilde’s wise analysis of late-Victorian culture was in accord with the prevailing view of the era; an interest in how Irish writers worked with and against the rules and canon of British literature became a subject of interest; and the developing fields of gender, sexuality, and gay and lesbian studies looked with interest on writers such as Wilde.

In general, critics consider Wilde’s last comedy his best. In The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde finally wrote what most critics think he should have written all along, namely a pure comedy of manners. There is no ‘‘social’’ plot to The Importance of Being Earnest and no melodrama.

Even as many of Wilde’s works are considered very good works of art, he is as important for who he was in both public and private life as for what he wrote. This is appropriate, because to the aesthete, the art of living is what matters most. Mrs. Cheveley puts it this way: ‘‘The art of living. The only really Fine Art we have produced in modern times.’’

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