Last Updated on May 31, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3444
Oscar Wilde completed seven plays during his life, and for the purpose of discussion, these works can be divided into two groups: comedies and serious works. The four social comedies Wilde wrote for the commercial theater of his day, Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband, and The Importance of Being Earnest, brought him money and prestige but not artistic satisfaction. There were three plays intended as serious works of art: Vera, The Duchess of Padua, and Salomé. None of these three plays gained popular regard, critical acclaim, or theatrical success in Wilde’s lifetime. One can disregard the first two and lose little by the omission. Vera, published when Wilde was only twenty-five, is an apprentice piece that unsuccessfully mingles revolutionary Russian politics (particularly ill-timed, for Czar Alexander II had recently been assassinated, and the consort of his successor was sister to Alexandra, wife of the prince of Wales), improbable psychology, creaky melodrama, and what was already Wilde’s dramatic forte: witty, ironic speech. The Duchess of Padua is a derivative verse drama in the intricate, full-blown style that worked so well in the hands of the Jacobeans and has failed so dismally for their many and often talented imitators. When read, the play has its fine moments, but even at its best, it is nothing more than a good piece of imitation. In Salomé, however, Wilde offered the world a serious drama of unquestionable distinction, a work that further enriched Western culture by providing a libretto for Richard Strauss’s fine opera of the same title.
The English-speaking public, to whom Wilde’s four comedies are familiar enough, is less likely to have read or seen performed his Salomé, yet this biblical extrapolation, with its pervasive air of overripe sensuality, is of all of his plays the one most characteristic of its age and most important to the European cultural tradition. Wilde wrote his poetic drama in France, and in French, during the autumn of 1891. Wilde’s command of the French language was not idiomatic but fluent in the schoolroom style. This very limitation became an asset when he chose to cast his play in the stylized, ritualistic mold set by the Belgian playwright Maeterlinck, whose works relied heavily on repetition, parallelism, and chiming effect—verbal traits equally characteristic of a writer who thinks in English but translates into French. Like the language, the biblical source of the story is bent to Wilde’s purposes. In the New Testament accounts of the death of John the Baptist (or Jokanaan, as he is called in the play), Salomé, the eighteen-year-old princess of Judea, is not held responsible for John’s death; rather, blame for the prophet’s death is laid on Salomé’s mother, Herodias. Furthermore, as Wilde’s literary executor, Robert Ross, and a number of other critics have observed, Wilde’s Herod is a synthesis of a handful of biblical Herods and tetrarchs. Although Wilde’s license with the language and sources of his play is sometimes deprecated, it should not be faulted. As a poetic dramatist, a verbal contriver of a symbolic ritual, his intention was not to transcribe but to transfigure.
The action of Wilde’s Salomé takes place by moonlight on a great terrace above King Herod’s banquet hall. The simple setting is deftly conceived to heighten dramatic effects. On this spare stage, all entrances—whether Salomé’s, and later Herod’s and Herodias’s by the great staircase of Jokanaan’s from the cistern where he has been imprisoned—are striking. In addition, the play’s ruling motifs, moonlight and the recurrent contrasts of white, black, and—with increasing frequency as the play moves toward its grisly climax—red, emerge clearly.
As the play begins, a cosmopolitan group of soldiers and pages attendant on the Judean royal house occupy the terrace. Their conversation on the beauty of the Princess Salomé, the strangeness of the moon, and the rich tableau of the Tetrarch and his party feasting within sets a weird tone that is enhanced by the sound of Jokanaan’s prophesies rising from his cistern prison. Salomé, like “a dove that has strayed . . . a narcissus trembling in the wind . . . a silver flower,” glides onto the terrace. The prophet’s strange voice and words stir the princess as deeply as her beauty troubles the young Syrian captain of the guard, a conquered prince now a slave in Herod’s palace. At her command, the Syrian brings forth Jokanaan from his prison. The prophet’s uncanny beauty—he seems as chaste and ascetic as she has just pronounced the moon to be—works a double charm of attraction and repulsion on Salomé. His body like a thin white statue, his black hair, his mouth “like a pomegranate cut with a knife of ivory” all kindle the princess’s desire. His disgusted rejection of her love only fans the flames of lust. She must have him: “I will kiss thy mouth, Jokanaan,” she chants, as the Syrian who adores her kills himself at her feet and the prophet who despises her descends once more to his cistern.
At this point, Herod and Herodias, attended by their court, enter. Their comments on the moon (to Herod, “She is like a mad woman, a mad woman who is looking everywhere for lovers”; to Herodias, “the moon is like the moon, that is all”) introduce the significant differences in their equally evil natures. Herod is superstitious, cowardly, obliquely cruel, a tyrannical yet vacillating ruler; Herodias is brutal with the callous directness of an utterly debased woman. Salomé’s strange beauty tempts Herod just as Jokanaan’s tempts Salomé. Despite Herodias’s disapproval and Salomé’s reluctance, Herod presses the princess to dance. He offers her whatever reward she may request, even to the half of his kingdom. Having exacted this rash promise of the infatuated despot, Salomé performs her famous dance of seven veils and for her reward requires the head of Jokanaan on a silver charger. As horrified by this demand as his ghoulish consort is delighted, the superstitious Herod offers Salomé a long and intricate catalog of alternative payments—the rich, rare, curious, and vulgar contents of an Oriental or fin de siècle treasure chest. With the sure instincts of the true collector, Salomé persists in her original demand. Unable to break his vow, the horrified king dispatches the Nubian executioner into the cistern. Presently, in a striking culmination of the play’s color imagery, the Nubian’s arm rises from the cistern. This ebony stem bears a strange flower: a silver shield surmounted by the prophet’s bloody head. Delirious with ecstasy, Salomé addresses her passion to the disembodied lover-prophet she has asked for, silenced, and gained. “I have kissed thy mouth, Jokanaan,” she concludes as a moonbeam falls on her. At Herod’s cry, “Kill that woman!” the soldiers rush forward, crushing her beneath their shields.
Even so brief an account as that above demonstrates that the play has potential in sheer dramatic terms, as the great Sarah Bernhardt realized when, though much too old for the title role, she agreed to play the role of Salomé in a proposed London production that was not to be. Salomé is a richly fashioned tapestry. The play’s prevailing mode, presentation of typically talkative Wildean characters articulating rather than acting on their emotions, gives way at three powerful moments—when Salomé dances, when the arm bearing Jokanaan’s head rises from the cistern, and when the silver shields crush the dancer and her reward—to pure act, unsullied by words.
The play’s psychological and symbolic suggestiveness are equally rich. One of Wilde’s great contributions to the Salomé story was to provide psychological underpinnings for the sequence of events. To Wilde’s invention are owed Salomé’s spurned love for the prophet and the mutual hostility that counterbalances the sensual bond between Herod and Herodias. As an expression of love’s ambivalence, Salomé is “the incarnate spirit of the aesthetic woman,” a collector who (much in the spirit of Robert Browning’s duke of Ferrara, it would seem) does not desire a living being but a “love object” handsomely mounted. Richard Ellmann finds something more personally symbolic in the tragedy. Jokanaan, says Ellmann, presents the spirit-affirming, body-negating moral earnestness of Wilde’s “Ruskinism”; Salomé, who collects beauty, sensations, and strange experiences, who consummates her love for the prophet in “a relation at once totally sensual and totally ‘mystical,’” stands for the rival claims of Pater. Herod, like his creator, vainly struggles to master these opposing impulses both within and outside himself.
Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Woman of No Importance, and An Ideal Husband
Wilde’s first three comedies, although each has its particular charms and defects, are sufficiently similar to one another, and sufficiently inferior to his fourth, The Importance of Being Earnest, to be discussed as a group rather than individually. Always lazy about writing (which was an arduous process for a verbal artist with his high standards) but perpetually in need of money to pay for the great and small luxuries that were his necessities of life, Wilde agreed in 1891 to write a play for George Alexander, the actor-manager of St. James’s Theater. The result was Lady Windermere’s Fan, a modern drawing-room comedy set in high society and frankly aimed to engage the interest of the London playgoing public. The financial results were gratifying enough to encourage Wilde to write three more plays in the same vein, though he never much respected the form or the products. Only in The Importance of Being Earnest was he to overcome the inherent weaknesses of the well-made society play, but each of the other three pieces is fine enough to win for him the title of best writer of British comedies between Richard Brinsley Sheridan and George Bernard Shaw.
Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Woman of No Importance, and An Ideal Husband all center, as their titles suggest, on relationships between men and women, or more precisely between gentlemen and ladies. The plays were up-to-the-minute in providing fashionable furnishings and costumes to charm both segments of their intended audience. Late Victorian society people enjoyed seeing themselves reflected as creatures of such style and wit, while the middle classes delighted at being given a glimpse into the secret rites of the world of fashion. In fact, one might suspect that Wilde’s stated concern for the Aristotelian unity of time in these plays springs less from belief in that classical standard than from the opportunity (or even necessity) that placing three acts of high life in a twenty-four-hour period provides for striking changes of costume and set.
In each of these elaborate “modern drawing-room comedies with pink lamp shades,” as Wilde termed them, one finds recurrent character types: puritanical figures of virtue (wives in Lady Windermere’s Fan and An Ideal Husband, an heiress soon to be a fiancé in A Woman of No Importance), mundanely fashionable hypocrites, and exceptional humanitarians of two types—the dandified lord (Darlington, Illingworth, and Goring) and the poised and prosperous “fallen woman,” two of whom (Mrs. Erlynne in Lady Windermere’s Fan and Mrs. Chevely in An Ideal Husband) go in for wit and the other of whom (Mrs. Arbuthnot of A Woman of No Importance), though equally unrepentant, specializes in good works. Clever, epigrammatic conversation is what these characters do best; guilty secrets and the situational intricacies they weave are the strings for Wilde’s verbal pearls.
In Lady Windermere’s Fan, the initial secret is that Mrs. Erlynne, the runaway mother of whose continued existence Lady Windermere is utterly ignorant, has returned to London to regain a place in society and is blackmailing Lord Windermere, who seeks to protect his wife from knowledge of the blot on her pedigree. Misinterpreting her husband’s patronage of a mysterious lady with a hint of a past, Lady Windermere is led to the brink of unconsciously repeating her mother’s error by eloping with another man, thereby prompting Mrs. Erlynne to the one maternal gesture of her life: The older and wiser woman sacrifices her own reputation (temporarily, it turns out) to save that of her daughter.
In A Woman of No Importance, Gerald Arbuthnot, a youth reared in rural seclusion and apparent respectability by his mother, happens to encounter the man who is his father: worldly Lord Illingworth, who when young and untitled had seduced Gerald’s mother and, on learning of her pregnancy, refused to marry her. This complex situation allows Wilde to expose several human inconsistencies. Previously uninterested in the child he had begotten and also unwilling to marry the beautiful young mother, Lord Illingworth is now so full of paternal feeling that he offers to marry the middle-aged woman to retain the son. Gerald, who has just vowed to kill Lord Illingworth for attempting to kiss a prudish American girl, on hearing of Illingworth’s past treachery to his mother wants her to let the offender “make an honest woman” of her. Mrs. Arbuthnot professes selfless devotion to her son but begs Gerald to forgo the brilliant prospects Illingworth can offer and remain with her in their provincial backwater.
In An Ideal Husband, the plot-initiating secret is a man’s property rather than a woman’s, and political intrigue rather than romantic. Sir Robert Chiltern, a high-principled politician with a rigidly idealistic young wife, encounters the adventuress Mrs. Chevely, who has evidence that Chiltern’s career and fortune were founded on one unethical act—the selling of a political secret to a foreigner—and who attempts to use her knowledge to compel him to lend political support to a fraudulent scheme that will make her fortune. Acting against this resourceful woman is Chiltern’s friend Lord Goring, an apparently effete but impressively capable man who can beat her at her own game. In brief, then, all three of these plays are formed of the highly theatrical matter that, in lesser hands, would form the stuff of melodrama.
Wilde’s “pink lamp shade” comedies are difficult to stage because of the stylish luxury demanded of the actors, costumes, and sets, but the plays are not weaker for being so ornate: They accurately mirror a certain facet of late Victorian society. Similarly, the pervasive wit never becomes tiresome. The contrived reversals, artful coincidences, predictably surprising discoveries, and “strong curtains” may seem trite—but they work onstage. The defect that Wilde’s first three comedies share is the problem of unreconciled opposites, implicit in Salomé. In Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Woman of No Importance, and An Ideal Husband, part of Wilde is drawn to admire wit, style, vitality, and courage regardless of where they may be found, and part of him has a serious social or moral point to make. Even with this divided aim, Wilde wrote good comedies. When he solved the problem, he wrote a masterpiece: The Importance of Being Earnest.
The Importance of Being Earnest
What makes The Importance of Being Earnest, unlike the three Wilde comedies that preceded it, a masterpiece of the theater rather than merely an eminently stageable play? Perhaps a good clue to the answer can be found in the play’s subtitle, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People. This typically Wildean paradox has been variously interpreted. Whatever the author may have intended by it, one thing the phrase suggests to readers is that The Importance of Being Earnest is worth the attention of “serious people” because it, unlike Wilde’s other three comedies, succeeds in being utterly trivial and thereby attains pure comic excellence. Eric Bentley has remarked of the play that “what begins as a prank ends as a criticism of life.” Here at last Wilde offers witty wordplay and exuberant high spirits in an undiluted form. There are no melodramatic ambiguities or dark, complex emotions in The Importance of Being Earnest, where the chief events are flirtations that lead to engagements and prodigious consumption of tea, cucumber sandwiches, and muffins. Whereas Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Woman of No Importance, and An Ideal Husband take place in the stylized but recognizably real world of contemporary London society, this play unfolds in a world apart, one that, despite its containing a Mayfair flat and a Herefordshire manor, is as perfectly artificial yet completely valid as are Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden in As You Like It (pr. c. 1599-1600) and Athens in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (pr. c. 1595-1596).
The Importance of Being Earnest contains some of the stock theatrical devices Wilde relied on to galvanize his previous three comedies. There is mysterious parentage: Jack Worthing confesses to having been found in a handbag in Victoria Station. Characters run away from responsibility: Jack, in order to escape the country and get to town, has invented a wicked younger brother, Ernest, who lodges at the Albany; and Algernon Moncrieff, to escape from London to the country, has concocted an imaginary rural friend, the perennial invalid Bunbury. The comedy contains false identities: Both Jack and Algernon propose to and are accepted by their respective loves, the Honorable Gwendolyn Fairfax and Cecily Cardew, under the name “Ernest Worthing.” There are misplaced possessions as significant as Lady Windermere’s fan: Finding a cigarette case inscribed “From little Cecily, with her fondest love to her dear Uncle Jack,” enables Algernon to discover his friend’s double identity. The governess Miss Prism’s unexpected, happy, eloquent reunion with the handbag she had mislaid twenty-eight years before brings the climactic revelation of the play: Through this recovery of the long-lost handbag, Jack, a comic Oedipus, discovers his true parentage. In all these cases, the dramatic machines of potential tragedy or melodrama are operated in the spirit of burlesque. There are no lapses or incongruities to drag down the lighthearted mood.
Similarly, the emotional developments, reversals, intrigues, and deceptions that were threatening in Wilde’s other comedies are harmless in The Importance of Being Earnest, chiefly because the play is not about established relationships. It does not present married people with domestic differences; former lovers who should have married but failed to do so; present lovers already yoked to other people; parents, who through love, guilt, selfishness, or honor, influence the behavior of their children; or children who similarly manipulate their parents. The four principal characters—Jack Worthing, Gwendolyn Fairfax, Algernon Moncrieff, and Cecily Cardew—are all young, single, and, with the exception of Gwendolyn, parentless. The Reverend Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism are, to use their own words, “ripe” but “celibate.” Early in the play, Lane, Algernon’s manservant, admits that, with regard to marriage, he has had “very little experience of it myself up to the present.” Of all the characters, only the marvelous Lady Bracknell is mature, married, and encumbered with children. Even so, Lord Bracknell is completely under her control; that pitiful peer, who dines upstairs at her command, does and knows only what she prescribes. Her daughter Gwendolyn, on the other hand, is completely free from her domination; the poised young lady listens politely to her dogmatic mother and then acts precisely as she chooses. As a consequence, Lady Bracknell’s personal essence and the behavior it determines are modified by neither spouse nor child.
With this array of singularly unfettered characters, The Importance of Being Earnest is not about domestic complications but about the act of committing oneself to domesticity. The social comedy of the play parallels the movement of a Jane Austen novel: Characters who exist as pure potential define and place themselves by choosing to marry and by selecting their particular mates. The choreography of this matrimonial ballet is exceptionally elegant, particularly in the commonly known three-act version. (The original four-act version, first staged by the New Vic in 1980, contains material that is not essential, though not uninteresting.) The dialogue is so uniformly delightful that it is impossible to single out a high point or two for quoting. For the first time, Wilde’s comedy is a brilliant whole rather than a series of sparkling effects. Indeed, the play’s final interchange between Lady Bracknell and her newfound nephew (soon-to-be son-in-law) Jack could be the dramatist talking to himself, for by taking comedy seriously enough to stay within its bounds, Wilde the dramatist finally achieved his goal of creating a play not merely well-made but perfect of its kind:Lady Bracknell: My nephew, you seem to be displaying signs of triviality. Jack: On the contrary, Aunt Augusta, I’ve now realized for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest.
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