Oscar Wilde World Literature Analysis
It is perhaps ironic that Wilde is best remembered as a dramatist, and particularly that the plays for which he is remembered are those that he called potboilers, Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Woman of No Importance, and An Ideal Husband. Only The Importance of Being Earnest really delighted him.
Wilde wrote a total of seven plays and clearly considered Salomé, which served as the basis for several operas, including the famous one by Richard Strauss, his best. The play had been in rehearsal in London for two weeks with Sarah Bernhardt as Salomé when the licenser of plays banned it, citing a law on the books since the Reformation that prohibited from the British stage plays with biblical characters in them. The reason for this prohibition originally was to prevent Catholic mystery plays from being staged, but the law was the law, and Salomé was not performed.
Wilde’s nondramatic writing, his critical essays, his children’s stories, his short stories, and his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, were, in their author’s eyes, much better works than his social dramas. His poetry, particularly The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898), was important but is ignored by most of Wilde’s modern readers. De Profundis, written while Wilde was in prison, is perhaps his most personal statement. Its posthumous publication in 1905 enhanced Wilde’s tarnished reputation considerably.
Wilde liked his less familiar plays better than those that brought him fame and a fleeting period of economic security. Vera, written when he was twenty-five, is a flawed play about revolutionary politics in Russia. It is psychologically unconvincing and painfully melodramatic. It had opened in New York in August, 1883, but closed after seven performances that evoked scathing reviews. The Duchess of Padua (pb. 1883, pr. 1891), a verse drama, is imitative and tedious. Despite some appealing lines—found to some degree in everything that Wilde wrote—the play is overblown, more suited to the seventeenth century than the nineteenth century stage.
Salomé, however, is an artistic triumph. Wilde’s dramatization of the well-known biblical story is serious drama well executed. The directions for the staging capitalize on every dramatic possibility. The notable personality differences between Herod and Herodias are extremely well presented by deft use of dialogue. Both are evil, but they are evil in markedly different ways, and Wilde projects both convincingly within their individual spheres of evil. In this play, Wilde is at the height of his remarkable ability to reveal his characters through conversation without letting the dialogue degenerate into tedium. Although Herod is Salomé’s main character, Wilde’s psychological penetration of Salomé’s personality was good enough to make Bernhardt consent to play her.
In his more popular plays, Wilde borrows heavily from the melodrama of his day, but he does so without descending into melodramatic presentation. Rather, his social dramas reflect an art-for-art’s-sake attitude. He permits contradictions in his characters’ lines and lives because art can accommodate contradictions. Drama is not supposed to be truth in a narrow sense, but, inevitably, like all the other arts, represents Truth in a broader, philosophical sense.
Perhaps to understand some of what Wilde is attempting in his social dramas, one has to consider what the French Impressionist artists painting around the same time were trying to achieve. In eschewing photographic realism, they invented a new, profound, and honest, if somewhat stylized, realism. One must remember that Wilde, unlike the French Impressionists, was producing satire within the staid confines of Victorian England.
The staging of Wilde’s plays, considered quite difficult by modern standards, reflects the busyness and crowdedness of Victorian decoration. The pink shades that Wilde loves obscured nature’s cruelties, its harsh realities. The verbal superficialities in plays such as Lady Windermere’s Fan and
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