Last Updated on May 31, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3825
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 The Importance of Being Earnest became the satirical weapons that Wilde used against the falseness and hypocrisy rampant in fin de siècle England.
It was Wilde’s whimsical contention, quite in keeping with Walter Pater’s aestheticism, of which he had imbibed so heavily at Oxford, that nature imitates art rather than the reverse. In his collection of critical essays, Intentions—particularly in its two most important essays, “The Critic as Artist” and “The Decay of Lying”—Wilde made the case for criticism as an art form and for nature’s imitating art.
Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, first printed in abbreviated form in the June issue of Lippincott’s Magazine in 1890, came out in expanded form the following year. In many ways a classic gothic novel, it was regarded by many as the quintessence of Decadence, an effect that Wilde strove strenuously to achieve. In this novel, Wilde distorts the conventional doppelgänger motif in an outrageously bizarre and Faustian way.
Dorian Gray, having had his portrait painted by Basil Hallward, expresses his wish that the portrait age while he remain as he is. Gray gets his wish. The portrait not only ages but also shows the effect of an existence that becomes increasingly depraved and reckless. Gray, no longer able to display the painting, locks it away in the attic, where it gradually turns into a frightening picture of a depraved man made increasingly hideous by the secret activities in his life. Every flaw of Gray’s personality is reflected in the picture. Its subject eventually shows the portrait to Basil Hallward, its creator, but then must kill him to protect his dark secret. The portrait evolves into that of a murderer.
In this book, Wilde stands conventional morality on its head, as he often did in his writing and living. If contemporary critics called The Picture of Dorian Gray immoral, as many did, Wilde could respond with impunity that a book is neither moral or immoral; it is merely well written or badly written. Few could deny that this novel is well written.
Lady Windermere’s Fan
First produced: 1892 (first published, 1893)
Type of work: Play
Lady Windermere is forced to reconsider her harsh judgments of Mrs. Erlynne (unbeknownst to her, her own mother) when the latter saves Lady Windermere from disgrace.
Lady Windermere’s Fan, the first of Wilde’s social comedies, opened on February 20, 1892, in London to lukewarm reviews. A four-act play that employs what are often regarded in drama as cheap tricks—mistaken identity, the lost child restored to the rightful parent, the conversation overheard while hidden, and the romantic triangle—this play ultimately succeeds because it twists the clichés with which it is working. The mistaken identity remains mistaken, the lost child (Lady Windermere) never knows that Mrs. Erlynne is her true mother, and the romantic triangle is really not a romantic triangle, but only appears to be.
The play revolves around Lady Windermere’s twenty-first birthday. Her husband is giving a ball in honor of the occasion. Lady Windermere, trusting and innocent, receives information that “poor, dear Windermere” has been seeing another woman and has apparently set her up in style. At first, Lady Windermere does not believe the reports, but the seed of suspicion has been sown.
Hoping to prove her husband innocent, she goes to his desk and looks into his checkbook, finding nothing untoward. Her mind is relieved, but then she notices a second checkbook, this one locked. She breaks the lock, opens the checkbook, and, to her horror, finds that Windermere has written large and regular checks to Mrs. Erlynne, a woman with a past.
When she confronts her husband with this information, he is horrified that she has broken into his checkbook and defends Mrs. Erlynne, who is, as only Windermere knows, Lady Windermere’s real mother. Not only does he defend this fallen woman, but he insists that Lady Windermere invite her to the birthday ball to give her a chance to regain some of her squandered social stature. When Lady Windermere refuses, Windermere himself delivers an invitation to Mrs. Erlynne. Lady Windermere threatens to strike Mrs. Erlynne with her fan, a birthday gift from Windermere, if she comes to the ball.
In the next scene, the ball is under way. The butler announces the guests as they enter. He recites a string of names, at the end of which is Mrs. Erlynne’s, her isolation heightened by the fact that all the names that he recites are those of pairs of titled people, but Mrs. Erlynne is unaccompanied and untitled. Confronted by this scarlet woman, Lady Windermere drops her fan and bows mechanically. When she overhears Mrs. Erlynne asking Windermere for a large sum of money, she flees from the room.
She writes a letter to her husband announcing that she is going to run away with Lord Darlington, a Beau Brummel type who has rooms nearby. Mrs. Erlynne finds the letter and reads it. She rushes to Lord Darlington’s rooms to try to convince her daughter to reconsider, attempting to prevent her from making the sort of mistake that she herself made some years before.
As they talk, they hear voices in the hall, those of Windermere and Lord Darlington. Lady Windermere panics, but the resolute Mrs. Erlynne stashes her behind a curtain so that she will not be discovered. In her haste to hide, Lady Windermere leaves her fan behind. Her husband spots it and demands to know of Darlington what his wife’s fan is doing in Darlington’s quarters.
Mrs. Erlynne makes her self-sacrifice at this point, coming into the room and saying casually that she took the wrong fan at the party. Lady Windermere’s reputation is saved, but at great cost to Mrs. Erlynne. Now it is Lord Windermere’s turn to reject Mrs. Erlynne, whom he presumes has left her fan in Darlington’s drawing room because they are having a liaison.
The next day, it is Lady Windermere who is charitable toward Mrs. Erlynne; Lord Windermere is condemnatory. Yet the day is saved when Mrs. Erlynne comes by to announce that she is leaving London, and that she is going to marry an elderly, titled admirer.
This play is clearly about appearances and about the kinds of moral judgments that Victorian standards encouraged. Its epigrams are spirited, memorable, and profuse. Lady Windermere, who has been accepting of these standards, is now forced to reconsider her stand. Mrs. Erlynne makes her realize that one cannot divide humanity into those who are good and those who are bad.
In this play, Wilde pits his art against the philistinism of the materialistic Victorian age, and he does so with sufficient wit that he avoids the pitfall of lapsing into moral diatribe. He makes a great deal in one bit of dialogue of the word “trivial.” Lord Darlington considers it trivial to talk seriously about anything. He contends that to be understood is to be found out.
Obviously, this emphasis is an example of how Wilde frequently sets conventional morality on its head and causes people to rethink their bland acceptance of the status quo. By never revealing to Lady Windermere that Mrs. Erlynne is her mother, Wilde rises above the major cliché that he uses in the play.
The Importance of Being Earnest
First produced: 1895 (first published, 1899)
Type of work: Play
Jack Worthing discovers that his real name is Ernest, making him acceptable to Gwendolen, his lady love, who cannot love anyone who is not named Ernest.
In the entire Wilde canon, no play better exemplifies the author’s art-for-art’s-sake stand than The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People. The play is completely trivial, revolving around the fact that Jack Worthing, who loves Gwendolen Fairfax, cannot marry her, initially because Algernon Moncrieff, her cousin, refuses to sanction the marriage until Worthing resolves the mystery of Cecily, about whom Algernon knows because of an inscription on Worthing’s cigarette case.
Worthing reveals that Mr. Cardew, who adopted him after he had been found in a handbag in the parcel room at Victoria Station, appointed him guardian of Cardew’s granddaughter, Cecily Cardew, who always knew him as Uncle Jack. For Cecily’s benefit, Jack has maintained an air of moral restraint in her presence. To escape from this atmosphere, he has assumed, during his frequent visits to London, the name and generally reprobate behavior of an imaginary brother named Ernest. Worthing’s love for Gwendolen is complicated by the fact that Gwendolen cannot love any man who is not named Ernest.
In an often bewildering plot, in which identities are often difficult to follow, Lady Bracknell refuses to acknowledge Jack’s engagement to Gwendolen because she learns that Jack was found as an infant in a handbag in Victoria Station. Meanwhile, both Jack and Algernon are individually consorting with Dr. Chasuble to have their names changed to “Ernest.” Algernon, too, is in love—with Cecily, who has also revealed a desire to love someone named Ernest.
In the course of the play, the name of Cecily’s tutor, Miss Prism, is introduced. Lady Bracknell knows the name and insists that Miss Prism be brought to her. It is revealed that, years before, Miss Prism had been nurse to a family to which Lady Bracknell was connected. One day, Miss Prism, in a state of confusion, thoughtlessly placed the manuscript of a book that she had written in the bassinet of the baby in her care and absent-mindedly placed the baby in the handbag that should have held the manuscript.
She deposited the handbag in the parcel room of Victoria Station, and the baby was never restored to its rightful family. Jack, now thinking that Miss Prism is his mother, embraces her, but Lady Bracknell reveals that Jack’s mother was really her sister, Algernon’s mother, Mrs. Moncrieff. Algernon and Jack are brothers, but better still, Jack’s real name is Ernest. The play ends with Algernon and Cecily and Jack/Ernest and Gwendolen poised on the brink of happy lives together, in what is really a mock-Dickensian ending.
The play, which opened in London on St. Valentine’s Day, 1895, evoked incessant laughter from the first-night audience and lavish reviews from most critics. A few, such as George Bernard Shaw, found it wanting in meaning and castigated Wilde for the play’s triviality. Yet triviality of the sort that Wilde discussed in “Criticism as Art” was precisely what he sought to achieve in this production.
The Importance of Being Earnest succeeded, not in spite of its unbelievable characters, its improbable situations, its stilted dialogue, and its trivial ideas, but because of them. In this play, Wilde accomplished par excellence what he interpreted as Walter Pater’s credo, denying at the same time that part of John Ruskin’s credo that placed upon art a moral responsibility.
This play has been the most enduring of Wilde’s dramas, still delighting audiences with the sort of childlike unreality found in the stories that constitute The Happy Prince, and Other Tales (1888). There is a real kinship between the two works despite their obvious differences and the differences of their intended audiences.
The Picture of Dorian Gray
First published: 1890, serial; 1891, expanded
Type of work: Novel
Dorian Gray, wishing never to age, wants his portrait to age for him and gets his wish.
Dorian Gray, the title character of The Picture of Dorian Gray, is a decadent dandy of the Victorian era. Concerned with little but appearances, he lives a reckless, nonproductive existence. A crucial event in his life comes when Dorian meets Lord Henry Wotton in the studio of Basil Hallward, an artist, who has painted a portrait of the breathtakingly beautiful Dorian, now in his early twenties. Lord Wotton intrigues Dorian with his talk of the New Hedonism, which is reflected in the novel by Lord Henry’s giving Dorian a copy of Joris-Karl Huysmans’s À rebours (1884; Against the Grain, 1922), a novel that articulates this philosophy, the basis of which is the achievement of a complete realization of one’s nature.
Dorian now utters a Faust-like proposition. He expresses a willingness to surrender his soul if he can maintain his youth and physical beauty and have his portrait age in his place. Dorian hardly expects to have his wish granted and thinks little more of it. He is busy courting Sybil Vane, a talented young actress, who falls in love with him.
Ironically, Sybil’s being in love with Dorian robs her of her ability to act. In time, the very ability that first drew Dorian to Sybil has disappeared, and he rejects her unfeelingly. Having lost Dorian and her acting ability simultaneously, Sybil kills herself. Lord Henry, Dorian’s Mephistopheles, convinces Dorian that, in line with the New Hedonism, Sybil’s suicide is an experience that will help him to feel life more intensely and that it can be viewed as nothing but a source of personal growth.
When all of this happens, Dorian notices subtle changes in the portrait, which is still on display in his residence. A hint of cruelty, a line near the mouth, forms, but Dorian thinks little of it. Meanwhile, Lord Henry leads Dorian into all kinds of arcane activities that, in the tradition of the gothic novel, are suggested but never revealed explicitly, making them seem, perhaps, more horrible than they actually are.
By the time Dorian is thirty-eight years old—still looking twenty—the portrait has changed so drastically that it must be hidden under lock and key. Basil, the artist, alarmed at Dorian’s dissolute ways, urges him to change, to reform. Dorian shows Basil the portrait, now hideous, reflecting all the corruption of Dorian’s past years. Then he turns on Basil and stabs him. To conceal the crime, Dorian forces a chemist whom he has ruined to use his knowledge of chemistry to destroy the body. Finally, weeks later, shaken by what he has become, Dorian tells Lord Henry that he is going to reform. On returning home, he looks at the portrait and, seeing further deterioration in the visage before him, grabs the knife that he has plunged into Basil and sinks it into the grotesque portrait. A cry and a crash are heard. Servants rush to the locked room, forcing open the door. Inside, they find a portrait of an exquisite youth, and on the floor beside it, the body of a hideous, loathsome old man in evening dress, a knife through his heart.
Wilde’s novel provoked considerable outrage when it was published. The tenets of the New Hedonism expressed in the book flew in the face of conventional morality to the point that readers were profoundly shocked. Despite these objections, the novel succeeded artistically and attracted many readers.
The book presents Lord Henry’s credo within its first few pages, and the rest of the narrative is devoted to Dorian’s acting out of that credo. In a sense, Dorian Gray was born with the creation of Basil Hallward’s portrait. Readers are not introduced to Dorian Gray, the child. The Dorian that Wilde springs on his readers does not exist until the portrait exists.
According to a letter that Wilde wrote in 1894, he said that he saw in this novel three sides of himself. In Basil Hallward, he creates what he believes is a true perception of himself. In Lord Henry, he projects the person whom the world believes him to be. In Dorian, he presents the self whom he would like to be in some other age. How seriously one can take this assessment remains a matter of scholarly speculation.
The Lord Henry that Wilde projects is, in accordance with Wilde’s expressed philosophy, the ultimate artist. He molds raw material (Dorian), shaping it with sure hands into what he wills it to be. In this sense, he is a Pygmalion as much as he is a Mephistopheles.
The Ballad of Reading Gaol
First published: 1898
Type of work: Poem
This long poem is about the imprisonment and hanging of a young trooper in the Royal Horse Guards who murdered his wife in a fit of jealousy.
The Ballad of Reading Gaol is the only major work that Wilde produced after his release from prison on May 19, 1897. By mid-October, he had finished this poem, consisting of 654 lines, 109 six-line verses. It was first published the following February. Wilde’s name did not appear on the title page. Rather, the number of his prison cell at Reading Gaol—C.3.3.—was the designation by which the book was identified. By writing in six-line stanzas rather than the four-line stanzas typically found in ballads, Wilde was able to add reflective statements to each verse. Using the term that Ezra Pound later made famous, Wilde divided his poem into six “cantos.”
The Ballad of Reading Gaol is unique among Wilde’s work because it deals with the harsh realities of prison and with the even harsher reality of an execution, the taking of a human life, through legal means, by fellow humans. The world depicted in this poem is light-years away from the affluent drawing rooms in which his social comedies are set. It is equally distant from the fantasy worlds of his other poetry and his fairy tales.
The poem’s first canto provides the introduction of the murderer into the prison community and the speculation of the other prisoners about him. The canto reflects a softening as it considers the crimes that all individuals commit, commenting on how all people at times kill with a “bitter look” or in some other covert but socially acceptable way. Finally, the prisoners realize that they all have a connection with the condemned man, that, in their own ways, they are all guilty with him. He becomes a sort of Christ figure expiating the universal sins of humankind.
The second canto relates the condemned man’s final moments, but it also emphasizes the identification that the other prisoners feel with him as he faces execution. Canto 3 reflects on the days before the execution and on how the prisoners develop a kinship with the unfortunate prisoner. The next canto presents the psychological impact of the execution on the other prisoners.
Structurally, the poem ends with the fourth canto. Wilde chose to continue it beyond that because he wanted to propagandize for prison reform, and it is in this forum that he can best do that. He castigates the legal and prison systems of his time, pointing out that all that is good in humans withers in prison. Despite his recent bitter experience with the legal and prison systems, Wilde remains remarkably detached and objective in his presentation.
This poem is not Victorian. It represents a new direction for Wilde, but one that he did not have the vitality to pursue further after the publication of this poem. The Ballad of Reading Gaol is a poem more in the tradition of A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad (1896), which Wilde had read, than of the Victorian poets, whose work is more like Wilde’s earlier poetry.
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