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Oscar Wilde 1854-1900

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(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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

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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

Salomé 1896

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.

Joseph Bristow (essay date spring 1994)

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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 Mrs Cheveley meant?” (152).

I begin with this exchange because it foregrounds at least two of the main issues at stake in Wilde's contentious handling of the late-Victorian Society comedy. The first is that these dramas constantly thrill the audience with their spectacular displays of the wealth enjoyed by these generally idle characters, only to reveal how grayly monotonous their everyday lives truly are. This play, after all, begins with Mrs Marchmont complaining that the Hartlocks give “Horribly tedious parties” (133), a view with which Lady Basildon wholly concurs. “Horribly tedious!” she exclaims. “Never know why I go. Never know why I go anywhere” (133). Yet the repetitious lifestyles of these people are framed by the grandeur of the stage setting which places them in a richly tapestried environment that cannot but impose its aesthetic qualities upon us. The dreary day-to-day rounds of the Season may well make Mrs Marchmont and Lady Basildon look rather bored with their world yet in spite of this—if not because of it—the stage directions insist that their “affectation of manner has a delicate charm.” For all their superficality, it is still the case that “Watteau would have loved to paint them” (133). Similar comparisons with the work of favoured artists extend to practically all of the men and women in the play. Lest we might think that these stage settings have a purely decorative function, Ian Small reminds us that Wilde's selection of these specific art-objects “implicate[s] the political values which are so central to the play's development.” Thus Watteau immediately encodes a sense of “delicate eroticism.”2 If these luxurious descriptions were not enough to emphasize the visual allure and social glamour of this drama, then there is the whole question of the role of the London fashion houses that used the West End stage to advertise their creations. For, as Joel H. Kaplan has remarked, Wilde collaborated with up-and-coming designers of haute couture in order to “turn [those] icons of midcentury melodrama—the Magdalen, the Adventuress, the Puritan Wife—into fashion ‘statements’ that cut provocatively across moral and generic boundaries.”3 So even if the routines of Society make this world seem, as it were, dowdyish, these women none the less inhabit an environment that one might, at the risk of straining a metaphor, describe as dandiacal. Its attractiveness refashioned how an audience could and should look at Society.

The second, and equally important, point that emerges from Lord Goring's response to the lives of these “dowdies and dandies” is that the meaning of the original observation is far from cut and dried. By transforming the men into the usually feminine “dowdies” and representing Society women as the conventionally masculine “dandies,” Lord Goring employs one of Wilde's most characteristic tropes. This is the figure of peripety—or the dramatic reversal in fortune—where a given structure is rapidly turned upside down and back to front. For everywhere we look in Wilde's works, we encounter an arresting changeover of familiar devices into things that often seem completely unanticipated—sometimes by hilariously testing the limits of dramatic plausibility. Jack Worthing, after all, having pretended for some time to be “Ernest,” becomes genuinely Ernest in “e(a)rnest,” as Wilde's farcical final comedy hurtles to its close. Whether we are examining the improbable coincidences shaping his comedic plots or looking at the axiomatic tricksiness of his phrases and philosophies, there is always a marked tendency for Wilde to outwit us just at the point where our expectations ought to be confirmed. Small wonder, then, that Mrs Marchmont is left to consider whether Mrs Cheveley really meant that the gentlemen were “dowdies” and the ladies the “dandies” of the day. What, indeed, might be the point of refashioning Mrs Marchmont's sense of how London Society looks and behaves? Why should there be this rapid volte face in how we are made to look at, as well as think about, the roles given to men and women on this visually and verbally irresistible stage?

These questions are worth raising because it has proved persistently difficult for critics to contend with the inconsistencies that would for some appear to mar Wilde's Society comedies. For example, when discussing A Woman of No Importance, Kerry Powell emphasizes his dissatisfaction with the conclusion to a play in which “all the major characters exhibit contradictory and unpredictable behaviour.”4 This is an aspect of Wilde's drama that frequently vexes Powell's painstaking investigation of Wilde's borrowings from his theatrical predecessors. Especially confounding in this respect is Lord Goring, who, for Powell, does not behave in a manner that would fulfil our expectations of the dandy as a man of independent spirit and incisive wit. Lord Goring, by all accounts, appears to be the least likely candidate to conform to Society's wishes by becoming engaged to Mabel Chiltern in Act IV. “Brilliant though [Lord Goring] is,” writes Powell, “what can we make of a dandy who links love and politics so sentimentally, who preaches such a retrograde sexual ethic as the one he expounds to Lady Chiltern [263-65], and who ends the play by choosing a domestic life in preference to any other?”5 Powell is hardly alone in questioning how one character comes to a thoroughly unpredicted end. Not only has it long been the case that Wilde's protagonists have struck his audiences as lacking the depth and sincerity that would lend men such as Lord Goring a satisfying unity of purpose, from the earliest days of these dramas, countless commentators have also expressed impatience with the way that they are scattered so liberally—if not repetitiously—with “Oscarisms” that it proves hard indeed to tell one character apart from another.6 It is as if Wilde, rather than his dramatis personae, ruled the stage. Worse still has been Wilde's seeming contempt for the traditions in which he had chosen to work. One of his most hostile critics, writing on The Importance of Being Earnest in 1895, stated that the “story is clumsily handled, the treatment unequal, the construction indifferent, while the elements of farce, comedy, and burlesque are jumbled together with a fine disregard for consistency.”7

One can, of course, turn Wilde's blatant defiance of conventions to his advantage. But the desire to do so has, on occasions, made him look just as capricious as he appeared to those who found his “Oscarisms” a source of irritation. In the study that has done more than any other to restyle our understanding of Wilde's oeuvre, Regenia Gagnier makes one point undeniably clear right at the start of her discussion. “Oscar Wilde,” she observes, “wanted to have it all ways.”8 He becomes, for Gagnier, the figure of contradiction par excellence. On this view, his life and writings, together with the large corpus of biography that has swollen around the Wilde myth, present him as romantic and cynical, sentimental and satiric, and martyr and mannequin at one and the same time. Such manifestations are, according to Gagnier, the outcome of Wilde's relations with the main forces of cultural production that impose their competing demands on his work. Although Gagnier's emphasis on the need to position the figure of Wilde in the context of various social institutions is a welcome one, it may well suggest that the contradictoriness of his writing is the mystified and unresolved result of the machinations of capital. I should wish to argue instead that the inconsistent, contradictory, and unpredictable elements that characterize the authorial sign of “Wilde” are part and parcel of his wholesale critique of a culture that foolishly wants its meanings and its morals clearly laid out. Dowdies and dandies are, in this respect, hardly discrete. But, there again, they are not quite the same thing either.

Rather than labour the interchangeability of “dowdies and dandies” any further, this essay proceeds to discuss a handful of episodes from the Society comedies that accentuate how and why Wilde was consistently absorbed, as it were, by inconsistency. For if one thing becomes patently obvious in these dramas, it is that their moral system is difficult to gauge. Each plot fails to secure an ending that provides a magical resolution to the crises it has opened up—not least in the divided, undecidable, and factitious personalities that catch our attention with those “Oscarisms” which, by definition, could hardly be called their own. The greatest problem arising from the deliberate contradictoriness that typifies almost every aspect of these Society comedies is whether they are necessarily progressive or avant-garde. It remains to be seen whether Wilde's generic and moral transgressions are, so to speak, transgressive.9


Let me move, first of all, to one of the most vexed aspects of Lady Windermere's Fan (1892). For it was there that the meaning and motivation of Wilde's characters became the source of considerable friction between Wilde, George Alexander, and Clement Scott. Wilde's disagreement with them lay in the figure of Mrs Erlynne, who, he told Alexander, was an “adventuress, not a cocotte,” and should be played as such.10 But his insistence that this carefully designed character should not reveal her identity as Lady Windermere's mother until the close of Act IV kept much of the play beyond the audience's grasp. “For two-thirds of the evening,” wrote Scott in the Daily Telegraph, “people were asking one another, who is she? … Is this adventuress a mistress, or can she be a mother?”11 The audience, to be fair, was not entirely to blame for feeling so bewildered. Wilde had, as he informed Alexander, sought to create in Mrs Erlynne “a character as yet untouched by literature.”12 But she proved to be too innovative by far. To overcome the confusion she aroused among those who attended the opening night, Wilde reluctantly capitulated to Alexander's directorial demand that this woman's true identity as the mother of Lady Windermere be made clear much earlier in the play. (In his public pronouncement on this marked alteration to his script, however, Wilde declared that Alexander had been right to urge him to make the change so that “the psychological interest of the second act would be greatly increased.”)13

At first sight a stock-in-trade adventuress, Mrs Erlynne comes to Lord Windermere's home to bribe him so that her true identity shall not become public knowledge. Any family connection with such a disreputable person would, he knows for sure, ruin his marriage. It is, as Lord Windermere sees it, imperative that his Puritan Wife is not disabused of the belief that her own mother died when she was a small child. But no sooner has most of the first act been given over to preparing the audience for Mrs Erlynne's entrance onto the stage than she undergoes a transformation that could never have been imagined in any of her theatrical precursors. The intractable difficulty with Mrs Erlynne is that she is placed in a position where she begins to espouse precisely those puritanical values that, to all intents and purposes, she should and must despise. Perhaps more puzzling still is the rapid turnabout in Lady Windermere's behaviour. For this young wife impulsively disregards the moral strictures of her upbringing by abandoning her husband and child on the grounds that she believes him to be conducting an adulterous affair with the woman who is, in fact, her mother. Wilde's plot, therefore, swiftly places one apparently incongruous moral layer upon another.

At the start of Act III, it goes without saying that the diametrically opposed Puritan Wife and the Adventuress have, if only momentarily, changed places. Mrs Erlynne has followed Lady Windermere to Lord Darlington's room to dissuade her from deserting Lord Windermere and their baby. The Puritan Wife's actions come as a great surprise, since she has in the opening scene made her strict views on the rights and wrongs of marriage known to her flirtatious admirer, Lord Darlington. Underpinning her moral precepts at the start of Act I is the high-minded virtue of sacrifice. Spiritual values are for her sharply opposed to those of the stock exchange. “Nowadays,” she declares, “people seem to look on life as a speculation. It is not a speculation. It is a sacrament. Its ideal is Love. Its purification is sacrifice.”14 Lord Darlington offers the first, and unsuccessful, challenge to this unbending orthodoxy, since he thinks that life is “too complex a thing to be settled by these hard and fast rules” (11). She, however, does her utmost to resist his charms. Under no circumstances whatsoever will Lady Windermere admit any compromise.

But Lady Windermere does so only in principle. For by the time she is waiting for Lord Darlington to return she has surely transgressed Society's moral code of honour. Scott, not surprisingly, found this aspect of the play most unpalatable. In his indignant review in the Illustrated London News, Scott turned his paragraphs over to an imaginary monologue spoken by Wilde. In this derogatory guise of Scott's invention, the playwright reels off each and every insult that he has managed to blow in the public's face, much in the manner of the cigarette that he chose to smoke while addressing the audience on the opening night of the play, and which caused considerable offence in some quarters of the press. Reminding his readership of Nora's abandonment of her child in Ibsen's A Doll's House (1879), Scott projects these words into Wilde's mouth. “You have seen how the good mother can desert her new-born infant without a pang.” Scott then identifies how Wilde has sought to add insult to injury in his depiction of Lady Windermere. “I will show you,” he writes, “a mother who leaves her daughter for ever, unkissed, and goes downstairs to accept the hand of a roué admirer on her deserted daughter's doorstep.”15 Scott clearly is sickened by the thought that such an action should be found “amusing” by a prurient public. No doubt Lady Winderemere is like Nora in doing “a thing that one of the lower animals would not do.”16

Yet Scott misleads his readers by implying that Wilde's comedy extends and heightens the shocks induced by Nora's desertion of her husband and child. For Lady Windermere, of course, does not ultimately fall foul of Society. Mrs Erlynne unexpectedly comes to her rescue.”Oh! to save you from the abyss into which you are falling,” she exclaims in words that have a more than familiar melodramatic ring to them, “there is nothing in the world I would not dare” (55). Yet this morally righteous act of salvation is the direct result of Mrs Erlynne's brazenly corrupt behaviour. Mrs Erlynne has learned of Lady Windermere's intentions through the slyest of actions by intercepting the letter that the Puritan Wife has impulsively left for Lord Windermere. The Adventuress, therefore, has done something shameful in order to spare her daughter from “shame, yes, shame and disgrace” (56). The scene reaches an incredibly emotive pitch when Mrs Erlynne launches into a speech that berates Society's intolerance towards the woman with a past. “One pays for one's sin,” she says, “and then one pays again, and all one's life one pays” (57). Such words force home the point that Mrs Erlynne—“a character as yet untouched by literature”—is not beyond redemption. But the comedy does not struggle either to reform or to punish her so that the moral system of the drama can be easily resolved. “I have,” she tells Lord Windermere in Act IV, “no ambition to play the part of a mother … I want to live childless still” (80).

The crucial point about this lengthy speech in Act IV is that it reminds us that the lives led by members of Society are nothing more than already scripted roles. And such roles have to be enacted to secure one's own best interests. For social advantage, as Mrs Erlynne knows only too well, is maintained by the appearance one makes in Society, and little else. Sincerity, depth of feeling, authenticity—none of these things can be risked in her chosen way of life. “I lost one illusion last night,” she remarks, “I thought I had no heart. I find I have, and a heart doesn't suit me, Windermere. Somehow it doesn't go with modern dress” (80). So even if Mrs Erlynne discovers that she has a fundamental humanity, she dare not risk becoming sentimental since it “makes one look old” (80). Better by far to maintain the illusions enabled by “modern dress” where age can masquerade as youth. Mrs Erlynne, after all, has never admitted to being older than thirty. Her decision to keep up appearances in “modern dress” ensures that the truth of her identity continues to be withheld from Lady Windermere. Yet at the moment that Mrs Erlynne confesses to having lost one “illusion,” she insists to Lord Windermere that his wife must not lose hers. Her daughter must, by all accounts, remain devoted to the “memory of this dead, stainless mother” (80). The unmotherly Mrs Erlynne is certainly at her most manipulative when she takes the moral high ground by reminding Lady Windermere of one's duties as a “mother” (85). These emollient words serve to salve Lady Windermere's conscience so that she can stay happily married at Selby. But they emerge from a most ironic source. Consequently, Lady Windermere's ignorance of Mrs Erlynne's strategic handling of “modern dress” shall guarantee her marital bliss. The play, however, does not return Lady Windermere to a state of innocence. This comedy resists, as always, such an easy equation between moral alternatives.

For, in living contentedly with her “illusions,” Lady Windermere cannot retreat back to her earlier moralistic self. Even if she remains committed to the “memory of this dead, stainless mother,” she has none the less had radically to shift her perspective on the double standards of the Society she inhabits. Whereas in Act I she declared that life would be more “simple” if everyone lived by “hard and fast rules” (11), by Act IV she is protesting to her husband in Mrs Erlynne's favour that she does not “think now that people can be divided into the good and the bad, as though they were two separate races or creations” (73-74). Her mature outlook leads her to insist in Act IV that Mrs Erlynne, whose engagement to Lord Augustus has just been announced, is without question “a very good woman” (89). But, there again, her judgement is based on only a partial knowledge of the Adventuress who has paraded across the stage in the endlessly deceitful guise of “modern dress.” So even if Lady Windermere has discovered some wisdom in not dividing the world into virtuous and vicious types, her final declaration about the goodness of Mrs Erlynne must surely make the audience pause for thought. How does one genuinely know the moral value of another person? Are there any exact standards by which one may measure the truth or falsity of another's motives? Since it is “illusions” that lead Wilde's heroine to label the adventuress who saved her as a “very good woman,” it remains unclear which of the two is supposed to be valued most highly. The play is far from explicit about who, indeed, is the “good woman” being honoured in its subtitle.


Purity, one of the conventional signs of virtue, is cast under equal suspicion in A Woman of No Importance where the two figures who embody the “higher ethical standard” (22) are challenged by a man who ostentatiously dons “modern dress.” The Puritans, in this instance, are the self-satisfied philanthropist, Lord Kelvil MP, and a young woman hailing from the New England bourgeoisie, Hester Worsley. Their high-minded pronouncements on the social ills of modern life are contested by the dandiacal Lord Illingworth. Yet here, too, the system of moral oppositions between each party is far from as stark as these character types might initially encourage us to believe.

Hester, for example, spends most of the first three acts expressing her dismay at those Society people who take it upon themselves to “sneer at self-sacrifice” (52). Her assault on the English upper classes is harsh indeed, and her indictments at times invite us to see her as the strong voice of political conscience in the play. In Wilde's drafts, Hester's invective is especially pungent. “You cultivated people,” she declares, “don't know why you are living. You never think of that” (n. 52). In the text used in performance, she rails against a class of persons who “throw bread to the poor … merely to keep them quiet for a season” (52). Such outpourings would seem to underline Wilde's dissatisfaction with a property-owning Society that he forcefully criticizes in The Soul of Man under Socialism (1890). But Hester, as the play proceeds, hardly fulfils any socialist ideal. She is only too clearly an insurgent member of the aspiring nouveaux riches who is treated to not a little irony when Lady Caroline informs her that “In my young days … one never met anyone in society who worked for their living” (15). Hester is, for all to see, in England to obtain a husband, and to gain access to upper-class life. And so, by the final act, she has secured her engagement to an Englishman.

What is more, Hester's punitive moral principles, which she sustains right up until Act III, eventually founder as her friendship with Mrs Arbuthnot develops. Having declared in her brash manner that “all women who have sinned be punished” (53), she later recognizes in Mrs Arbuthnot qualities that are apparently lacking in other members of Society. Hester, on the face of it, could not have drawn a more wrongheaded conclusion. For she does not know that Mrs Arbuthnot is a woman who has had to live the life of an outcast for bearing a child outside wedlock. Hester, as a consequence, fails to realize that her fiancé, Mrs Arbuthnot's son, is illegitimate. So when Hester later calls on Mrs Arbuthnot to agree with the view that a “woman who has sinned should be punished” (88), Wilde's dramatic irony is painfully obvious. In Mrs Arbuthnot—described elsewhere by Lord Illingworth as “excessively handsome” (64)—Hester perceives “a sense of what is good and pure in life” (83). Yet once the truth of Gerald's parentage has been disclosed in the final line of Act III, she will have to revise her opinion. For what happens to Hester is that she is abused by Lord Illingworth in a way that enables her to sympathize with Mrs Arbuthnot's long history of silent suffering. The dandy, playing up to his role as a philanderer, makes an unwelcome pass at the young woman. Having screamed out the words “He has insulted me!” (95), Hester later joins forces against him, extravagantly informing Gerald that in his mother “all womanhood is martyred.” “Not she alone,” she adds, “but all of us are stricken in her house” (108). Although her puritanical discourse is sustained throughout this comedy, the important point that arises from Act IV is that Hester's retributory position on the woman with a past has been turned on its head. In the closing tableau, she accepts Mrs Arbuthnot as her “mother” (120).

This would appear, on the surface, to be a reconciliatory scene, one that set the moral priorities of the play in order. Yet for all the changes in conscience that have beset the “Puritan in white muslin,” as Lord Illingworth wryly names Hester (113), it is still the case that the compromise made by Mrs Arbuthnot and Gerald is morally incomplete. Rejecting the dandy's offer of marriage, Mrs Arbuthnot cannot so easily be rendered acceptable as a “martyr” when she is, by her own admission, like all women who “live by our emotions and for them” (117). “A kiss,” as she tells her former lover, “may ruin a human life” (112), making us question the ferocity of Society's opprobrium against those who follow their desires. Mrs Arbuthnot, in any case, does not exactly pass muster as an icon of self-sacrificing motherhood. Her sexuality was, in Alexander's original production, strongly signalled by her style of dress. Playing Mrs Arbuthnot in 1893, Mrs Bernard Beere, according to a writer in the Sketch, “wore two severe-looking gowns, both black.” Such costumes, we are told, were “appropriate to a betrayed woman, and had the advantage of standing out strongly in grim, sombre majesty against the brilliant dresses of the butterfly women of the play.”17 Accoutred in this manner, she stands out much in the same way as Illingworth does himself. And her style of clothing confounds, rather than clarifies, the resolution to her plight.

Mrs Arbuthnot, however, is not unique in sending out contradictory signals about how she is supposed to be understood by the audience. In Wilde's dramas, it remains mainly in the hands of the dandy to problematize the question of how appearances may reveal or conceal moral truths. This is certainly not to say that Lord Illingworth provides anything like a reliable index against which the relations between acts and consequences can be confidently measured. For in Illingworth, as with many of Wilde's dandies, it is not always easy to make hard and fast distinctions between levels of depth and superficiality. “People nowadays are so absolutely superficial,” he tells Gerald Arbuthnot, “they don't understand the philosophy of the superficial” (75). It is, as he himself acknowledges, tempting to view his style as simply an inconsequential display of egotism and wit. To a degree, that is precisely what it is. But his dramatic purpose is also to raise the audience's awareness that there may be something to be learned from his well-oiled axioms, not least when it comes to mocking Society. The badinage in which he and Mrs Allonby indulge at great length in Act I provides perhaps the best examples of how his discourse refuses to settle on either side of an argument. The tone of their lively exchange is constantly shifting. Flippant remarks often carry the weight of considerable import. “I never intend to grow old,” he informs Mrs Allonby. “The soul is born old but grows young. That is the comedy of life.” She matches his wit by playfully turning these apothegmatic statements upside down. Thus she replies that “the body is born young and grows old. That is life's tragedy” (38). Large philosophical speculations roll off the tongue in such glib turns of phrase that one may well take them as frivolous in the extreme. And yet the rapid reversibility of comedy and tragedy, age and youth, and life and death in these feats of rhetorical one-upmanship assuredly has a larger point to make about the unstable nature of the oppositions featured here. Their dialogue suggests that comedy and tragedy are always implied in one another, and to extricate them is difficult indeed. This is surely the case when we consider the outcome of the play. For in refusing Lord Illingworth's belated offer of marriage, Mrs Arbuthnot leaves England to join a son and daughter-in-law whose strict moral code looks like a very bleak alternative to the life she might have led with him. This comedy, therefore, remains haunted by doubts. To be a “mother,” in this context, could very possibly be viewed as another kind of tragic denial.

For it is, time and again, the evident intention of each of Wilde's Society comedies not to present the audience with ideal endings. Marriage, in particular is the institution that fails most visibly in this respect, and the ambivalence with which marriage is treated in the closing moments of comic resolution is surely symptomatic of the changing legal status of the ties that bound men and women together in wedded bliss. Many critics have noted that Wilde's comedies show a marked responsiveness to the broadening of the Married Women's Property Act in 1893. In Act II, Mrs Allonby wittily observes that “All men are married women's property.” “That,” she adds, “is the only true definition of what married women's property really is” (42). Such remarks give Lady Stutfield good reason to ask Mrs Allonby for her views on what might go into the makings of the “Ideal Husband” (47). For her such an “ideal,” given that her own husband is pejoratively described in legalistic terms as a “promissory note” (43), simply cannot exist. But the suggestion that she might sketch an outline of the “Ideal Man” prompts Mrs Allonby to remark that he would “talk to us as if we were goddesses, and treat us as if we were children” (47). In one regard, this is exactly what middle-class upholders of the doctrine of “Woman's Mission” promulgated from the 1830s onwards. Mrs Allonby appears to be celebrating nothing other than the devoted angel-wife who is forever infantilized by her authoritarian husband. But no sooner has Mrs Allonby made these conservative sentiments clear than she promptly adds that the “Ideal Man” should “forbid us to have missions.” “[C]aprices,” she jokingly asserts, are what women should have instead (47). What, then, are we to believe?

There is obviously no unequivocal answer. And that is precisely the point of the play. Eager to collapse clear-cut distinctions, Wilde surely must have felt that his intentions had been fulfilled when reading A. B. Walkely's generous review of this comedy. For Walkely sees “verbal antithesis” as “not only the secret of Mr Wilde's dialogue, but of his dramatic action as well.” His attention focuses in particular on the links between the final line of the drama and its title. Mrs Arbuthnot closes Act IV by remarking that the glove with which she has lightly hit Lord Illingworth across the face belongs to a “man of no importance” (120). “What,” asks Walkely, “is the opposite to ‘a woman of no importance’? Why, ‘a man of no importance.’” These phrases strike him as “the two contrasted most de la pièce.18 These “mots,” to be sure, mark out the points of convergence and disparity between Lord Illingworth and Mrs Arbuthnot. Their likeness and dissimilarity are held in an entirely purposeful tension—in so far as the play's strongly marked interest in structural contradictions is concerned.


The debate about the makings of the “Ideal Husband” and the “Ideal Man” are, of course, carried over into An Ideal Husband itself. Here, too, the closing scene of the play strikes one or two “antithetical” notes against the perfect qualities supposedly enshrined in its title. Lord Goring, having announced his intention to marry Mabel Chiltern, is gently reproved by his father. “[I]f you,” declares Lord Caversham, “don't make this young lady an ideal husband, I'll cut you off with a shilling” (270). This half-serious threat prompts Mabel to remark: “An ideal husband! Oh, I don't think I should like that. It sounds like something in the next world” (270). Her rather naïve response, however, also has a profound resonance, since it is juxtaposed to the plight of Sir Robert and Lady Chiltern, for whom, after many personal difficulties, “a new life is beginning” (270). The Chilterns have, throughout the course of the play, had to make compromises of the kind already established in the two previous comedies. But Wilde's unusual handling of Sir Robert exerts innovative pressures on the ways in which men of high standing are to be regarded in Society drama. For once Sir Robert's sordid history comes to light, he appears to us in rather feminized terms. Like the stock-in-trade “woman with a past,” he has prostituted himself, if not sexually, then to the God of Mammon. His whole fortune, we discover, is based on the monies he gained from selling a Cabinet secret to a foreign aristocrat. Once this heinous act has been revealed to Lady Chiltern, she conforms to her role as the Puritan Wife by despising herself for ever having looked up to him as “something apart from common life, a thing pure, noble, honest, without stain” (210). The remainder of the drama undertakes to bring them together, if on wholly revised terms. In this respect, their “ideal” marriage suffers much the same fate as that of the Windermeres. Yet, in this play, Wilde's interest in unsettling the distinctions between “good” and “bad” types is focused on one theatrical device that is used to much more elaborate ends than in Lady Windermere's Fan. In An Ideal Husband, the intercepted letter literally serves to rewrite Society's rigid manual of conduct where no one—not even a traitor to the government—is unduly punished.

Lady Chiltern's letter of desperation to Lord Goring undergoes a series of startling rescriptings. It emerges, first of all, at the opening of Act III shortly after Sir Robert has confessed his painful history to her. The truth has had to come out because of the political inveiglings of Mrs Cheveley, who has attempted to bribe him in much the same manner as Baron Arnheim did before. Dispatched to Lord Goring, her missive simply reads: “I want you. I trust you. I am coming to you” (215). However, Lady Chiltern's words are consequently subjected to a wilful misreading. And for some time it looks as if this hastily written piece of paper may serve to incriminate her. Let us follow, then, the perilous passage of this letter through Acts III and IV so that Wilde's aesthetics of appropriation and politics of social change can be understood in all their structural intricacy.

The Adventuress, given her stealthy behaviour, fulfils her role by filching Lady Chiltern's letter while waiting for Lord Goring to return to his rooms. She sees how a highly sexual gloss may put upon this document, one that would suggest that Lord Goring is committing adultery with the Puritan Wife. The letter consequently becomes a significant bargaining tool in the war of words that ensues between Mrs Cheveley and Lord Goring. And the intensity of the situation is increased because, as Act III reveals, these two people were formerly lovers. She finally declares that she will hand over the letter if he agrees to marry her. It is hardly a decent proposal, and he dismisses her offer out of hand. Right at the centre of the cross-fire of insults that they subsequently aim at one another is a punishing critique of marriage. Discovering that Lord Goring will consent to her wishes so that Sir Robert shall be saved, Mrs Cheveley derides his inability to rise “to some great height of self-sacrifice” (235). Failing to meet with her expectations, he insists that “self-sacrifice is a thing that should be put down by law.” “It is,” he adds, “demoralizing to the people for whom one sacrifices oneself. They always go to the bad” (236). The enmity between them goes from bad to worse precisely because these rivals—the dandy and the adventuress—are only too aware of how masks and roles are constantly being manipulated to maintain specific appearances and exert certain forms of power in high Society. They attend, more than anyone else, to questions of fashion. Outward displays count far more for them than do inward forms of denial. When Lord Goring asks Mrs Cheveley for the letter, for example, she claims not to have it with her because a “well-made dress has no pockets” (232). Similarly, when commenting on the virtues of the Puritan Wife, Mrs Cheveley ridicules the ungainly size of Lady Chiltern's hands: “A woman whose size in gloves is seven and three-quarters never knows much about anything” (236). The surprising thing is that the play encourages us to see that Mrs Cheveley and Lord Goring, for all their corrupt wranglings, are in many respects correct. This point is made explicit in “The Truth of Masks: A Note on Illusion” (first published in 1885) where Wilde remarks that “Costume is a growth, an evolution, and a most important, perhaps the most important, sign of the manners, customs and mode of life of each century.”19 To understand fashion, as Lord Goring and Mrs Cheveley claim to do, is to comprehend the inner workings of a culture. Such fashion-conscious people, by and large, are in a better position than most to come to terms with some of Society's deepest contradictions.

That is why the “snake-brooch with a ruby” (238) features so centrally in Act III. Like the intercepted letter, it has the potential to be refashioned in a style that has not been previously anticipated. For the brooch that Mrs Cheveley has lost in Act I is clasped upon her arm by Lord Goring as a bracelet. Never before has she known that it could be worn like this, and her ignorance of this fact spells her doom. For she finds that she cannot remove it. She is, at this point, outsmarted by her adversary, who informs her that this piece of jewellery once belonged to his cousin, from whom Mrs Cheveley has stolen it. Although many critics have expressed dissatisfaction with the heavy-handed treatment of this device—since it obviously ensnares the Lamia-like adventuress in her own snakish coils—it none the less signals the larger interests of the comedy in unexpected reversals.

Mrs Cheveley is only momentarily manacled by the bracelet that she once believed to be a brooch. By Act IV the letter, her ultimate weapon, is still in her hands, and eventually it is sent to Sir Robert with the clear purpose of ruining the Chilterns' lives. But here, too, Mrs Cheveley is foiled. Particularly revealing is the conflict that rages between Lord Goring and Lady Chiltern when they learn of Mrs Cheveley's vengeful act. For here the moral consequences of telling the truth have immoral implications. When Lord Goring declares that it would be better if Lady Chiltern explained that it was she rather than Mrs Cheveley who was expected in his rooms, Lady Chiltern is seen “Looking at him with amazement that is almost terror” (255). Lady Chiltern recognizes only too clearly that this disclosure would incriminate her in exactly the way that Mrs Cheveley has desired since intercepting the letter in Act III. What saves them is the fact that the letter has not been addressed to anyone. All it contains is Lady Chiltern's message and her signature. It arrives in Sir Robert's mail just at the moment when he felt that there was no future for their marriage. And her words—“I want you. I trust you, I am coming to you. Gertrude” (257)—renew his confidence in their love. Lord Goring, aware that this is indeed a fortunate mistake, implores her to accept the situation and welcome Sir Robert's error. Potential tragedy is usurped by comedy. This ironic reversal—or peripety—could not be more sudden and complete.

This error serves, in some respects, to expand and strengthen Lady Chiltern's moral education. For she learns that the cost of disclosing the truth may be too high, and that tactful dissimulation may serve her interests altogether better. When persuading her husband that resigning from public office would be a “useless sacrifice” (265), she is repeating Lord Goring's advice to her that “men and woman are not made to accept such sacrifices from one another” (264). Yet the additional lines that she has learnt from Lord Goring on this matter sound somewhat hollow. “A man's life,” she explains to her husband, “is of more value than a woman's. It has larger issues, wider scope, greater ambitions” (265). If such words provide the rationale for the enlightened belief that her husband should not sacrifice his career, they none the less suggest that Lady Chiltern can only assert this view on the grounds of her inferiority as a woman. Given the rather leaden nature of the speech she reiterates at Lord Goring's bidding on the ways in which women's “lives revolve in curves of emotions” while it “is upon lines of intellect that a man's life progresses” (265), surely a shadow of doubt hangs over the integrity of these sentiments. One suffrage writer observed how here the “fatuousness of such a summing-up of the lives of the two sexes is painfully obvious.” This speech, she remarked, put before us a “picture of male-organized society” where woman is alloted nothing more than a “parasitic” role.20 Yet the position of Lady Chiltern's remarks on the subordination of women look, given her earlier remonstrations, rather paradoxical. For these creakingly rehearsed lines, which are designed to tug at her husband's heart-strings, undoubtedly issue from exactly the kinds of “separate spheres” ideology that she, as a reeducated Puritan Wife, has learned to renounce. In making this observation, I am not wishing to identify a basic flaw in the dramatic design to this part of Act IV. The purpose instead is to show that Wilde's repeated concern with accomplishing certain ends through unexpected means may well be not as progressive as we might think. It is tempting to be overwhelmed with the sense, as was Bernard Shaw, that Wilde “plays with everything: with wit, with philosophy, with drama, with actors and audience, with the whole theatre.” Shaw regarded this as a positive aspect to An Ideal Husband. “Such a feat,” he adds, “scandalizes the Englishman.”21 This impulse to “scandalize,” according to Shaw, can be readily attributed to the playwright's distinctive Irish heritage. But such a view may obscure the idea that Wilde's energetic rewriting of the Society comedy, perhaps of necessity, keeps his plays enmeshed in the systems of value that they strive to subvert. To refashion something does not always mean that it will adopt a politically more progressive style.


It is with this specific issue in mind that I wish to conclude by addressing several questions to assess the political dimensions of Wilde's strenuous rewriting of Society comedy. Can the inconsistency and contradiction that appear as the main structural features of these works be little more than formal devices? Is there something necessarily subversive about the provocative moral, generic, and characterological transformations that appear in each and every scene? Is it really the case, as Gagnier has claimed, that Wilde's dramas provide important antecedents for the modernist manifestos comprising Antonin Artaud's “Theatre of Cruelty”?22 Even if the pattern of his works sets out to overturn our expectations of moral values, social types, and generic conventions, there is the danger that his contradictoriness sets in motion an all too predictable logic where each and every outcome remains ruptured and nothing more. The plays, after all, even when challenging orthodoxies, remain structurally repetitious. And on countless occasions their most polished apothegms migrate from one play to another, making it seem as if they themselves were stereotyped. Earnest, it has to be said, at times reads like a compilation of the most memorable phrases that Wilde has implanted in his earlier works. Shaw's enthusiasm for An Ideal Husband, we should bear in mind, was turned on its head within a matter of weeks when Earnest left him with the sense of having wasted his evening. He experienced a “miserable mechanical laughter … at every outburst,” especially as the farcical structure to the play struck him as belonging to the 1870s. So if the general drift of the Society comedies is to subvert the limits imposed upon the conventions in which Wilde chose to operate, then it has to be recognized that his contestation of those conventions is necessarily defined against them, if not entrammelled by them. For all their innovations, his dramas could, as Shaw's comments indicate, ultimately seem outdated.

One needs to emphasize this point because there has recently been a tendency to see Wilde as an indisputably avant-garde figure whose artistic mission was to undermine the normative assumptions of a largely puritanical culture that would express its brutality most forcefully when it sentenced him to gaol for committing acts of “gross indecency” in 1895. Jonathan Dollimore, for example, insists that there is a “transgressive aesthetic” enshrined in the axioms that Wilde brought together in “Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young” (1894). Dollimore claims that such well-known maxims as “Man's deeper nature is soon found out” display “a non-centred or vagrant desire” that “is both the impetus for a subversive inversion, and what is released by it.” He stresses how these phrases and philosophies parody received proverbial wisdom while provocatively retaining its axiomatic form. Thus they “enact one of the most disturbing of all forms of transgression, namely that whereby the outlaw turns up as inlaw, and the other as proximate proves more disturbing than the other as absolute difference.”24 Although it is assuredly the case that these mocking turns of phrase caused sufficient offence for them to be cited as evidence against Wilde in the first trial of 1895, it is easy to be misled by the belief that the contradictory axiom—that which, as Dollimore says, makes what is most familiar most strange to itself—is integral to a radical sexual politics of “perversion” and “inversion.” (Wilde, to be sure, never subscribed to the model of the “invert” that would be taken up by homosexual enthusiasts of sexology such as Edward Carpenter.) Surely these “disturbing” axioms are also the stuff and substance of a well-worked routine that runs the risk of making their defamiliarizing qualities become somewhat too familiar.

To grasp the repetitious familiarity—rather than the structurally defamiliarizing aspect—of the axiom, it is useful to take a final look at the figure who turns out each of these “Oscarisms” with such systematic regularity. This is the man of fashion himself, the dandy, who draws on Society's codes of dress to reveal how power is wielded through the use and abuse of appearances. Some of Lord Goring's pronouncements are typical of how the rhetorical force of Wilde's maxims can cut in both radical and reactionary directions. Anticipating Wilde's “Phrases and Philosophies,” Lord Goring remarks to Sir Robert in Act II that “no man should have a secret from his own wife. She invariably finds it out” (175). Such a comment neatly lays bare the peculiar epistemology of the secret. For a secret can never be known for what it is until, paradoxically, it stops being one. But Lord Goring's brilliance leads him to make another quip that has an altogether more ambivalent resonance to it. “Women,” he remarks, “have a wonderful instinct about things. They can discover everything except the obvious” (175). This sentiment can be taken in at least two ways. On the one hand, it would seem to be a virtue not to recognize the “obvious,” since that could be a sign of intelligence. Yet, on the other, to miss even the “obvious” might be taken as an outright condemnation of women's inherent stupidity. Since Wilde's dandies, in any case, frequently air unflattering views of women, Lord Goring's discourse could be thought to be inflected with a rather misogynistic tone.

In her comparative study of the dandy in late-Victorian writing, Rita Felski claims that by “exalting appearance over essence, decoration over function,” such a refined man of leisure “voices a protest against prevailing bourgeois values that associate masculinity with rationality, industry, utility, and thrift.” But his opposition to the cherished pieties of the middle classes is “implicated in, rather than dissolved by, the espousal of a self-reflexive and parodistic consciousness.”25 For it is most obviously on the question of femininity that the dandy's conservatism comes into view. Felski's general point is that the dandy's misogyny derives from the fact that it is Society women who are his most visible rivals in this fashionable world. The narcissistic interest of fashionable women in being the centre of attention constantly threatens to undermine the social authority that the equally vain dandy seeks to command. But Felski's persuasive account of the dandy's damning comments on women's narrow intelligence does not fully explain how someone like Lord Goring resigns himself to marriage. It is only by seeing how the dandy must take on something of Sir Robert's social disposition as an “ideal husband” that the repeated structure of dramatic contradiction can be more completely understood. Like the Puritan Wife, the adventuress, and the self-sacrificing husband, the dandy keeps being repositioned in a drama that allows no one person at any one time an entirely fixed place from which to speak and act.

Thoughts such as these lead me back to Lord Goring's exchange in Act I with Mrs Marchmont, who remains unclear whether Mrs Cheveley really meant that the men were all “dowdies” and the ladies the “dandies” of the day. Like her, we cannot say for sure whether we might agree. There is, in this perpetual dialectic, no closure to be had. All that can be asserted is that these plays beg us to see how the distinctions that we make are often arbitrary ones. The “dowdies and dandies” can and must be looked at from unexpected angles. But it needs to be borne in mind that the reversible structures that shape and define Wilde's writings may well negate their wilful impulse to overturn commonplace assumptions. For in learning from Lord Goring how to see that “dowdies” and “dandies” may not be complete opposites we are surely anticipating, and in some measure growing less responsive to, the subversive intent of those contradictory strategies that Wilde undertook to refashion Society comedy. We may grow as tired, languid, and idle as the dandy himself. It goes without saying that, for all his dissident behaviour which mocks men and women of his own class, his verbal pyrotecnics are hardly likely to ignite the fires of any coming revolution.


  1. Oscar Wilde, Two Society Comedies: “A Woman of No Importance” and “An Ideal Husband,” ed. Ian Small and Russell Jackson (London, 1983), 152. Further page references are in parentheses.

  2. Ian Small, Conditions of Criticism: Authority, Knowledge, and Literature in the Late Nineteenth Century (Oxford, 1991), 119 n.9.

  3. Joel H. Kaplan, “Bad Dressmakers and Well-Arranged Worlds: Fashion and Society Comedy,” Modern Drama, 34:3 (1991), 329.

  4. Kerry Powell, Oscar Wilde and the Theatre of the 1890s (Cambridge, 1990), 70.

  5. Powell 105.

  6. See, for example, the unsigned review, Truth, 21 February 1895, 464-65, repr. in Oscar Wilde: The Critical Heritage, ed. Karl Beckson (London, 1970), 192.

  7. Unsigned review, Theatre, 1 March 1895, 169-70, repr. in Oscar Wilde: The Critical Heritage, 200.

  8. Regenia Gagnier, Idylls of the Marketplace: Oscar Wilde and the Victorian Public (Stanford, 1986), 3.

  9. My thoughts on this issue are indebted to Elizabeth Wilson's provocative essay, “Is Transgression Transgressive?” in Activating Theory: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Politics, ed. Joseph Bristow and Angelia R. Wilson (London, 1993), 107-17.

  10. Wilde, Letter to George Alexander, [mid-February 1892,] in More Letters of Oscar Wilde, ed. Rupert Hart-Davis (London, 1985), 113.

  11. Quoted in Joel H. Kaplan, “A Puppet's Power: George Alexander, Clement Scott, and the Replotting of Lady Windemere's Fan,Theatre Notebook, 46:2 (1992), 61.

  12. Wilde, Letter to George Alexander, [mid-February 1892], in The Letters of Oscar Wilde, ed. Rupert Hart-Davis (London, 1962), 309.

  13. Wilde, letter to the editor of the St James's Gazette, 26 February 1892, The Letters of Oscar Wilde, 313.

  14. Wilde, Lady Windermere's Fan, ed. Ian Small (London, 1980), 9. Further page references are in parentheses.

  15. Clement Scott, review of Lady Windermere's Fan, Illustrated London News, 27 February 1892, c, 278, repr. in Oscar Wilde: The Critical Heritage, 125.

  16. Scott, “A Doll's House,” Theatre, 14 (1889), 19-22, repr. in Ibsen: The Critical Heritage, ed. Michael Egan (London, 1972), 114.

  17. Unsigned review, “Dress at the Haymarket Theatre,” Sketch, 26 April 1893, repr. in Two Society Comedies, ed. Small and Jackson, 295.

  18. A. B. Walkey, review of A Woman of No Importance, Speaker, 29 April 1893, 484-85, repr. in Oscar Wilde: The Critical Heritage, 151.

  19. Wilde, The Complete Works, ed. J. B. Foreman (London, 1966), 1074.

  20. C. S. B., review of An Ideal Husband at the St James's Theatre, Votes for Women, 3 January 1914, 549. I am grateful to Joel H. Kaplan and Sheila Stowell for drawing my attention to this review.

  21. Bernard Shaw, review of An Ideal Husband, Saturday Review, 12 January 1895, repr. in Oscar Wilde: The Critical Heritage, 176.

  22. Gagnier, 109ff.

  23. Shaw, review of The Importance of Being Earnest, Saturday Review, 23 February 1895, 249-50, repr. in Oscar Wilde: The Critical Heritage, 195.

  24. Jonathan Dollimore, Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault (Oxford, 1991), 14-15.

  25. Rita Felski, “The Counterdiscourse of the Feminine in Three Texts by Wilde, Huysmans, and Sacher-Masoch,” PMLA, 106 (1991), 1096, 1099.

Alan Sinfield (essay date spring 1994)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8444

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 Importance seems all too inviting. Ian Small and Russell Jackson link Lord Illingworth with Sir Henry Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray: both “instruct and educate a younger man, and become in the process sinister and attractive figures of authority. This in its turn suggests one of the stereotypes of homosexual relationships: the surrogate father.”2 Today the “earnest,” which it is so important to be, must be “homosexual.” To Patricia Behrendt, “earnest” sounds like Urning, the term for boy-lovers proposed by Karl Heinrich Ulrichs in the 1860s, and even more like the French variant, uraniste; this is mooted also in Alan Hollinghurst's novel The Swimming-Pool Library.3 Timothy d'Arch Smith's idea seems better: there may be an allusion to John Gambril Nicholson's book of poems, Love and Earnest (1892).4 But who would hear such an allusion? And for whom, in The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), is it important to be a uraniste? No one. To the contrary, as Chris White remarks, “‘Ernest’ is the name that the men must adopt in order to be acceptable to the women they wish to marry.”5

Then there is Bunburying. Christopher Craft unearths seven respects in which Earnest, as a text, “‘goes Bunburying’—in which, that is, Wilde lifts to liminality his subcultural knowledge of ‘the terrible pleasures of double life.’”6 One is engraved cigarette cases, in the play and in Wilde's liaisons; but, of course, Wilde himself did not know, when he wrote Earnest, that cigarette cases would prove embarrassing at his trials. Craft is concerned more with intertextual instabilities than with material allusions to a homosexual subculture. Others claim more. Bunburying “was not only British slang for a male brothel, but is also a collection of signifiers that straightforwardly express their desire to bury in the bun,” Joel Fineman asserts. Behrendt declares that Bunburying “blatantly calls forth the image of a promiscuous sodomite and foreshadows the epithet ‘somdomite’ [sic] applied to Wilde” by Lord Queensberry (I don't understand the foreshadowing point). Linda Gertner Zatlin has another idea: that Bunbury was “the term for a homosexual pickup.”7 As far as I can discover, there is no historical ground for any of these assertions. Bun does not mean “buttock” in Eric Partridge's Dictionary of Slang, from the first edition (1937) to the eighth (1984). In John Farmer's dictionary of 1890 it means the pudendum muliebre, which is what Partridge says (it's to do with squirrels and rabbits). The meaning “buttock” occurs in the United States from around 1960, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang.8 So the implication in Algernon's Bunburying is heterosexual. Even now, “buns” has no necessary connection with brothels, promiscuity, or pick-ups; such inferences seem to derive from narrow stereotypes of modern gay behaviour. Above all, if these meanings were current in Wilde's time—how could Wilde have got away with it? Even today, the plays are sufficiently ambiguous to pass, perhaps with some uneasiness, before boulevard audiences.

We need to recover the initial perceptions of Wilde, and of his dandy characters—before the notoriety of the trials. It is a mistake to suppose that Wilde and his audiences “really” had a concept of gayness like our own, but kept it behind a mask; that it is lurking, therefore, beneath the text—as if it were a statue under a sheet, fully formed but waiting to be unveiled. The modern idea of the homosexual was in the process of getting constituted—largely, I argue elsewhere, through the figure of Wilde himself.9 For us, it is hard to regard Wilde as other than the apogee of gay experience and expression, because that is the position we have accorded him in our cultures; the principal mid-twentieth-century stereotype was made in his image. For us, he is always already queer. But that is after the event—after the trials helped to produce a major shift in perceptions of same-sex passion. Even in 1907, we must suppose, Strachey's reading of A Woman of No Importance was not widely available. To presume a twentieth-century homosexual identity in the blind or hesitant approximations out of which it was (partly) fashioned is to miss, precisely, the points of most interest. The interpretive challenge is to recover the moment of indeterminacy—when Lord Illingworth, like Wilde, is on the brink of manifesting the homosexual.

Before he knows that Gerald Arbuthnot is his son, Illingworth asks him to become his secretary. “I took a great fancy to young Arbuthnot the moment I met him,” he says; “It is because I like you so much that I want to have you with me,” he tells him.10 To be sure, such language sound amorous to us. However, other characters find no impropriety. “It means a very brilliant future in store for you. Your dear mother will be delighted” (WNI 16), Lady Hunstanton enthuses; in fact, she had thought of proposing it herself. “Lord Illingworth seems to have taken quite a fancy to him,” Lady Caroline observes, without any evident sexual innuendo (WNI 15). For the audience, though not for the other characters, Illingworth acquires the alibi that Gerald is his son—the outcome of Illingworth's treacherous behaviour towards Mrs Arbuthnot (as she calls herself). This seems to afford a double distraction from any suspicion of homosexuality: Illingworth appears heterosexual enough to have conceived Gerald (we see him harassing another woman in the course of the play); and it seems only natural that he should be attached to his son.

Even so, the situation is strange and uneasy. Illingworth expostulates, to the outraged Mrs Arbuthnot: “if I were a perfect stranger, you would allow Gerald to go away with me, but as he is my own flesh and blood you won't. How utterly illogical you are!” (WNI 69). And yet, are her fears altogether illogical? For the more explicitly heterosexual Illingworth appears, the more he is a self-ish cad—having seduced and abandoned Mrs Arbuthnot; and hence the less likely, suddenly, to be drawn to his son by wholesome familial ties. Illingworth discovers “paternal feelings he never even suspected he had,” says one recent reviewer; “[T]he basis of his change of heart is never dramatized,” notes Kerry Powell.11 The more Illingworth claims the devotion of a father, the more he may seem to manifest a strange excess of male-to-male attachment.

Of course, Wilde was aware of the dangerous possibilities here—already Lord Queensberry was harassing him. Illingworth's amorousness is stronger in drafts of the play, and in some cancelled dialogue the knowing Mrs Allonby seems to have twigged something. “How you delight in disciples!” she teases; “What is their charm?” Illingworth replies: “It is always pleasant to have a slave to whisper in one's ear that, after all, one is immortal. But young Arbuthnot is not a disciple … as yet. He is simply one of the most delightful young men I have ever met” (WNI 272). When Lady Hunstanton reiterates how Illingworth has “taken such a fancy” to Gerald, Mrs Allonby comments: “Lord Illingworth would talk about nothing else but Mr Arbuthnot, the whole of yesterday afternoon. He looks on him as his most promising disciple. I believe he intends him to be an exact replica of himself, for the use of schools” (WNI 281). Wilde deleted this more provocative dialogue.

Still, the point is not that Illingworth is “really” homosexual. There is no “truth” of the play or its characters, to be discovered by peering round behind it at cancelled drafts. Cecil Graham, a dandy in Lady Windermere's Fan (1892), is open to divergent readings. He becomes very appreciative of Mrs Erlynne: she “looked very handsome tonight”, Graham says; he has become as Lord Darlington observes, “one of her admirers.”12 Graham, here, could certainly be the heterosexual philanderer. But he appears to have no personal attachments to women, and could equally (in the manner we might associate with some gay men today) be admiring the style with which the stigmatized Mrs Erlynne is managing her re-entry into Society (rather like Judy Garland making a come-back). Asked how long he could love a woman who didn't love him, Graham replies: “Oh, all my life!” (LWF 66). This might indicate either boundless passionate devotion to women, or a preference for relations that never get anywhere. Simply, the representation labelled “Graham” allows two readings. The critical task is not to give priority to one of them, but to recognise an indeterminacy; one that is not to do with Graham's personal ambivalence as a character, but with the scope of the idea of the dandy in that culture. Wilde contrived a scenario that would pass on the Haymarket stage, while perhaps figuring his own preoccupations and suggesting such possibilities to a few informed observers. Working out the complex codes that enabled this double vision will tell us a good deal about Wilde and the sex-gender system of his time, and about how those phenomena have been circulating subsequently in our cultures.

At the back of modern notions that Wilde and his dandy characters must, somehow, be homosexual is “effeminacy” (as with “the feminine,” I use current constructs—recognising that they are misogynist, and hoping to gain a purchase upon the oppression that they encode). “The future belongs to the dandy. It is the exquisites who are going to rule,” Illingworth declares, offering Gerald tips on buttonholes and how to knot a tie. “I have always been told that a man should not think too much about his clothes,” Gerald replies—intrigued yet somewhat uneasy (WNI 75). The dandy is “exquisite”—not like “a man”—but this did not necessarily, before the Wilde trials, signal male homosexuality.

Generally, Ellen Moers shows, the dandy was a heterosexual philanderer. In Edward Bulwer's Pelham (1828), for instance, he is said repeatedly to be effeminate in respect of his philandering with women (after many flirtations and affairs, he settles to wedded bliss); he is not linked with same-sex practices.13 For the most part, Wilde's dandies are heterosexually passionate, and/or philanderers. Lord Darlington in Lady Windermere's Fan tries to persuade Lady Windermere to run away with him. Lord Augustus, in the same play, is especially effeminate. He has been married and divorced several times, and is infatuated with Mrs Erlynne despite evidence of her unreliability. He falls too easily for female charms; he is flabby; men insult him. “Tuppy,” they call him, mocking his ram-ish proclivities. Even in Dorian Gray, where the plot springs from the response of Wotton, the dandy, to the attractions of Dorian, Wotton's other involvements seem to be with women. He reflects with wonderment upon Basil Hallward's infatuation with Dorian—“He remembered something like it in history. Was it not Plato, that artist in thought, who had first analyzed it?”14 Hallward is the homosexual, if anyone is, but he is not a dandy; he is earnest—moral and hard-working.

According to Gwendolen in The Importance of Being Earnest, the dandy is positively sexy. “[O]nce a man begins to neglect his domestic duties he becomes painfully effeminate, does he not? And I don't like that. It makes men so very attractive” (IBE 65). The obvious “modern” reading is proposed by Behrendt: “[t]he attraction that the effeminate man would hold for Gwendolyn [sic] would be his lack of sexual interest in her.”15 Such a reading not only unravels the plot of Earnest, it flies in the face of the “interest” shown in women by Darlington, Augustus, and Illingworth. Believing “Earnest” to mean “uraniste,” Behrendt thinks Gwendolen is “attracted specifically to men of questionable sexual preferences” (176). Rather, “Earnest” means earnest. The effeminate dandy, despising responsible, middle-class domesticity and finding nothing better to do, spends his time flirting. He is dangerously attractive because he shows he is available.

Dandy effeminacy signalled class, far more than sexuality. The newly dominant middle class justified itself by claiming manly purity, purpose, and responsibility, and identified the leisure class, correspondingly, with effeminate idleness and immorality. In the face of this manoeuvre, there were two alternatives for the wealthy and those who sought to seem wealthy. One was to attempt to appear useful and good; the other was to repudiate middle-class authority by displaying conspicuous idleness, immorality, and effeminacy; in other words, by being a dandy. Wilde presents extreme versions of this strategy. Jack and Algy in The Importance of Being Earnest are thoroughly effeminate young men, and this includes their leisured idleness, their indifference to moral conventions, their exploitation of and romantic devotion to women, and suggestions of diverse further profligacies. “It is awfully hard work doing nothing”, Algernon complains; “However, I don't mind hard work where there is no definite object of any kind” (IBE 46). The women's demand that their beaux be “earnest” is a characteristically frivolous reworking of prevailing middle-class mores; a further mark of the excessive leisure-class frivolity of all the principals.

Effeminacy came to function as a broad signal of aristocracy during the eighteenth century. Eve Sedgwick writes of “the feminisation of the aristocracy as a whole,” whereby “the abstract image of the entire class, came to be seen as ethereal, decorative, and otiose in relation to the vigorous and productive values of the middle class.”16 The impact of this is evident in Michael Rey's study of police records of men accused of same-sex practices in Paris from around 1800:

to people of the lower class, a noble—powdered, pomaded, refined—was both elegant and effeminate; but that bothered no one as long as the mode of attire remained faithful to the specific superior social condition which its wearer represented. If someone lower on the social scale assumed this costume … not only did he betray his social condition, but in addition, his effeminacy, by losing its accepted association with elegance and the upper class, became an indication of the wearer's real effeminacy.17

I don't agree that what was revealed was “real effeminacy”: rather, it was another cultural mode. However, this does not spoil the relevance of Rey's observation. The aristocrat was expected to be effeminate, so same-sex passion was not foregrounded by his manner; with lower-class young men, it was otherwise.

The Wildean dandy, therefore—so far from looking like a homosexual—was distinctively exonerated from such suspicions. Because of his class identification, or aspiration, he above all need not be read as identified with same-sex practices. At the same time, however, the dissolute aristocrat might indulge in any kind of debauchery; so while same-sex passion was not ruled in, neither was it ruled out. Hence the texts afford some basis for knowing interpretations such as Strachey's, and for the readings of modern criticism. The subsequent, and partly consequent, Wildean image of the male homosexual has made such readings inevitable—though still dependent upon intricate and insecure nuances, and still scarcely audible for conservative audiences.

Lord Goring, in An Ideal Husband (1895), has been regarded as a candidate for homosexuality; Behrendt credits him with a “passionate attachment” to Sir Robert Chiltern.18 For most of the play Goring flirts honourably with Mabel Chiltern, but that does not affect the case either way. Indeed, she is generally the initiator, and Goring is preoccupied with the troubles of his friend, Sir Robert. However, Goring's apparent disinclination could, very likely, be the off-hand, dandy way of undertaking a romantic courtship; he was once in love with Mrs Cheveley. Reluctance to marry is not distinctively suspicious to Goring's father, Lord Caversham; in fact, it is quite understandable: “Damme, sir, it is your duty to get married,” he says; “You can't be always living for pleasure. Every man of position is married nowadays. Bachelors are not fashionable any more. They are a damaged lot. Too much is known about them.”19 Once more, the text licenses the modern assumption that a bachelor is probably, or “really,” gay; but it is able to do this because that inference was scarcely there for Wilde's initial audience.

Sexuality will not come properly into focus in An Ideal Husband because the play is not interested in it. Goring's dandyism makes fuller sense if we observe its embeddedness in the prevailing alignment of effeminacy and class. Mabel Chiltern is teasing when she denies that he leads an idle life; “How can you say such a thing? Why, he rides in the Row at ten o'clock in the morning, goes to the Opera three times a week, changes his clothes at least five times a day, and dines out every night of the season. You don't call that leading an idle life, do you?” (IH 136). Goring appears not just idle, but conspicuously so; he almost, as Miss Chiltern suggests, works at it. Caversham's wish for him to marry involves an entire repudiation of this dandy programme: “You must get a wife, sir. Look where your friend Robert Chiltern has got by probity, hard work, and a sensible marriage with a good woman” (IH 217). Goring, too, might become useful and good—Sir Robert is an idealistic and energetic government minister who, though not from an old family, has established himself by affirming, with his wife's specific support, middle-class earnestness. According to the Times critic, Chiltern was played by Lewis Waller “in his manliest and most robust style.”20

Chiltern's vulnerability to blackmail (because of a fraud) derives from the contemporary alignment of class and earnestness, as Mrs Cheveley points out: “In old days nobody pretended to be a bit better than his neighbours. In fact, to be a bit better than one's neighbour was considered excessively vulgar and middle-class. Nowadays, with our modern mania for morality, everyone has to pose as a paragon of purity” (IH 161). Mrs Cheveley has a point. “Prior to the 1830s,” Frank Mort observes, “personal morality had not been seen as necessary for political eminence.” This pattern was challenged “both by organised evangelical pressure groups and by the structural shift in the overall balance of power in favour of the middle-classes.”21 Manliness remains at issue when Chiltern attempts to justify his dishonesty. “[T]here are terrible temptations that it requires strength, strength and courage, to yield to. To stake all one's life on a single moment, to risk everything on one throw, whether the stake be power or pleasure, I care not—there is no weakness in that. There is a horrible, a terrible courage” (IH 181). Thus Chiltern reworks manliness, niftily abandoning the earnest, middle-class version for a heroic, Nietzschean mode.

Nonetheless, there is authority in Goring's statement that Chiltern has merely become involved in a “loathsome commercial transaction of a loathsome commercial age” (IH 237). Indeed, Goring, though a dandy, proves both principled and effective—his interventions save the Chilterns from disgrace. The standard expectations of the dandy and the earnest gentleman are reversed.

In fact, the manly man figures more strongly in An Ideal Husband than elsewhere in Wilde's plays. Generally, dandy values are allowed to hold the stage. There are no military officers (Jack's father in Earnest was a general, but he is long absent; Lady Bracknell, his sister-in-law, cannot recall his first name). Other men are doormats. Sir John in A Woman of No Importance is cossetted and pursued by his wife; Lord Bracknell is so dispensable that he commonly dines upstairs to make the numbers right at dinner. Not that he is busy with manly affairs—he is entirely domesticated, Gwendolen says: “Outside the family circle, Papa, I am glad to say, is entirely unknown. I think that is quite as it should be. The home seems to me to be the proper sphere for the man” (IBE 36, 65). There is no equivalent of the pugnacious Lord Queensberry. Even Herod, in Salomé, is all too ready to give away half his kingdom for an infatuation.

The uncertain balance of moral authority between Chiltern and Goring shows manly earnestness under contest from effeminate idleness. This is not resolved in the play—to the perplexity of critics. William Archer supposed that Wilde meant to show that Chiltern's old peccadillo should not incapacitate him for public life, but inadvertently indicated the opposite. Small and Jackson find it “difficult to believe in the new life which awaits these characters,” and particularly in the future of the Chilterns' marriage.22 However, such indeterminacies are too persistent to be mere blunders. Consider Lady Windermere's Fan, where the happy-family ending depends on Lady Windermere remaining ignorant of the identity of her mother and Lord Windermere unaware that his wife meant to leave him. It is indeed disconcerting to suppose that our rulers are like Sir Robert, and his marriage certainly looks less promising than that of Goring and Mabel; Wilde allows dandy values to outweigh earnestness.

Powell argues that it is a mistake to expect these plays to conclude tidily, in the manner of a contemporary problem play. He sees, rather, “an unresolved struggle between the author's own fragmented personality—socialist and socialite, husband and homosexual, father and feminist, Paterian and puritan.”23 I would add that the stresses and indeterminacies in Wilde's life and writings were not his alone. They manifest the ideological faultlines, in class, gender, and sexuality, that fractured his culture.


Mrs Cheveley is said to have complained that Society is made up of dowdies and dandies. Lord Goring quips: “She is quite right, too. The men are all dowdies and the women are all dandies, aren't they?” (IH 152). Goring accepts the idea of the dowdy woman, but chivalrously (he no doubt thinks) reapplies it to men: they are dull, plain, and domesticated, whereas Society women—such as Mrs Cheveley herself—display dandified leisure-class frivolity. In so far as he caps Mrs Cheveley's remark, Goring contrives to rise above his own analysis: he proves himself a dandy rather than a dowdy.

In fact neither is right. In Wilde's version of Society, male and female characters, equally, may be dowdily earnest (Lord Bracknell, Miss Worsley), and either may display dandy attributes. Mabel Chiltern keeps pace with Lord Goring's banter; when it comes to a marriage proposal it is he who asks her to “be serious” (IH 251). Illingworth and Mrs Allonby spar on even terms (one of her aphorisms is shared with Wotton in Dorian Gray: “The secret of life is never to have an emotion that is unbecoming”).24 Mrs Erlynne in Lady Windermere's Fan gets her way by playing along the male dandies. This is feminine power.

Many leisure-class men in fact worked hard, in civil affairs or running their estates. But Society women were expected to be conspicuously idle and frivolous. “The reason for the more extreme insistence on a futile life for this class of women than for the men of the same pecuniary and social grade,” Veblen argues in The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), is that such women constitute “a vicarious leisure class.” The uselessness of the leisure-class female made her an ornament for the male upon whom she depended. “Riding, dancing, flirting and dressing up—in short, entertaining and being entertained—all occupations which imply the consumption and not the production of commodities and services, were the very substance of her life before marriage and a large and important part of it after marriage,” Beatrice Webb recalls.25 To live thus was regarded as feminine; and the dandy was effeminate because of his skills and pleasure in his women's arena. Young and unmarried men might leave cards and call, Leonore Davidoff observes, but “they were rather pitied for having to do so as it was considered very much a part of a wife's or daughter's duty.”26 The dandy is good at entertaining and being entertained by women; he enjoys activities that were coded “feminine”—trivia, chit-chat, flirting, gossip, scandal.

The social round was not without utility, however. As Davidoff shows, leisure-class women were “arbiters of social acceptance or rejection.”27 Lord Windermere can give Mrs Erlynne money, but only Lady Windermere can get her readmitted to Society. Windermere tells his wife: “She has been to several houses—not to houses where you would go, I admit, but still to houses where women who are in what is called Society nowadays do go. That does not content her. She wants you to receive her once” (LWF 24). Windermere can invite Mrs Erlynne to a dance at their house only at the cost of his first row with his wife, and it remains open to Lady Windermere to destroy the whole effect by cutting her unwanted guest.

The policing of Society was effected crucially through marriage—a distinct responsibility of the leisure-class woman. The management of class boundaries through marriage, C. Wright Mills says, served “to keep a propertied class intact and unscattered; by monopoly of sons and daughters, anchoring the class in the legalities of blood lines.”28 This was a delicate matter, because merely arranged marriages were no longer acceptable; the young people's opportunities, affections, and interests had to be carefully manipulated if an outcome satisfactory to the requirements of property was to be obtained. This was achieved through the feminine regime of calling, tea, dinners, and balls. Lady Berwick in Lady Windermere's Fan, like Lady Bracknell, accomplishes it without reference to her husband.

In Walter Bagehot's view, an “order of nobility” prevented “the rule of wealth”; it would be more precise to say that Society arranged an accommodation between birth and wealth, deciding when, and through what face-saving mechanisms, money made in business was to be allowed to count alongside family and breeding.29 For although there were a few noble families at the core, the many commercial and industrial peerages from about 1886 and the arrival of monied South Africans, Europeans, Jewish, and U.S. people made Society's edges, as Geoffrey Best observes, “permanently blurred by the jostling of the thousands who were trying to get in with the hundreds who were trying not to be pushed out.”30 “There were no fixed caste barriers; there seemed to be, in fact, no recognised types of exclusiveness based on birth or breeding, on personal riches or on personal charm; there was no fastidiousness about manners or morals or intellectual gifts,” Webb says; the implicit test of membership was “the possession of some form of power over other people.31 Lady Windermere imagines that her moral preoccupations can influence Society, but the play discloses an intricate shuffle of money, status, and talent. Mrs Erlynne almost makes it back; she fails because she is moral, not because she is immoral. Society was organized not to maintain a fence around an established order, but to handle a chronic instability.

The ideology purveyed in the new popular press was that everyone in Society was, at once, noble, rich, and amusing—until found out. The actuality, as Wilde's comedies suggest, was continual improvisation and compromise. It was not a matter of deciding who was authentically upper-class, but of negotiating a partly permeable system. Miss Worsley in A Woman of No Importance and Mr Hopper in Lady Windermere's Fan are desirable because they are rich; they are mocked as outsiders (American and Australian with trade connections), but the mockery is part of the process whereby they are being accommodated. Being amusing was not as effective as being rich, but might get one a long way. “Talent, brain and beauty could, with the right patronage, rise quite high”—to the point, Best says, where Society seemed accessible to “every kind of attractive or plausible ‘outsider’ (e.g. Disraeli, Millais, Taine and Bagehot).”32

If charm, sophistication, and fluency could help one into Society, Wilde makes it even more important in policing the boundaries—negotiating the categories, the hierarchies. That is what the witty cross-talk of the feminine woman is often doing—for instance over degrees of familiarity with a spade (IBE 67). Mrs Allonby is a bit too adventurous for some of her acquaintance. “Remarkable type, Mrs Allonby,” Lady Caroline avers. “She lets her clever tongue run away with her sometimes,” Lady Hunstanton responds, picking up the critical implication but damping it a little. “Is that the only thing,” Lady Caroline wonders, “Mrs Allonby allows to run away with her?” (meaning a man). This goes a bit too far for Lady Hunstanton—who, after all, has invited Mrs Allonby to her house: “I hope so, Caroline, I am sure” (WNI 29). Lady Hunstanton does not altogether discount the exotic possibility, but Mrs Allonby is allowed to pass. “There seemed in fact to be a sort of invisible stock exchange in constant communication with the leading hostesses in London and in the country; the stock being social reputations and the reason for appreciation or depreciation being worldly success or failure however obtained,” Webb reports.33

The frivolous and knowing stance of the dandified, feminine woman was nearly as much of an affront to middle-class ideas of womanliness as the effeminate dandy was to ideas of manliness. Good women were supposed to be innocent. “[T]he public world of work was dirty, brutal and often immoral,” Philippa Levine says, “while the home, the domain of the woman, signified peace and purity. The sexual articulation of that polarity had an irresistible logic: man's sexuality was active, often violent and certainly dominant, a mirror of his public involvements, while that of woman was circumscribed by the demands of purity.”34

Feminists and reformers often accepted the earnest model of woman. They used the idea of female purity as a way of campaigning against male exploitation, especially by upper-class men and in prostitution. They also insisted on work; many, Martha Vicinus says, “saw work as the key to the single woman's liberation.”35 This is the stance of Lady Chiltern in An Ideal Husband. She serves on committees where they consider “Factory Acts, Female Inspectors, the Eight Hours' Bill, the Parliamentary Franchise,” and loves her husband because she believes he has “brought into the political life of our time a nobler atmosphere, a finer attitude towards life, a freer air of purer aims and higher ideals” (IH 188, 174). However, Lady Chiltern's earnestness is questioned, and not just by the bad Mrs Cheveley. Lady Basildon and Mrs Marchmont are sardonic about her attempts to inculcate “some serious purpose in life,” and Mabel Chiltern rejects the thought of marrying a man like Sir Robert (IH 134, 196). So Wilde's women construct a contest parallel to the effeminate/manly dichotomy displayed by the men: the feminine, leisure-class woman stands together with the male dandy against middle-class earnestness.

In A Woman of No Importance purity is asserted by Mrs Arbuthnot, the earnest American, Hester Worsley, and the MP, Mr Kelvil. The latter complains that Illingworth “regards woman simply as a toy,” whereas she is “the intellectual helpmeet of man in public as in private life. Without her we should forget the true ideals” (WNI 30). However, Kelvil has packed his own wife and eight children off to the seaside while he pursues his career; and although Mrs Arbuthnot wins out against the unpleasant Illingworth, it is at the cost of appearing narrow and obsessive. Meanwhile, feminine, dandified values are maintained by the leisured women. Mrs Allonby leads them in an after-dinner assault on marriage, domesticity, and the manly man. “[H]appy marriages,” Lady Caroline observes, are getting “remarkably rare.” “Except among the middle classes, I have been told,” Lady Stutfield reports (disavowing first-hand knowledge); “I have noticed a very, very sad expression in the eyes of so many married men.” Mrs Allonby elaborates: “they are horribly tedious when they are good husbands, and abominably conceited when they are not.” She dismisses the very notion of an ideal husband: “There couldn't be such a thing. The institution is wrong.” Her husband—Ernest—is no dandy: he has “a very strong chin, a square chin,” but is “absolutely uninteresting,” with “no conversation at all”—though he talks all the time. Miss Worsley is appalled. On her definition of natural womanly purity, the entire conversation should have been impossible: “I couldn't believe that any women could really hold such views” (WNI 42-50).

Wilde's awareness of and readiness to respond to earnest feminist ideas and attitudes is displayed in his editing of The Woman's World (1887-89), where he supplemented trivia, fashion, and gossip with thoughtful and improving topics. There, he undermined the stereotypical idea that women cannot handle serious matters. The plays deploy an opposite strategy; as Laurel Brake puts it, “It is just these qualities rejected as unsuitable for women—a taste for triviality, dress, gossip, and pleasures such as music—which are valorised in Wilde's own writing.” The alternatives derive from the polarity described by Jonathan Dollimore—between “the natural, the sincere, and the authentic” in the manner of André Gide, and the anti-essentialism that we more often associate with Wilde.36 A key feminist victory was the Married Women's Property Act of 1882, which enabled women to continue to own property after marriage. Mrs Allonby claims not to need such reforms. Turning the phrase around, she declares: “All men are married women's property. That is the only true definition of what married women's property really is. But we don't belong to anyone” (WNI 42). In the plays, Wilde undermines the earnest woman, and empowers the correlate of the effeminate man—the boldly feminine woman.


Effeminacy and femininity do not sound like progressive representations; they sound like exploitative patriarchal stereotypes. However, the reformers' endorsement of earnest middle-class purity, also, was not entirely progressive; as Levine observes, “Feminists took hold of the position to which they were limited by Victorian ideology and inverted its precepts.” By definition, it is difficult to achieve progressive aims from such a compromised starting point. “In conforming to these precepts, however subversively, feminists were aligning themselves, in one sense, with values associated with the middle classes.”37 The earnest rhetoric of purity led campaigners into demands for state regulation; and, as tends to happen, whatever the initial intentions of the reformers, the new laws bore upon the victims rather than the powerful. Miss Worsley, in that vein, wants fallen women punished along with men, and the children as well (WNI 88-89). Like Lady Windermere, she learns to reconsider her values. The purity lobby scarcely touched the upper-class men with whom it had begun; it produced instead the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, which increased penalties for brothel-keeping, raised the age of consent for girls to sixteen, and criminalised male homosexual acts in private.

We should not be surprised at this outcome. The reformers deployed the ideology of purity because it is hard to conceive dissidence without some grounding in the current framework of language and representation. They “drew on the only vocabulary able to bear the moral and intellectual weight of their challenge,” Frank Mort argues; “religious language not only provided a link between different political constituencies, it offered a set of concepts, a rhetoric of resistance and a strength of moral certainty powerful enough to take on the weight of the medical and political establishment. Even more importantly, it supplied many mid-Victorian feminists with a critical perspective on existing social relations.”38 It was the same, I suggest, for Wilde with leisure-class effeminacy and femininity: though at an ideological price, they afforded some critical purchase upon dominant attitudes, and upon some of the less attractive stances of the reformers. The dandy and the feminine woman were figures around which issues of class, culture, and sexuality might be contested. They offered the opportunity, and the risk, that dissident strategies often admit: they disturb certain orthodoxies at the expense of admitting other regressive implications.

Deciding whether Wilde's games with gender are, in essence, progressive or reactionary is in my view not an appropriate project. His comedies have held the stage before basically conservative, boulevard audiences for a hundred years; they afford ample scope for indulgence in deference towards the upper classes. At the same time, successful plays are usually risky; they flirt, at least, with the danger that prevailing values might not be satisfactory, or might not prevail. In the face of such a production, some audience members will retreat into conformity, while others will entertain more radical possibilities. It is a mistake to posit a unitary “audience response.”39

The resistance that Wilde's vision of feminine power has aroused is illuminating. It tends to replicate the ideology that it aspires to assess; the ideology that Wilde observed and redeployed. In the view of Patricia Behrendt, the representation of Mrs Allonby and the others is misogynist: these women are “tyrannizing, materialistic, and petty by nature.”40 I suppose that is broadly true; but, also, it is how women tend to get regarded in our cultures when they do not confine themselves to domestic duties. Behrendt complains that “Lady Bracknell has usurped the traditionally masculine role of dominating the household and of granting permission for Gwendolyn [sic] to marry”—no wonder there is a “tendency to cast a man in her role” (177). Wilde's dandified women embody a threat that women might exercise power far beyond the purity and innocence that was allowed in middle-class ideology. Further, by claiming femininity they unsettle the idea that the good woman is the truly womanly one. Take Mrs Arbuthnot's handwriting. “She is one of the sweetest of women. Writes a beautiful hand, too, so large, so firm” (Lady Hunstanton). “A little lacking in femininity, Jane. Femininity is the quality I admire most in women” (Lady Caroline). “Oh! she is very feminine, Caroline, and so good too” (Lady Hunstanton; WNI 32). If femininity is womanly and hence naturally good, Mrs Arbuthnot is “very feminine.” But she asserts herself and her goodness in a middle-class way, and thereby becomes, like her writing, almost manly. “You should hear what the Archdeacon says of her. He regards her as his right hand in the parish,” Lady Hunstanton adds (WNI 32). The common phrase, which we almost hear, is “right hand man.” Mrs Cheveley says Lady Chiltern has large—manly—hands and sees in her handwriting “[t]he ten commandments in every stroke of the pen, and moral law all over the page” (IH 236-37, 222).

In fact, Society women might exercise political influence. “[I]f the secret political history of the past forty years could be written,” one commentator remarked in 1885, it would be found to depend upon “a judicious course of Whig hospitality during the months of autumn.” Davidoff comments: “[T]he filtering of personnel through the sieve of Society regulated access to political power, economic position and the accumulation of capital.”41 Women were confined to socialising, but feminine power could be effective through that mechanism. “No man has any real success in this world unless he has got women to back him, and women rule society,” Illingworth says (WNI 76); Mrs Cheveley and Lady Chiltern determine Sir Robert's career.

To be sure, even the leisure-class woman was subordinated in late-nineteenth-century society. As we see in the plays, she may not go down to supper without getting a man to pay her attention (IH 154-55). This perhaps did set witty, flirtatious interchange at a premium; and hence, in Wilde's version, the empowerment of the fluent, dandified woman. Political scenarios such as Wilde depicts did occur, but the pertinence of his representations of effeminacy and femininity does not depend on that, or even on people such as his characters actually existing. The woman on top is a perpetual anxiety in cultures, such as those we call “western,” that cannot manage with, or without, powerful women. Of course, it is a joke when Lady Hunstanton remarks: “Dear Mr Cardew [presumably the prime minister], is ruining the country. I wonder Mrs Cardew allows him” (WNI 26). But Wilde was evoking an anxious fantasy. This is plainer in the more exotic mode of Salomé. Iokanaan (like Hester Worsley) inveighs against and resists the immorality of the ruling elite, whereas Salomé (like Mrs Cheveley) depends upon feminine power. Herod offers Salomé half his kingdom if she will dance for him—the woman intrudes on male authority. But she doesn't want the kingdom, she wants destruction; and that is the male fantasy about feminine power. Initial reviewers, Jane Marcus points out, linked Salomé with Ibsen's strong female characters. The subsequent move with such women, as the concept became current, was to label them “lesbian.” The 1918 production of Salomé was subjected to such allegations. As Marcus observes, there was no justification in the text or the performance for this. “Nothing overt in the play indicates that Salomé was a lover of her own sex. She kills a man, therefore she must be a lesbian, runs the reasoning of the trial.”42 The same logic informs the film Basic Instinct.

The feminine woman, as Wilde represents her, together with the effeminate man, effects a disturbance of categories that reaches beyond the oppressive terms in which both are framed. According to Alan Bird, “the men are impotent triflers, the women domineering, powerful, ruthless, self-possessed and absolutely determined in their obsessive desires and loves, whether of money, marriage, social standing, or a son.”43 That is right: conventionally good women are undermined and, apart from the stand-off between Goring and Chiltern, the conventionally active man is written out. This is Wilde's challenge.

Camille Paglia rehearses the Victorian debate about true womanly attributes. “Never for a moment are Gwendolen and Cecily persuasively ‘female’. They are creatures of indeterminate sex who take up the mask of femininity to play a new and provocative role”; if the parts are played properly, “[l]anguage, personality, and behaviour should be so hard that the play becomes a spectacle of visionary coldness. The faces should be like glass, without gender or humanity.”44 Paglia imagines essential, transhistorical male and female principles, which she thinks ought to be aligned with masculine and feminine attributes as conventionally understood; anything else is a failure in humanity. Wilde's version of feminine power indeed effects an aggressive splitting apart of these violent hierarchies.

Initial audiences, I have argued, were unlikely to hear homosexuality in Wilde's dandy characters, but the subsequent impetus of these plays is inseparable from the popular knowledge that their author is the most notorious homosexual of modern times. This tends to influence hostile accounts of their deployment of gender categories. The “hieratic purity” of The Importance of Being Earnest, Paglia says, “could best be appreciated if all the women's roles were taken by female impersonators.”45 Wilde was unable to create authentic women characters, we are led to infer; after all, Paglia remarks, gay men are dedicated to thwarting “nature's procreative compulsions.” This is not an irrelevant perspective: Wilde was indeed undermining constructs that Paglia deems natural. She resists this by turning back the challenge: “of course nature has won, as she always does, by making disease the price of promiscuous sex” (14-15). So not only are gay men unable to write plays with “humanity,” they get AIDS as well.

Dandy effeminacy, I have argued, did not necessarily mean homosexuality in the nineteenth century, but sometimes it came close to it; the mid-twentieth-century stereotype was at the point of forming. There is Graham's evasiveness, Goring's attachment to Chiltern, Hallward's love for Dorian, the Page's love for the young Syrian in Salomé. And there is Illingworth's excessive liking for Arbuthnot. “You have missed not having a father, I suppose, Gerald?” he asks, placing his hand on his shoulder (WNI 74). Leisure-class men did have intimate secretaries, and they didn't turn out to be sons. In 1894, Lord Alfred Douglas's twenty-five-year-old brother, Francis, Viscount Drumlanrig, was found dead from a gunshot wound. Drumlanrig was assistant private secretary to Lord Rosebery, then Foreign Minister, and the Douglas family were convinced that his death was brought about by the pressures of a same-sex relationship with Rosebery.46 “The world will know him merely as my private secretary,” Illingworth tells the hostile Mrs Arbuthnot, “but to me he will be something very near, and very dear” (WNI 66).

Strachey's reading has a subversive plausibility—even, and perhaps especially, for those who detest such Wildean frivolity. According to the Evening News, the trials exposed Wilde as what he always had been: “a social pest, a centre of intellectual corruption … who attacked all wholesome, manly, simple ideals of English life.”47 Wilde's dandified characters may be artificial constructs—subversive puns upon conventional gender categories; but he makes them persuasive. Frivolity, it appears, overcomes earnestness. That Wilde was astute in his sense of what would engage an audience's interest is shown by his success in the theatre. That orthodoxies are not easily overthrown is shown by the fact that he was tried, convicted, and sentenced.


  1. Quoted in Michael Holroyd, Lytton Strachey: A Biography (London, 1971), 357-58 n. 14.

  2. Introduction to Oscar Wilde, Two Society Comedies: “A Woman of No Importance” and “An Ideal Husband,” ed. Ian Small and Russell Jackson (London, 1983), xxv.

  3. Patricia Flanagan Behrendt, Oscar Wilde: Eros and Aesthetics (London, 1991), 172-73; Alan Hollinghurst, The Swimming-Pool Library (London, 1988), 177.

  4. Timothy d'Arch Smith, Love in Earnest (London, 1970), xix. In 1894 Nicholson appeared alongside Wilde and Douglas in the Chameleon, so the connection is not illfounded.

  5. Chris White, “The Organization of Pleasure: British Homosexual and Lesbian Discourse 1869-1914”, unpub. diss. (University of Nottingham, 1992), 289.

  6. Christopher Craft, “Alias Bunbury: Desire and Termination in The Importance of Being Earnest,Representations, 31 (Summer, 1990), 19-46.

  7. Joel Fineman, “The Significance of Literature: The Importance of Being Earnest,” October, 15 (1980), 89; Behrendt, 174; Linda Gertner Zatlin, Aubrey Beardsley and Victorian Sexual Politics (Oxford, 1990), 151.

  8. Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang (London, 1937); 8th edition, ed. Paul Beale (London, 1984); John S. Farmer, Slang and Its Analogues (London, 1890); John Ayto and John Simpson, The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang (Oxford, 1992). See also William Green, “Oscar Wilde and the Bunburys,” Modern Drama, 21 (1978), 67-80; Neil Bartlett, Who Was That Man?: A Present for Mr Oscar Wilde (London, 1988); Joseph Bristow, in Oscar Wilde, ‘The Importance of Being Earnestand Related Writings, ed. Joseph Bristow (London, 1992), 16-19; cited hereafter in the text as “IBE.

  9. See Alan Sinfield, The Wilde Century: Effeminacy, Oscar Wilde and the Queer Moment (London, 1994); Ed Cohen, Talk on the Wilde Side: Toward a Genealogy of a Discourse on Male Sexualities (New York, 1993); Michael Hurley, “Homosexualities: Fiction, Reading and Moral Training,” in Feminine, Masculine and Representation, ed. Terry Threadgold and Anne Cranny-Francis (Sydney, 1990), 164; Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York, 1985), 94, 216-17; Martin Green, Children of the Sun: A Narrative of “Decadence” in England after 1918 (London, 1977), 23-40; Ellen Moers, The Dandy: Brummel to Beerbohm (London, 1960), 304.

  10. Oscar Wilde, A Woman of No Importance, in Wilde, Two Society Comedies, ed. Small and Jackson, 23, 35; cited hereafter in the text as “WNI.

  11. Pat Moorman, reviewing a Royal Shakespeare Company production, Brighton and Hove Leader, March 26, 1992, 26; Kerry Powell, Oscar Wilde and the Theatre of the 1890s (Cambridge, 1990), 71.

  12. Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere's Fan, ed. Ian Small (London, 1980), 60; cited hereafter in the text as “LWF.

  13. Moers, 81, 172 et passim.

  14. Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, ed. Isobel Murray (Oxford, 1981), 36; and see 101-2.

  15. Behrendt, 176.

  16. Sedgwick, 93; see also 174-76; and Frank Mort, Dangerous Sexualities (London, 1987), part 3; Regenia Gagnier, Idylls of the Marketplace (Stanford, 1986), 67-90; H. Montgomery Hyde, The Other Love: A Historical and Contemporary Survey of Homosexuality in Britain (London, 1970), 139; Jeffrey Weeks, Sex, Politics and Society: The Regulation of Sexuality since 1800, 2nd ed. (London, 1989), 110-11).

  17. Michael Rey, “Parisian Homosexuals Create a Lifestyle, 1700-1850: The Police Archives,” in ‘Tis Nature's Fault, ed. R.P. Maccubbin (Cambridge, 1988), 189.

  18. Behrendt, 163.

  19. Oscar Wilde, An Ideal Husband, in Wilde, Two Society Comedies, ed. Small and Jackson, 217; cited hereafter in the text as “IH.

  20. Quoted in Two Society Comedies, ed. Small and Jackson, 131.

  21. Mort, 88.

  22. Review of An Ideal Husband (1895), in Oscar Wilde: The Critical Heritage, ed. Karl Beckson (London, 1970), 174; Two Society Comedies, ed. Small and Jackson, xxxv.

  23. Powell, 72; see 86-87.

  24. WNI 84; Wilde, Picture of Dorian Gray, 84.

  25. Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, with introduction by C. Wright Mills (New York, 1953), 229; Beatrice Webb, My Apprenticeship (New York, 1977), 47.

  26. Leonore Davidoff, The Best Circles: Women and Society in Victorian England (Totawa, NJ, 1973), 44. A deleted line of The Ideal Husband said, by way of showing the sheepishness of a husband, “If I allowed him he would have tea with me at five every afternoon” (ed. Small and Jackson, 151).

  27. Davidoff, 16.

  28. C. Wright Mills, introduction to Veblen, xvi; see Webb, 48; Davidoff, 49.

  29. Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution, Collected Works, ed. Norman St John-Stevas, vol. 5 (London, 1974), 263; see Geoffrey Best, Mid-Victorian Britain 1851-75 (London, 1979), 251-68; Joseph Bristow, Empire Boys: Adventures in a Man's World (London, 1991), 55-58.

  30. Best, 262.

  31. Webb, 49.

  32. Best, 274-75.

  33. Webb, 51.

  34. Philippa Levine, Victorian Feminism 1850-1900 (Tallahassee, 1987), 130. See Mort, Dangerous Sexualities, 77-83; Nancy Armstrong, “The Rise of the Domestic Woman,” in Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse, eds., The Ideology of Conduct: Essays on Literature and the History of Sexuality (New York, 1987), 96-141.

  35. Martha Vicinus, Independent Women: Work and Community for Single Women 1850-1920 (London, 1985), 24; see Elaine Showalter, Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siècle (London, 1990), chs.2, 3.

  36. See Laurel Brake, “Gendered Space: The Woman's World,Women, 2 (1991), 149-62; Jonathan Dollimore, Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault (Oxford, 1991), 14 and ch.1.

  37. Levine, 133.

  38. Mort, 89; and 116-30. See Sheila Jeffreys, The Spinster and Her Enemies: Feminism and Sexuality 1880-1930 (London, 1985); Judith R. Walkowitz, Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class, and the State (Cambridge, 1980); Richard Dellamora, Masculine Desire: The Sexual Politics of Victorian Aestheticism (Chapel Hill, 1990), 199-205.

  39. On such complications of interpretation, see Rita Felski, “The Counterdiscourse of the Feminine in Three Texts by Wilde, Huysmans, and Sacher-Masoch,” PMLA, 106 (1991), 1094-1105; Alan Sinfield, “Private Lives/Public Theatre: Noel Coward and the Politics of Homosexual Representation,” Representations, 36 (Fall 1991), 43-63; Alan Sinfield, Cultural Politics—Queer Reading (Philadelphia and London, 1994).

  40. Behrendt, 152.

  41. Davidoff, 17; T. H. Escott, England: Its People, Polity and Pursuits, rev. ed. (1885), quoted in Two Society Comedies, ed. Small and Jackson, xxxi.

  42. Jane Marcus, Art and Anger: Reading Like a Woman (Columbus, 1988), 17.

  43. Alan Bird, The Plays of Oscar Wilde (London, 1977), 128.

  44. Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (New Haven, 1990), 536, 535.

  45. Paglia, 535.

  46. Hyde, 166-67; Gagnier, 206.

  47. Quoted in Mort, 113-14.

John Stokes (essay date spring 1994)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7042

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 interpretations, if only to that extent, are still part of the author's “intention.” On the basis of these theoretical principles it would follow that an account of recent productions of Wilde plays ought not only to identify trends currently in operation, but, in the course of analysis, reveal meanings that were already present, though sometimes hidden or unacknowledged, within the texts themselves.

It is certainly true that ever since Peter Hall's National Theatre Importance of Being Earnest in 1982, the full-scale professional productions in London have shared a number of characteristics. An extreme adventurousness in design and costume has tried to match Wilde's linguistic extravagance with visual images, with sets that expand far beyond the backcloths and box-sets he must normally have envisaged. There have also been consistent attempts to make theatrical capital out of biographical connections between the work and its author. And there has been consistent engagement with the mixed modes of the play-texts: attempts to make the best, if not the most, of the strong elements of melodrama they undoubtedly contain. This last probably represents the greatest investment of directorial energy. Whereas Wildean insights invite an impassive delivery that distances speakers from the world they are commenting upon, in the simplified moral universe of melodrama the important statements are expressed in a highly emotional and pictorial manner. These mixed modes now demand our undivided attention because, in today's theatre, the contrasts seem more than just stylistic: they seem to reflect issues of social and sexual ethics at the very heart of Wilde's plays.

What follows is an experiment in two parts, inspired by Miller's ideas. The first part takes as its primary material the reviews of three major London productions, sifted and sorted according to my own memories and impressions.2 The second considers what this survey of productions from the 1990s might tell us about the theatre of a century ago. Backtracking from “now” we head for “then.”



Philip Prowse's production of A Woman of No Importance, first seen at the Glasgow Citizens in 1984, revived at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre's Barbican home in October 1991, offered a superbly high-handed solution to some basic problems.3 Prowse collapsed the play's four acts into three, and then demanded two twenty-minute intervals to allow for elaborate changes of the sets he had, as is his custom, designed himself. His production was unashamedly operatic in its scale, full of colour, imported incident, and metatheatrical devices. By keeping his actors always on the move, even in quite crowded scenes, by relying on formalised blocking, close to choreography, and a rhetorical delivery that addressed lines directly at the audience, Prowse overcame all risk of dramatic stasis.

With typical boldness he opened his production with an addition to the text: the ominous appearance, before the lights were fully up, of a golden youth lazily, pointlessly, miming a game of croquet. (In appearance obviously reminiscent of Lord Alfred Douglas, this eventually turned out to be the excessively minor character, Lord Alfred Rufford.) Michael Coveney (Observer 6.10.91) described the subsequent picture: “a staggering haven of gilded urns and a circular pond of daffodils, narcissi and bamboo reeds.” Irving Wardle (Independent on Sunday 6.10.91) found it “breathtakingly ornate: a park, backing onto a gigantic gilt-framed Claude landscape, where everything from the masonry to the vegetation has changed to gold. Nature is painted out.”

The obvious question was whether Prowse's fascination with seductive artifice could coexist alongside what appeared, in general, to be a toughly critical attitude to characters that derived from the moral orthodoxy of melodrama. “Prowse invests the melodramatic revelations about Gerald's parentage and the caddishness of Lord Illingworth … with a reality and weight they may not have. But he thus releases the rhythms and vicious satire of the piece in a way no one else has ever imagined,” was Coveney's verdict. Wardle shrugged his shoulders: “The main plot is irreclaimable; partly for the obvious reason of its sentimental contrivance (as Hugh Leonard said, it makes one ‘long for the corruscating saltiness of East Lynne’); but also because everyone in it can get up and go. The moralising American, the ‘fallen’ woman and her bank-clerk son, all have a life elsewhere.” “Melodrama all the way,” judged John Gross (Sunday Telegraph 6.10.91), though he thought that Prowse's production got away with it, “partly because he takes it seriously, with no suggestions of unease. As soon as it's over, you realise that it is the stilted period piece that you always thought it was; but it is oddly moving while it lasts.”

Listen for Oscar Wilde in A Woman of No Importance and you are first of all likely to hear him in Lord Illingworth: “the vile seducer and Wildean philosopher,” played here by John Carlisle with “the smirking poise of a replete crocodile” (Wardle). Animal images crept into several critical minds: “sleekly dangerous lounge-lizard” (Michael Billington, Guardian 5.10.91), “cold and hawklike, obnoxiously sophisticated and majestically corrupt” (John Peter, Sunday Times 6.10.91). Gross found himself “wanting to strangle him.” For Lindsay Duguid (TLS 11.10.91) it became “unpleasant to hear him exercise his wit, rolling out his decadent paradoxes about life, or trying to win over a good woman with wry, elegant seductiveness.” Benedict Nightingale (The Times 3.10.91) thought Carlisle's performance historically suggestive nonetheless:

He does, after all, espouse Wilde's own aestheticism. His professed philosophy is all about the virtues of insincerity, inconstancy, and well-tied neckties. His author called him “a figure of art. Indeed, if you can bear the truth, he is MYSELF”, and yet made him the villain.

Was Lord Illingworth Wilde's attempt to impose himself on his public or an instance of genuine self-criticism?

Michael Billington, for one, thought he knew the extent of Wilde's involvement with the character. Admitting that A Woman might look like a “proto-feminist play,” Billington finally decided that “it doesn't play like that.”

Wilde clearly poured his talent, if not his genius, into the aphoristic aristo modelled on Dorian Gray's Lord Henry Wotton: the wronged woman on the other hand is a real pain in the Arbuthnot, ready to sacrifice her son's future to her stored-up revenge.

Lindsay Duguid spotted autobiographical connections as well:

The scene in which a virtuous woman tries to prevent her only son from being led astray by the man who ruined her, may echo scenes with Speranza or Constance Wilde. It is also a strange precursor to the letter which Wilde wrote to Lady Queensberry in November 1893 (seven months after the first performance of A Woman of No Importance), begging her to keep Bosie away from the dangers of society.

And Charles Spencer (Daily Telegraph 4.10.91) would have agreed:

There is no mistaking the cruelty of the society Wilde depicts, or its hypocrisy. The conversation is brilliant but heartless, and in the fate of Mrs Arbuthnot, whose whole life has been wrecked by a sexual indiscretion, it is impossible not to be reminded of Wilde's own tragic last years. One wonders if he caught a premonitory glimpse of them himself.

If Lord Illingworth isn't exactly the Wilde we hope for, then perhaps his voice sounds more convincing when it issues from a female body—from Mrs Arbuthnot, for example, or from one of the play's several strong and witty women. Like most of Wilde's plays, this has quite a range of female characters. Gross distinguished distinctive notes in a well-balanced chorus—“the acidulous Mrs Allonby (Nichola McAuliffe), the dragonish Lady Caroline (Cherry Morris), the empty-headed Lady Stutfield (Mary Chater)”—and enjoyed “the flutterings of the seemingly soft and scatterbrained but ultimately invulnerable Lady Hunstanton,” a character Spencer found “charmingly forgetful, terrifying complacent and with a delivery that makes even commonplace lines irresistible.”

Cataloguing the varieties of female in a Wilde play can easily develop into a critical sport—a sport admittedly played mainly by men. Billington had “the pearl-choked Lady Hunstanton” and “the eternally vigilant Lady Pontefract who views her husband as a piece of permanently lost property.” For Coveney, the women ranged from “the wronged Mrs Arbuthnot (Carol Royle) as a pinched and vengefully pained salon outcast” and “Barbara Leigh-Hunt's blinkingly impervious Lady Hunstanton” to Nichola McAuliffe's “splendidly butch and world-weary Mrs Allonby” and “Cherry Morris's dragon-like Lady Caroline.” But then there was Prowse's master-stroke: “the casting of a black actress, the admirable Julie Saunders, as the American woman of the future who witnesses the last exhalations of these social dinosaurs while assisting on the melodrama's poignant resolution.”

Wardle began with Mrs Allonby: “the boldest of them (Nichola McAuliffe in quasi-hunting kit, one hand permanently on her hip) … a Mme de Montreuil to his [Lord Illingworth's] Valmont” and went on to “the hatchet-faced Lady Caroline (Cherry Morris) whose one aim is to keep her husband away from the youngest of the ladies; and whose distracted panic when he finally escapes her clutches would do justice to a Racine heroine.” The list ended with Barbara Leigh-Hunt, “best of all … as the ineffably complaisant hostess, who excuses a beating husband—‘it runs in the family’—as though he suffered from asthma, and underscores her most mindless comments with deliciously ironic ambiguity.”

Finally Wardle judged this to be a woman's play not just because it pleaded equal sexual justice, but because the women's “chatter” was its most dramatic element. For Lindsay Duguid too it was the staging of the all-female set-pieces, the introductory scene in particular, which showed Prowse's directorial skills at their most incisive. These witty women are “practised”: their riddles and paradoxes may be funny, but they are old-fashioned, concealing an inner panic. “They say the first thing that comes to their heads because they are very anxious to hold on to their position and their men.”


Philip Prowse directed An Ideal Husband in Glasgow in 1986 and it has been revived fairly frequently in recent years, though never to the kind of critical attention accorded Peter Hall's production at the Globe in 1992.

Again the sets, though less strikingly so than those designed by Prowse, set up a strongly meaningful mood. But this time the emphasis was on solidly material matters. Carl Toms's gilded interiors were fronted by a huge Victorian golden sovereign displaying the profile of the monarch. Correspondingly, Hall tended to deploy costumes as evidence of conspicuous wealth rather than as symbols of moral worth. Careful to keep all his effects both stylised and serious, he modified the clumsy melodrama of the eavesdropping scene by substituting an opening door for the notorious falling chair, yet ended each act with a emotional tableau in an authentically Victorian way.

On the morning of the London opening, Hall set out his basic principles in an article for the Guardian (11.11.91):

All Wilde's characters are extravagantly emotional and are quite naturally eccentric. But they do not show their feelings or release their emotions; that would be un-English. They utter witticisms instead. The more emotional they become, the more extravagant the wit. It is a type of English stiff upper lip; and it informs all Wilde's theatre. Beneath the wit there is always an intense emotional reality. The actor must investigate it, know it, and create it every night. Then he must mask it completely with the wit.

Hall went on to identify areas of interest that would soon be taken up by his critics: the play's contemporary relevance to politics and to scandal-mongering journalism, its concern with a feminism based on femininity, its ultimately compassionate vision and its autobiographical element. According to its director all this came from the play's personal origins, but resulted in a universal vision nevertheless, since Wilde was bisexual and “we are just beginning to come to accept that vast numbers of people are bisexual.”

The critics seemed satisfied enough. Even Billington (Guardian 13.11.91) saw the play as a comprehensive attack on Victorian values: “the false idealisation of men by women, the worship of wealth, the gap between public morality and private behaviour.” Few could resist extending the list in time to include the difficulties experienced by British cabinet ministers in 1992 (the Matrix Churchill affair, which involved the selling of arms to Iraq, was currently in the news). On the opening night the “audience tittered, clearly sensing parallels with you-know-what and guess-who” (Benedict Nightingale, The Times 13.11.91). By insisting throughout that the melodrama lay in the public rather than the personal sphere, Hall's production became, surprisingly, all the more realistic.

Paul Taylor (Independent 13.11.92) quoted Wilde himself on the personal dimension. The subject of the play, Hall had once said, was “‘the difference in the way in which a man loves a woman from that in which a woman loves a man.’” Aware that this reversed the more familiar belief that it is men who idealise women (“you don't hear much of Beatrice's Dante”), Taylor allowed that there might at least be a historical truth here, that “it isn't fanciful to discern a link between the heroine's behaviour in the play and the mentality that sent men off to the front to prove that they were heroes in the Great War.”

With Mrs Cheveley there were few problems, “a sleek carnivorous butterfly, poised and dangerous, with eyes that miss nothing and a voice of cream and prussic acid” (John Peter, Sunday Times 15.11.92). Lady Chiltern was more difficult. Billington, who saw the central pair as “a quasi-Ibsenite couple whose married life is founded on a lie,” called her “fatuously adoring” and applauded the psychological realism that had Sir Robert almost strike his own wife. Peter nevertheless found in this “saintly female unicorn a touch of sensuality.” Though the actress playing the role (Hannah Gordon) came in for some stiff criticism from the Daily Telegraph (13.11.91) for “entirely missing the character's icy calculation and smug moral complacency,” Taylor thought her:

the Lady Macbeth of virtuous career-guidance. With smiles that are forever curdling into snarls of righteousness and sudden passionate kisses that are tactically reserved as good conduct badges, there's a voracity about her that seems just as ruthless in its way as Anna Carteret's captivatingly unscrupulous Mrs Cheveley.

This disturbing comparison gave some evidence that for Wilde women would always be “second-class citizens.” Nightingale too, had difficulty with the proposition (given in the play to Lady Chiltern) that women's “curves of emotion” don't compare with men's “wider scope and greater ambitions.”

The more morally ambiguous the older women appear in this play, the more weight is likely to fall upon Mabel Chiltern. “Plain and feisty,” Charles Spencer (Daily Telegraph 13.11.92) called Victoria Hasted's interpretation, but Alastair Macaulay (Financial Times 13.11.92) judged that “to play this role as a bespectacled, nasal, energetic hoyden is an amusing mistake. Wilde's stage directions compare her to both a flower and a Tanagra statuette.” Billington thought that she could see “right through her future husband.” Taylor decided that “to make the marriage go, Lord G, you feel, would have to develop an improbable passion for lacrosse.”

Once again there was the sense that Wilde himself was up on stage, palpably so this time in the figure of Lord Goring as played by Martin Shaw.

Boasting an Oscarish tummy, mournful eyes and an insolent langour, Mr Shaw makes the character far more than a walking jokesmith: he suggests that the mask of flippancy conceals infinite reserves of charity and shrewdness.

(Billington, Guardian 13.11.92)

Martin Shaw, long-haired and padded at the waist, plays most attractively as a philosophising dandy with a high tolerance of human fallibility.

(Michael Coveney, Observer 15.11.92)

John Gross (Sunday Telegraph 15.11.92) came right out with it—“a closet gay if ever there was one”—though Nightingale found that the physical identification with Wilde “sorts oddly with the robust heterosexuality the plot demands of the character.” Spencer said that Shaw “gets to the heart of the play, touchingly suggesting a man who uses affected dandyism to disguise both personal hurt and an innate decency.” Peter also related Goring to the essential schizophrenia of his creator: careless wit and moral arbiter at one and the same time.

Martin Shaw presents a saturnine dandy, both magisterially epicene and soberly masculine who once has been athletic in body and inquisitive in mind. What seems to have happened to Goring is that he began to find the answers that life was providing increasingly fatuous, and, as his waistline grew more ample, his manner grew more florid to screen his disappointment. The exquisite triviality of his conversation is only a cover for a fastidious distaste.

(Sunday Times 15.11.92)

A few felt dissatisfied with Goring's distaste. Wardle (Independent on Sunday 15.11.92) concluded that “the transitions from cold-blooded epigrams to clammy declarations of feeling have become unplayable.” Macaulay (Financial Times) applauded Martin Shaw because “he has the authority to convey the moral seriousness behind the dandy's facade. Yet he radiates not only self-satisfaction but also affectation.” Taylor was reminded of “Noel Coward in his finger-wagging, mother-knows-best mood.”


Time and again reviewers of A Woman of No Importance and of An Ideal Husband refer to The Importance of Being Earnest as if it were the only logical direction for Wilde's theatrical career to take—a brilliantly self-concealing answer to the clash between overt melodrama and evasive wit. As Jane Edwardes was to put it in her review of Nicholas Hytner's production of the play which opened at the Aldwych in March 1993:

If as I suspect, we are only just becoming acquainted with the true emotion, not the melodrama, behind Wilde's wit, then The Importance of Being Earnest may not be so pleasing. It was, after all, the play in which Wilde completely hid his feelings, concentrating instead, through the role playing of Jack and Algernon, on the deceptions that his sexuality forced him to play.

(Time Out 17.3.93)

John Peter made much the same point:

Style wins over sincerity because Wilde despaired of finding any of the latter. In one sense this play, like all great comedies, is about nothing in particular: it exists to justify its own existence. But behind the wit and the ostentatious elegance of the writing, you get a glimpse of a barren, glittering desert.

(Sunday Times 14.3.93)

There was evidence nevertheless that Wilde's elegantly theatrical solution to his own problems now puts a director in something of a quandary. Perhaps Nick Hytner's expensive, star-laden production raised expectations it never could fulfil. For each of the play's three acts the designer, Bob Crowley, produced sets that were not merely stunning, they seemed suggestive as well—though precisely of what, no one was quite sure. The first act, Algy's flat in Half Moon Street, “a slant-roofed property with sinful crimson walls which melt into carnation green” (Paul Taylor, Independent 12.3.93), was overlooked by an enormous mock-up of Sargent's portrait of W. Graham Robertson. The second act was “dominated by an extraordinary hedge of salmon pink roses excessively topiarised into the shape of peacock with an enormous, expanding tail” (Time Out 17.3.93). The third act was a creamy curved interior “like a skew-whiff Heartbreak House” (Observer 14.3.93)

The extraordinary plethora of references in descriptions of these extraordinary sets testifies to the general bemusement: “surreal” (Plays and Players May 93), “expressionist” (What's On 17.3.93), “Odilon Redon” (John Peter, Sunday Times 14.3.93), “Lewis Carroll” (Sheridan Morley, Spectator 20.3.93), “post-modernist” (Jack Tinker, Daily Mail 17.3.93). Wardle felt obliged to construct a whole surrealist tradition: “This is Wilde as seen in the rear-view mirror of Orton and Stoppard … on nodding terms with Magritte: or, as Cecily might have put it, ‘This is not a spade’ (Independent on Sunday 14.3.93).

Who could inhabit such a world? Only fantasists and narcissists. Cecily (Claire Skinner) was “an almost terrifying study in fresh-cheeked single-mindedness, believing her own diary fantasies with a fundamentalist's unblinking literalism” (Independent 12.3.93). Algy (Richard E. Grant) was “an ostentatious velvet dandy,” “a peacock on heat, but one who seeks most especially to love himself” (Sunday Times), reminiscent to some of the young Wilde. But this is also where the problems began, for much of the acting was judged rather too conventional for the louche surroundings. There were strong reservations about Gwendolen (Susan Harker) and about Richard E. Grant too when he had “to struggle, paradoxically, to be languid and debonair as the smugly smiling Algernon” (Independent). Of the four young leads, only Jack, played by Alex Jennings as “a petulant, opinionated cherub, pompous and mean” (Sunday Times), offered a really surprising and therefore successful interpretation.

Curiously, very few critics referred to the production's most provocative, and puzzling, moment: the kiss of greeting that Jack bestowed on Algy at his first entrance. Was it critical pudeur, or did the actors simply forego the gesture on some nights early in the run? Even so a colour picture of the two men on the back of the souvenir brochure made its own unmistakeably homoerotic point. Those who did refer to the kiss were cautious. Robert Tanitch (Plays and Players May 93) thought it might suggest “that the director … is about to explore a Victorian gay sub-text and that the true meaning of being ‘earnest’ and ‘bunburying’ will be revealed.” To Tanitch's personal relief that suggestion turned out to be false. Sheridan Morley found the idea of “gay young things” intriguing, “but one incapable of being sustained once the girls appear” (Spectator 20.3.93).

The main focus of attention, commercially and theatrically inevitable, was upon Maggie Smith's Lady Bracknell. For Taylor, Coveney, Morley (Spectator), and many others, Smith offered an exact study in the mores of the English class-system.

When she first sweeps in, the head may be reared back but the chin is tucked down, in tight disapproving mode, against the chest. Replace that imperious feathered hat with a head-scarf and milady's pursed moues and her air of pinched, almost predatory respectability would start to look distinctly suburban. … The titled monster may be dead set against her daughter forming an alliance with a parcel, but you could deduce, from this production, that her own lofty social position has come about only thanks to Lord Bracknell's willingness to form an alliance with a parvenue. In which case, his wife's tireless penchant for making dogmatic discriminations emerges as the compulsive behaviour of the arriviste turned beady-eyed expert at border-control.

(Independent 12.3.93)

This is no haughty old dowager guarding a bank of magisterial put-downs, but a scheming whirlwind, body askance in dove-grey silks, flyaway hat and perfect coiffure, a figure of frightening elegance who is not to be tampered with. … She certainly inspects the young people like a beaky, agitated adjutant on parade … her body language is as tightly corseted as her physical frame.

(Observer 14.3.93)

When it came to animal imagery, Nightingale (The Times 10.3.93) went the whole hog, first invoking the human vultures, ravens, and crows of Volpone, then describing Maggie Smith as “maybe a lady griffin.” Jane Edwardes spotted an unexpected sexual alignment along with the ornithological:

Smith is an exotic bird, looking with hawk-like disdain on her prey, while Edith Evans was an immovable tank. Smith's fixed stare is accompanied by a fluttering of her wings and a quick turn of the head. Dressed in shimmering grey with a hat dramatically angled, she gives a definitive, hilarious performance which threatens to soar into a stratosphere all of its own. Such high camp almost puts her on the side of her decadent nephew rather than the forces of bourgeois authority.

(Time Out)

For Jack the final irony will come when he realises that Gwendolen, like all women, has grown up into her mother. Further bizarre comparisons cropped up in Wardle: “part suburban parvenue, part drag artist, part vigilantly suspicious rodent” (Independent on Sunday), while Nicholas de Jongh (Standard 10.3.93) simply found the whole performance “high-camp.”

That Maggie Smith possesses rare theatrical power is a truth that usually goes unquestioned. Wardle admired “her mastery of the stage, which she rakes with laser eyes on every entrance.” Peter noted the same thing, but thought it further evidence of the character's parvenue status:

What gives her away is the impertinent look of appraisal with which she scrutinises new arrivals. This is not the practised glance of the true upper-class matriarch, who takes in everything with the blink of an eye, but the ruthless inquisitorial stare of the middle-class climber who has had to learn what to look for.

Respectful to the point of reverence, most London critics gave Maggie Smith the kind of reception that a Dame should expect. There was a single, important exception: Michael Billington. “Dame Maggie,” he pronounced, “is a bundle of fussiness forever fidgeting.”

She also constantly seeks laughs instead of letting them come to her. … When assessing Cecily's profile Dame Maggie indulges in an orgy of wide-eyed moues and stares far removed from the character's patronising beneficence … in stealing the show, Dame Maggie's hyperactive performance subtly undermines it.

(Guardian 11 March 1993)

And in a review for Country Life (18.3.93) Bilington took these strictures even further:

Dame Maggie, employing a strangulated, nasal tone, presents us with a Lady Bracknell who is bustling, fidgety and forever signalling her emotions. She gets huge laughs, on her first entrance, by shooting withering, disdainful glances at Mr Worthing as if he is a piece of untidy refuse, which makes nonsense of her second entrance when she recognises him instantly. In the famous interview, she clutches her stomach in revulsion on learning that he was found in “the cloak-room at Victoria Station”. Again, this gets a big laugh. But it runs clean counter to the aristocratic temperament which registers high-voltage shock with maximum economy. In short, there is a strenuousness about Dame Maggie's performance that violently contradicts Lady Bracknell's indomitable self-assurance.

Later Billington had some reason to feel vindicated when the London Standard in June ran a piece under the heading “The Importance of Being Maggie Smith” which reported disturbing developments down at the Aldwych:

The audience erupts into applause at the mere sight of her; she pauses, discreetly acknowledging the adulation, before launching into a performance of comic grotesquerie that is not so much Wilde as wild. For a moment, one is whisked from the seats of the Aldwych to the studio audience of I Love Lucy. … Every classic line, every gesture, is stretched to infinity for laughs. If an eccentric gesture doesn't get a laugh, she repeats it until it does. If a movement gets a laugh straight away, she repeats it for another one.

(Standard 15.6.93 with later correspondence on 21.6.93)

There were, then, two schools, though of very unequal size. There was the minority view, headed by Billington, for whom Smith had indulged her technical skills at the expense of the role, and there was the majority view which saw nothing but creative comedy of a high order.


The danger with Jonathan Miller's theory is that it all too easily assumes the historical relevance of the interpretations it choses to address. A form of hermeneutic circling may come into play through which desired meanings are merely ratified by production style, and the validating process of historical discovery is lost. To avoid false inferences we sometimes need to be sparing with our conclusions.

Or what if a production is so visually attractive, so persuasively acted, that the text dissolves in performance, transformed into something quite different, but of undoubted power? That is certainly possible, though none of the recent productions of Wilde go quite that far. Even the lavish sets, essential for the success of a modern West End show, serve a function. Design is a prime mediator between action and audience, and the best work—Crowley's sets for The Importance, for instance—register the ambiguities that now surround the plays, as the comments of critics testify.

Acting styles are produced by the cultural moment as well, not just individually, but in the relation between a single performer and the surrounding company. One of the lessons to be learnt from Maggie Smith's performance, and from the responses to it, is that we are still living in a time, which probably originated in the later nineteenth century, when star performances and ensemble styles coexist rather uneasily.

Not that in 1895, when The Importance played at the St James, the problem would have centered on Lady Bracknell. Few critics of the first production spent much time with Rose Leclercq's reading of the part: George Alexander's Jack inevitably got the most attention. One critic explained that his failure to say much about any of the acting was evidence of the way in which Wilde dominated his own play.4

It took time for Lady Bracknell to become everybody's favourite joke. When Alexander revived the play in 1909, Max Beerbohm didn't even bother to give the name of the actress playing her. Nigel Playfair's production at the Lyric, Hammersmith in 1930 had Mabel Terry-Lewis in the role, greatly overshadowed by her nephew John Gielgud as Jack. Only later did Lady Bracknell achieve centrality, probably because she could now be more clearly seen in class terms. In her famous book on comedy, first published in 1943, Athene Seyler, who had played Lady Bracknell at the Old Vic a decade before, stresses that The Importance “shows the absurdities of the well-bred, cynical, easy manner of the ‘upper classes’ with its levelling of all emotion and experience to apparent indifference.”5 When Edith Evans seized command of Gielgud's 1939 production, and the extremely popular 1953 film, making Lady Bracknell a part of great importance, she did so by mining the full possibilities of this “apparent indifference.” Evans's performance style perfectly matched that concept of the role because it was part of her brilliance as an actress to seem to be unaware of the effect she was creating, almost daring you to laugh. Judi Dench's notable Lady Bracknell in 1982 carried on the tradition by appearing equally blind to social circumstance.

But Maggie Smith's 1993 performance went in quite another direction: she almost dared you not to laugh. This technique clearly has many admirers, but the pained protests from Billington and a few others indicate a more established idea of what Wilde's most typical roles ask from actors and actresses: a self-effacing opacity that obliges an audience to respond with a mixture of bemused recognition and baffled surprise. A performer who controls our response to the extent that we find ourselves laughing at the exaggerated role they are playing can severely reduce the satirical complexity of an imperturbable face. Maggie Smith's parvenue was fearsome, yet coercive. Nor was she quite human—“a hawk,” “a vulture,” “a griffin”—a fabulous female creature.

In Wilde's theatre, rather in the manner of Restoration comedy, there are conscious wits and there are unconscious wits, and there are some, the most interesting, who are hard to keep in either category—they keep jumping from one to the other. Lady Bracknell belongs with these: Edith Evans was the actress who brought the manner to perfection, and, ever since, we have looked on the part as a supreme opportunity for a comic actress.

It's intriguing, then, that one or two critics should have referred to Smith as a “drag-artist.” Perhaps they meant that she was pretending to be one (an actress imitating a man imitating a woman) or perhaps that, in some sense, Lady Bracknell really is male (the actress playing a woman with male characteristics). Though the latter seems the more likely explanation, both possibilities are oddly plausible: there are undoubtedly some who would say that she is a woman as only a man could imagine a woman. Yet even in The Importance with its relatively small cast, there are a number of rather different women with whom to compare her. Is the point that Lady Bracknell's maleness lies in her autocratic behaviour rather than in any fluke of biology? Jack does after all rebuke her for “her masculine mind.” Then again, what precisely does female behaviour amount to in a Wilde play? These are the questions that we are now likely to ask.

In their versions of the two society plays both Hall and Prowse defused the moral melodrama of sexual relationships by playing the passionate scenes according to convention. This left them free to bring out the more interesting complexities created by wits, in particular by female wit. All three productions tried to persuade us that Wilde's interest in group female discourse eclipses those elements of melodramatic idealisation (and, just possibly, misogynistic fear) that may also be felt in his work. In their different ways they all suggested that Wilde's most long-lasting—or prophetic—contribution to feminism was to allow his women to be articulate, and then to subject them to moral evaluation according to the ways in which they put their verbal dexterity to amusing and constructive use. It is this, we are led to conclude, that shows him to be a contemporary of the New Woman.

The other lesson, appropriately paradoxical, is that the plays are, more than ever, inseparable from their author's own experience, and depend greatly upon our seeing that to be the case. One obvious reason why the new stagings have gone for the autobiographical element is the enormous popularity of Ellmann's best-selling biography. We have also experienced a new frankness and curiosity about gay history and gay relationships. Yet the Wildean presence only works on stage today because it makes manifest a quality endemic to the plays: an interplay between performance, audience, and outside world that was already active in the conditions of late Victorian theatre, though taken to new extremes by Wilde—from the very start of his career.

An inveterate theatre-goer, Wilde made a point in the 1880s of attending the first nights of personal favourites like Helena Modjeska and Lillie Langtry. He knew how important it was for his own professional progress that he should be seen to be there on grand theatrical occasions. Lyceum premières were particularly grand (in fact it was Irving's manager, H. L. Bateman, who had first realised the full publicity potential of the first night) and Wilde rarely missed one. When Othello opened on 2 May 1881 with Booth as Othello and Irving as Iago, the audience were apparently also “entertained by the ubiquity of Oscar Wilde who, combining elegance and agility, was seen now leaning languidly from a box, now chatting in the stalls, and a moment later figuring prominently in a box opposite to the first.”6 Already, when he reviewed Irving's Hamlet in 1885, his reference to the audience betrayed a characteristic self-awareness:

It sometimes happens that at a première in London the least enjoyable part of the performance is the play. I have seen many audiences more interesting than the actors, and have often heard better dialogue in the foyer than I have on stage. At the Lyceum, however, this is rarely the case, and when the play is a play of Shakespeare's, and among its exponents are Mr. Irving and Miss Ellen Terry, we turn from the gods in the gallery and from the goddesses in the stalls, to enjoy the charm of the production, and to take delight in the art. The lions are before the foot-lights and not in front of them when we have a noble tragedy nobly enacted.7

Throughout the 1880s the papers regularly reported his presence in among the fashionable throng. Attendant at the first night of Faust were the Princess Louise, the Prince of Wales (officially in mourning but he got over the problem by watching the play from behind) and “the once famous apostle of high art in dress, with hair cut short, quite bland and harmless, who has evidently renounced the vegetarian cult and dines on diet more generous than lilies.” With him was his wife, “Mrs Oscar,” wearing “a wonderful ruffle like an oyster shell standing on end.”8

When the author took to the stage and addressed the first-night audience for Lady Windermere's Fan with “I congratulate you on the great success of your performance,”9 he was simply offering an elegant variation on what had become a very familiar theme. “With many writers,” the Court and Society Review announced in 1886, “the audience is regarded as hardly second in importance to the play itself.”10

Wilde could cross from audience to stage and back again with consummate assurance because in the Victorian theatre the gap between the two was already narrow, and he had himself closed it even further by making his own presence so theatrically conspicuous within the actual auditorium. This established mode of exchange between two spectacles did more than enable Wilde's own first-night wit (“Mr Oscar Wilde is not in the house,” he announced at the opening of A Woman of No Importance),11 it encouraged his audiences to see and hear him on stage, speaking through the characters of his plays.

Today, of course, that familiarity has been reduplicated many times over by films, documentaries, biographies, the whole myth-making machinery. In which case the surprise is less that directors should build Wilde into their shows than that anyone other than Wilde should ever appear in them at all. The explanation for this singular achievement must surely be that, in time, the “Wildean” has come to stand for so much more than just one man.

A related curiosity of recent reviews is their regular recourse to the notion of “bisexuality,” as if that somehow helped to explain the plays. There may be an implicit acknowledgment of the all-embracing nature of Wildean sexuality here—the strongly homosexual tone brought to ostensibly heterosexual relationships, for instance—but there is paradox at work as well. Until the final confrontation with authority in 1895 Wilde had managed to be provocative, and to survive, by making paradox his weapon and his shield. The recent TLS reviewer (19.3.93) who complained that Nick Hytner's production of The Importance failed to follow through the gay signposting of its first act was surely being rather obtuse. That a play should set down a premise in its first act, but come to an apparently different conclusion in its third, is entirely in line with Wilde's dramaturgy. The structure of The Importance we should recognise to be paradoxical in just this way: it zig-zags from start to finish. Men who fraternize with men turn out to like some women, and luckily some women turn out to like some men too; some men behave like women and some women behave like men. This is a bisexual drama in which “bisexuality” is not just a state of sexual desire (though it is, of course, exactly that), but a model for the sympathetic, if contrary, dramatic imagination.

In the 1890s Wilde was a public figure, in the 1990s he is the public itself: we want him to be a liberated gay man and a witty feminist, a worried parent and a guilty husband. Being Irish he necessarily becomes multicultural. When the all-black Talawa Theatre Company put on a comparatively low-budget Importance in London in 1989 it announced:

In producing The Importance of Being Earnest, Talawa set out to be as truthful to the text as it was humanly possible to be, bearing in mind that an all-black production of The Importance of Being Earnest was probably very far from Wilde's wildest imagination. We found great support in his attitude to English society: his commentary was all the clearer perhaps because he was Irish. We felt it was important to set the play in England in 1895, but not ever to disguise or trivialise the fact that we were black.12

There was to be nothing trivial about this performance of Wilde's “trivial comedy,” which doesn't mean to say that it wasn't wonderfully funny. Some differences have to be emphasised if others are to dissolve.

At which point we should remember that Wilde's favourite formula for jokes always was based on difference. “Women are never disarmed by compliments. Men always are. That is the difference between the two sexes.” Most of Wilde's jokes work through this kind of self-cancelling comparison, the point being not only to suggest absurd oppositions, but, in exemplary deconstructive fashion (“to be premature is to be perfect,” remember), to defer resolution by requiring reconsideration of the premise. They foreshadow those ideal modes of collective living that always lie just beyond us, and even now can only be glimpsed on stage.


  1. Jonathan Miller, Subsequent Performances (London, 1986), 70.

  2. I am grateful to Professor Joel Kaplan for supplying me with copies of the major reviews. The picture of Wilde as member of the audience is by Maurice Greiffenhagen and first appeared as an illustration to George Moore's Vain Fortune. I am much indebted to Dr. Russell Jackson, who originally drew my attention to it.

  3. For further information about Prowse's remarkable productions of Wilde see Michael Coveney, The Citz.: 21 Years of the Glasgow Citizens Theatre (London, 1990) and Joel H. Kaplan, “Wilde in the Gorbals: Society Drama and Citizens Theatre,” in Rediscovering Oscar Wilde, ed. G. Sandulescu (London, 1994).

  4. Oscar Wilde: The Critical Heritage ed. Karl Beckson (London, 1970), 193.

  5. The Craft of Comedy: An Exchange of Letters on Comedy Acting Techniques with Stephen Haggard (London, 1990), 68.

  6. Laurence Irving, Henry Irving (London, 1961), 375.

  7. The Dramatic Review, 9 May 1885, repr. in Robert Ross, ed., Reviews (London, 1908), 16.

  8. Report of the first night of Faust, Pall Mall Gazette, 21 December 1885.

  9. Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde (London, 1987), 346.

  10. “‘First Nights’ at the Play,” 7 October 1886, 931.

  11. Ellmann, 360.

  12. From the programme notes to the Talawa Theatre Company production, directed by Yvonne Brewster, at the Bloomsbury Theatre, 15-27 May 1989.

Criticism: Guido Ferranti

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Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 729

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 Morozone's help, obtains a place in the inner circle of the Court. Here, unmindful of his mission, he permits himself to fall in love with Beatrice, the lovely young wife of his ducal foe, and soon discovers that she is only too ready to reciprocate his passion. Reminded of his oath by the vengeful Morozone, he tells Beatrice that their union is impossible and bids her consider his vows unspoken. The lady, however, has no intention of letting him escape her so easily, and forms a resolution which brings about one of the most effective scenes in the play. At midnight, Guido, in spite of guards and bars, is in the Duke's bed-chamber, but, being there, begins to entertain doubts about the propriety of assassination. In spite of the expostulations of Morozone, who turns up everywhere in the most bewildering fashion, he resolves to do no more than lay his dagger upon the Duke's breast, and is advancing to the bed with that object in view, when the Duchess suddenly appears and announces that she has killed the tyrant herself and thus cleared the way to their union. Guido shrinks from her in horror, upbraids her bitterly, and is about to leave her forever, when she summons the guard and accuses him of being the assassin. This scene is absurdly improbable as it stands, but is, nevertheless, theatrically effective and was received on the first night with great applause from the galleries.

The Duchess then becomes a fury. She presides over the trial of her lover and insists that he shall be put to death without being permitted to speak in his own defence, but he refuses to be silenced, and describes the midnight scene in a striking speech, ending with a confession of his own guilt, instead of the expected accusation of his judge. This, again, is a very striking though wildly improbable and unnatural scene. In the last act the Duchess visits Guido in his cell, and after taking poison, offers him the means of escape. He refuses to avail himself of them, and after another passionate love-scene, just as the headman is approaching to claim him as a victim, he kills Beatrice first and then himself.

Very little comment is necessary upon a story of this kind, which is not only in defiance of experience but of human nature itself. The best scenes, undoubtedly, are those of the midnight murder and of the trial, but the value of these is only theatrical. The general dialogue is of very uneven merit, and many phrases, and not a few ideas, are borrowed unblushingly from Shakespeare and minor dramatists. The play, however, considered altogether, is something out of the common rut, and Mr. Barrett is entitled to praise for giving it a chance, and to congratulations on the reception accorded to it. His own acting is vigorous and impressive throughout, and especially in the third and fourth acts. Miss Gale is overweighted in the part of the Duchess, which requires an actress of tragic force.

Spectator (review date 26 November 1892)

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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 drank; and we are grateful to Mr. Wilde for a straightforward comedy which professes no purpose but comedy's best and truest,—to entertain. A reproduction of contemporary “polite conversation” after the manner which we noticed long since in reviewing a republication of Swift, and which Sheridan idealised in the School for Scandal, Lady Windermere's Fan, as a specimen of true comedy, is a head and shoulders above any of its contemporaries for some years syne. It has nothing in common with farcical comedy, with didactic comedy, or the “literary” comedy of which we have heard so much of late from disappointed authors, whose principal claim to literature appears to consist in being undramatic. It is a distinguishing note of Mr. Wilde that he has condescended to leave his business, and has written a workman-like play as well as a good comedy. Without that it would be worthless, and how much he may owe to his manager's skill and help, according to another endless controversy, lies between those two, and concerns us not. If Mr. Alexander is as helpful as he is modest, it may be much. For the character of Lord Windermere affords him little opportunity of personal distinction. Indeed, the peculiarity as well as the weakness of the play consists in the fact that the interest lies entirely with two women,—as well acted as they well could be.

The story, for those who have not seen it, lies in a nutshell. We regret the disappearance of the old method of publication, for Lady Windermere would be worth reading. Lord Windermere has married for love a young lady whose mother they suppose dead, but she turns up in the guise of a divorcée of some notoriety in society, and Lord Windermere submits to be blackmailed in order to conceal the fact from his wife, and pays her many sums of money. The object of this Mrs. Erlynne, as she calls herself, is, like the heroine of Forget-me-not, to regain a place in society, and she gets an invitation to a ball given by Lady Windermere, who, meanwhile, has been informed by some good-natured friends of the gossip of society about her husband and Mrs. Erlynne, whose appearance at the ball causes a sensation. Outraged in her feelings, Lady Windermere leaves a note to wish her lord good-bye, and flies to the rooms of an admirer, a certain Lord Darlington. Thither Mrs. Erlynne, who intercepts the letter, follows to save her daughter, for whom her heart and better feelings are thus suddenly aroused. Determined to save her at any cost, she takes upon herself the ownership of an accusing fan, her husband's gift, which, on the rooms being invaded by a circle of men, he being one of them, she mislays in a room she hides in. In again losing herself, Mrs. Erlynne thus saves her daughter, who at the end is thoroughly reconciled with the husband who really loves her; while Mrs. Erlynne finds a husband in an adoring lordling, and leaves England, where she never knows “whether the fogs cause the depressed people, or the depressed people cause the fogs,” the secret of her relationship to the heroine remaining a secret still.

It will be seen that there is nothing new in the old story which has more or less framed half the comedies of intrigue which fine-folk comedy has so freely inspired. But the novelty of drama lies in treatment; and while there is no suggestion of coarseness in Mr. Wilde's play, there is plenty both of good feeling and of complex character, while there is opportunity for good acting, which is plentifully used. Miss Winifred Emery plays Lady Windermere with a charm and skill which has placed her quite in the front rank amongst our emotional actresses, the more remarkable because she was not the first representative of the part. Her acting suggests both heart and brains, and most effective is the contrast which she supplies with Miss Marian Terry, who, if not a little overshadowed by the fame of her elder sister, would bear even a better stage-name than she does. To those who remember the eldest and earliest Kate, she brings many curious shades of association. These old stage-families, to which both the Terrys and the Emerys belong, have singular aristocracies of their own, which, with a Gray or Webster at their side, it is curious to contrast with the Vane Tempests and Nutcombe Goulds, who bring new blood of another kind into the theatrical ranks. Mr. Gould is a quite remarkable figure in the comedy for bearing and breeding, combined with quiet force and skill. Indeed, the whole cast is in its manner as noteworthy as the play. Mr. Wilde's dialogue, which is the chief feature of the comedy—as, given the essentials, of course it should be—is throughout conveyed with point and appreciation. The genial and blasé tone which modern society of the special class affects is as admirably caught and sustained as were the would-be smartnesses of Miss Neveroul and her friends in Swift's Polite Conversation. All the close observation and thought which the comedy-writer requires Mr. Wilde has brought to bear upon the “puppets” with whom, in his capacity of advertising author, he has waged newspaper-war, and his puppets have repaid him in kind. If his Duchess is rather trying, it is more because she indulges in certain odd circular sweeps with her arm which nobody could possibly perform in a drawing-room, than because duchesses are supposed to be unlike other people. In conversational respects, they are perhaps as “much of a muchness” as Mr. Wilde makes them. The way in which she secures a fresh young Australian for her meek daughter, who is sent out of the way to inspect photographs, or to look at the moon, whenever her mother proposes to talk scandal, and her delightful summaries of the male sex, who “grow old, but never grow good,” and are brutes who only want to be cooked for, are very amusing stage-talk to listen to. Another refreshing element in the play is the entire absence of the stage-servant, who seems so terrible a necessity in comedy. We all know what use even Sheridan made of them, amusing as that was. And to find nothing but a man-servant and maid-servant, who do just what they are engaged for, their business and no more, is a piece of “realism” in the right direction. Indeed, the whole comedy, its plan and its writing, its people and its dresses, its colouring and its tone, deserve, as we think, these lines of record from us on its withdrawal from the boards, as an unique specimen in our day—as far as we know, absolutely unique—apart from all questions of its merits and demerits, of the comedy of fine-life manners. Since the club scene in Money, there has been no simply “man's scene” so clearly marked as that in Lord Darlington's chambers. Otherwise. Lord Lytton's favourite sentimentalities in Money interfere with it woefully as a comedy-picture. Not the least pleasant reminiscene to playgoers, in connection with Lady Windermere's Fan, will be the very amusing skit which it evoked at another comedy theatre, under the title of The Poet and the Puppets. As a thoroughly good-humoured piece of burlesque, not so much on the play as on the eccentricities and methods of the well-known author, it has not often been beaten. Not the least amusing reminiscence, on the other hand, will be the ferocious wrath which, on its first appearance, the play provoked among the regular stage-critics, almost to a man. Except that Mr. Wilde smoked a cigarette when called on, it is difficult to see why,—unless it was because the comedy ran off the beaten track, which is just what they are always deprecating.

Critic (review date 11 February 1893)

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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 supposition that an affectionate husband, only anxious to shield his wife from unmerited disgrace, should compel her to receive publicly a woman whose very presence she regards as a contamination, and thus put the cruellest of all slights upon her, with all her friends for witnesses. These are not by any means the only glaring flaws in construction to be found in the first two acts, but they are all that need be quoted for present purposes.

The simple fact is that Mr. Wilde evidently set out to write a play around a situation, that situation being found in the third act, where Lady Windermere, having deserted her own home and taken refuge in the bachelor apartments of Lord Darlington, is rescued by the intervention of the very adventuress whom she had scorned, and who is, as the audience has known all along, her own disreputable mother. This is a well-devised and well-written scene, in which the characters of the two women are contrasted with skill and effect, and no small knowledge of human nature. The distrust, scorn and jealousy of the daughter are particularly well depicted. The fortune of the play depends upon this scene, but the succeeding situations, including the discovery of the fan, the self-sacrifice of Mrs. Erlynne and the escape, under fearfully improbable conditions, of Lady Windermere, maintain the interest to the end of the act. The final ending is by no means convincing, although there is considerable cleverness in the triangular scene between the adventuress, her daughter and her son-in-law. What is peculiarly puzzling is the position of Lord Windermere, who fails to see anything strange in his wife's sudden esteem and affection for Mrs. Erlynne, whom, an hour or two before, she had denounced as the vilest of creatures. His previous conduct had proved him a dull man, but this unexplained metamorphosis would excite suspicion in an idiot. It must be remembered that Lady Windermere, to the end, remains in perfect ignorance of her mother's identity.

As has been said the piece is very brightly and smartly written. The epigrams and paradoxes, which are the author's chief stock in trade, savor rather strongly of the lamp, but they are set in happy phrases, and rarely fail to excite laughter. His cynicism is of a rather cheap quality, but contributes to the general amusement. There can be no doubt that the comedy made a favorable impression, which was due in no small degree to the good acting. Miss Brookyn revealed unexpected capacities as the adventuress, and Mr. Barrymore, Mr. Holland, Mr. Ramsey, Mr. Saville, Mrs. D. P. Bowers and Miss Julia Arthur all did very well, while the minor parts were in perfectly satisfactory hands.

Christopher S. Nassaar (essay date fall 1995)

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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 one of the aforementioned stages, but within the framework and atmosphere of social comedy. Wilde often based his works on earlier works of his. In Dorian Gray, Dorian's development mirrors the drift of Victorian life and art toward corruption. In Lady Windermere's Fan, this same drift is shown in the juxtapositon of the four main characters, but it is simultaneously obscured by being cast in the mold of social comedy.

Dorian's first stage, childlike innocence, is embodied in Lord Windermere. Although he exists in a corrupt late-Victorian environment, Windermere is wrapped in a cocoon of early-Victorian morality that is never penetrated by his immoral surroundings. He is the object of much slander in the play, and even his wife becomes convinced that he is having an affair with Mrs. Erlynne. But he remains moral from beginning to end. His interest is in “saving” Mrs. Erlynne and in protecting his wife.

The art he admires is also that of spiritual innocence and purity. In Act 4, he attacks Mrs. Erlynne for having drifted away from a miniature of herself that his wife “kisses every night before she prays.—It's the miniature of a young innocent-looking girl with beautiful dark hair.” This miniature typifies the kind of art that D. G. Rossetti produced in the 1850s and that Basil Hallward created in the picture of Dorian before it began to change. The Victorians have drifted away from such art, however, toward Pater's Mona Lisa, decadence, and Dorian's picture after its corruption. But Windermere has not developed with the age. He remains frozen at the state of purity and innocence.

In Lady Windermere we see the second stage of Dorian's development, which began when he fell in love with Sibyl Vane and ended when he rejected her and she committed suicide. Dorian's picture registers the change in him by adding lines of cruelty around the mouth, but it remains otherwise unaltered.

When we meet Lady Windermere, she is still pure and innocent, but during the play she rejects her husband, decides to become Lord Darlington's lover, then draws back from this immoral decision and—with the help of Mrs. Erlynne—is able to return to her previous life and preserve her marriage. It is significant that as soon as she steps into the world of corruption she is overwhelmed by a sense of guilt and decides to withdraw: “No, no! I will go back, let Arthur do as he pleases. I can't wait here. It has been madness my coming. I must go at once” (Act 3). Mrs. Erlynne's role is to open the trap and allow her daughter to slip away.

This episode changes Lady Windermere irrevocably. She becomes aware of an immoral streak in herself and as a consequence becomes more forgiving and stops categorizing people as good or evil. At the end of the play, she is tainted but still basically pure, much like Dorian's picture after the suicide of Sibyl Vane. Her sense of guilt parallels Dorian's after Sibyl's death. And like Dorian, she hides her secret from the world.

In his recent biography of Oscar Wilde, Richard Ellman observed of Lord Darlington:

Lord Darlington, who has been taken as a man about town, and who talks like Lord Henry Wotton, differs from Wotton in his possession of deep feelings. … When the play was given in New York with Maurice Barrymore … in the role, Wilde complained that Barrymore had failed to see that “Darlington is not a villain, but a man who really believes that Windermere is treating his wife badly, and wishes to save her. His appeal is not to the weakness, but to the strength of her character (Act II): in Act III his words show he really loves her.” It is because of her that he is leaving England for many years; he is a better man than Windermere.


Darlington may not be a better man than Windermere, but there is more goodness in him than people have generally recognized. He sums up the third stage in Dorian's development, and there is within him a very delicate balance between goodness and corruption. The two opposites struggle in Darlington throughout the play, and the battle is not resolved at its end.

As the play begins, Darlington is in love with Lady Windermere, a married woman, and wants her for his mistress. But his great paradox is that he loves Lady Windermere for her purity and innocence: through her, he wants to recapture his own lost innocence. He says of her: “She is a good woman. She is the only good woman I have ever met in my life” (Act 3). And: “This woman has purity and innocence. She has everything we men have lost” (Act 3). The moral situation of Darlington is captured in Act 3, when he says to Cecil Graham and Dumby, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

But Darlington's problem is that he cannot recover his lost innocence through Lady Windermere. She is already married, and if he wins her, he will only be dragging her into the gutter and corrupting her. Definitely not a fool, he realizes the impossibility of his situation but corruptly continues to pursue her. And yet part of the reason he appeals to her to leave her husband in Act 2 and to go with him is quite moral: he is thoroughly convinced that Windermere is a monstrously corrupt man who does not deserve her for a wife. Darlington's motives are a very complex and fascinating fusion of goodness and corruption, for black and white are mixed inextricably in him.

His final decision to leave England is ambiguous: he leaves as much for Lady Windermere's sake as for his own. It is true he decides to leave after her apparent rejection of him, but it is also true that she is at her most vulnerable at the end of Act 2 and that his chances with her have never been better. Indeed, that same night she reverses her decision and goes to his rooms. His hasty departure is both selfish and self-sacrificial. At least in part, he leaves because his stormy conversation with her leads him to realize how painful social disgrace would be for her. On the other hand, he does not want her to come to him mournfully, in tears, but with a smile and courageously or not at all. Even Lord Darlington's name is ambiguous, marking him both as a dandy and a “darling.”

Mrs. Erlynne represents the final stage in Dorian's development. Although she does not commit any action quite as drastic as murder, she is nonetheless an immoral woman, devoted to leading a life of pleasure. In the play she discovers the goodness in herself and makes a major sacrifice to save her daughter. But she discovers that motherly love is too exhausting and strange an emotion for her, and she returns to the life of pleasure. She declares to the shocked Windermere: “I have no ambition to play the part of a mother. Only once in my life have I known a mother's feelings. That was last night. They were terrible—they made me suffer—they made me suffer too much” (Act 4). And: “No—what consoles one nowadays is not repentance, but pleasure” (Act 4). Far from being the conventional fallen woman of Victorian melodrama, Mrs. Erlynne deliberately rejects the goodness in herself and returns to a life of corruption (Nassaar 78-80). As Ellmann has observed, “Lady Windermere's Fan is a more radical play than it appears. … Wilde … shelves the stereotype of the fallen woman: Mrs. Erlynne is singularly impenitent” (363-64). Wilde regarded this point as so basic that he wrote, in one of his letters, that her character is “as yet untouched by literature” (Letters 287-88).

Mrs. Erlynne's rejection of motherly love parallels Dorian's attempt to destroy his conscience by stabbing his picture. Far from dying, however, she tricks the infatuated Lord Augustus into marrying her and travels with him to the Continent. She also retains an affection for her daughter, albeit from a distance: human nature being “gray,” the goodness in Mrs. Erlynne cannot be eliminated.

In The Critic as Artist, Wilde wrote:

To an artist as creative as the critic, what does subject-matter signify? No more and no less than it does to the novelist and the painter. Like them, he can find his motives elsewhere. Treatment is the test. … [Criticism] works with materials, and puts them into a form that is at once new and delightful. What more can one say of poetry?


Treatment, then, or form, is what is vital in all art, not subject matter. In Lady Windermere's Fan, Wilde applied this principle quite successfully. He took the raw subject matter of his novel and gave it a new form. The result was his first successful play.

Works Cited

Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. New York: Knopf, 1988.

Hart-Davis, Rupert, ed. Letters of Oscar Wilde. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1962.

Nassaar, Christopher S. Into the Demon Universe: A Literary Exploration of Oscar Wilde. New Haven: Yale UP, 1974.

Powell, Kerry. Oscar Wilde and the Theatre of the 1890s. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990.

Raby, Peter. Oscar Wilde. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988.

Wilde, Oscar. Complete Works. London: Collins, 1966.

Criticism: An Ideal Husband

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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 described in Chiltern's person his own fear of an imminent scandal. Charles Ricketts remembers Wilde saying of the play when he insisted on Ricketts being present at the first night: “It was written for ridiculous puppets to play, and the critics will say, ‘Ah, here is Oscar unlike himself!’—though in reality I became engrossed in writing it, and it contains a great deal of the real Oscar.”2 Mrs. Cheveley, while threatening Sir Robert, actually presages with amazing accuracy one prominent feature of Wilde's downfall, when she says:

Sir Robert, you know what your English newspapers are like. Suppose that when I leave this house I drive down to some newspaper office, and give them this scandal and the proofs of it. Think of their loathsome joy, of the delight they would have in dragging you down, of the mud and mire they would plunge you in. Think of the hypocrite with his greasy smile penning his leading article, and arranging the foulness of the public placard.3

In the sin of Sir Robert's youth the guilt feelings which Wilde had tried to suppress all his life break through again. “The sin of my youth,” Sir Robert exclaims, “that I had thought was buried rose up in front of me, hideous, horrible, with its hand at my throat.” There is no doubt that for some time a shadow, a threat, had hung over Wilde. At the time when An Ideal Husband was written, it was clear that he had the feeling of a great fate hanging over him—it was part of his personal myth; and months before it happened he believed in the reality of his own downfall, in his destiny to become one of the great failures and sufferers of the world, as, indeed, he did become. André Gide, who met him in Algiers when the scandal against him was moving to a climax, and when it already seemed clear to many of his friends that he was riding for a fall, describes him as being resigned to and even longing for the precipitation of his fate; he said, “My friends are extraordinary; they beg me to be careful. Careful? But can I be careful? That would be a backward step. I must go on as far as possible. I cannot go much further. Something is bound to happen.”4 This is echoed in Sir Robert Chiltern's words to Lord Goring:

Arthur, I feel that public disgrace is in store for me. I feel certain of it. I never knew what terror was before. I know it now. It is as if a hand of ice were laid upon one's heart. It is as if one's heart were beating itself to death in some empty hollow.5

and in his fear that:

if it is all taken away from me now? If I lose everything over a horrible scandal? If I am hounded from public life?6

Some of Wilde's intimate friends had observed in him something similar to Chiltern's inner agitation; Wilde, too, like Chiltern, had shameful things to conceal from his contemporaries, and subconsciously, perhaps, he must have been dreading the approach of a cruel and terrible disaster which would expose him to public contempt and “a long farewell to all his greatness,” to a fatal mischief that would shatter his career and rob him of his laurels. “I knew,” he said once to Gide, whom he met in Paris after his release from Reading Goal—“I knew a catastrophe would come. This one or that one. I expected it. It had to end like that.”7 This was a feeling that must have weighed heavily upon his mind. We have in An Ideal Husband continual references to secrecy, double lives, masks. It is, in fact, in this third comedy that Wilde's preoccupation with masks as symbols begins positively to shout. Lady Chiltern cries out to her husband—the “ideal” husband, now unmasked: “Oh! what a mask you have been wearing all these years! A horrible painted mask!” And Phipps, “the ideal butler,” is called “a mask with a manner.” When Lord Goring threatens to fetch the police for Mrs. Cheveley, she is described thus: “A mask has fallen from her.” As in the two previous comedies, the central scene is that in which the sinner confesses his sin and makes an impassioned plea for forgiveness and acceptance. There are touches of self-defence in An Ideal Husband, which reveal a great deal of the real Oscar. When Wilde lets Sir Robert escape from punishment, it is here that the motive of pardon comes in. Already in the two earlier plays Wilde shows sympathetic understanding for the “sinners,” but here he is outspoken against the conventional morality which would have insisted on the confession and expiation of the crime. This preoccupation with sin, conscience, and pardon renders An Ideal Husband the most serious of Wilde's comedies and gives it psychological bearing as one of the most open “confessions” of Wilde's soul.

The technique of self-identification manifests itself in An Ideal Husband. In his creation of Lord Goring Wilde produced a replica of himself. Like Wilde, Goring misrepresents his age—he is thirty-four, but admits only to thirty-two. Wilde always gave his age as two years less than it was. When he went on a lecture tour of America he was twenty-eight years old, but he told the reporters that he was twenty-six. Though not a convincing deception, it gave him the illustion of having youth still before him.8 Like Wilde, Goring professes an adoration for youth: “Youth is an art,” he says. He dresses much like a dandy: as a stage direction says, “He is the first well-dressed philosopher in the history of thought.” Wilde was innately kind, and Goring is also kind. Both preferred to disguise this quality by an amused superficiality; both enjoyed shocking their friends by this outward coldness. Even his father repeats over and over again that Goring is heartless, but Goring was more of a stranger to his father than to the Chilterns, to whom he proved an invaluable friend. Both Wilde and Goring are fond of buttonholes. “I am the only person of the smallest importance in London at present who wears a buttonhole,” says Goring to his butler.9 Goring admits that he never knows when he is serious and when he is not. “He is fond of being misunderstood. It gives him a post of vantage.”10 His tongue drips Wilde-isms: “Everybody one meets is a paradox nowadays. It is a great bore.”11 Richard Le Gallienne tells us that Wilde was “one of those natures who find an unfading fascination in not being able to understand themselves.”12 Nor is Lord Caversham able to understand his son Goring:

LORD Caversham:
(Turning round, and looking at his son beneath his bushy eyebrows.) Do you always really understand what you say, sir?

And in the last act we also have the following between father and son:

LORD Caversham:
Have you been thinking over what I spoke to you about last night?
LORD Goring:
I have been thinking about nothing else.
LORD Caversham:
Engaged to be married yet?
LORD Goring:
(Genially.) Not yet: but I hope to be before lunchtime.
LORD Caversham:
(Caustically.) You can have till dinner-time if it would be of any convenience to you.
LORD Goring:
Thanks awfully, but I think I'd sooner be engaged before lunch.
LORD Caversham:
H'm. Never know when you are serious or not.
LORD Goring:
Neither do I, father.

Furthermore, Wilde's habit of unpunctuality is reflected in Lord Goring's remark that “it is always nice to be expected, and not to arrive.”13 But Lord Goring is also a kind of providence who settles all troubles by quick brainwork and utter detachment. Outwardly a dandy and an idler, he is inwardly a philosopher, even a man of action and decision if need be. All Wilde's friends remarked that in spite of his frivolous attitude to life, his trifling air and lazy inconsequence, his advice in mundane affairs was singularly shrewd; and each of these characteristics is given to Goring. There is further an echo of Dublin home life, of the disreputable Sir William Wilde and Lady “Speranza,” in Goring's generalisation: “Fathers should be neither seen nor heard. That is the only proper basis for family life. Mothers are different. Mothers are darlings.”

There are also many remarks in An Ideal Husband which were no doubt meant to have a personal application. The basic theme of the play is the innate corruption of political life. In this connection it should be remarked that Wilde showed a consistently hostile attitude towards politics and politicians, not only in his writings, but also in his personal life. “He despised politics,” says Ernest Bendz, “and took no part in the strifes of the day. Those great social movements which reached his ears … left him an indifferent or uneasy onlooker, or roused him to scornful antagonism.”14 There were those among his friends who regretted that, with his gift for talking, he did not go into parliamentary life; one of these was Yeats, who, with his odd idea that Wilde was by nature a man of action, said to O'Sullivan: “He might have had a career like that of Beaconsfield, whose early style resembles his, being meant for crowds, for excitement, for hurried decision, for immediate triumphs.” Anything less calculated for crowd appeal than Wilde's conversational or literary style it is difficult to imagine, and when Oscar was told of the idea that he was a man of action, he remarked disparagingly, “It is interesting to hear Yeats's opinion about me.” According to Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde professed to be a Liberal, but he mocked the Liberals as much as the Tories, and Douglas thought that he never showed enough interest in either party to vote in an election. When his political friends, admiring his conversational gifts, tried to persuade him to accept a safe seat in Parliament, he turned down the offer without hesitation. This is echoed by Goring's remark to his father: “My dear father, only people who look dull ever get into the House of Commons, and only people who are dull ever succeed there.”15 In An Ideal Husband this strongly critical attitude towards political life occurs in many quite deliberate statements of opinion in various parts of the play. For instance, when Robert Chiltern is trying to prepare his wife for a revelation of his predicament, which he knows will shatter the pedestalled ideal she has always made of him, he says to her:

Gertrude, truth is a very complex thing, and politics is a very complex business. There are wheels within wheels. One may be under certain obligations to people that one must pay. Sooner or later in political life one has to compromise. Everyone does.16

Then there is the even more revealing conversation between Chiltern and Goring,17 in which Chiltern tells Goring how he was corrupted by Arnheim with his philosophy of power. Goring, who acts as Wilde's personal voice, expresses his complete disagreement with this philosophy. This attitude towards politics and the political life is supported by a whole series of epigrams scattered throughout the play. An example is Lady Markby's remark that “now that the House of Commons is trying to become useful, it does a great deal of harm.”18 Auden says about Wilde's view of politics:

To do Wilde justice he seldom indulges in the all-too-easy role of political satirist. When, for instance, in An Ideal Husband, Lord Chiltern, in a fit of emotional remorse, resolves to quit public life it is Wilde's alter ego Lord Goring who dissuades him, knowing that Chiltern is by nature a politician and would be miserable doing anything else. This is not satire but sound sense.19

Wilde's dislike of journalism can also be traced in this comedy. “Oh, spies are of no use nowadays,” says Sir Robert Chiltern. “Their profession is over. The newspapers do their work instead.”20 When Vicomte de Nanjac says that he reads all English newspapers and finds them so amusing, Lord Goring retorts: “Then, my dear Nanjac, you must certainly read between the lines.”21 Mrs. Cheveley reminds Sir Robert: “Sir Robert, you know what your English newspapers are like.”22 Nor was Wilde enthusiastic about religion. “I can't understand this modern mania for curates,” says Lady Markby, “In my time, we girls saw them, of course, running about the place like rabbits. But we never took any notice of them, I need hardly say. But I am told that nowadays country society is quite honeycombed with them. I think it most irreligious.”23 A little later we have the following conversation:

MRS. Cheveley:
(Rising.) I don't mind waiting in the carriage at all, provided there is somebody to look at one.
LADY Markby:
Well, I hear the curate is always prowling about the house.
MRS. Cheveley:
I am afraid I am not fond of girl friends.(24)

Wilde had no liking for professional philanthropy, and used to tell a story about a certain man who spent twenty years of his life trying to get some grievance redressed or some unjust law altered: “Finally he succeeded, and nothing could exceed his disappointment. He had absolutely nothing to do, almost died of ennui, and became a confirmed misanthrope.”25 Lord Goring says to Sir Robert Chiltern who has given a deal of money to public charities, “Dear me, what a lot of harm you must have done, Robert.”26 Mrs. Cheveley also remarks, “Philanthropy seems to me to have become simply the refuge of people who wish to annoy their fellow-creatures.”27 We further have in this comedy the elaborate compliments Wilde was fond of in actual life:

LADY Markby:
… I really must go to Vienna next winter. I hope there is a good chef at the Embassy.
SIR Robert Chiltern:
If there is not, the Ambassador will certainly have to be recalled.(28)

In the same act Sir Robert says to Mrs. Cheveley: “To attempt to classify you, Mrs. Cheveley, would be an impertinence.”29 Like Wilde's wife, Constance, to whom “sin was a thing impossible to her nature,”30 Sir Robert's wife, Gertrude, “can never” be touched by sin.31 It is a fair assumption that Wilde's experience of blackmail in actual life suggested blackmail as the theme for his third piece. Finally, when Mrs. Cheveley offers to pay Sir Robert so that he may support the Argentine Canal Scheme, Sir Robert answers:

SIR Robert Chiltern:
(Rising indignantly.) If you will allow me, I will call your carriage for you. You have lived so long abroad, Mrs. Cheveley, that you seem to be unable to realise that you are talking to an Englishman.(32)

This reply anticipates Wilde's own reply to the Governor of his prison when on the eve of the expiration of his sentence an American reporter called upon the Governor, and gave Wilde to understand he would pay him £1,000 for a long talk on his prison experiences. “Sir,” said Wilde, “I cannot understand how such a proposal can be made to a gentleman.”33


  1. Hart-Davis, Rupert, ed. The Letters of Oscar Wilde (London, 1962), p. 787.

  2. Ojala, Oatos. Aestheticism and Oscar Wilde, Part I: Life and Letters (Helsinki, 1954), p. 189.

  3. An Ideal Husband, Act I, p. 181. Page references for Wilde's plays are to Oscar Wilde: Five Famous Plays, ed. by A. Harris (London, 1952).

  4. Woodcock, George. The Paradox of Oscar Wilde (London, 1950), p. 40.

  5. An Ideal Husband, Act II, p. 196.

  6. Ibid., p. 192.

  7. Brasol, Boris. Oscar Wilde; The Man, the Artist (London, 1938), p. 269.

  8. In spite of the exposure of this little deception, the date 1856 instead of 1854 for Wilde's birth is still frequently seen in print.

  9. An Ideal Husband, Act II, p. 215.

  10. Ibid., Act I, p. 171.

  11. Ibid., Act III, p. 219.

  12. Le Gallienne, Richard. “Introduction” to The Writings of Oscar Wilde (New York, 1907), p. 12.

  13. An Ideal Husband, Act III, p. 216.

  14. Bendz, Ernest. Some Stray Notes on the Personality and Writings of Oscar Wilde; In Memoriam 30th November 1910 (Göteberg, 1911), p. 306.

  15. An Ideal Husband, Act IV, p. 236.

  16. Ibid., Act I, p. 187.

  17. Ibid., Act II, p. 193.

  18. Ibid., Act I, p. 167.

  19. Auden, W. H. “A Playboy of the Western World: St. Oscar, the Homintern Martyr,” The New Partisan Reader 1945-1953, ed. by William Phillips and Philip Rahv (New York, 1953), p. 607.

  20. An Ideal Husband, Act III, p. 223.

  21. Ibid., Act I, p. 172.

  22. Ibid., Act. I, p. 181.

  23. Ibid., Act II, p. 208.

  24. Ibid., Act II, p. 209.

  25. Pearson, Hesketh. The Life of Oscar Wilde (London, 1946), pp. 172-173.

  26. An Ideal Husband, Act II, p. 195.

  27. Ibid., Act I, p. 169.

  28. Ibid., Act I, p. 168.

  29. Ibid., Act I, p. 168.

  30. Winwar, Frances. Oscar Wilde and the Yellow 'Nineties (New York, 1958), p. 176.

  31. An Ideal Husband, Act IV, p. 251.

  32. Ibid., Act I, p. 179.

  33. Esdaile, Arundell. “The New Hellenism,” The Fortnightly Review, LXXXVIII (October 1910), p. 708.

Athenaeum (review date 12 January 1895)

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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 uninteresting. Accident is too potent a factor in the action to permit of its being genuinely dramatic. Without the aid of ficelles the required termination could never have been reached. When reached even it is wholly disproportionate to what the author holds to be the offence, and a man whom Mr. Wilde sets before the audience as a traitor and a scoundrel escapes with no worse penalty than a fright and with one of the most coveted of human rewards. Nothing, in fact, beyond a curious complication is brought about by human folly. Separate scenes and characters are amusing and interesting, and the whole, with the salt of Mr. Wilde's impertinence, wins acceptance. The scenes and costumes are exquisite, and much of the acting is praiseworthy. Mr. Hawtrey and Mr. Brookfield, the latter as a servant, are seen to most advantage in a cast that comprised Mr. Waller, Mr. Bishop, Miss Fanny Brough, Miss Florence West, Miss Vane Featherston, Miss Maude Millett, and Miss Helen Forsyth.

Critic (review date 27 April 1895)

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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 making love to the beautiful ward. He has already made great progress in his wooing, when Worthing returns home unexpectedly in deep mourning, to announce that his brother Earnest has died suddenly in Paris. Out of this situation a number of amusing, but wholly preposterous incidents arise, including some entertaining passages of jealousy between the two young women who are prominent figures in the dramatic tangle. In the end, of course, everything is straightened out, and the importance of being Earnest is supposed to be established.

The piece is undoubtedly clever in its way, full of bright or rather “smart” sayings, and with some well-directed thrusts at social foibles and hypocricies, but, as a rule, the satire is not very keen or very powerful and the fun is rather shallow and labored, with very little of the freshness and spirit observable in W. S. Gilbert's best work, which was, rather too plainly, the model set up for imitation. Of the performers the most successful was Viola Allen, whose mock earnestness was capital. Henry Miller's touch is rather heavy for such flimsy material, while Mr. Faversham's work is spoiled by an apparent self-consciousness which is exceedingly aggravating. Agnes Miller, May Robson and Ida Vernon had purely conventional characters, but played them very well. The general representation was brisk and pleasing, and the audience retired in great good humor.

David Parker (essay date June 1974)

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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 the way that most plays do. In it, Wilde expresses a comic vision of the human condition by deliberately distorting actuality and having most of the characters behave as if that vision were all but universal. It is fair enough to complain about the vision entire, but to complain simply about the selfishness, without asking what it suggests, is on a par with complaining about the immortality of Tom Jones.

Though McCarthy uses the wrong standards, and therefore sees the play through a distorting lens, what she sees is there and needs to be studied. Her notion about the play's advocacy of selfishness may be got into better focus if we compare it with what William Empson says about the heroes of Restoration comedy: “There is an obscure paradox that the selfish man is the generous one, because he is not repressed, has ‘good nature’, and so on.”2 This seems to represent more accurately what goes on in Wilde's play, if only because it resembles Wilde's own way of thinking. Moreover, the play clearly owes something to the Restoration comic tradition. “My duty as a gentleman,” says Algy, “has never interfered with my pleasures in the smallest degree,”3 thus neatly summing up the principles by which the young bloods of Restoration comedy lived. They were understood to be gentlemen because they were Natural Men, responsive to impulse, capable of falling in love, and so on, in contrast to the inhibited, conventional, rule-obeying, theory-loving tradesmen, Puritans, and pedants, whom they despised. The heroes of Restoration comedy have been criticized too, often with justice, but one thing should be clear by now: their roguishness, their carelessness about money and sexual behavior, was presented not simply to be admired as such. These things had symbolic value as well. The suggestion was that aristocratic young men needed to abandon conventional morality and get back to basic impulse, if the values they represented (moral independence, for example) were not to be annihilated by commercialism and Puritanism. Their roguishness was a proof of freedom, as well as an excuse for scourging the bourgeoisie. Algy's selfishness, and that of the other characters, demands a similar interpretation. It has a satirical force, of course: the manners of the upper classes are being laughed at; but there is more to it than that. In Wilde's vision, a sort of honorable selfishness becomes not merely a virtue, but a moral sine qua non.

Wilde's play, it seems to me, is more successful than most Restoration comedies because it is more pure—more purely absurd, if you like. The process of distorting actuality for expressive purposes is carried out more thoroughly, and the play's moral and aesthetic integrity is better maintained. In the dialogue alone, there is a more consistent heightening, amounting to a transfiguration of everyday conversation. The trouble with many Restoration comedies is that they express values only half-believed in by the audience for which they were intended. The characters praise aristocratic recklessness and sneer at commerce, yet the original courtly audience was committed to, and dependent on, commerce for at least a large part of its wealth.4 As a result, because of a secret uncertainty in the playwrights, there is often a confusion between symbolic action and action seriously recommended to the audience for imitation. We are presented with hyperbolic actions and sentiments, which we find not entirely convincing and perhaps a shade hysterical. There is the standard paradox of Restoration comedy, for instance: all moralists are hypocrites; only libertines can see the truth and maintain a fundamental decency. The confusion carried over into real life. Many of the court wits and gallants tried to live out such paradoxes, not always with happy results. Wilde too tried to live out his own paradoxes, with decidedly unhappy results, but in his greatest play artifice and advice do not get mixed up. “I don't quite like women who are interested in philanthropic work,” says Cecily. “I think it is so forward of them.”5 This is funnier, and more percipient, than jokes about hypocritical Puritan tradesmen. Wilde's symbol for sensual vitality and obedience to impulse is itself more wisely chosen than that of the Restoration playwrights: instead of using sexual behavior, he uses eating, something much more easily distanced. Contrary to what McCarthy says, The Importance of Being Earnest rarely slips over into recommending attitudes that are morally repellent—relative to Restoration comedy, at any rate. You have to stand a long way off from the play to be able to think so. It is difficult to get indignant with the characters.

The farcical structure helps distance what we see, and Wilde exploits it in other ways too. Farce is not necessarily trivial, and even when it is, through its very nature it usually makes assertions and raises questions about human identity; that is what makes the same situations enduringly popular. The hero of farce is usually a cunning rogue who, in order to gratify some impulse, spins an elaborate deception, which his victims seem constantly on the verge of exposing, so that he is constantly threatened with defeat, punishment, or humiliation. We admire the hero because he has the courage to obey his impulses and because his tricks render him protean—free from imposed identity. We despise his victims because they are prisoners of manners, which repress impulse and forbid deception. They seem narrow and timid. A more highly wrought and expressive sort of farce is that in which all (or most) of the protagonists are rogues, who compete to satisfy their impulses. The moral independence of the most versatile, the most protean, is endorsed by success. The Importance of Being Earnest belongs to that sort.

Moreover, Wilde consciously exploits the concern of farce with human identity. The joke in the title is often thought of as a mock-pompous piece of frivolity, but it is more than that. The play might as justly be named “The Importance of Being.” The whole thing is comically addressed to the problem of recognizing and defining human identity; we are made to see wide significance in Jack's polite request, “Lady Bracknell, I hate to seem inquisitive, but would you kindly inform me who I am?” (p. 107). The pun on earnest and Ernest merely makes the title more suitably comic. Neither being earnest nor being Ernest is of much help when confidence is lost in the substantiality of human identity. The concern with identity is repeatedly underlined in the text of the play, where statements that seem superficially only to poke fun at upper-class frivolity continually edge the mind toward a contemplation of the insubstantiality of identity. “It isn't easy to be anything nowadays,” complains Algy in the first act. “There's such a lot of beastly competition about.” And only a few lines later, Gwendolen feels obliged to deny that she is perfect: “It would leave no room for developments, and I intend to develop in many directions” (Maine, ed., p. 327).

More than most writers of farce, Wilde was conscious of this concern with identity, so natural to the form, and he uses it to express a preoccupation which the nineteenth century gave birth to, and the twentieth century cherishes. Lurking always in the depths of the play is a steady contemplation of Nothingness, of le néant, which is all the more effective for its being, in contrast to most of its manifestations, comic in mode. Instead of making Nothingness a pretext for despair, Wilde finds in it a challenge to the imagination. For him, Nothingness in human identity, in human claims to knowledge, in the organization of society, becomes a field to be tilled by the artist—by the artist in each of us.

In many ways a writer owing more to French than to English traditions, in this respect too Wilde shares a quality of vision with Flaubert, Villiers, Zola, Barbey d'Aurevilly, and Mallarmé. They differ from each other, of course, as Wilde differs from them, but in the vision of each, as Robert Martin Adams says, “The shell of personal identity collapses, the yolk of individuality is split. Even grossness is a form of transparency, even knowledge is a form of complicated and difficult ignorance (Flaubert).”6 Yet for Wilde this brings liberation, not despair. Though he has Algy complain about what we might call the epistemological complacency of the English, he has him do it gaily: “That is the worst of the English. They are always degrading truths into facts, and when a truth becomes a fact, it loses all its intellectual value” (p. 12).

If The Importance of Being Earnest looks back to the French nineteenth century it also looks forward to the twentieth century and the drama of the absurd. The plot is absurd, in an obvious sense, and many critics have argued that it should be dismissed as a Gilbertian fantasy. It seems to me, however, that it is important, in the negative way that plots are, in the drama of the absurd. Everyone responds to preposterous situations in a way that is crazily systematic, defending his responses with absurdly sententious generalizations. Besides being used as a symbol for sensual vitality, eating becomes a subject for absurd imperatives. Algy, for instance, declares that “One should always eat muffins quite calmly. It is the only way to eat them” (p. 85). People's behavior and sentiments act as a parody of the real world; such, it is suggested, is the nature of all action, all moralizing. But Wilde carries off this parody better than most of the playwrights whom we now describe as dramatists of the absurd. He is never obvious. His parody always works at two levels, which enrich each other: it pokes fun at the manners of a particular class, and it satirizes the human condition. To my knowledge, only Pinter and Albee do anything at all like this, with comparative success.

Nothingness is repeatedly evoked in the verbal texture of the play in a way that prefigures techniques of the drama of the absurd. Characters are always using words like serious and nonsense in a manner that sends out little ripples of significance. “If you don't take care,” Jack warns Algy,

your friend Bunbury will get you into a serious scrape some day.
I love scrapes. They are the only things that are never serious.
Oh, that's nonsense, Algy. You never talk anything but nonsense.
Nobody ever does.

(Maine, ed., p. 337)

Serious was recognized as a canting expression in the nineteenth century. “No one knows the power,” wrote “F. Anstey” in 1885, “that a single serious hairdresser might effect with worldly customers” (OED). Algy's quasi pun works as a protest against the importance attached by the Victorians to the very business of attaching importance (parodied more broadly in Miss Prism); for them, it is often apparent, this was a means of imposing form and stability on a world whose evanescence they half-suspected, a procedure of course unacceptable to Wilde. The joke is parallel to the one about earnest.

The play on the word nonsense expresses a sensibility that is recognizably modern, though it lacks the anguish that is now usually part of it. The sense of futility that arises out of the contemplation of Nothingness is felt only by those whose belief in human dignity requires support from a religious mythology, or a quasi-religious mythology, such as that subscribed to by many humanists. When his mind was at its most creative, Wilde felt no such need, willingly abandoning intellectual comfort and security for intellectual adventurousness in the unknown and unknowable. Algy's perception of universal nonsense is cheerful; it has the gusto of quick intelligence; and because it also works as a gibe at Algy's class, it has a quality of immediate practical shrewdness that makes it the more acceptable.

In the middle of the play, absurd itself is used repeatedly to evoke a sense of immanent Nothingness. Jack cannot understand how he should have a brother in the dining-room: “I don't know what it all means. I think it is perfectly absurd” (p. 48). Algy will not deny that he is Jack's brother: “It would be absurd” (p. 53). Jack says the same about the notion that Algy should lunch twice (p. 57), and he thinks Algy's presence in the garden at Woolton “utterly absurd” (p. 58). Algy disagrees with the contention that he has no right to “Bunbury” at Woolton: “That is absurd. One has a right to Bunbury anywhere one chooses” (p. 83). Gwendolen and Cecily agree that it is “absurd to talk of the equality of the sexes” (p. 91).

These words are used in jokes and casual comments that do not stand out in the text and are likely to be delivered in a carelessly cynical manner, as bits of flimflam designed simply to gain the speaker a tactical advantage in the argument; but they crop up repeatedly and affect the whole flavor of the play.

The use of paradox performs the same function much more obviously. Each paradox is a sort of miniature stylistic enactment of the notion expressed in one of the boldest: “In matters of grave importance style, not sincerity, is the vital thing” (p. 90). This pokes fun at the beau monde, of course, but it also hints at an answer to the problems raised in the jokes about earnest and serious. Once belief in epistemological certainty is abandoned, style, liberally interpreted, is more important than sincerity. By imposing a consciously provisional order onto evanescent reality, it makes practical decisions possible. Paradox imposes this order in a particularly striking way. It confounds conventional notions about order, identity, and dissimilarity, synthesizing new orders out of the confusion it exposes. Far from concealing chaos and disharmony, it rejoices in them, embraces them courageously, and takes them as a challenge to human wit and ingenuity. Wilde's rapid sequences of paradox after paradox picture for us a world in which men make, undo, and remake reality with almost every sentence they utter.

Of course, not all the paradoxes in The Importance of Being Earnest are purely verbal or confined to one remark. There is a sustained effort in the play to dissolve conventional notions of order in fields where they tend to hypertrophy. Wilde depicts a world in which the socially endorsed certainties are continually evaporating; values respecting social class, education, the Church, money, love, and the family undergo constant metamorphosis. Attitudes toward the family, in particular, are grotesquely transformed. Algy cheerfully dismisses the sentiments associated with kinship: “Relations are simply a tedious pack of tedious people, who haven't got the remotest knowledge of how to live, nor the smallest instinct about when to die” (p. 25). Others invert the normal sentiments. Lady Bracknell speaks of an acquaintance whose husband has died: “I never saw a woman so altered, she looks quite twenty years younger” (p. 13). Gwendolen complains about her lack of influence over her mother: “Few parents nowadays pay any regard to what their children say to them! The old-fashioned respect for the young is rapidly dying out” (pp. 30-31). She approves of her father's domestication, however: “The home seems to me to be the proper sphere for the man. And certainly once a man begins to neglect his domestic duties he becomes painfully effeminate, does he not?” (p. 74).

In plot and action, too, conventional notions about family life are broken down. The handbag in Jack's family history excites Lady Bracknell's famous protest: “To be born, or at any rate bred in a handbag, whether it had handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution” (p. 23). The comedy is enhanced, of course, by the oddity of Lady Bracknell's own notions (or at least her way of expressing them). She seems to conceive family as something subject to human volition, and can advise Jack “to make a definite effort to produce, at any rate, one parent, of either sex, before the season is quite over” (p. 24). Though we may see parody of upper-class snobbery here, others do will relations into—and out of—existence, without there being any feeling of parody. Jack invents a brother; the girls invent ideal husbands. (Algy's Bunbury is only a friend, but the effect is much the same.) At the other extreme, the characters accept the family relationships revealed at the end of the play, with an absurd eagerness that is just as effective in ridiculing conventional notions. This is particularly evident in Jack's outburst, when he mistakenly assumes Miss Prism to be his mother. She indignantly reminds him that she is unmarried. “Cannot repentance wipe out an act of folly?” he cries. “Why should there be one law for men and another for women? Mother! I forgive you” (p. 107). The family is a category of everyday understanding that is one of the first to crumble before the vision of Nothingness. That is what enables Wilde's characters to adopt such a variety of postures with respect to it.

Individual identity, too, dissolves before the vision of Nothingness. That is why farce, and its traditional concern with human identity, was so useful to Wilde. Each character in The Importance of Being Earnest is a sort of vacuum that attains to individual identity only through an effort of the creative imagination. They are like Sartre's famous waiter in L'Être et le Néant, except that they make their decisions consciously, and that we are pleased rather than nauseated by the process. Each attains to identity in the mode of being what he is not.7

It is a sense of the insubstantiality of human identity which causes Wilde to place such emphasis on impulse (on selfishness, if you like). Admit all the problems of epistemology, and impulse still remains. Obedience to impulse is a defiant way of asserting some sort of basic identity. Algy's obsession with food is an example. “I hate people who are not serious about meals,” he complains. “It is so shallow of them” (p. 12). Beneath the parody of manners, we can detect in this a perception, truthful within the terms of reference the play allows. Algy is prepared to use the word serious here because there is something fundamental to relate it to. When appetites are all that is substantial in human identity, all else must seem shallow. The two girls place a similar reliance on impulse. Both have faith in first impressions, and both are surprisingly candid about their sexual appetites. Cecily tells Algy, “I don't think you should tell me that you love me wildly, passionately, devotedly, hopelessly. Hopelessly doesn't seem to make much sense, does it?” (Maine, ed., p. 348).

They are quick to change, though. When, after mutual declarations of devotion, Algy tells Cecily he will wait seventeen years for her hand, she replies, “Yes, I felt it instinctively. And I am so sorry for you, Algy. Because I couldn't wait all that time. I hate waiting even five minutes for anybody. It always makes me rather cross. I am not punctual myself, I know, but I do like punctuality in others, and waiting even to be married is quite out of the question” (pp. 100-101). Changeability, in fact, is a corollary of obedience to impulse. As impulses vary, so must the attitudes of the individual. The protagonists of Wilde's play recognize this, particularly the girls. “I never change, except in my affections,” Gwendolen announces (p. 110). Their changeability is most amusingly demonstrated in the first meeting of Gwendolen and Cecily, when, in the course of a single scene, they proceed from mutual suspicion to mutual affection, thence to mutual detestation, and finally to mutual affection again, all the time firmly maintaining that they are consistent. The audience is likely to laugh at this sort of thing because it realizes that literary and social conventions are being ridiculed, but there is more to the comedy than that. There is a core of truth in what we are presented with: human beings do change. The joke lies in the way the characters are neither distressed nor surprised at their own changeability. In Wilde's world nothing else is expected.

Love might seem a surprising ingredient in such a world, but it is a play of courtship, and love does have importance in it. Love is based on impulse, after all, and for Wilde it is action, not object; a courageous creative effort of the will, not a substantial inner something; the free play of the imagination, not a faculty. The characters of the play constantly deny the substantiality of love, in speech and action. Their courtships consist in patterns of interlocking fantasy and wit; they woo through imposture and fancy; they pursue and fly; they test and torment each other. Never is there anything static or certain about their relationships. “The very essence of romance is uncertainty,” says Algy. “If ever I get married, I'll certainly try to forget the fact” (p. 4). Wilde is following Restoration comedy again, here. “Uncertainty and Expectation are the Joys of Life,” says Congreve's Angelica. “Security is an insipid thing, and the overtaking and possessing of a Wish, discovers the Folly of the Chase.”8 And as with Restoration comedy, we admire the lovers for their courage and their wit. We feel that they are absurd too (all action in the play is absurd; the secret is not minding), but at the same time we are made to feel that they are somehow right as well. The theme of sentimental education, normally found in romantic comedy, is parodied by inversion. Fantasies the lovers have about each other are confirmed rather than cured, almost as if wit, the creative imagination (call it what you will), were able magically to force the world into the shapes it suggests to itself. We feel, at any rate, that the lovers earn their partners by growing toward them, through wit.

Because the characters live in a world in which order is constantly vanishing, they scorn theory, consistency, and the appearance of simplicity. “The truth,” as Algy says, “is rarely pure and never simple” (p. 9). Certainly, in matters of identity, seeming intelligibility is to be distrusted. “The simplicity of your nature,” Gwendolen tells Jack, “makes you exquisitely incomprehensible to me” (p. 31). The characters are alert, not to a harmonious universal nature, but to a proliferation of separate, deceptive, and contradictory sense-impressions. Knowledge comes only through the imagination. Gwendolen laughs at Jack's misgivings over her delight in his being called (as she thinks) Ernest. He cautiously inquires how she might feel were his name not Ernest, but she will not listen. “Ah, that is clearly a metaphysical speculation,” she says, “and like all metaphysical speculation, has very little reference at all to the actual facts of real life, as we know them” (p. 17). This is an ironic node. The observation by itself fits in with the general theme of the play, but in the immediate context the joke is against Gwendolen (and Jack, when we think how he must feel). He has only assumed the name of Ernest; her notions are just as “metaphysical”; and what seem to be the actual facts of real life thoroughly justify such a speculation. Yet at the end of the play, Gwendolen's faith in the name, her conviction that she will marry an Ernest, and her insistence that her lover conform to her ideal are all justified; we learn that Jack's true name is Ernest. One effect of all this is to satirize faith in ideals by having it vindicated absurdly, but there is more to it than that. We feel delighted at the outcome, not like the recipients of a warning. We are made to feel that confident fantasies justify themselves, that a bold imagination is more useful than plodding attention to apparent facts.

In Wilde's world truth itself dwindles into insignificance. The characters have a strictly practical attitude to the relationship between statements and actuality, the latter being so elusive. Charged with being named John, Jack declares, “I could deny it if I liked. I could deny anything if I liked” (p. 81). And he is embarrassed when required to utter things in strict correspondence with what seem to be facts: “it is very painful for me to be forced to speak the truth. It is the first time in my life that I have ever been reduced to such a painful position, and I am really quite inexperienced in doing anything of the kind, so you must excuse me if I stammer in my tale” (pp. 81-82). He goes on to say that he has never had a brother, which turns out to be untrue; Algy is his brother. Once again the inference is that truth cannot be discovered through the senses and the intellect alone. Jack's witty lies are more percipient. The comic inversion of truth and untruth is maintained in Jack's dismay, when he learns that what he had thought to be lies are true. “Gwendolen,” he says, “it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth. Can you forgive me?” She can. “There is always hope,” she says, “even for those who are most accurate in their statements” (p. 114). Even when it is the art of living, we are tempted to gloss, “Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art.”9

Jack and Algy certainly attain their ends through lying. They are true rogues, impulsive, lovers of deception and imposture. They fulfill themselves in the way of all rogues: by discovering human freedom in protean identity. Doubtless what they do permits us to laugh at the mad antics young gentlemen get up to, even to disapprove mildly, but the candid spectator will admit that their tricks inspire above all else a feeling of moral liberation. Jack's double life may be exposed, Algy's Bunbury may be deprived of his existence, but these deceptions serve their purpose, and part of us at least is glad.

Gwendolen and Cecily rely on beautiful untrue things as much as their suitors do, but instead of deceiving the world through imposture, they demand that the world accept the pleasing fantasies they choose to project onto it. The heroes adopt identities to suit the occasion; the heroines imagine identities to suit the persons with whom they choose to associate. Gwendolen explains her principles in love: “We live, as I hope you know, Mr Worthing, in an age of ideals. The fact is constantly mentioned in the more expensive monthly magazines, and has reached the provincial pulpits, I am told. And my ideal has always been to love someone of the name of Ernest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence” (p. 16). She is very firm about this, and Cecily, whose words on the subject are almost identical (p. 70), is nearly as firm. The comic parallel generates a certain irony against the girls; we are tempted to laugh at them for sharing a folly, yet we cannot help admiring the strength of their resolution, absurd though it is. Though idealism is burlesqued, we are made to admire the wit and courage required to impose a pattern on the world, even such a one as this.

The women in the play are generally stronger and more resourceful than the men. The latter are forced to prevaricate in a way that at times seems shuffling, even abject, whereas the former are always perfectly poised and move with imperturbable grace from one contradictory posture to another. I suspect that this has something to do with Wilde's own personality and personal history, but the pattern makes sense on its own terms. The play may be seen as a disquisition in favor of a set of attitudes more normally associated with women than with men. It commends the sort of character that accepts experience, with all its confusions, and accommodates itself through provisional opportunist adjustments—through style, in short. It pokes fun at hard and fast ideas about reality, at that aggressive kind of intelligence which seeks to control reality through theory. Rightly or wrongly, women are thought of as conforming more often to the subtle stereotype; men are thought of as conforming more often to the aggressive stereotype. Wilde was not simplistic about this. The embodiment of aggressive masculine intelligence in the play is Miss Prism, but that is part of the joke against her. The other women are naturally more at home in Wilde's world than the men.

Lady Bracknell, of course, is the character that most thoroughly exemplifies feminine strength. Delightful though she is, she is likely at first to baffle the audience's expectations because she is cast in the role of obstructionist to the lovers; in a conventional romantic comedy she would have to be defeated and humiliated. Yet that is not what happens to her, and it is difficult even to imagine it happening. The critics have recognized that she rises above this role; she has even been called a goddess. Satisfaction is what Lady Bracknell requires, not defeat, because, irrespective of her role, she is the character that embodies most forcibly Wilde's notions about the creative power of the imagination. Out of the nebulous material of society fashion, she wills into being a world of rock-hard solidity, obedient to her dispensation, before which all other worlds, real and imagined, fade into ghostly insubstantiality. The audience may laugh at the burlesque of a fashionable hostess, but there is reverence in the laughter. Her directives on the acceptable and the proper are not empirical observations on the state of fashion; they are the utterances of a lawgiver, endowed with all but divine afflatus. Her response to Jack's Belgrave Square address is typical:

LADY Bracknell:
The unfashionable side. However, that could easily be altered.
Do you mean the fashion or the side, Lady Bracknell?
LADY Bracknell:
Both if necessary, I presume.

(p. 22)

In contrast to the characters of farce who are imprisoned by manners, Lady Bracknell makes manners, and all the trivia of fashion, the building material of a world in which her will is law. She obtains freedom through manners, and she is powerful because she can impose her world on others.

Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble are funny because they fail to impose their worlds on others, and in failing weakly parody the central characters. Their trouble is that they do not realize what they are doing and think that their rules and theories represent a real, substantial, unchanging world. Dr. Chasuble calls Miss Prism Egeria (an appellation much better suited to Lady Bracknell), but though she enunciates laws and definitions, they are tamely borrowed, not her own. Her paradoxes are amusing, not because they represent an attempt through wit to impose order on confusion, contradiction, and human folly, but because they indicate an unawareness of these things. Indeed, she does not realize that they are paradoxes. The audience laughs at her, not with her, when she describes her novel thus: “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means” (p. 35). Clearly she is a fit partner for Dr. Chasuble, who is thoroughly insensitive to the present moment (he is always misinterpreting the situation) and given to forcing an all-purpose moral onto any situation. His famous sermon is an example: “My sermon on the meaning of the manna in the wilderness can be adapted to almost any occasion, joyful, or, as in the present case, distressing. I have preached it at harvest celebrations, christenings, confirmations, on days of humiliation and festal days” (pp. 44-45). Both Miss Prism's novel and Dr. Chasuble's sermon, it is clear, recommend an ordered picture of the world, which excludes the sense of absurdity behind order, central to Wilde's vision, a sense that The Importance of Being Earnest, in its entirety, practically demonstrates.

It is beyond the scope of this essay to fit the suggested interpretation of the play into the general scheme of Wilde's ideas, but it is not difficult to see how it may be reconciled with Wilde's views on art, individuality, morality, crime, politics, and so on. What I have tried to do is to provide an interpretation fitting in with notions concerning farce, the drama of the absurd, and existentialist theories of identity, all of which have been fashionable in recent years. This can certainly help us like and understand the play, but I do not wish it to be thought that I am suggesting it be admired because it is “relevant” (whatever that word might mean nowadays). It seems to me that it should be admired, not simply because it expresses a characteristically modern sensibility, nor even because it does so before its time, prophetically, but because it does so supremely well. It is possible to dislike the play, on grounds similar to those set out by Mary McCarthy, if only because it is possible to dislike the sort of sensibility it expresses. Its vehicle, the literary tradition to which I suggest the play belongs, is one that readily allows the writer to sink into self-indulgence. Some feel it permits little else nowadays. But I think that if we are prepared to accept the sensibility and the tradition as capable of producing excellence (if, in other words, we are prepared to adopt appropriate standards in judging the play), we are compelled to recognize the excellence of Wilde's play. To the contemplation of Nothingness, of the absurd, Wilde brings qualities of wit, intelligence, and (not least) appetite for life, rarely found so abundantly in such a context. The Importance of Being Earnest is a great farce because it transcends the normal limitations of the form. Wilde used the form to make a play that is sparkling, but profound as well.


  1. Sights and Spectacles, 1937-1958 (London, 1959), pp. 105-106.

  2. The Structure of Complex Words (London, 1951), p. 192.

  3. The Importance of Being Earnest, in The Works of Oscar Wilde, ed. G. F. Maine (London, 1948), p. 346.

  4. See H. R. Trevor-Roper, The Gentry, 1540-1640, Economic History Review Supplements, 1 (London, 1953), pp. 52-53.

  5. The Importance of Being Earnest, ed. Vyvyan Holland (London, 1957), p. 73. Unless otherwise stated, all subsequent references are to this edition of the original four-act version of the play.

  6. Nil (London, 1966), p. 244.

  7. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel E. Barnes (London, 1957), pp. 59-60.

  8. Love for Love, in Comedies by William Congreve, ed. Bonamy Dobrée (London, 1925), pp. 310-11.

  9. “The Decay of Lying,” in Maine, ed., p. 931.

Geoffrey Stone (essay date January 1976)

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Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5230

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 criticism (e.g., in the ‘New Criticism’, that of I. A. Richards and Empson) must, it seems clear, always be concerned with both the literary work and the aspects of life it is related to—and so must be inherently metalinguistic. Works of literature overtly metalinguistic are not uncommon, frequently in the specialized metalinguistic form of self-reference.

Tristram Shandy is wholly metalinguistic. Fielding started as a novelist in the metalinguistic form of parody and continued it in the ‘commentary’ chapters of Tom Jones. Jane Austen's characters, notably in Pride and Prejudice, discuss the novelistic propriety and convincingness of their own conduct and characterization (and, by logical inversion, the propriety of the contemporary novel). In a wonderful phrase I borrow from an excellent work on ethics, all metalinguistic works are full of ‘overt or covert inverted commas’.

Oscar Wilde, in his earlier 90s plays, which are not metalinguistic, is compelled to write in a spokesman, usually an Intelligent Bad Man, for the views and wit his chosen form must otherwise exclude. A Woman of No Importance shows the clash between his genre, Strong Society Drama as we may call it, and much of what he really wants to deal with and do. Indeed, Wilde's struggles with his awful plots are extremely like Dickens's in his early novels—and for the same reason. They even fall into the same stagy bombast at the points of greatest strain.

For commercial reasons A Woman of No Importance is (i) a ‘well-made play’ with a strong plot, strong situations and powerful curtain-lines and (ii) one possessing (subject to (i)) social verisimilitude. But (iii), as one would expect from a First in Greats writing for commercial success, there is also an agreeably large quantity of Aristotelian irony, peripeteia and both literal and moral anagnorisis—Gerald's reversals, Hester's reversals, Lord Illingworth's unmasking, to name but a few. They give pleasure at both levels of audience awareness. It has too (iv) wit, but almost disconnected from the plot and held down by the requirements of verisimilitude and the necessity of not frightening the audience, and (v) a very funny running joke of savagely black humour about the Archdeacon's offstage wife, who we learn is ‘wonderfully cheerful’ though a martyr to headaches (Act I), stone-deaf (Act II) and rapidly going blind (Act II), her hands immobilized for the last ten years by gout (Act III), her memory gone ‘since her last attack’ (Act III), and her food entirely limited to jellies (Act III); ‘she has nothing to complain of’ are the Archdeacon's last words. This almost Swiftian attack upon God's arrangements and man's complacency contradicts the genre's premises, but is accidentally made possible by the theatrical convention of the comic clergyman. However, the other aspects of reality which Wilde evidently wants to deal with have no accidental convention to help them and get into the play either in a distorted form or, when in, threaten to break it up completely and have to be suppressed again. Attacks on contemporary class and sexual exploitation have to be assigned to the outsider American girl Hester Worsley, and consequently overstated and (as a result, metalinguistically considered) understated simultaneously. The treatment of women is at least relevant to the plot, but that of the poor, though an obsessive recurrent theme (‘The problem of slavery’, says Lord Illingworth; ‘And we are trying to solve it by amusing the slaves’), has no relevance at all. Besides unpleasant social realities, unpleasant psychological ones are buzzing in the play; what is and will be the relationship between a bastard son and a mother who deliberately keeps him to herself in mediocrity? The plot, and Wilde's intelligence, are compelled to raise the theme, but since it has no place in the genre it is bundled away again as soon as raised. (In this and several other ways one is reminded of Shaw's early plays; a comparison of Shaw's and Wilde's different methods of half-solving similar problems would be of interest.) As the play proceeds, it devolops an enormous and comic gap between the characters' situation and their language. This culminates in the uproarious but unintended comedy of the curtain-scene of Act III and all Act IV (‘Gerald, no! He is your father!’) in which the Fallen Mother is revealed, the Seducer is unmasked, the True Love (with a large fortune) is discovered, and the Son's determination to force the Seducer into Atonement and Justice (Gerald, Act IV) by marrying the Betrayed Mother is thwarted only by the Mother's spirited moral and personal objection to doing anything of the sort (‘What son has ever asked his mother to make so hideous a sacrifice?’). We are here dealing with perfectly serious matters, but the characters Wilde has attempting it are quite incapable of it; they are trapped by their nature, their idiom, the very conditions of their existence—the Strong Society Drama. Now if this gap is accepted and exploited, these masks become (so to speak) not characters but meta-characters; they relate indirectly to life, and directly to a certain representation of life—that acceptable to the 90s theatre audience, or loose sentimentalists anywhere anytime. A play containing them then becomes a criticism of, or a set of variations upon, that particular mode of inadequacy to life and its highly complex relations to reality. Further, being a meta-play, a work of art whose subject is art (literally art for art's sake, in fact), many things cease to be a temptation and become an artistic necessity; for example, perfect phrasing and epigram, the greatest possible elegance of expression, of plot, of situation. The author can legitimately aim at a perfection of form usually found only in music or mathematics. At the same time, by having its roots deep in the rich manure of the 90s commercial drama and reality, the work is preserved from abstraction or triviality. Anyone can be elegant trivially (Wilde himself in his earlier works); it is, for example, the multiple reality it embraces that gives Old Bill's phlegmatic explanation of the shell-hole (‘Mice’) its intense punch. In fact, if Wilde is going to write a genuinely good play it must relate to at least some of the 90s otherwise unmanageable realities, it must allow his wit to work with not against his art, it must also be produceable in the 90s commercial theatre and consequently relate to the established form as well as the facts that form pretended to correspond with. It must therefore be inherently and essentially metalinguistic, a special and powerful sort of verbal structure; must be, in fact, the meta-play The Importance of Being Earnest. Hence its anti-natural yet legitimate stylization, its otherwise baffling combination of perfect seriousness in its internal structure with (ostensibly) perfect frivolity in its apparent structure (‘a trivial comedy for serious people’ is Wilde's own definition), and its numerous outcrops of granite-hard sense. These assertions will perhaps become plausible, indeed comprehensible, by a close examination of the play itself.

The people of the play are Mr. Worthing (Ernest in town, Jack in the country), his ward Cecily Cardew, his fiancée Gwendolen Fairfax (daughter of Lady Bracknell), and his friend Algernon Montcrieff (nephew of Lady Bracknell); the plot is that Algernon, as her guardian's fictitious younger brother Ernest, becomes engaged to Cecily, so both girls are engaged to ‘Ernest’ but neither to Ernest; more detail is unneeded. The play opens with a passage exhibiting, and implicitly commenting upon, the simple theme of master-servant relations and, by implication, those of the upper and lower orders. The social reality of the 90s was peculiarly one of power, of dominators and dominated, and in every passage of The Importance there is continuous conflict. Just as Byron boxed with his valet to reach physical grace-with-power, so Algernon spars verbally with his manservant. This is sporting of Algernon, and helps set the tone of civil decency that characterizes the play, because he loses every exchange. The opening question and answer (‘Did you hear what I was playing, Lane?’ ‘I didn't think it polite to listen, sir’) carry a number of elements; (a) regulative social conventions, (i) the upper order's access to art, and the lower orders' lack of it (cf. Yeats), (ii) the lower orders' ‘knowing their place’; and (b) Lane's implied comments on the conventions and related facts. (i) Since society exacts deference, this exempts Lane from the duty of listening; indeed, since (ii) Algernon has no access to genuine art, it is personally polite not to have listened. In ‘polite’ sense (i), as a servant, Lane is outside the ‘polis’ or civilized group (in Athens he would have been a slave); in sense (ii), he is, as an independent intelligence, exquisitely within it. If this and the following exchanges were cruder in feeling, they would exhibit the covert insolence generated when an upper order character is attempting fraternity but being denied it; if they were coarsened the other way, by making Algernon's wit superior to Lane's, we would have the familiar figure of the comic but fundamentally inferior servant. The next exchange—on the champagne—deals with the expropriation of the expropriators, or—in the language of the time—the servant problem. Lane assumes and establishes his right to steal as much as he pleases, counters Algernon's probe with successive flank attacks on the upper order's taste, competence, major regulating social conventions (marriage, and a respectful attitude to it), and finally defeats Algernon's desperate but unsporting attempt at a snub by (judo-like) completely agreeing with him and consequently exposing a total complicity on Algernon's part with Lane's social subversion. Algernon's direct speech to the audience then points out (i) that they live off the lower orders, (ii) cant about them in several different ways at once, and (iii) their listening to and laughing at his speech shows they have publicly agreed to all that is entailed. The audience, like Algernon with Lane, has been trapped by entering the dialogue. (In Aristotelian terms, the one page of dialogue so far has supplied five peripeteias and two anagnorises. In its speed and veracity it is a little like Shaw's message to Archer about their joint play; ‘Have finished plot and first Act; send more plot’.) Finally, although it apparently abandons the exposition usually the business of a play's first moments, it is actually carrying out the very necessary business of training the audience in the kind of social and linguistic relations that will compose the play. We should not deny to Wilde, any more than to Marvell, that well-known ‘tough reasonableness beneath the slight lyric grace’.

The Importance of Being Earnest then moves to conflict and pretence within one social class, a theme necessarily shading into raw-material human conduct. As the play and characters must be convincing to the audience at the object-level, providing them with a fixed base on which they can rely, this is convenient. Jack and Gwendolen are the most simply presented (in technical terms, Jack despite his duplicity is Algernon's straight man, as Gwendolen is Cecily's); Algernon plays a much larger part in the meta-activity; and Lady Bracknell, ruthlessly accurate about the real world in every way, with almost every word exists fully, indeed irresistibly, at both meta- and object-level. In Jack's beautifully exact terminology, she is a monster without being a myth, which is rather unfair. Psychic energy is obtained by abandoning lies, and identifying with such liberated persons; what the audience gets indirectly through the rest of the play it gets directly from Lady Bracknell—just as Lady Bracknell's standards of fact-facing would shatter any conventional ‘strong drama’ she was placed in. The Jack-Algernon relationship is clearly one of conflict, in which Algernon is the dominator. He makes most of the jokes and even forces Jack into telling the truth, despite Jack's powerful defences—simple mendacity, convincing detail, accusation of class impropriety in reading a private cigarette-case, the symmetry that complements Algernon's real argument with Jack's fictitious one, and the Carrollian logic of country presents carrying country names. When Gwendolen and Cecily meet the dramatic conflict is so rooted is reality that it emerges not only in dialogue but virtually at the animal level; in half a page of dialogue Cecily has not only withstood, sometimes snubbed, Gwendolen's verbal overtures four times, but Gwendolen has delayed sitting down, though asked, until her first friendship-assault (as we may call it) is completed and there is a tiny armistice. ‘A pause. They both sit down together.’ Gwendolen moves to open aggression by formally announcing her intention of looking fixedly at Cecily and demanding Cecily's acquiescence on meta-linguistic class grounds: ‘Mamma, whose views on education are remarkably strict, has brought me up to be extremely short-sighted; it is part of her system; so do you mind my looking at you through my glasses’—an elegant combination of upper order and animal behaviour. This is equally elegantly countered by Cecily on equally good social grounds with, in the circumstances, a strongly aggressive social implication—‘Oh, not at all, Gwendolen. I am very fond of being looked at.’ The struggle shifts—temporarily—to the purely verbal level; a meta-reference to sentimental drama—‘Dearest Gwendolen, there is no reason why I should make a secret of it to you’—introduces a passage of conflict in which, with neat structure and rising complexity, Cecily's ‘little country newspaper’ and ‘next week’ are countered by Gwendolen's Morning Post (class and sophistication superiority) and ‘Saturday’ (time), Cecily's ‘ten minutes ago’ by ‘yesterday afternoon at five-thirty’, Cecily's diary by Gwendolen's diary, and the struggle shifts implicitly to the metalinguistic question of the logical category of a proposal of marriage. Is it a letter of intent, when the most recent one is valid, or a contract, when the earliest is the only valid one? Gwendolen brings a new rhetorical form into play, but her soliloquy is overcome by Cecily's stronger one, which uses metaphor—‘entanglement’—to beat mere literalism. Since both speeches are delicately sentimental and ‘out of character’, the play is here metalinguistic in relating to the forms and content of ‘strong drama’, where maidens make and exchange just such innocent confidences. The sequence closes in yet another class-reference—‘I am happy to say I have never seen a spade’—used as attack and self-assertion. The society of The Importance is an intensely class-based one, but it is also extremely dynamic. Considering human capabilities, while we watch the meta-characters Gwendolen and Cecily we are seeing real tigers pretending to be cats in contrast to the ‘strong drama’ the play relates to, where we see cats roaring.

Since the characters are firmly established in the audience's minds as acceptable and consistent at the object- and meta-level, and the necessary exposition is unobtrusively inserted, the play can afford to carry a great deal of comment by the characters about reality, both direct and in the metalinguistic form of combined reference to reality and to what people say about it—pretence. Lady Bracknell is notoriously the most copious source of examples, as in her examination of Jack's eligibility. It opens metalinguistically with the minor themes of upper order parasitism—Jack's smoking as ‘an occupation. … There are far too many idle men in London as it is’—and the double-standard sexuality central to the 90s self-concern: ‘a man who desires to get married should know either everything or nothing. … Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone.’ The technique of comparison by substitution—‘ignorance’ for ‘innocence’, application to Jack instead of Gwendolen—is a Wildean favourite, often exasperating elsewhere; here it can work with the play, not just as external decoration. Lady Bracknell's beautiful aria on education is a direct comment on social reality, rising to the (fulfilled) prophecy of ‘acts of violence in Grosvenor Square’, and is followed by an equally accurate and prophetic aria upon land ownership. (It is directly no part of an artist's business either to prophesy or literally describe actuality; but the better grasp he has of what is the case, however he chooses to work from it, the longer his product will last and the more strikingly the world will move to conform to it.) The point about changing the fashion and the side of Berkeley Square is a joke about fact and quasi-linguistic behaviour—a metalinguistic joke, in fact. Jack's income is naturally the major point and is the only one actually noted in Lady Bracknell's book. ‘Now to minor matters. Are your parents living?’ is direct in form and metalinguistic in its play of actual fact against conventional utterance. The audience is also naturally pleased to find Lady Bracknell is wrong, since it is this ‘minor matter’ which, she finds, forbids the engagement. Her description of Jack as ‘born, or at any rate bred, in a handbag’ derives from the phrase ‘born and bred’, and consequently Lady Bracknell is modifying a reality to suit a language-structure, a rather nice inversion of normal metalinguistic procedure. Her refusal to allow Gwendolen to ‘marry into a cloakroom, and form an alliance with a parcel’ is a perfect verbal formulation of the upper order's habit of treating people as things, in accordance with her and their highly material mode of existence. When informed of Cecily's fortune, she continues ‘A hundred and thirty thousand pounds! And in the Funds! Miss Cardew seems to me a most attractive young lady, now that I look at her. Few girls of the present day have any really solid qualities, any of the qualities that last, and improve with time. We live, I regret to say, in an age of surfaces’. Elsewhere in the play, too, Lady Bracknell is a fountain of good, often brutal, sense: feeling well opposed to behaving well, the Lady Harbury sequence, illness in others not a thing to be encouraged, the upper order's reaction to French and German (the play has a high proportion of jokes about language), ‘the Influence of a permanent income on Thought’, arguments regrettable as always vulgar and often convincing, and ‘the General was essentially a man of peace, except in his domestic life’. Lady Bracknell is not of course the only truth-speaker. Algernon warns us ‘the truth is rarely pure and never simple’, Jack that a high moral tone is bad for health and happiness, and Gwendolen produces that poignantly exact definition of tension (‘this suspense is terrible, I hope it will last’), and even Miss Prism regards the death of a black sheep as ‘a blessing of an extremely obvious kind’. The play continually illustrates the observation (through Gwendolen, truly her mother's daughter) that ‘it becomes more than a moral duty to speak one's mind; it becomes a pleasure’.

Since The Importance of Being Earnest is itself so completely structured, there is an added elegance in the presence within it of smaller structures which by their formal quality or reversal of expectations or both operate as a kind of model of the play itself—that is, as yet another meta-level above the ostensible one. Very few works of literature are of such formal complexity. There are the traditional, the classic ironies of plot—foreshadowings and echoes; Lady Bracknell's ‘the line is immaterial’, ‘try and acquire some relations as soon as possible’ (she is addressing her nephew in his brother's flat); the prophecy ‘Half an hour after they've met, they will be calling each other sister’—‘Women only do that when they have called each other a lot of other things first’; and Algernon's masquerade as the younger brother he actually but unknowingly is. There is the very simple structure of the offstage running joke—Lady Harbury, Lord Bracknell; the more complex one of the onstage wit-combat, itself full of language-devices (inversion, category and subject-shift, and even points of pure logic—‘There is no good offering a large reward now that the thing is found’)—the battle of the cigarette-case, of Algernon-as-Ernest rebuked by Jack, of who has the right to be christened; and most complex of all, the circular sequence early in the play about the ‘clever people’ and the fools, which is funny at the simplest level (‘What fools’), funnier when one realizes Jack has been defined as one of the fools whose non-existence he has been lamenting, and funniest when one realizes that the fool's cap also fits the audience and oneself—any critic of the play, in fact—since its characters are eminently ‘clever people’, and the whole audience has come to the theatre solely to meet and talk about them. So—for a second—the level-above-level structure has reached out and pulled, not this listener and that, or this common pretender and that, but the—any—audience, purely qua audience, inside the play—a very metalinguistic effect indeed.

The characters of The Importance are often seriously, even passionately, concerned about food. They are equally serious about property (preferably in its most ‘real’ form, money or its equivalent the Funds); and they are all, as we have seen, incessantly engaged in struggles for power. We can in fact take these as equivalents, whether we follow the Freudian judgment which makes food the reality and property and power its masks, or our metalinguistic interpretation which would make property and power the realities, ‘good taste’, ‘civilized values’, etc., the normal language about them, and ‘food’ the metalanguage Wilde employs to deal with the facts and the normal language simultaneously. Certainly Algernon has an exactly Freudian passage on food—‘When I am in really great trouble, as anyone who knows me intimately will tell you, I refuse everything except food and drink. At the present moment I am eating muffins because I am unhappy’—another example of very hard sense. (The play clearly is the most centrally Wildean thing its author ever wrote—his getting so fat, that curious phrase about ‘feasting with panthers’, all those suppers at Willis's, the sinister foreshadowing of Carson's cross-examination by the cigarette-case scene—but unless we regard Wilde as the inventor of the non-fiction play seventy years before the non-fiction novel we had better stick to the literature.) The characters are surprisingly often engaged in unashamed, overt, onstage eating—cucumber sandwiches and bread and butter in town, cake, bread and butter, tea, sugar, muffins and tea-cake in the country. When not conspicuously consuming they are arranging to dine at Willis's, emphazing the moral importance of being serious about meals, the necessity of ‘regular and wholesome meals’ when one is going to lead an entirely new life, or the social impropriety of ever going without one's dinner. The food is always used as a weapon of domination; as in Act I, when Algernon, whose food it is, directs Jack's choice, or Act II, where Gwendolen employs it for social domination (‘No, thank you. Sugar is not fashionable any more’) and Cecily in turn uses it for physical revenge (‘Gwendolen drinks the tea and makes a grimace. Puts down cup at once, reaches out her hand to the bread and butter, looks at it, and finds it is cake. Rises in indignation’), or later in Act II, when Jack attempts to dominate Algernon morally (‘I say it's perfectly heartless your eating muffins at all, under the circumstances’), then, abandoning his moral position, is completely defeated by Algernon, who denies Jack the slightest share of his own muffins. The quasi-omnipresence of food is meta-significant; the ‘strong drama’ of the 90s seldom shows its characters coarse (or real) enough to take food and yet the actual 90s, like the following Edwardian era are notorious for the gross appetities of its upper orders. The literal food on stage acts as a sharp contradiction to the audience's favourite lies-in-art. Further, it acts as literal though trivial property, which can be struggled for, and also as representative of more substantial power; Algernon is entitled to eat sandwiches specially ordered for Lady Bracknell since ‘she is my aunt’; Jack eats the bread and butter intended for Gwendolen ‘as if you were going to eat it all. You behave as if you were married to her already’. Algernon's attitude to his aunt's sandwiches and Jack's muffins exactly parallels his aunt's attitude to Cecily's £130,000—which Algernon will also get. It is interesting to note that Algernon and Lady Bracknell, the two dominant, even predatory, characters of the play, are or were acquisitive by necessity; Algernon has nothing but his debts, and Lady Bracknell before her marriage ‘had no fortune of any kind’. Lady Bracknell's attitude to Cecily's money is, however, deeper and more poetic than mere greed. When she refers to ‘qualities that last, and improve with time’, and later, when it is found Cecily can't get it until she is thirty-five, asserts that ‘Thirty-five is a very attractive age. London society is full of women of the very highest birth who have, of their own free choice, remained thirty-five for years. Lady Dumbleton … has been thirty-five ever she arrived at the age of forty, which was many years ago. … There will be a large accumulation of property’, there is the distinct intimation of the themes of Eternity against Time, the Unchanging against human ageing and mortality, of Hamlet with Yorick and of Keats's Grecian Urn. To put it another way, Lady Bracknell's imagination, like a good poet's, reverses the poles of reality, makes the abstract concrete, and looks through the mere shows of being—eighteen-year-old Cecily—to the unchanging Gold.

Indeed, The Importance of Being Earnest is sufficiently related to the world as it is to touch the great standard themes of art—Love and Marriage, Death and Rebirth, and Appearance and Reality—though they indeed occur very obliquely. Love and Marriage is of course used structurally rather than emotionally, and the crucial insistence is not on the fact—lovers' earnestness—but the word—their Ernest-ness, so to speak. The theme arises in the play's first minute, and runs through to the traditional Triumph of Hymen in the last one, with such occasional strokes of appalling human truth as Gwendolen's ‘I never change, except in my affections’, or metalinguistic improvements on sentimental drama as ‘though I may marry someone else, and marry often, nothing … can alter my eternal devotion to you’. Death and spiritual or nominal Rebirth are nearly as omnipresent. Quite early in Act I Jack anounces ‘I am going to kill my brother’ (Jack is totally his ‘brother's’ keeper) … ‘I am going to get rid of Ernest. And I strongly advise you to do the same with … your invalid friend’, and accordingly in Act II he appears, a tall basalt column in ‘the deepest mourning, with crepe hatband and black gloves’ to announce that Ernest is ‘Dead! … Quite dead’. Algernon carries out a parallel phantom homicide: ‘Bunbury is dead … I killed Bunbury this afternoon … he was quite exploded’. The aggression usually underlying comedy, and peculiarly strongly in this play, is in these examples quite cheerfully open. And though it may be over-fussy, I cannot help feeling Lady Bracknell's phrase about persons whose origin is a Terminus, though directed against Jack's social misfortunes, both prefigures Beckett (‘We give birth astride a grave’) and plays on a reversal of the Christian view of death—that our end is our beginning. This is, spiritually speaking, what happens in the sacrament of baptism, in which the baptisant dies to the Old Man and regenerates as the New in his symbolic drowning and resurrection. It is again the underlying logical structure which makes Jack's diffident negotiations with Dr. Chasuble so funny (‘if you have nothing better to do … I might trot round about five if that would suit you’), and with Algernon (‘I have not been christened for years.’ ‘Yes, but you have been christened. That is the important thing’—as, theologically, it is. ‘Quite so. So I know my constitution can stand it.’). Lady Bracknell brings society and sacrament—Mammon and God—together in an explosion of short-circuits—‘grotesque and irreligious … I will not hear of such excesses. Lord Bracknell would be highly displeased if he learned that that was the way you wasted your time and money’, while at a proper age she includes christening among ‘every luxury that money could buy’. The Importance is closely if obliquely related to religion, or at least religion-in-society, even down to Gwendolen's determination to crush her doubts on Jack's sincerity—‘this is not the moment for German scepticism’.

Lastly, the theme of that age-old and ultimate pair, Appearance and Reality, is overtly with us from the cigarette-case, through all the metalinguistic truths and object-level deceptions, rising to the highest points of concentration in such scenes as Algernon's masquerade as Jack's brother (yet he is Jack's brother), his logic (‘it is perfectly childish to be in deep mourning for a man who is actually staying for a whole week with you in your house as your guest’), and the total disappearance of Ernest. The very basis of objective reality is subverted in the perfectly accurate account of Memory, which ‘usually chronicles all the things that have never happened, and couldn't possibly have happened’, and the proferred documentary alternative of the two diaries (respectively ‘a very young girl's record of her own thoughts and impressions, and consequently meant for publication’, and ‘something sensational to read in the train’). The extreme difficulty of valid description is finally exampled explicity: ‘Is this Miss Prism a female of repellent aspect, remotely connected with education?’ ‘She is the most cultivated of ladies, and the very picture of respectability.’ ‘It is obviously the same person.’

If the metalinguistic structure of the play and the characters is not grasped, then not only is the nature of the play unrealized, but the play and characters look too fragile to handle, and consequently its beautiful substructures—social and general human satire on food and power, religion, death and resurrection, appearance and reality—have to be overlooked and ignored and criticism creeps away in a flurry of embarrassed and misdirected compliments. What a Theatre of Black Comedy and the Absurd we might have had in England under Victoria if only some enlightened lover of literature had saved Wilde for thirty years more playwriting by firmly propelling Bosie under a bus.

Camille Paglia (essay date winter 1985)

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Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8928

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 the inner life to the outer. Sartre says of Genet, “Elegance: the quality of conduct which transforms the greatest quantity of being into appearing.” The salon, like the object-realm venerated by the esthete, is a spectacle of dazzling surfaces—words, faces, and gestures exhibited in a blaze of hard glamour.

Occasionally, Pope was drawn to the idea of spiritual hermaphroditism. But he was deeply hostile to the Androgyne of Manners, whom he satirizes as the Amazonian belles and effeminate beaux of The Rape of the Lock, because this psychological type is ahistorical in its worship of the ephemeral. The salon is populated by sophisticates of a classical literacy, but its speed of dialogue inhibits deliberation and reflection, recklessly breaking with the past through fashionable irresponsibility. Pope might have said, had the word been available, that the salon was too chic. The Androgyne of Manners—the male feminine in his careless, lounging passivity, the female masculine in her brilliant, aggressive wit—has the profane sleekness of chic.

In the Decadent nineties, before his career abruptly ended in arrest and imprisonment, Wilde was moving towards an Art Nouveau esthetics. Art Nouveau, then at its height of decorative popularity, is a late phase in the history of style, in many ways analogous to Italian Mannerism. Kenneth Clark says of one of Giambologna's streamlined Mannerist bronzes:

The goddess of mannerism is the eternal feminine of the fashion plate. A sociologist could no doubt give ready answers why embodiments of elegance should take this somewhat ridiculous shape—feet and hands too fine for honest work, bodies too thin for childbearing, and heads too small to contain a single thought. But elegant proportions may be found in many objects that are exempt from these materialist explanations—in architecture, pottery, or even handwriting. The human body is not the basis of these rhythms but their victim. Where the sense of chic originates, how it is controlled, by what inner pattern we unfailingly recognize it—all these are questions too large and too subtle for a parenthesis. One thing is certain. Chic is not natural. Congreve's Millamant or Baudelaire's dandy warn us how hateful, to serious votaries of chic, is everything that is implied by the word “nature.”

Smoothness and elongation, the Mannerist figure is a series of polished ovoids hung on a mannequin's frame. Lord Henry Wotton, with his “long, nervous fingers,” is an ectomorph, an undulating ribbon of Mannerist Art Nouveau. The ectomorphic line is a suave vertical, repudiating nature by its resistance to gravity, but the Mannerist figure, overcome by worldly fatigue, sinks back toward earth in languorous torsion. The Androgyne of Manners may be seen in complete effete collapse in Henry Lamb's painting of Lytton Strachey turning his back to a window, his long denatured limbs draped over an armchair like wet noodles. Because of its swift verbal genius, however, the Androgyne of Manners is best represented as sleekness and speed. Count Robert de Montesquiou, the decadent model for Huysmans's Des Esseintes and Proust's Charlus, was once described as a “greyhound in evening dress,” a phrase we might readily apply to Lord Henry Wotton.

Sleekness in a male is usually a hermaphroditic motive. Cinema, the cardinal medium of modern sexual representation, evokes this theme in its topos of the well-bred English “gentleman,” a word of such special connotations that it cannot be perfectly translated into any other language. From the thirties through the fifties, movies used actors of this type to illustrate a singular male beauty, witty and polished, uniting sensitivity of response to intense heterosexual glamour: Leslie Howard, Rex Harrison, Cary Grant, David Niven, Michael Wilding, Fred Astaire. The idiomatic representational qualities here are smoothness and elongation, smooth both in manner and appearance, long in ectomorphic height and cranial contour. I think, for instance, of the astounding narrowness of Cary Grant's shiny black evening pumps in Indiscreet. The smoothness and elongation of figure are best shown off by a gleaming tuxedo, which signifies a renunciation of masculine hirsutism. The cinematic “gentleman” is always prematurely balding, with swept-back hair at the temples. His receding hairline is sexually expressive, suggesting hermaphroditic gentility, a grace of intellect and emotion. His sleek head is a promise of candor and courtesy, of eroticism without ambivalence or suffering. Smoothness always has an exclusively social meaning: it is nature subdued by the civil made second nature.

In The Importance of Being Earnest, the English gentleman, in whom the crudely masculine has been moderated by courtesy, may be seen turning into the Androgyne of Manners, in whom smoothness has become the cold glossiness of a bronze surface, like the “armored look” (Panzerhaft) of Bronzino's Mannerist portraits. Meeting and finally mating with their counterparts, the Art Nouveau androgynes of the play speak Wilde's characteristic language, the epicene witticism, analogous to their formal personae in its hardness, smoothness, and elongation. The Wildean epigram, like a Giambologna bronze, is immediately identifiable by a slim spareness, an imperious separateness, and a perverse elegance. Speech in Wilde is made as hard and glittering as possible; it follows the Wildean personality into the visual realm. Normally, it is pictorialism that gives literature a visual character. But there are few metaphors in Wilde and no complex syntactical units. Vocabulary and sentence structure are amazingly simple, arising from the vernacular of the accomplished raconteur. Yet Wilde's bon mots are so condensed that they become things, artifacts. Without metaphor, the language leaps into concreteness.

Language in Wilde aspires to an Apollonian hierarchism. His epigrams turn language from the Dionysian Many into the Apollonian One, for as an aphoristic phrase form and conversation stopper, the epigram thwarts real dialogue, cutting itself off from a past and a future in its immediate social context and glorying in its aristocratic solitude. It is the language of the Apollonian law giver, arbitrarily assigning form, proportion, and measure. A character in Wilde's An Ideal Husband declares, “Women are never disarmed by compliments. Men always are. That is the difference between the sexes.” The iron rod of classification is thrust before us—even if it does not fall where expected. In form and in content, the Wildean epigram is a triumph of rhetorical self-containment. No one in English, or probably any other modern language, has produced a series of utterances more mysteriously delimited. The epigram, as practiced in the Renaissance, was a poem of sharply ironic or sententious concluding verses. But the epigramma of antiquity was literally an inscription, as on a tombstone. Wilde may therefore be said to have restored the epigram to its original representational character, for his language has a hieroglyphic exactitude and cold rhetorical stoniness, separating itself from its background by the Apollonian incised edge.

In The Importance of Being Earnest the courtship of youth and maiden, at the traditional heart of comedy, loses its emotional color in the Wildean transformation of content into form, of soul into surface. Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff, idle gentlemen-about-town, and Gwendolen Fairfax and Cecily Cardew, the well-bred objects of their affections, are all Androgynes of Manners. They have no sex because they have no real sexual feelings. The interactions of the play are governed by the formalities of social life, which emerge with dancelike ritualism. The key phrase of the English fin de siècle was Lionel Johnson's axiom, “Life must be a ritual.” In The Picture of Dorian Gray Wilde says: “The canons of good society are, or should be, the same as the canons of art. Form is absolutely essential to it. It should have the dignity of a ceremony, as well as its unreality.” In The Importance of Being Earnest the ceremony of social form is stronger than gender, shaping the personae to its public purpose and turning the internal world into the external.

The play's supreme enforcer of form is Lady Bracknell, who remarks with satisfaction, “We live, I regret to say, in an age of surfaces.” In a stage direction to another play, Wilde says of a lord's butler: “The distinction of Phipps is his impassivity. … He is a mask with a manner. Of his intellectual or emotional life, history knows nothing. He represents the dominance of form.” An optimal performance of The Importance of Being Earnest would be a romance of surfaces, male and female alike wearing masks of superb impassivity. The Anthony Asquith film, made in 1952, though it shortens and questionably edits the text, comes close to achieving this. Joan Greenwood's entranced and nearly somnambulistic performance as Gwendolen—slow, stately, and ceremonious—is the brilliant realization of the Wildean esthetic. But the effort to make Dorothy Tutin's Cecily sympathetic at Gwendolen's expense is sentimentally intrusive, a misreading of the play disordering the symmetry between the two young ladies, twin androgynes who fight each other to a standoff.

Productions of The Importance of Being Earnest are often weakened by flights of Forest of Arden lyricism which turn what is sexually ambiguous in Wilde into the conventionally heterosexual. The hieratic purity of the play could best be appreciated if all the women's roles were taken by female impersonators. Language, personality, and behavior should be so hard that the play becomes a spectacle of visionary coldness. The faces should be like glass, without gender or humanity. The Importance of Being Earnest takes place in Spenser's Apollonian “world of glas,” a realm of glittering, sharp-edged objects. Chapman says of the goddess Ceremony, “all her bodie was / Cleere and transparent as the purest glasse.” Gwendolen and Cecily are the goddess Ceremony conversing with herself, her body transparent because she is without an inner life. That Wilde may well have thought of his characters in such terms is suggested in The Picture of Dorian Gray, where Lord Henry Wotton longs for “a mask of glass” to shield one from the “sulphurous fumes” of life.

Gwendolen is the first of the women to enact a drama of form. Soliciting Jack to propose to her, she announces in advance that she will accept him but still insists that her bewildered suitor perform the traditional ritual, on his knees. Gwendolen's thoughts never stray from the world of appearances. At the climax of their romantic interlude, she says to Jack, “I hope you will always look at me just like that, especially when there are other people present.” This voyeuristic series of observers is a psychosexual topos of Decadent Late Romanticism, first occurring in 1835 in Gautier's Mademoiselle de Maupin. Gwendolen imagines Jack looking at her while she looks at others looking at them. As a worshipper of form, Gwendolen craves not emotion but display, the theater of social life.

Gwendolen's self-observing detachment is exhibited by Cecily in precisely the same situation. When Algernon ardently declares his love for her, Cecily replies, “If you will allow me, I will copy your remarks into my diary.” Emotion is immediately dispatched into a self-reflexive Mannerist torsion. Going to her writing table, Cecily exhorts her suitor to continue his protestations: “I delight in taking down from dictation.” Intimacy is swelled into oratory, and poor Algernon is like Alice grown suddenly too big for the White Rabbit's house. Despite their impending marriage, Cecily declares it quite out of the question for Algernon to see her diary. Nevertheless, it is “meant for publication”: “When it appears in volume form I hope you will order a copy.” The Sibylline archivist, with professional impartiality, grants no special privileges to her sources of data.

Never for a moment in the play are Gwendolen and Cecily persuasively “female.” They are creatures of indeterminate sex who take up the mask of femininity to play a new and provocative role. The dandified Algernon and Jack are simply supporting actors whom the women boldly stage manage. Gwendolen and Cecily are adepts of a dramaturgical alchemy: they are Cerberuses on constant guard to defend the play against encroachment by the internal, which they magically transform into the external. The Importance of Being Earnest is one long process of crystallization of the immaterial into the material, of emotion into self-conscious personae. In Shakespeare's volatile Rosalind and Cleopatra, automanipulation of personae arises from a Renaissance abundance of emotion, which flows into a multiplicity of psychodramatic forms. But Wilde's Gwendolen and Cecily inhabit a far more stringently demarcated world, the salon of the Androgyne of Manners, and their personae are radically despiritualized, efflorescences not of psyche but of couture.

Lady Bracknell, too, ruthlessly subordinates persons to form. If Algernon does not come to dinner, “It would put my table completely out,” and Lord Bracknell will be exiled upstairs. In one of Wilde's most wonderful lines, Lady Bracknell rebukes Jack for being an orphan: “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” Matters of form are uppermost, in death as in life. The emotional intensities of Victorian bereavement are cancelled. Nothing is of interest but the public impression. Once again there is the Late Romantic stress upon visual cognition: “may be regarded as a misfortune;” “looks like carelessness.” Every event occurs with naked visibility on a vast, flat expanse; life is a play scrutinized by a ring of appraising eyes. This illustrates one of Wilde's central principles, as cited by Dorian Gray: “To become the spectator of one's own life is to escape the suffering of life.” Late Romantic spectatorship is an escape from suffering because all affect is transferred from the emotional and tangible into the visual: no wounds can pierce the glassy body of the Wildean androgyne. The self is without a biological or historical identity. Self-originating, it has no filial indebtedness. A parent is merely a detail of social heraldry. To lose both parents, therefore, is not tragedy but negligence, like tipping the tea service into the trashbin.

The liturgy of the religion of form of which Lady Bracknell is a communicant, and in which she has instructed her daughter Gwendolen, is determined by fashion, whose bible is any one of “the more expensive monthly magazines.” Lady Bracknell declares, “Style largely depends on the way the chin is worn. They are worn very high, just at present.” The chin is imperiously “worn” like an article of clothing because the human figure is merely decorative, like the mummy's foot which serves as a paperweight in a Gautier tale. There is a latent surrealism here, for once the chin, like the eyebrow of Gautier's hieratic Cleopatra, has been detached from the body by Decadent partition, there is no reason why it cannot be worn elsewhere—on the shoulder, perhaps, or hip. Gwendolen, requesting Cecily's permission to examine her through a lorgnette (Cecily graciously makes the expected Late Romantic reply, “I am very fond of being looked at”), boasts that her mother “has brought me up to be extremely short-sighted.” The body is sculpted at the whim of fashion, responding to its commands with plastic ductility.

At the tea table, Gwendolen declines Cecily's offer of sugar: “No, thank you. Sugar is not fashionable any more.” To the choice of cake or bread and butter, she replies (“in a bored manner”), “Bread and butter, please. Cake is rarely seen at the best houses nowadays.” For Gwendolen, tastiness is irrelevant, since the body has no needs in the world of form. Sugar and cake are items of decor, marks of caste by which one group separates itself from a lower group. Personal preference is renounced for hierarchical conformity. And note that cake is “rarely seen,” not eaten—its status is visual and not gustatory. Gwendolen is an Androgyne of Manners rapidly approaching the android. She is so completely the product of fashion that she is a machine, seeing myopically by maternal edict, eating, drinking, hearing, thinking, and speaking by preprogrammed desire. Mallarmé says, “Fashion is the goddess of appearances.” Fashion is the divinity of this world of form, which Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen uphold with apostolic fervor.

The literary term “high comedy” is often rather loosely applied to any comedy of manners that does not descend to broad verbal or physical humor. I would argue that the most advanced high comedy is a ceremoniously mannered “presentation of self,” the style of The Importance of Being Earnest, as most splendidly exemplified by Gwendolen. Indeed, in Gwendolen Fairfax, Wilde has reached the generic limit of high comedy. Gwendolen's self-hierarchization is so extreme that other characters are virtually dispensable, for they impinge on her only feebly and peripherally. But without at least two characters, drama as a genre cannot exist. When Gwendolen speaks it is not to others as much as to herself or to some abstract choir of celestial observers. Like the picture of Dorian Gray, which is not content to remain in its assigned place and rejects its entelechy, she seems ready to abandon drama for some extrageneric destination. Here is Wilde's greatest departure from the Restoration dramatists, for he detaches the witticism from repartee, that is, from social relationship. The Wildean witticism is a Romantic phenomenon in its proud isolationism. In this mode of high comedy there is an elaborately formal or ritualistic display of the persona, indeed a brandishing of it, like an aegis. The practitioner is in a double relation to the self, acting and also observing. But more importantly, there is a distinct trace of Late Romantic “connoisseurship”: the self is the subject of Decadent studiousness and scholarship.

Let us examine several of Gwendolen's incomparable utterances, with their unyielding uniformity of tone. Late in the play she says, “I never change, except in my affections.” This could serve as a darkly ironic caption to Walter Pater's Decadent “Mona Lisa.” But what Gwendolen means is that, just as one might expect, she is rigidly punctilious in formal and external matters, while emotional events are beneath notice, flotsam and jetsam aimlessly adrift. Observe how she “brandishes” her personality, flaunting her faults with triumphant self-love. Her speech always has a hard, even, relentless, and yet rhetorically circumscribed character, as in her first words in the play:

Dear me, you are smart!
I am always smart! Am I not, Mr. Worthing?
You're quite perfect, Miss Fairfax.
Oh! I hope I am not that. It would leave no room for developments, and I intend to develop in many directions.

If we were to speak of a psychodramatic “music,” then in this last clause we are hearing the monody of a Gautierian contralto, the husky self-pleasuring of hermaphrodite autonomy. Identical into nations are present in two other of Gwendolen's remarks. At one point she gratuitously informs her suitor, “In fact, I am never wrong.” And in the last act, as Jack struggles to regain her alienated affections, she says to him, “I have the gravest doubts upon the subject. But I intend to crush them.” Such lines must be properly read—with slow, resonant measure—in order to appreciate their intractable severity. “I intend to develop in many directions”: there is an extraordinarily distinctive sound to this in British diction, flat, formal, and sonorous, forbidding with self-command. Note the way personality is distributed throughout the sentence, filling the narrow channel of its syntax with a dense silvery fluid, acrid and opaque. Gwendolen's willful, elegantly linear sentences fit her like a glove. Smooth with Mannerist spareness, they carry not an extra ounce of rhetorical avoirdupois. There is no Paterian mistiness in Gwendolen. She overtly relishes her personality, caressing its hard edges, which are echoed in the brazen contours of her sentences. In this doyenne of Art Nouveau worldliness, Wilde has created a definitively modern selfhood, exposed, limited, and unsentimental, cold as urban geometry.

Above all his characters, it is Gwendolen whom Wilde has charged with creating an Apollonian dramatic language. Her speech, like Wilde's epicene witticisms, has a metallic self-enclosed terseness. She spends her words with haughty frugality for the same reason that Spenser's Belphoebe dashes off in the middle of sentences: the Apollonian is a mode of self-sequestration. The bon mot in general is jealous of its means, prizing brevity above all. It is a kind of sacramental display, permitting the self to be seen only in epiphanic flashes, like the winking of a camera shutter. These spasms of delimitation are attempts to defy the temporal character of speech or narrative, turning sequences of words into discrete objets. Ideas are never developed in the Apollonian style because of its antipathy to internality. Instead, as we find in Gwendolen and in the classic maliciously witty Androgyne of Manners of the salon, language is used confrontationally, as a distancing weapon, like a flaming sword. Gwendolen's self-exhibiting utterances follow the principle of frontality in painting and sculpture, which, as Arnold Hauser observes, is intrinsic to “all courtly and courteous art.” Abjuring the modesty of the unmarried maiden, the potent Gwendolen turns herself full-face to her suitor, bathing him with a rain of hierarchical emissions.

Admiration of The Importance of Being Earnest is widespread, but discussion of the play is scarce and slight. Critics seem to have accepted Wilde's own description of it—“exquisitely trivial, a delicate bubble of fancy.” Scholarship has never distinguished itself in studying this kind of high comedy, with its elusive “sophistication.” Frye-style myth criticism, for example, can do little with The Importance of Being Earnest. From the point of view of Decadent Late Romanticism, however, there is scarcely a line in the play which fails to yield rich implications.

Here are two examples. In the midst of her dispute with Cecily, Gwendolen declares, “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.” The latter sentence comes as a surprise, for ordinarily one travels with a diary not to read but to write in it. Gwendolen, however, as an Apollonian androgyne, does not keep a journal for self-examination—inwardness always being distasteful—but for self-display. To read one's diary as if it were a novel is to regard one's life as spectacle, which Wilde of course advocates. Gwendolen contemplates her life with appreciative detachment, acting both as objet d'art and Late Romantic connoisseur. Reading is normally a medium of expansion of personal experience; one reads to learn what one does not know. Here, however, reading is an act of Romantic solipsism: Gwendolen reads not to enlarge but to condense herself. Far from Emily Dickinson's mobile frigate, a book has become a mirror in which one sees only one's own face. The diary is a self-portrait. Hence Gwendolen reading her diary in a train compartment is exactly like Dorian Gray standing before his picture in the locked room. Both are performing their devotions to the hierarchized self.

The life which this diary records is, according to Gwendolen, “sensational,” a source of public scandal and eroticized fascination. But to find one's own life sensational is to be aroused by oneself. The eyes, as always in Late Romanticism, are sexual agents: Gwendolen reading her diary is lost in autoerotic skeptophila, a titillation of the eye. If books can corrupt, and we know from The Picture of Dorian Gray that they can, then it is possible to be corrupted by one's own diary. To be corrupted by oneself is a perfect pattern of sexual solipsism, like Goethe's twisting Venetian acrobat Bettina, self-delectating and self-devirginizing. Gwendolen is an uroboros of amorous self-study, an Art Nouveau serpent devouring herself. Train reading is casual reading, a way to pass time with minimal effort. The life recorded and contemplated in the diary is therefore reduced in significance, trivialized: it is simply a series of sensational incidents without moral meaning.

Reading one's diary like a novel implies that one has forgotten what is in it. It demonstrates a lack of moral memory characteristic of the Decadent in general. In Wilde's A Woman of No Importance, Lord Illingworth declares, “No woman should have a memory. Memory in a woman is the beginning of dowdiness.” The internal erodes the perfection of surfaces. In An Ideal Husband, Sir Robert Chiltern says of an antagonist, “She looks like a woman with a past,” to which Lord Goring replies, “Most pretty women do.” But as we see from Gwendolen's relations with her diary, the person with a past has no past. The self is a tabula rasa open only to sensationalized Paterian “impressions.” There is no moral incrementation; experience corrupts, but it does not instruct. In The Picture of Dorian Gray Lord Henry Wotton reflects, “Experience was of no ethical value. It was merely the name men gave to their mistakes.” Reading one's diary is a diversion of the “late” phase of culture. Memory is inhibited precisely because one has done too much, like Pater's “Mona Lisa,” fatigued by history. Her information retrieval system blocked by sensory overload, the robotlike Gwendolen is a stranger to herself, a stranger-lover.

Gwendolen never travels without her diary because it is her familiar, the inseparable escort which enables her to keep herself in a state of externalization. This is one of many traits she shares with Cecily, who uses her diary to similar effect, as we saw in the proposal scene, where Cecily instantly petrifies Algernon's sentiments midair, as if engraving them upon stone tablets. Gwendolen's diary, again like the picture of Dorian Gray, is a repository of the soul which she is able to carry about with her like a hatbox, preserving her soulless Apollonian purity. The diary is also a chronicle, the testament of her cult of the self. For both the High and Late Romantic, a diary is a personal cosmogony, a book of first and last things.

Hence it can be seen that Wilde's witticisms contain a wealth of unsuspected meaning. Even his most apparently nonsensical boutades are Late Romantic gestures. For example, Lady Bracknell attempts to terminate the stormy scene at the Manor House by declaring to Gwendolen, “Come, dear, we have already missed five, if not six, trains. To miss any more might expose us to comment on the platform.” These bizarre lines have that air of skewed lunatic certainty we know from Lewis Carroll, who I believe strongly influenced Wilde. What is Lady Bracknell saying? Missing a train, even “five, if not six” (a studied Decadent enumeration) normally has only private and not public consequences. In the Looking-Glass world of form, however, failure to adhere to plan is an affront to natural law, bringing murmurs of complaint from passersby. But how do others learn of one's deviation from a train schedule? Since everything is visible in this landscape of externals, and since the mental life of these androgynes, like their bodies, has a glassy transparency, their intention may be said to precede them, like a town crier, alerting the populace to their tardiness. In its visionary materialism, The Importance of Being Earnest reverts to the Homeric world of allegorized psychic phenomena, in which the enraged Achilles feels Athena tugging at his hair. If we characterized Lady Bracknell's remark in naturalistic terms, we would have to speak of a megalomaniacal paranoia: she imagines a general consciousness of their every move; everyone knows what they are doing and thinking. But this is a development of aristocratic worldliness. Fashionable life, as Proust attests, does indeed take place before the unblinking eyes of le tout Paris.

“To miss any more might expose us to comment on the platform”: Lady Bracknell exists in a force field of visual sightlines. Like Gautier's chaste Queen Nyssia, tainted by the gaze of another, Lady Bracknell fears being “exposed” to infection, in this case an infection of words. Barthes says of the sadomasochistic relations in Sade's novels, “The master is he who speaks … ; the object is he who is silent.” Lady Bracknell will lose caste if she is subject to public “comment.” Her hierarchical dominance will drain from her, like divine ichor. The scene of shame which she envisions on the railway platform is one of ritual exposure, like Hawthorne's Hester Prynne braving public scorn on the town scaffold. In Wilde's world, of course, crime is not sin but bad form.

The Importance of Being Earnest was the last thing Wilde wrote before his fall. Its opening night coincided with the initiation of the Marquess of Queensberry's most virulent campaign against him, and the play continued to be performed, to great acclaim, during his two trials. Now it is a strange fact that Wilde's passage to prison was a terrible fulfillment of this remark by Lady Bracknell. In De Profundis, written in Reading Gaol, Wilde recalls:

On November 13th, 1895, I was brought down here from London. From two o'clock till half-past two on that day I had to stand on the centre platform of Clapham Junction in convict dress, and handcuffed, for the world to look at. … When people saw me they laughed. Each train as it came up swelled the audience. Nothing could exceed their amusement. That was, of course, before they knew who I was. As soon as they had been informed they laughed still more. For half an hour I stood there in the grey November rain surrounded by a jeering mob.

For a year after that was done to me I wept every day at the same hour and for the same space of time.

Lady Bracknell's railway platform was to be the site of Wilde's greatest humiliation. Who can doubt that the imagination can shape reality to its will? So close are these two scenes of ritual exposure that one wonders whether Wilde's memory of Clapham Junction was not a hallucination, a variation on a fictive theme in the solitude and squalor of prison. But granting its truth, it is another example of Wilde's shamanistic power to bring his own imaginative projections into being. Publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray produced Lord Alfred Douglas, the beautiful boy as destroyer, who brought Wilde to his ruin. Clapham Junction came as the agonizing materialization of Wilde's principle of life as “spectacle.” The entire Late Romantic tradition of concentrated visual experience reaches a disastrous climax on that railway platform, and it ends there, with Wilde the dizzy center of the visible world, like the Ancient Mariner the focus of cosmic wrath, here taking the unbearable form of laughter. The comedian, losing control of his genre, is devoured by the audience.


The epicene witticism has received little attention partly because it is sexually heterodox and partly because it does not fit into received critical categories. Thus Wilde's plays are suitable for explication while his conversation is not. But the Androgyne of Manners, of which Wilde was his own best example, makes an art of the spoken word. With his radical formalism, Wilde created an original language which I will call the monologue extérieur.

The salon dialogue of the Androgyne of Manners is a duel of “cutting” remarks. Language is used aggressively as an instrument of masculine warfare designed to slash, stab, pierce, and penetrate. Dorian Gray says to Lord Henry Wotton, “You cut life to pieces with your epigrams.” It is no coincidence that terms describing a witty exchange—thrust, parry, riposte, repartee—are drawn from swordplay. The close interrelations of language and martial contention in Western culture are demonstrated by fencing parlance which speaks of a “conversation” or “phrase” of action. In other words, a fencing match is imagined as a sequence of competitive speech. It is plain how a woman of the salon who commands this sharp, challenging rhetoric is masculinized into an Androgyne of Manners. The male Androgyne of Manners achieves his hermaphroditism by combining aggressive language with a feminine manner, graceful and languid, archly flirtatious and provocative. The persona which Wilde projects in his epicene witticisms is a conflation of masculine intimidation and attack with feminine seduction and allure.

To “cut” someone is to wound him, but it is also to sever social connections with him. This duality is the subject of a pun by Lewis Carroll, when Alice is introduced to the leg of mutton:

“May I give you a slice?” she said, taking up the knife and fork, and looking from one Queen to the other.

“Certainly not,” the Red Queen said, very decidedly: “it isn't etiquette to cut any one you've been introduced to. Remove the joint!”

Wilde's witticisms operate by a systematic “cutting,” separating the self from communality and withdrawing it into an aristocratic sequestration. In The Importance of Being Earnest Wilde makes language into a mode of hierarchical placement. It is a series of psychodramatic gestures, each remark asserting a caste location with regard to some other person or class of person. The speakers are constantly positioning themselves at fixed distances from others. This even occurs, as we have seen, in the marriage proposals, where the heroines of the play befuddle the heroes by ceremonial demarcations, exclamatory bulletins of incipient intimacy, which they narrate like play-by-play sportscasters. To paraphrase: “We will shortly be intimate”; “We are now being intimate”; “Pray continue to be intimate.” The Wildean heroine is a hierarchical commentator, plotting the relations of personae upon a mental map.

The use of language as signs of placement is often overt, as in the tea table dispute between the young ladies.

When I see a spade I call it a spade.
[satirically] I am glad to say that I have never seen a spade. It is obvious that our social spheres have been widely different.

In this literalization of metaphor, a characteristic Wildean materialization, a spade becomes, like sugar or cake, a calibrator of caste. Gwendolen glories in her self-expanded hierarchical distance from Cecily. Such language appears everywhere in The Importance of Being Earnest. For example, the play opens with Algernon playing the piano: “I don't play accurately—anyone can play accurately—but I play with wonderful expression.” “Anyone can play accurately”: this self-absolving and demonstrably untrue premise, like a ladder leaned against a wall, stretches a great chain of being before our eyes, with Algernon exulting over the mass of the many from a topmost rung of esthetical “sensibility.” The technique is used throughout Wilde. His polemical spokesman in The Critic as Artist says, “When people agree with me I always feel that I must be wrong.” And a character in An Ideal Husband says, “Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast.” Rhetorical energy is entirely directed toward social differentiation and segregation. Wilde was committed to an Apollonian enterprise—to create hierarchy through wit, ennobling himself, like the self-naming Balzac, through a magisterial persona construction.

Hence the epicene witticism is a language of hierarchical command in sexually aberrant or rather sexually denatured form. Wilde's “pointed” hierarchical style ultimately descends from the eighteenth century and in particular from Pope, whose poetry Wilde vociferously disliked. Brigid Brophy asserts: “Wilde's vehicle, the epigram, is in fact an adaptation of the logical axiom and the scientific definition. The Irish—perhaps originally theological—habit of paradox … is (like the paradoxical mysteries of Christian theology itself) nothing else than an exposure of the ambivalence concealed in our morality.” But more precisely, Wilde's epigrams, which so impede the quickness of Restoration repartee, have acquired their substantiveness from eighteenth-century generalization. It is his power of generalization which gives Wilde's writing its permanent distinction. A modern play in the Wildean manner, Noel Coward's Private Lives, has only one truly Wildean line: “Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs.” And even this generalizing axiom is a vulgarization of Wilde, in whom contemplativeness is never distorted by action.

It was Pope who first made poetic beauty out of philosophy, devising a discursive style of elegant containment and high finish. Pope's rhetorical and social assumptions were transmitted to Wilde, apparently against his will, by the conservative Jane Austen, in whom we first detect Wilde's distinctive voice, tart, bantering, and lucid. Consider, for example, the great opening sentence of Emma:

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

There is a delicate play of modern irony around the psychological edges of this sentence which is almost impossible to arrest and define. It is a meteorological disturbance or atmospheric rippling, an undulating vocal convection. Philosophically, Jane Austen's novels, although contemporaneous with High Romanticism, affirm the eighteenth-century world view, with its neoclassic endorsement of the sexually normative. Only in Emma can we find anything sexually ambivalent—in Emma's infatuation with Harriet—and even there it is slight and discreet.

Wilde diverts Jane Austen's comedy into the epicene first through his own character as a Decadent Late Romantic. Eighteenth-century wit is aligned with nature, from which Wilde makes a Late Romantic swerve. But this antinaturism enables Wilde to eliminate the sexual specificities of Restoration comedy. Human lusts no longer exist in The Importance of Being Earnest. Even Algernon's perpetual hunger is an angelic appetite, for the characters of the play feed on things insubstantial as manna: bread and butter, cucumber sandwiches, muffins, crumpets, and tea cake. They are like the Bread-and-butter-fly of Through the Looking-Glass, whose head is a lump of sugar and who lives on weak tea with cream. Wilde uses Jane Austen to clarify high comedy, stripping away the broad and farcical elements which had been present in it since Shakespeare. There are no longer any low-comic or crudely dialectal interludes. Even the secondary characters of The Importance of Being Earnest are erudite verbalists. (Miss Prism: “I spoke horticulturally. My metaphor was drawn from fruits.”) Wilde has pruned and simplified high comedy by eighteenth-century standards of taste, decorum, and correctness.

But there is a second influence in Wilde's epicene transformation of Jane Austen. He is aided in this project by the one wit who stands between himself and her—Lewis Carroll. It is Carroll who detaches English comedy from the ethical (which it displays even in the bawdy Restoration plays, with their virtuous finales) and prepares it for its definitive amoralization at the hands of Wilde. After Wilde, this genre of glittering high comedy is confined to the epicene and can be practiced only by sex-crossing imaginations—Ronald Firbank, Noel Coward, Cole Porter. The sexual ambiguity in Lewis Carroll is not textually overt; that development was to be implemented by Wilde. But it is perfectly evident in his life. His friends and biographers speak of his long hair and “curiously womanish face,” his fascination with little girls, his detestation of boys, which was “an aversion, almost amounting to terror.” Carroll's self-identification was thoroughly feminine.

The dramatic force of the Alice books rests upon the stability of the Victorian social structure which invisibly supports them. Alice is an imperialist of custom. Thrust into an irrational dream-world, she remains serene and self-assured, a model of well-bred composure. In her firm sense of the limits of appropriate behavior, she is twin to that menagerie of potentates, human and animal, who chide her for transgressions of mysterious local codes of conduct. There is even a surprising cultural kinship between Alice and her chief critic, the fierce Red Queen, whom Carroll elsewhere describes as “formal and strict, … the concentrated essence of all governesses.” But the Red Queen is a governess only insofar as the governess is the first and most immediate representative of the hierarchical in the lives of English children, ruling as a regent in the name of society.

Carroll did not, I contend, hold the Romantic or modern view that social laws are artificial and false. On the contrary, he took an Apollonian pleasure in them, admiring and cherishing them as he did the equations and theorems he manipulated as an academic mathematician. One of the first pieces Carroll published as a young man at Oxford was a list of nonsensical principles, “Hints for Etiquette; or, Dining Out Made Easy.”


In proceeding to the dining-room, the gentleman gives one arm to the lady he escorts—it is unusual to offer both.


To use a fork with your soup, intimating at the same time to your hostess that you are reserving the spoon for the beefsteaks, is a practice wholly exploded.


The method of helping roast turkey with two carving-forks is practicable, but deficient in grace.


We do not recommend the practice of eating cheese with a knife and fork in one hand, and a spoon and wine-glass in the other; there is a kind of awkwardness in the action which no amount of practice can entirely dispel.


As a general rule, do not kick the shins of the opposite gentleman under the table, if personally unacquainted with him; your pleasantry is liable to be misunderstood—a circumstance at all times unpleasant.

It would be a typically modern error to assume that this is an essay in “debunking,” that Carroll is reducing manners to the absurd in order to demonstrate the fictiveness of social custom. But everything we know about Carroll's private and public deportment shows him to be an inflexible advocate of order. A contemporary speaks of the “rigid rule of his own life,” his fixed daily routine. Another says that he was “austere, shy, precise, … watchfully tenacious of his dignity, stiffly conservative in political, theological, social theory, his life mapped out in squares like Alice's landscape.”

The evidence suggests that the rules and manners of “Hints for Etiquette” and the Alice books draw much of their force from Carroll's belief in their tradition-consecrated and even a priori character. Nearly all the comedy of Carroll's work arises from a natively English love of formality and ceremony. There is a tonality of wit in Carroll which has no parallel in premodern literature but which appears throughout Virginia Woolf, particularly in her masterpiece, To the Lighthouse. Note the similarities of voice, for example, between Carroll's “Hints for Etiquette” and this passage from a letter to Victoria Sackville-West in which Woolf reviews the comments roused by her newly bobbed hair:

1. Virginia is completely spoilt by her shingle.
2. Virginia is completely made by her shingle.
3. Virginia's shingle is quite unnoticeable.

These are the three schools of thought on this important subject. I have bought a coil of hair, which I attach by a hook. It falls into the soup, and is fished out on a fork.

This sophisticated comic style, with its subtlety of ironic inflection, seems to be produced in England by some unexplored interaction between language and persona.

The deep structure of such passages is as follows. An excessive or unforeseen event occurs within the strict confines of convention. The dining table is the favored locus of display, as the arena of daily domestic ritual. However, the incident elicits no reaction, or only a muted one. All personae remain in a state of dignified flat affect, restoring and preserving the rule of normality. The highest English comedy is predicated on a Wildean impassivity of countenance. One can see in the Woolf letter, in fact, how three diverse reactions are allowed to cancel each other out, cleverly effecting a return to stasis. The energy deflected from reaction flows into the social structure of the occasion, which is felt with architectural solidity, vibrating with public power.

Lewis Carroll covertly introduced an epicene element into English humor which, consolidated by Wilde, has continued in force to the present. It took immediate cultural root because of certain abiding features of upper-class English personality, foremost of which is the hermaphroditic type of the “gentleman,” upon which I have already remarked. English society has also been noted for a toleration of eccentricity, a proliferation of sadomasochistic erotica, and a high incidence of male homosexuality stimulated by the monasticism of public-school and university life.

Lewis Carroll, in his two strange and inexhaustible books, synthesized several of the most potent elements in English high culture: wit, hierarchy, and spiritual hermaphroditism. After Carroll, English comedy, in literature and in educated dialogue, often tends towards the absurd and incongruous, in which there is always a shadow of the epicene. What Carroll did was first to invent a nonchthonian animism, giving Romantic nature a social voice. The Alice books are a din of creatures, speaking as uncompromising social hierarchs. There is no “tenderness” in Carroll's characters, save in the bumbling and ineffectual, like the feeble White Knight. All are sharp, forceful personalities, nodes of aggressive selfhood. The Alice books, like The Importance of Being Earnest, are glutted with rules of behavior, which pop up at the most improbable moments. Formality is the preeminent principle in Carroll, governing not only the narrative design (a pack of cards structures the first book and a chessboard the second), but also the psychodramatic style of the characters, a punctilious ritualism not unlike Carroll's own. The Red Queen's draconian championship of manners is merely the most blatant of the ritual formulas of Carroll's animistic world, and manners are the language of the hierarchical. Veblen remarks: “Manners … are symbolical and conventionalised survivals representing former acts of dominance or of personal service or of personal contact. In large part they are an expression of status,—a symbolic pantomime of mastery on the one hand and of subservience on the other.”

It is the ancient history of manners as articulations of power which energizes the climactic confrontation between Gwendolen and Cecily, the center not only of The Importance of Being Earnest but probably of Wilde's entire oeuvre. In a tableau of brilliant formal beauty, a tea table is made the scene of a ferocious wargame, with manners the medium of ritual advance and retreat. Gwendolen and Cecily manipulate their personae with chill virtuosity. Nowhere else in the play is it more evident that the gender of the Androgyne of Manners is purely artificial, that “femininity” in the salon is simply a principle of decorum shared equally by male and female. The escalating emotion of the conversation between Gwendolen and Cecily is entirely absorbed by the ceremonial framework and by the formality of their social masks.

[rather shy and confidingly] Dearest Gwendolen, there is no reason why I should make a secret of it to you. Our little county newspaper is sure to chronicle the fact next week. Mr. Ernest Worthing and I are engaged to be married.
[quite politely, rising] My darling Cecily, I think there must be some slight error. Mr. Ernest Worthing is engaged to me. The announcement will appear in the Morning Post on Saturday at the latest.
[very politely, rising] I am afraid you must be under some misconception. Ernest proposed to me exactly ten minutes ago. [Shows diary.]
[examines diary through her lorgnette carefully] It is very curious, for he asked me to be his wife yesterday afternoon at 5:30. If you would care to verify the incident, pray do so. [Produces diary of her own.]

Each gesture, each rhetorical movement is answered by a symmetrical countermovement of balletic grandeur. Language becomes increasingly elaborate, in baroque convolutions of ironic restraint: “It would distress me more than I can tell you, dear Gwendolen, if it caused you any mental or physical anguish, but I feel bound to point out that since Ernest proposed to you he clearly has changed his mind.” There is no hysteria, or even excitement. The immovable wills of the two young women press so fiercely against the social limits of the moment that the hierarchical structure of manners leaps into visibility, another of Wilde's characteristic materializations. Stylization and ritualism approach the Oriental. The scene is a Japanese tea ceremony in which gracious self-removal has yielded to barely concealed Achillean strife.

It was Lewis Carroll who made this greatest of Wildean episodes possible. In Carroll, manners and social laws are disconnected from humane or “civilizing” values. They have a mathematical beauty but no moral meaning: they are absurd. But this absurdity is predicated not on some democratic notion of their relativism but on their arbitrary, divine incomprehensibility. In the Alice books, manners are meaningless, but they still retain their hierarchical force; they are Veblen's “pantomime” of mastery and subservience. Wilde, influenced by Carroll, appropriates his view of the mechanisms of social power and sets it into a much larger system of aristocratic presuppositions derived partly from his self-identification as a Baudelairean Late Romantic (always reactionary and antiliberal) and partly from his reading of English drama, in which aristocracy is one of the leading moral “ideas.”

In the century of the middle class, Wilde reaffirms aristocratic virtù, fabricating it out of its accumulated meanings in English literature. The Importance of Being Earnest is a reactionary political poem which takes aristocratic style as the supreme embodiment of life as art. Through its masquelike use of manners as social spectacle, the play seeks out the crystallized idea or Platonic form of aristocracy, which resides in rank, in the ascending gradations of the great chain of being. Wilde's bon mots bring an Apollonian world into being: language and ceremony unite to take the hierarchical to its farthest dazzling point, until it appears as form without content, like the icy latticework of a snowflake. Thus it is that the characters of The Importance of Being Earnest, and especially the women, have abnormal attitudes, reactions, and customs and embark upon sequences of apparently irrational thought, for they are a strange hierarchical race, the aristoi.

Wilde's play is inspired by the glamour of aristocracy alone, divorced from social function. In this it is quite unlike Augustan literature, which celebrates Queen Anne for her wisdom and stability of rule. In Wilde no collective benefits flow from throne or court, where the upper class is preoccupied with fashionable diversions. No contemporary regime is eulogized, no past one nostalgically commemorated. Indeed, social order has no legal, economic, or military aspects whatever; it is entirely divorced from practical reality. Class structure in Wilde exists as art, as pure form. This markedly contrasts with Ulysses's sermon on “degree” in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida: in The Importance of Being Earnest order is admired not because it is right or just but because it is beautiful. In fact, order here makes no intellectual sense at all; in Carrollian terms, it is absurd. Hence it is an error, and a common one, to say that Wilde is “satirizing” Lady Bracknell, making her ridiculous in her haughty presumptions. Lady Bracknell is beautiful because she is absurd. Aristocracy in The Importance of Being Earnest satisfies esthetic and not moral demands. The world of the play is kosmios, well-ordered and comely. And that it is ruled by the chic makes perfect sense when one realizes that the etymological descent of this word resembles that of cosmetic from cosmos, for the French chic is apparently a version of the German schick, meaning taste, elegance, and order.

Outside his art, Wilde found himself in the same quandary as Coleridge and Swinburne, anxiously attempting apologia and moral revision of their daemonic poems. Thus Wilde declares in The Soul of Man under Socialism: “All authority is quite degrading. It degrades those who exercise it, and it degrades those over whom it is exercised.” Wilde was torn between his instinctive hierarchism as an Apollonian idealist and the liberalism to which he was impelled by the miseries of being homosexual in a Christian society. This led him into glaring self-contradictions, as in the testimony at his two trials.

The Wildean epicene unites the great English dramatic theme of aristocracy with Late Romantic Estheticism and Decadence. The first step in this process is Wilde's severance of the hierarchical social values of the eighteenth century and Jane Austen from the ideal of commonweal. The second step is his sexual volatilization of English wit. The bantering rhetoric of the celibate Jane Austen and Lewis Carroll becomes epicene in Wilde because of his sexual experience, with its shift into decadence. Works of epicene wit are typically dominated by image—a tyranny of the visual—and by scandal and gossip. There is little scandal or gossip in Lewis Carroll because the Alice books have no sexual “free energy”: Carroll is an annalist of aggression but not of eroticism. In Wilde, however, gossip is a primary force, intensifying the aura of glamour by which prestige is measured in the salon. The erotic excitation of scandal and gossip produces the volatility of Wildean wit, aiding its transformation into the epicene. Words cast off their moral meanings and escape into the sexually transcendental, leaving only vapor trails of flirtation and frivolity.

Neil Sammells (essay date September 1986)

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Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5946

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 Stoppard's dramatic strategies, which is the form of the play itself. It is the paramount achievement of Travesties that it addresses itself to the debate about the nature of art not by means of a spokesman (whether Carr or anyone else) but by its own method of procedure.

Many critics, however, have been keen to lobby for James Joyce, to identify his as the voice of Stoppard in the great debate on art and politics.3 Significantly, though, the play first presented itself to Stoppard as a debate between Tzara and Lenin based on the fact that although they were in Zürich at the same time they never met: “This seemed a rather interesting fact of history to keep in one's mind. I never quite forgot it and never quite did anything with it, and then I started working on Travesties.” As he did so he became “dimly aware of James Joyce's part in all this.”4 Lenin, of course, calls for a literature that conforms. “Today,” he bellows at us, alone on the stage, “literature must become party literature! Down with non-partisan literature! Down with literary supermen!”5 His art which must not question but simply obey is directly opposed to the self-conscious delinquency urged by Tzara. The artist, Tzara claims, was the priest-guardian of the magic which first conjured the intelligence from the appetites, putting humanity on the first rung of the ladder to consecutive thought. His own anti-art is a protest against the abject prostitution of this exalted heritage. “Art created patrons and was corrupted,” he raves: “It began to celebrate the ambitions and acquisitions of the paymaster. The artist has negated himself: paint—eat—sculpt—grind—write—shit” (p. 47). Joyce's deferred entry into the scheme of things does not, of course, necessarily preclude Stoppard's turning to him as a spokesman, as an alternative to the mutual antagonism of Tzara and Lenin. What does preclude it is not just Joyce's inescapably parodic treatment but the nature of the play itself. The opposition between Tzara and Lenin restates to some extent that between the conformist realism of Donner and the avant-garde, delinquent gestures of Beauchamp; Stoppard, indeed, adapts many of the speeches from Artist Descending a Staircase to construct the debate in Travesties. Conformism and delinquency are the twin poles between which Stoppard's best drama in general, and Travesties in particular, chooses to function; in investigating that polarity Stoppard needs no spokesman, the play stands up and speaks for itself.

Travesties is unabashed in declaring the intricacy of its own design, and its flamboyant cleverness has distressed some of its critics. Kenneth Hurren, for instance, felt there was something intoxicated about Stoppard's achievement on the first night of the original London production. “Everything was gathered together again consummately,” he acknowledged of the play's climax, “after the fashion of an amiable drunken actor who trips over a chair and walks through the scenery but steadies himself with amusing insouciance and carries off his big moment as though nothing had happened.”6 Elsewhere in the auditorium Michael Coveney was afflicted by the suspicion that Stoppard was setting himself a challenge for the sake of it. While admitting the brilliance and audacity of the design, he could see little point to it: “I find that a lack of any dramatic accumulation in the play induces a response of indifference.”7 Kenneth Tynan experienced not indifference but downright hostility. Identifying something both sterile and arbitrary at the heart of the enterprise, Tynan described Stoppard's imposition of Wilde's baroque plot upon his own burlesque version of wartime Zürich as “crossbreeding the bizarre with the bogus.”8 To dismiss the design of the play in such a fashion as brilliant but arbitrary is, quite simply, wrong. Stoppard does not just re-use the plot of the The Importance of Being Earnest: Travesties is evidence of a critical engagement with Wilde's play. The manner of that engagement is its own statement about what art can and cannot do.

Stoppard's critical strategies are both interpretive and transformational. He exploits the host-play by pinpointing a recurrent element and elevating it to a position of ostentatious prominence. An explicit burden of literary comment runs through Wilde's original, from Jack's dismissal of modern culture as not “the sort of thing one should talk of in private,”9 and his withering condemnation of the “corrupt French Drama,” (pp. 353-4) to Algy's claim that if life were either pure or simple modern literature would be “a complete impossibility,” (p. 352) and Gwendolen's utter certainty about the kind of play she is appearing in: “This suspense is terrible,” she announces; “I hope it will last” (p. 400). In Travesties such matter becomes a full-blown debate about art and the artist. Fittingly, the first-class ticket to Worthing and the cigarette-case which set in motion Wilde's plot are replaced by Stoppard with a library ticket divulging Tzara's Bunburying between the Library and the Meierei Bar; if we are in any danger of accepting The Importance of Being Earnest as simply a social comedy of manners the hyper-literary self-consciousness of Travesties ensures that we take a second look. It is interesting to note that in the closing moments of his play Stoppard cannot resist a brilliant reversal of Miss Prism's confusion of art and life when she loses baby Jack, pushing around in a pram the manuscript of her three-volume novel. Carr here parodies Lady Bracknell's half of the dialogue, thus usurping the role which up to this point had been taken by James Augusta Joyce. The remarks applied in Wilde's play to Miss Prism are here made with reference not to a person but to a manuscript of Joyce's “Oxen of the Sun”:

And is it a chapter, inordinate in length and erratic in style, remotely connected with midwifery?
It is a chapter which by a miracle of compression, uses the gamut of English literature from Chaucer to Carlyle to describe events taking place in a lying-in hospital in Dublin.
It is obviously the same work.

(p. 97)

The exchange has, in fact, a dual function. It prevents Joyce from claiming a victory in the battle of the books, from establishing the unquestioned pre-eminence of his way of using language. It also points to the deformation that Stoppard has enacted upon The Importance of Being Earnest: making his own substitution of art for life, he replaces the personal and social vicissitudes of Wilde's protagonists with the play's revelations about the nature of our fictions.

The Importance of Being Earnest is saturated by fictions. Each of the main characters is directly associated with a document (or documents) which counters the fictions of others and attempts to impose its own configurations upon the fictional world in which they live. In the opening scene of the play the relationship between Algy and his servant Lane is defined by Lane's book in which he keeps the household accounts. This, it transpires, is a fictional account of Algy's expenditure: a cover for Lane's plundering of the Moncrieff wine-cellar. The book, the first of the fictions to appear in the play, defines precisely the nature, extent and self-consciousness of the duplicity between master and servant. Cecily, on the other hand, has two sets of fictions: the love-letters and her diary, both of which give a completely fictional account of her relationship with the equally fictional Ernest. For Cecily, life, primarily, is of use according to the degree to which it can be turned into fiction. “You see,” she tells Algy of her diary, “it is simply a very young girl's record of her own thoughts and impressions and consequently meant for publication. When it appears in volume form I hope you will order a copy” (p. 377). Indeed, the conflict between Cecily and Gwendolen is bolstered by their mutual appeal to documentary evidence for verification of their respective engagements to the fictional Ernest. The announcement of her engagement will, Cecily insists, be made in “Our little county newspaper,” while Gwendolen notes, calmly, that the news of hers “will appear in the Morning Post on Saturday at the latest” (p. 383). Gwendolen fights fire with fire; she matches newspaper with newspaper and the fictions of Cecily's diary are countered with those of her own. “He asked me to be his wife yesterday afternoon at 5.30.,” she insists, “If you would care to verify the incident, pray do so. (Produces diary of her own.) I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train” (p. 383). In her case, no less than in Cecily's, all aspects of experience are subjected to the fictionalising mind and the contortions of fictional form. History itself can be contained within the contours of the “bodice-bursting” historical melodrama. Of Jack she remarks, “Disloyalty would be as impossible to him as deception. But even men of the noblest possible moral character are extremely susceptible to the influence of the physical charms of others. Modern, no less than Ancient History, supplies us with many most painful examples of what I refer to. If it were not so, indeed, History would be quite unreadable” (p. 382).

Gwendolen's mother, Lady Bracknell, is of course, quite inseparable from her list of eligible young men—a document which threatens to seal Jack's fate—and Jack himself has recourse to the Army Lists to prove his assumed identity. In the original four-act version of the play this obsession with documents reaches a more explicit climax in the final scene when all the characters are handed a volume each by Jack in order to track down his father's name in the army records. The Lists prove not to be what was expected of them: the meticulous researchers find themselves leafing through handsomely-bound catalogues and railway timetables. These can be added to the “certificates of Miss Cardew's birth, baptism, whooping-cough, registration, vaccination, confirmation, and the measles; both the German and the English variety,” (p. 394) which Jack cites in order to prove Cecily's identity in the face of Lady Bracknell's assertion that she has known “strange errors” (p. 393) in the Court Guides. The documents of private fiction are complemented by those of officialdom and neither proves more reliable than the other, the official publications making the fallacious and confusing claim that Jack is indeed earnest.

It is, however, Dr. Chasuble's unpublished sermons which provide the most explicit comment in The Importance of Being Earnest on the duplicity of literary production. Chasuble calmly explains that he is prepared for any eventuality. “My sermon on the meaning of the manna in the wilderness can be adapted to almost any occasion,” he assures Jack, who has just announced the sudden demise of young Ernest, “joyful, or, as in the present case, distressing. I have preached it at harvest celebrations, christenings, confirmations, on days of humiliation and festal days. The last time I delivered it was in the Cathedral, as a charity sermon on behalf of the Society for the Prevention of Discontent among the Upper Orders” (p. 372). Chasuble's sermons are all form, content is obliterated; far from revealing the truth, these fictions enact whatever distortions are deemed suitable. Yet it is Miss Prism who gives the most dramatic form to that substitution of art for life, of form over content, which is so vital to her social superiors. By putting the three-volume novel in the bassinette and the baby in the handbag she confuses document with person, a confusion propounded by Cecily and Gwendolen as they sensationalise their lives by means of their diaries.10 To write is to distort. Hidden away in the closing scenes of the play is the voice of Wilde as Formalist, asserting art as lie, revelling in the impossibility of direct description:

LADY Bracknell:
Is this Miss Prism a female of repellent aspect, remotely connected with education?
DR. Chasuble:
She is the most cultivated of ladies, and the very picture of respectability.
LADY Bracknell:
It is obviously the same person.

(p. 398)

Miss Prism is both and neither; she exists only in terms of the lying descriptions made of her, prismatically, by others. The exchange is as vital to our pinpointing of the central strategies of The Importance of Being Earnest as is the parallel passage in Travesties to our understanding of Stoppard's tactics. This is Wilde as artist-critic, playing with the strident anti-naturalism of his Intentions.

“Memory, my dear Cecily,” opines Miss Prism, “is the diary that we all carry about with us.” “Yes,” comes the reply, “but it usually chronicles the things that have never happened, and couldn't possibly have happened” (p. 367). This exchange reiterates the play's concern with the untrustworthiness of all writing: the diary is assimilated to the sensationalising activities of the imagination. The remark would also seem to give Stoppard his cue in Travesties. The play is under the erratic control of Old Carr's memory, telling of things that did not happen, and couldn't possibly have happened, in pacific Switzerland during the Great War.11 His memory lies in the way that all fiction lies, and his rewriting of history is, at a basic level, a dismissive parody of that most “truth-telling” of all fictional forms, the Lukácsian historical novel. Lucács identifies as a fundamental technique of the historical novelist the use of a hero from the middle rank whose adventures shed light on the fabric of society as he encounters both high and low, the representatives of the people and the world-historical personalities.12 Carr is such a hero, his adventures bringing him into contact with the great champions of art and anti-art and the word-historical personality of Lenin. In Travesties, however, the hero places himself very much centre-stage: history, and the society in which he has lived, are displayed solely in order to show the part he has, or has not, played in them. Carr, in the act or reminiscence, is attempting to define his own relevance. Just as Rosencrantz and his partner attempt to grasp their significance in the story of Hamlet, so Carr attempts to define his in relation to Lenin's flight from Switzerland and the events which followed. In fact, Old Cecily reminds him of the fictional nature of the dilemma he has posed himself; he had never really been the Consul and, by the time he came to play Algy, Lenin had long gone. The play's view of history is, then, far from objective in the Lukácsian sense but is, according to Peter Wood (who directed the first production), “seen prismatically through the view of Henry Carr. At one point Tom was thinking of calling it ‘Prism’ …”13 The echo of The Importance of Being Earnest is quite unmistakable. Memory is the diary that Carr carries with him; his chronicle imposes a whole gallery of stereotyped figures and images upon his fictional experience, and memory is seen to function in the same duplicitous way as the fictionalising imagination.

Travesties is replete with stereotypes. We have James Joyce as a comic stage-Irishman speaking in limericks and looking for a loan, Tristan Tzara as a Rumanian nonsense complete with monocle and fractured English. At one point in the second act the stage is dominated by a huge slide of Lenin, captured on celluloid in an attitude of iron-willed resolution: ‘a justly famous image’ (p. 84). Parenthetically but significantly Stoppard adds “This is the photo, incidentally, which Stalin had retouched so as to expunge Kamenev and Trotsky who feature prominently in the original” (p. 85). History has frozen into familiar form, and that form is a lie. The public lie of the historical stereotype is complemented by Carr's private lies. He refashions himself and his rivals in the same way as the characters in The Importance of Being Earnest use the established literary types of the wicked brother, the officious guardian, the gorgon-aunt, etc., to give shape and significance to their lives. Types make the world manageable, distribute the dialogue for a specific end. To stereotype people is to control them, and this is precisely what Carr is attempting to do, to slot himself into a history which, apparently, has largely passed him by.

When recasting the events he purports to recall in the overall shape of The Importance of Being Earnest Carr takes the role of Algy, transmuting the egoism of the Dandy, living solely for pleasure, into that of the peripheral figure who will no longer be ignored. His sense that identity can only be truly appraised through action (defining who he is by what he has done, what significance he has attained) allows Carr to assign Lenin a supporting role in his own personal drama. “I might have stopped the whole Bolshevik thing in its tracks,” he tells Old Cecily, “but, here's the point. I was uncertain” (p. 81). “And don't forget,” he continues, plaintively, “he wasn't Lenin then! I mean who was he? as it were” (p. 81). The shifting of perspective which comes with historical hindsight makes direct description a plain impossibility: there is no “natural” way of describing the Lenin who knew the rented obscurity of 14 Spiegelgasse. Such a consciousness of the relativity of historical evaluation sanctions Carr's own History as Egoism and his exuberant espousal of an enormously variegated range of possible ways of describing and proving what did, and did not, happen.

The fundamental lesson of The Importance of Being Earnest is that all writing is a lie we cannot do without. In the debate with which Travesties plays, documents are used as offensive weapons: memoirs (Gorki's, Fitz Platten's), letters (Lenin's to Karpinsky, his memos to Lunacharsky and Gorki), diary extracts (Hugo Ball's), legal documents (court records of the Bezirksgericht Zuerich) and public speeches (Lenin's) are referred to, cited, or quoted by the various antagonists in order to make their version of history prevail. Travesties, however, demonstrates a complete breakdown in the hierarchy of evidence: no single document or form of written proof (particularly newspapers: The Neue Zuricher Zeitung and The Zuricher Post contradict each other in their partisan reports of the state of the war as completely as the Morning Post and its rival in their announcement of the fictional Ernest's engagements), no one argument is allowed to silence the others. Similarly, and crucially, the play refuses to admit that any single style of writing enjoys a uniquely privileged relationship with what it purports to transcribe: the play is an argument of styles to match its argument of documents. The opening scene shows Stoppard's basic tactic at work: in the library Lenin's Russian is set alongside Tzara's verbal hat-trick, a quotation from Lenin's papers, snippets of Ulysses and Cecily's ‘Ssssssh’ which is, ironically, the only utterance we fully understand. The scene prepares us for the sheer range of parody and interpolation that the play will have at its command. Joyce contributes limericks, a rendition of Mr. Dooley and an interrogation of Tzara in the constabular style of the ‘Ithaca’ section of Ulysses. Carr contributes massacred dialogue from The Importance of Being Earnest and his own idiosyncratic prose steeped in travel-brochure clichés. Cecily lectures us on the history of Leninism and joins Gwendolen in a parody of a Gallagher and Sheen routine. Tzara brings us English in a variety of fractured forms including comic pidgin and mangled Shakespearean verse. Carr summons the historical giants to the stage, lets them have their say, and then dismisses them. The play invokes style after style, exploits each to the point of exhaustion, and moves on.

Stoppard's sensitivity, then, to Wilde's metafictional preoccupations (the involution of his critical concerns with his dramatic practice) sanctions both his own use of extensive parody and stereotypes, and his focus on the role of duplicitous fictions in the making of our meanings, the encoding of our world. Interpretation and transformation of Wilde's play go hand in hand; at its most playful Travesties reduces The Importance of Being Earnest to a series of costume-changes. As summarised by Joyce for the sartorially fastidious Carr the play is nothing but looks everything. “The curtain rises,” explains Joyce, “A flat in Mayfair. Teatime. You enter in a bottle-green velvet smoking jacket with black frogging—hose white, cravat perfect, boots elastic-sided, trousers,” he adds, ominously, “of your own choice … Act Two. A rose garden. After lunch. Some by-play among the small parts. You enter in a debonair garden-party outfit—beribboned boater, gaily striped blazer, parti-coloured shoes, trousers of your own choice” (p. 52). This is, indeed, a triumph of form over content, and again it points to (burlesques almost) Stoppard's own way with The Importance of Being Earnest: he brings the form of the play into the very foreground, and makes it a subject of attention. The structure of Wilde's play is that of travesty: Jack's proposal to Gwendolen is played again, and travestied, by Algy and Cecily; Lady Bracknell's interrogation of Jack in Act One reappears in a different form in her haranguing of Miss Prism. Similarly, individual scenes are themselves structured by travesty with one voice restating and confounding the other. It is precisely according to this principle that Travesties assembles itself.

Travesties has an argument with itself, constantly doubling-back to contradict and deny those shapes it has itself given to the past. Tzara, for instance, first enters as a “Rumanian nonsense” (p. 32). This is both a parody of Jack Worthing's first entrance and itself the subject of later parody. Soon this Rumanian joke is joined by an Irish joke: Joyce spouting limericks and looking for a loan. Carr's memory hurtles spectacularly off the rails as the entire scene is played out in limericks (pp. 33-36). Tzara, however, re-enters when this frenetic dialogue has exhausted itself. This time he is straight out of The Importance of Being Earnest, exhibiting a “perfect English languor.”14 Carr swaps one stereotype for another; he criticises one patently ludicrous version of history and embarks upon another that is equally untenable. The central contention of Wilde's Intentions is that art which pretends to reproduce mimetically is a lie and that the only honest alternative is to turn this vice into a virtue. Carr's chronicle is almost a parody of the literature Wilde intends, criticising one set of lies by means of another.

Travesty and contradiction are evident even at the fundamental level of language. The text of Travesties is woven together by repetition: phrases, turns of expression recur in travestied, often contradictory form. In the replaying of the scene in which Carr and Tzara discuss politics and art the reversal of initiative is expressed through a repeated verbal pattern. First, Tzara's heated dismissal of the traditional sophistries for waging wars of expansion and self-interest brings forth Carr's pained protest that “You are insulting my comrades-in-arms, many of whom died on the field of honour” (p. 39). In the second version, Carr counters Tzara's belief in the importance of art by describing it as, in essence, simply a beautifier of existence and denying that it can lay claim to any serious political efficacy. Tzara's cold rebuff is a pointed travesty of what has gone before: “You are insulting me and my comrades in the Dada exhibition” (p. 46). Repetition is employed specifically for the purpose of contradiction. At times, however, repetition evolves towards a higher complexity. This is the case when Carr infiltrates the library and attempts to woo Cecily, Lenin's devotee. The scene parodies that in which Algy attempts to woo Cecily, while posing as Ernest. Yet this parody is itself reflected in another as it develops into a travesty of the earlier discussion between Carr and Tzara. Once more we are given successive versions of the same scene and verbal motifs are repeated and travestied. In high dudgeon Cecily rejects Carr's critique of Marxist theory: “you are insulting me and my comrades—” (p. 76). Stoppard is characterising art as a hinged mirror, in which the leaves reflect nothing but each other.

The self-inspection and self-contradiction in the play's structure is reflected not just in repeated verbal motifs, but also in the very prose itself. It is in Carr's opening monologue that Stoppard's dramatic prose denies and cancels itself most effectively. There is indeed an irony here. “If there is any point in using language at all,” he insists to Tzara, “it is that a word is taken to stand for a particular fact or idea and not for other facts or ideas” (p. 38). This is a precept Carr can hardly be said to put into practice: his own speeches pay no such attention to the conventional division of sense and nonsense. Each of his descriptions is immediately cancelled as the prose advances in a halting parody of the deferential friend of the famous who no sooner attributes a quality to a great man than he feels impelled to deny that it is in any way carried to excess. Joyce exhibits “a monkish unconcern for wordly and bodily comforts, without at the same time shutting himself off from the richness of human society, whose temptations, on the other hand, he met with an ascetic disregard tempered only by sudden and catastrophic aberrations” (p. 23). Carr's description of life in Zürich is couched in a prose which takes no account of the external state of affairs it is supposed to transcribe. Even watchful, it advances by denying and criticising itself. “‘Twas in the bustling metropolis of swiftly gliding trams and greystone banking houses,” he begins, establishing a closed field of linguistic possibilities within which he then proceeds to play, “of cosmospolitan restaurants on the great stone banks of the swiftly-gliding snot-green (mucus mutandis) Limmat River, of jewelled escapements and refugees of all kinds, e.g. Lenin” (p. 23). This is prose as self-evident sham: the trams are mentioned purely to pun on bustling, the great stone banks present a critical reworking of greystone banking houses, the river is snot-green by virtue of the excruciating Latin pun it facilitates. The “naturalness” of the description is also undercut by the river's murky literary parentage. Its progenitors are Joyce's “grey sweet mother,” the “snotgreen sea”15 and Kipling's “great grey-green greasy Limpopo River.”16 A little later Carr works a further variation on his material: “Meet by the sadly-sliding chagrinned Limmat River,” he counsels, “strike west and immediately we find ourselves soaking wet, strike east and immediately we find ourselves in the Old Town, having left behind the banking bouncing metropolis of trampolines and chronometry of all kinds for here time has stopped” (p. 24).

Hersh Zeifman suggests, in attempting to locate Stoppard's allegiances, that the plethora of puns in the play is its most effective strategem nudging us towards Joyce's point of view.17 Yet the puns are less a veiled acknowledgement of literary influence than a function of the play's structure. The design of Travesties is the design of denial; self-inspection and self-contradiction are combined in self-criticism as the play continually examines its own conventions and terms of existence. The puns deny the claims of the prose to describe the world, proclaiming its processes as fictionalisation; they contradict both the primary, transitional sense attempted and the claims of Carr that, for language to work, a word must be taken to stand for a particular fact or idea and not for other facts or ideas. When seen in this way the puns do indeed help to locate Stoppard's allegiances. The presiding genius of Travesties is not Joyce, but Oscar Wilde: the Wilde who, in his criticism and his drama, championed a literature which, by contradicting its own claims to tell the truth, could tell a truth of sorts.

“All poetry” says Tzara, offering Gwendolen a scissored sonnet in his hat, “is a reshuffling of a pack of picture cards, and all poets are cheats” (p. 53). “Cleverness,” he has told Carr earlier, “has been exploded, along with so much else, by the war” (p. 37). By offering Gwendolen Shakespeare's eighteenth sonnet drawn at random and piecemeal from a hat he hopes to deny that rational premeditation of the creative act which has led to its prostitution. His rewriting of the artist's signature in the hand of chance is also a protest against the indigence of traditional art, the tired tricks it works with an all too familiar routine. In a sense, Old Carr's memory works in precisely the same way: reshuffling the picture cards of the past, cheating history with the dog-eared trump-card of The Importance of Being Earnest. In an important sense, however, his approach differs from that of the anti-artist and the traditional artist; the form of the play is a contradiction, a denial, of the traditionalism of the views Carr expresses. Unlike Tzara he does not abandon design to chance, but unlike the traditionalist he makes no attempt to disguise the trick he is playing. Old Carr does not just pull history from a hat, nor does he rest easy with the form it has been allowed to assume. He tells it in his own lying, designing way.

In fact, the play refuses the stark choice presented by conformism and delinquency, by art and anti-art, by the twin extremities of the pendulum swing. This refusal is an act of criticism: by isolating and using techniques employed by both alternatives (creating design, for instance, which denies design) Travesties frees itself from each. Stoppard seizes the pendulum and speeds it to the beat of his will. Travesties is an acute refinement of Stoppard's Theatre of Criticism; at all levels (from its engagement with The Importance of Being Earnest, to its anthologising of divergent styles and its marshalling of mutually exclusive arguments) we can see that disciplined observation of and conformity to established ways of seeing, thinking, and saying, coupled with the sudden and pointed departure therefrom, which is the province of the critical work.

In The Importance of Being Earnest “playing” is the attainment of freedom. The two pairs of young lovers undergo a process of self-creation, becoming the fabrications of their own fictionalising imagination. “The only thing that one really knows about human nature,” claims Wilde, “is that it changes. Change is the one quality we can predicate of it.”18 The lovers, in this quintessential comedy of disguise and mistaken identity, make a virtue of the changeability that Wilde proclaims; they learn both the truth of masks, and that personality can be constructed by a critical refusal to leave well alone. It is this conscious espousal of duplicity which fascinates Wilde. The actor and the Bunburyist are united in their “playing” and become types of the artist who asserts his dissatisfaction with a narrowly-conceived notion of truth-telling, by indulging in the brazen and palpable lie. Stoppard's Henry Carr attempts to reconstruct his history and personality in the same way as Wilde's young lovers; his is a gesture towards self-definition and freedom, but the manner of this gesture (his continual recourse to historical and literary stereotypes) is a recognition of restraint. In effect, Carr “plays with” the past in the same way as Stoppard “plays with” literary procedure, displaying it to deny it, criticising it in the act of freeing himself from it. “Playfulness” in both Travesties and The Importance of Being Earnest is not just a spirit of fun, it is the act of criticism itself.

In The Soul of Man under Socialism Wilde extends his anti-naturalism from the literary to the political sphere, announcing his contempt for all political systems which interfere with the fundamental human right, and need, to change; his literary concerns receive a consistent political articulation in his assertion of the need to reject and replace prevailing social, political, and institutional forms. Annoyed by Carr's description of Wilde as indifferent to politics, Kenneth Tynan rightly commends The Soul of Man under Socialism to anyone who believes this, and claims that the hard polemical purpose of Travesties is to argue that art must be independent of politics.19 Yet, if we acknowledge the way in which the form of the play contradicts the traditionalism of Carr's views, we can see that Tynan is wrong and that Travesties makes a far more positive assertion, and one of which Wilde would have approved: that art can embody a freedom that is inseparable from criticism. The “play” of Travesties, the brilliance and the point of its design, is a refusal and a criticism of the available alternatives of conformism and delinquency; the play needs no spokesman to free itself from the claims of a Lenin or a Tzara alike. In the true spirit of Oscar Wilde, and by means of a critical engagement with his masterpiece, Stoppard has produced a play which has earned its liberty and taken none.


  1. David Rod, “Carr's Views on Art and Politics in Tom Stoppard's Travesties,Modern Drama, 26 (1983), 536-542.

  2. Ibid., 541.

  3. Michael Billington, for instance, in reviewing the original London production, suggests that Joyce “emerges as a truly great man, shaping the way future generations view reality” (The Guardian, 11 June 1974, p. 12). For a full discussion of the various lobbies for a spokesman in the play, see Craig Werner, “Stoppard's Critical Travesty, or, Who Vindicates Whom, and Why,” Arizona Quarterly, 35 (1979), 228-236.

  4. Quoted by Werner, 230-231.

  5. Travesties (London, 1975), p. 85. All subsequent references will be to this edition.

  6. Kenneth Hurren, The Spectator, 22 June 1974, p. 776.

  7. Michael Coveney, The Financial Times, 11 June 1974, p. 3.

  8. Kenneth Tynan, Show People (London, 1980), p. 109.

  9. Oscar Wilde: Plays, Poems and Prose Writings (London, 1975), p. 350. All subsequent references to The Importance of Being Earnest and Wilde's critical writings will be to this edition.

  10. In the uncut original Wilde allows Algy the most explicit and stylish declaration of this confusion of document and person. Miss Prism expresses the “sincere hope that you will now turn over a new leaf in life.” “I have already begun an entire volume, Miss Prism,” comes Algy's reply. See the Four Act version of the play in The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (London, New ed., 1966), p. 357.

  11. For the most succinct discussion of how Stoppard, or Old Carr, cheats history by telescoping four years into one in order to create the events and meetings in Travesties, see Richard Ellmann, “The Zealots of Zürich,” Times Literary Supplement, 12 July 1974, p. 744.

  12. See Georg Lukács, The Historical Novel, trans. H. and S. Mitchell (London, 1969), especially pp. 36-39.

  13. Peter Wood, interview with Ronald Hayman, The Times, 8 June 1974, p. 9.

  14. Quoted in Ronald Hayman, Tom Stoppard (3rd ed., London, 1979), p. 4. Stoppard is here describing John Hurt's performance in the original production.

  15. Ulysses (London, 1969), p. 11.

  16. “The Elephant's Child,” Just So Stories (London, 1962), p. 46.

  17. Hersh Zeifman, “Tomfoolery: Stoppard's Theatrical Puns,” Yearbook of English Studies, 9 (1977), especially 216-218.

  18. Oscar Wilde, p. 283.

  19. Tynan, pp. 112-113.

Peter Raby (essay date summer-winter 1995)

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Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3533

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 rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square.” Spoken to an audience which included many members of the great and the good, former cabinet ministers and privy councillors as well as actors, writers, academics, and enthusiasts, the lines held a special resonance. After a hundred years, some things had not changed. The joke could be appreciated both by the English and, from a different perspective perhaps, by the non-English members of the audience. (When Seamus Heaney began his address, following a Cathedral canon, Judi Dench, and John Gielgud, I heard my neighbor say—“At last, an Irish voice.”) The lines, written by one of the best educated people in England, work, like so many of Wilde's lines, in several directions: quite precisely, in approval of Jack's natural ignorance; as an unexpected and vaguely alarming digression; as an insight into the extraordinary mind-set of Lady Bracknell; and as a self-standing observation which was and is disturbingly close to the truth. Wilde's voice spoke resoundingly through his created persona, Lady Bracknell.

Two weeks later, the London Times second leader, on the subject of the collapse of Baring's Bank, began: “Lady Bracknell was a firm believer in unexciting but safe investment portfolios. She might have accepted, however, that the first catastrophe in Barings' history—the great depression of the 1890s in the risky Latin American market—was a misfortune. Its second—as the result of recent rogue trading activities—looks more like carelessness. How, she might ask, could head office …”. A platform in Westminster Abbey followed by a quotation in a Times leader inspires a certain confidence. The persona of Lady Bracknell has acquired an extra dimension which allows her to operate outside the confines of the play, and so achieve an independent existence. She is one example of Wilde's rare ability to create characters who are triumphantly fictional and yet who maintain unsettling relationships with the supposedly factual reality to which they are opposed.

This essay begins to explore two aspects of the fictional/factual tension, in the context of some of the names Wilde has given to his persons. The use of the description “The Persons of the Play” is not, of course, Wilde's prerogative, though it does seem particularly apt. I am not clear when it became common practice to translate “Dramatis Personae” as “The Persons of the Play” in published texts, or when there was a shift to a plain list, or to “Characters in order of appearance,” following the style of a theatre program. “Persons,” rather than characters, suggests more strongly the idea of mask and role, of the artificial, and provides an appropriate introductory framework to the tone of Wilde's dramatic writing.

Wilde chose names for his characters with great care, and there were often changes between early drafts or between even relatively polished typescripts and the versions selected for the first production. There is, in fact, only one name in the first scenario of Earnest, which Wilde sent to George Alexander in August, 1894, which remains the same in the final three-act version: Miss Prism. The other names in the scenario are, perhaps, in the nature of convenient working titles: Lord Alfred Rufford occupies the role later occupied by Algernon Moncrieff; his mother (not aunt) is the Duchess of Selby, and her daughter is Lady Maud Rufford (the aristocratic connections are pitched somewhat higher in the scenario). Some of these names Wilde had used already in previous works. Lord Alfred Rufford has a minor role in A Woman of No Importance; Selby, in Yorkshire, is the name of the country house in Lady Windermere's Fan. Wilde frequently used place names for the aristocrats in his social comedies, taking care to incorporate only those names and titles which were not currently held by living people, presumably to avoid the risk of libel. Windermere, Darlington, Berwick, Pontefract, Illingworth, Hunstanton, Goring, Bolton: some of these places held private significance for Wilde (for instance, by commemorating the place he was staying when he wrote a work) but, more crucially, they all sound authentic, for landed English families naturally take, or took, their name from the areas they lived in, and from the lands they owned. Illingworth is a place, and a house—“Illingworth is entailed, of course, but it is a tedious barrack of a place,” as Lord Illingworth patronizingly explains to Mrs Arbuthnot in A Woman of No Importance. “He [Gerald] can have Ashby, which is much prettier, Harborough, which has the best shooting in the north of England, and the house in St James's Square. What more can a gentleman require in this world?” (Ashby, coincidentally, is the village in Lincolnshire where Wilde's uncle was rector.) Further, the surnames are used frequently within the spoken text: the formality of conversation ensures that they are repeated like a litany. The movements of the “real” aristocracy around England, and Europe, were recorded during the 1890s in the columns of fashionable newspapers such as the Morning Post, and Wilde's fictional names could have been inserted effortlessly into a paragraph, like the inventions of Evelyn Waugh's Adam Simes for the Mr Chatterbox column in Vile Bodies: “The Duke and Duchess of Berwick are taking the waters at Homburg; Lord Illingworth has joined Lady Hunstanton's houseparty at Hunstanton Chase. On Saturday, eight hundred brace of partridge were shot.”

In The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde, by making the mother of Gwendolen Lady Bracknell, was incorporating a private reference to the house where the Marchioness of Queensberry lived, and so scoring a glancing blow against the Marquis himself. He was also locating his fictional Gorgon in a specific and conspicuous locality, likely to be recognized by the majority of his audience. The connotations are in this instance not primarily comic, as they are when Pinter, another playwright with an acute ear for the possibilities of place, makes use of a town such as Basingstoke. Bracknell is just the other side of the Great Park from Windsor Castle; and Lady Bracknell shares more than her imperious manner with Queen Victoria. She drives through the same landscape, and inhabits the same territory.

Of the other persons in the play, Prism and Chasuble belong to an established tradition of comic naming, as exploited by Sheridan and Congreve. Lane and Merriman seem to reflect subtle differences between cool, urbane manservant (cucumber sandwiches) and country butler (cake). Worthing has its own wonderfully literal explanation, in contrast to the more resonant Moncrieff. Fairfax and Cardew suggest Yorkshire and Cornwall respectively. Fairfax may recall Cromwell's general, to whose daughter Andrew Marvell was tutor. Gwendolen Fairfax and Cecily Cardew form a beautifully balanced and musical pairing, symmetrical in syllables but contrasted on the tongue. The Cardew family maintain a firm family tradition that Miss Cicely Cardew was born when Wilde was staying with the family in May 1893. Wilde promptly announced that he would name the heroine of his next play after her. In view of the way many of Wilde's friends distanced themselves from him after 1895, so emphatic a claim seems entirely credible. Indeed, among Wilde's fellow undergraduates at Magdalen College, Oxford, was Arthur Cardew, who appears with Wilde in a contemporary photograph.

The choice of name, apart from its assonance, its combination of sweetness and crispness, its suitability for an apparently innocent young ward in the country, was more than a charming tribute to the infant daughter of old friends. Cardew was the sort of name which sounded right, not just for someone in a play, but for someone whose father had three addresses. The Cardews, and families like them, formed the dominant class in Victorian, imperial England. Their sons were Oxonians. They possessed large accumulations of property; they served in the army; they invented things; one Cardew was the controversial governor of Sierra Leone; another was a Director of the London and South Coast railway, responsible for the Brighton line, as would be Cicely's father. A consultation of those delightful records, the Army Lists, for 1894 reveals no less than eight Cardews on the Army's books. Their collective careers offer a microcosm of British imperial history: one took part in the battle of Alma—severely wounded, horse shot; another survived the Zulu campaign; a third served in the Burmese Expedition. There are, besides, seven Moncrieffs, and even, on the Indian Supernumerary list, a General Bunbury. George Hay Moncrieff, Major General, was actually in command of the Dublin District at the very moment that Wilde borrowed his name. The England which Wilde wrote about was one still engaged in ruling, or attempting to rule, a large proportion of the world. The Army List is some 1500 pages long. The sheer size of the establishment, active or on the reserve, of the British officers is astonishing. Every individual in the St James's audience must have had a relation or friend, perhaps many relations or friends, in those same Army Lists, which are used by Wilde to authenticate the outrageously improbable. Countless Indian army children were brought up, though usually not lost, by their aunts; the fact that Jack's parents died in India, or at least of India, is an implication so obvious that it did not need to be stated.

Wilde's ability to draw from and lightly suggest the social structures around him, even while he is mocking or undermining them, is remarkable. A glance through the columns of a newspaper such as the Pall Mall Gazette for August, 1894, when Wilde was working on The Importance of Being Earnest in Worthing, throws up casual echoes and parallels to the play: the revolutionary outrages of continental anarchists; the theft of a handbag at Euston Station (by a clergyman, who escaped imprisonment by entering a temperance home); a relentless correspondence about the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway, and the punctuality, or lack of punctuality, of its trains; and a long article, suitable for the silly season of high summer, “What's in a Name: Some Curiosities of Christening.” The piece cites the example of Balzac searching the length and breadth of Paris for the precisely correct name for one of his characters. Wilde's choices, while they have been authenticated for us by a hundred years of performance, were selected with unerring judgment for the ears of their first audiences, so as to convey subtly and subversively the tribal connotations of the English upper-middle classes. The fictions he creates bear an uncanny relationship to the facts. Even the name of an off-stage character such as Markby, inflated to absurdity by its tripling, Markby, Markby, and Markby, commemorates the name of an old established London legal firm which is still active, and still incorporating the name Markby, in 1995, a firm which was known to Robert Ross and therefore, plausibly, also to Wilde. One of the Mr Markby's would certainly have been seen at dinner parties. Jack remarks about the list of generals: “What ghastly names they have!” But they were names which reflected and suggested the experience of Wilde's audience, who were, by the recognition of their laughter, implicated by them and so, like the townspeople of Gogol's The Government Inspector, seduced into laughing at themselves.

Wilde, like Shaw and Joyce, positioned himself “offshore, at a tangent to Ireland's own history,” in Professor Marilyn Butler's phrase. “A work of fiction,” she comments, “may be at once minutely localized in what it represents and very large in its sense of an audience” (Edgeworth 36-37). A second way in which Wilde opens up his plays to audiences is his reflection of and quotation from other kinds of literature—for example, from the high tradition of comic writing, such as the plays of Congreve and Sheridan, and his glances at the motifs, if not the manner, of Victorian farce. Wilde's social comedies convey, in addition, echoes of the nineteenth-century novel: within the urbane rhythms and references of An Ideal Husband can be heard the polished satire of Disraeli's political novels. Behind the distilled essence of The Importance of Being Earnest may lie something of the distinctive and ironic style of Wilde's Anglo-Irish predecessor in the dissection of class, gender, and race, Maria Edgeworth, and principally the first of her Tales of Fashionable Life, Ennui. The grounds for suggesting this have partly to do with motif, partly with tone.

Edgeworth, like Wilde, operates through the precise and creative use of names:

Lady Ormsby was just come to the country, with a large party of her fashionable friends—some Irish, some English. Lord and Lady Kilrush; my lady Kildangan, and her daughter the Lady Geraldine—; the knowing widow O'Connor; the English dasher Lady Hauton; the interesting Mrs Norton, separated but not parted from her husband; the pleasant Miss Bland; the three Miss Ormsbys, better known by the name of the Swanlinbar Graces; two English aides-de-camp from the Castle, and a brace of brigadiers; besides other men of inferior note.


Nearly a century separates this catalogue from A Woman of No Importance, but there is a correspondence between Edgeworth's account of Ormsby Villa and Wilde's description of the house party at Hunstanton Chase. The central character of Edgeworth's “Fashionable Tale,” Lord Glenthorn, the victim of ennui, lived in his youth a life of extravagance. His servants drank nothing but claret and champagne, and he was at the mercy of tradesmen. (This phase of his life was passed in England, in a manner that Algernon Moncrieff would have recognized.) Later in the story it is revealed, by his Irish wet-nurse Ellinor, that he is not Lord Glenthorn at all: he has been changed at nurse with Ellinor's own baby, Christy O'Donoghoe, now the local blacksmith. The substitution took place at a seaside resort. The proof lies in a scar on Christy's head, received when he was dropped on a fender by a drunken servant. The scar is carefully examined, rather like the injury which Miss Prism's handbag suffered. Later, when the erstwhile Lord Glenthorn, by this time Christy O'Donoghoe once again, is attempting to marry, he follows his patron's advice, not precisely to be christened again, but at least to change his name.

The woman he wishes to marry is Cecilia—Cecilia Delamere. The author deals with this part of the narrative briskly. Cecilia, like Cecily Cardew, is direct and to the point. “She believed, she said, that a man capable of conquering habitual indolence could not be of a feeble character; and she therefore consented, without hesitation, to intrust her happiness to my care” (320).

In certain respects, the messages conveyed by Ennui are in sharp contrast to the polished evasiveness of The Importance of Being Earnest. Edgeworth's satire offers a more direct critique of the values of a society intent on achieving wealth and position by any means; and the two main male characters in the story, the protagonist and his friend Devereux, and up by actually earning their living, the one as a lawyer, the other as a civil servant in India. Edgeworth presents the history of a man who discovers the difference between pleasure and happiness. But the remarkably proactive role of the young women, Cecilia and Geraldine, seems to anticipate the assurance of Cecily Cardew and Gwendolen Fairfax. Cecilia is being questioned:

“As to Lord Glenthorn,” said Mrs Delamere, “he was no fool, I promise you. Has he not been living prudently enough these three years? …”

“But I have been told,” said Cecilia, “that he is quite uninformed, without any taste for literature, and absolutely incapable of exertion—a victim to ennui. How miserable a woman must be with such a husband!”

“But,” said Lady Y—, “what could be expected from a young nobleman bred up as Lord Glenthorn was?”

“Nothing,” said Cecilia; “and that is the very reason I never wished to see him.”

The discussion concludes:

“Lord bless you child! how little you know of the matter! After all, I dare say, if you had been acquainted with him, you might have been in love yourself with Lord Glenthorn.”

“Possibly,” said Cecilia, “if I had found him the reverse of what he is reported to be.”


“If I had found him the reverse of what he is reported to be”: the phrase might come from Wilde's Cecily. This exchange is overheard through the folding doors by “Mr O'Donoghoe,” the erstwhile Lord Glenthorn, in a scene that seems intentionally organized like a play, while the reader is continuously reminded of the artificial nature of the plot by such comments as “Changed at nurse! One hears of such things in novels, but, in real life, I absolutely cannot believe it!” (“In families of high position, strange coincidences are not supposed to occur.”)

At an earlier point in the story, Lady Geraldine, locked up in the temple of Minerva by some hoydenish members of the house party, finds herself proposed to by Lord Glenthorn. This is a situation that her formidable mother Lady Kildangan, who exhibits traces of both the Duchess of Berwick and Lady Bracknell, has been striving to engineer: a reversal of Gwendolen's stage-management of Jack. Lady Geraldine, like Gwendolen, is fully able to control the situation, and as they are released she whispers to her proposer, “For mercy's sake, my lord, don't break my poor mother's heart! Never let her know, that a coronet has been within my grasp, and that I have not clutched it.” Lady Geraldine departs, in due course, with her husband Devereux, for India, which offers the potential of escape from the constrictions of a colonial Irish society—a shift that prefigures the “world elsewhere” philosophy of Hester Worsley in A Woman of No Importance.

Certain elements of plot and theme in Ennui—the motif of the exchanged baby, the young man who finds that after all he has a kind of brother, the preoccupation with master and servant—bring Earnest to mind, as does the sense of paradox and reversal which permeates the text. These alert one to the possible echo of Edgeworth's Cecilia and Geraldine in Wilde's Cecily and Gwendolen. Maria Edgeworth's assured handling of form, her sharp dissection of social manners, her acute ear for the incriminating rhythms of dialogue, and her depiction of young women who seize the initiative with aplomb and who create and shape their own stories offer a model for Wilde to assimilate and reflect. She, too, looked at life from an unusual angle, and with a sophisticated and penetrating sense of style that encompasses an adroit manipulation of names and titles. As W. J. McCormack has commented, “Maria Edgeworth, like Wilde, understood that style is a miniature politics.”

The partnerships of Cecily Cardew and Gwendolen Fairfax, John Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff, Miss Prism and Canon Chasuble, under the presiding queen-empress of Lady Bracknell, form a significant part of Wilde's verbal music and patterned reference.1 The names and their associations ride the frontier between fact and fiction, between the assured solidity of place and property and power, and the shifting distortions of the surreal and the absurd. The names in his plays demonstrate Wilde's extraordinary power of suggesting more than he states, as he does conclusively by authenticating the fictional triviality of Earnest by reference to the most serious book in the English language for the imperial Victorians: the Army List.


  1. The Cardew connection makes one more minor appearance in Wilde's life. The Director of the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway had an engine named after him; it was the Cardew, which always pulled the boat train to Newhaven. If Wilde looked back at England after his release from prison as he left for Dieppe on the cross-channel ferry in May, 1897, he would have seen the Cardew steaming gently on the quay.

Works Cited

Maria Edgeworth. Castle Rackrent and Ennui. Ed. Marilyn Butler. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992.

W. J. McCormack. Ascendancy and Tradition in Anglo-Irish Literary History from 1793 to 1939. Oxford: Clarendon, 1985.

W. Craven Mackie (essay date summer 1998)

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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 appeared that year in the London Sunday Times. It came from an antiquarian in Cheshire, Reverend Ridgway: “As vicar of Bunbury I have always been puzzled as to why Oscar Wilde decided to pick on this remote village (if he did) to coin his phrase ‘bunburying’ in The Importance of Being Earnest. Can any reader throw light on the link?” William Green includes the letter among the endnotes to his article “Oscar Wilde and the Bunburys” and explains, “Although [Ridgway] did receive some interesting replies to his letter, his investigation came to naught.”3 Thirty years later Kerry Powell would echo Reverend Ridgway's disappointment: “Bunbury's name, like so many in Wilde's plays, is difficult to pin down in terms of its source.”4 Green himself rejects the possibility of place names as a source, arguing instead for names of actual people. He concludes that Bunbury was “a composite” of two contemporary figures, classical scholar Edward Herbert Bunbury and an acquaintance of the Wilde family in Dublin during Wilde's youth, Henry Shirley Bunbury. Among the replies to Ridgway's inquiry, Green discovered a letter from Henry's son Walter recalling, “My father gave me to understand that it was he whom Wilde had in mind” at the time the play was written. Walter further recalls that his father “was in rather poor health,” convincing Green that Henry Shirley Bunbury was indeed “the primary model.”5

Without crediting Green, Richard Ellmann adopts the family friend thesis: “Many of [Wilde's] relations lived in England, and so did friends like Henry S. Bunbury … who would give his name to the errant behaviour of Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest.6 Kerry Powell argues that “the concept of Bunburying—and its name—could have been suggested to Wilde by the recent success of Godpapa,7 an unpublished farce that had enjoyed a modest run in 1891 and in which an aspiring drunk named Bunbury unwittingly facilitates a kind of Bunburying by the hero. Joseph Donohue and Ruth Berggren reason that “Wilde appears to be following his habit of deriving surnames from place names,”8 citing the village in Cheshire, and Peter Raby dutifully reports that the name can be found in the Army Lists of 1894.9

Do any of these speculations, however, provide a logical explanation for what prompted the hastily scribbled note “Mr. Bunbury—always ill”? Wilde had not seen or heard from the family acquaintance for sixteen years. He never met or acknowledged the classical scholar. That he would have had any desire to recall a nearly forgotten play by a rival playwright seems doubtful. And there is no proof that he had any knowledge of the village in Cheshire or of the Bunbury tucked away in the 1500 pages of the Army Lists. “All the evidence,” Peter Raby explains, “points to Wilde constructing The Importance of Being Earnest with great rapidity and zest, incorporating material which lay conveniently at hand,”10 bringing into question why any of the usual suggestions concerning Bunbury's origin would have occurred to Wilde at the seaside resort of Worthing in August 1894—particularly since another eminently more “convenient” source was available.

Daily newspapers like the Times and the Pall Mall Gazette supplied a wealth of topical material for Wilde's comedy: the gold rush in barren southwest Australia, lost luggage in railway stations, a running debate on the virtues of the three-volume novel, and numerous fashionable English names. The newspaper that Wilde most associated with news of fashionable society is identified in Gwendolen's assertion that the announcement of her engagement to Mr. Ernest Worthing “will appear in the Morning Post on Saturday at the latest.” Announcements of births, marriages and deaths appeared prominently on the front page of the Morning Post. Engagements were relegated to page five.

On Monday 23 July 1894 in the Post, Wilde could have scanned the following names in the obituary list: Andrew, Beresford, Blofeld, Brooke, Bunbury—Lady Frances Joanne Bunbury, “aged eighty … wife of the late Sir Charles Bunbury … at the Manor House, Mildenhall … after a sudden and severe attack.” Mildenhall is located about sixty miles northeast of London. Notices of Lady Bunbury's funeral appeared in both the Post and the Times on 24 July.

Then on Wednesday 25 July on the front page of the Post under deaths, after Baylis, a second Bunbury: Thomas Charles, “aged eighty-two … late 60th Rifles, eldest son of the late General Bunbury … at Pembroke House, Freemantle, Southampton,” about sixty miles southwest of London. Amazing. Two Bunburys in three days. Typically, the Bunbury name surfaced once or twice a year in the Post obituaries, with only one prior instance (7 May) in 1894.

Incidentally, on 30 July, on page five of the Post, Wilde could have read that a marriage had been arranged for Ernest Douglas Money.

And then on Tuesday 31 July, again on page one under deaths: Barrett, Bickham, Bonser, Bunbury! Phenomenal odds. Captain Philip Mill Bunbury, “aged seventy … late 7th Dragoon Guards, eldest son of the late Hugh Mill Bunbury … at Slindon, near Arundel, Sussex,” fifty miles south of London and only twelve miles from Worthing. All three Bunburys were, like Algy's fictional invalid, located well “into the country.”

Surely Wilde must have been amused and delighted by this sudden and convenient Bunbury epidemic. One can imagine him with his family, passing through Victoria Station to the Brighton line, joking that “to lose three Bunburys looks like carelessness.” Or perhaps in answer to the question “Is Bunbury dead?” Wilde replied, “No. But he's always ill.”

As fortuitous as this timely series of obituaries may have been, it is doubtful that Wilde would have noticed had not the particular recurring name possessed such resonance and potential meaning. Three Beresfords or Blofelds would have been of little use. Of course, Wilde was perfectly capable of creating Bunbury without assistance from external sources, but it appears there was no need to do so.11

For Wilde, at that time and place, the inspiration for Bunbury was hardly more subtle than that which prompted the name Jack Worthing. As an experienced comic and social commentator, Wilde knew the importance of building upon material that was familiar to his audience, which, like Wilde, relied constantly upon the newspapers. Also, the specific chronology for the progress of this inspiration confirms that the last week of July 1894 was a fairly productive period in the making of The Importance of Being Earnest.


  1. Peter Raby, “The Making of The Importance of Being Earnest: An unpublished letter from Oscar Wilde,” Times Literary Supplement (20 December 1991), 13.

  2. Peter Raby, “The Origins of The Importance of Being Earnest,Modern Drama 37 (1994), 143.

  3. William Green, “Oscar Wilde and the Bunburys,” Modern Drama 21 (1978), 76.

  4. Kerry Powell, Oscar Wilde and the Theatre of the 1890s (Cambridge, 1990), 183.

  5. Green, 72. See note 3.

  6. Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde (New York, 1988), 37.

  7. Powell, 127. See note 4.

  8. Joseph Donohue & Ruth Berggren, ed., Oscar Wilde's “The Importance of Being Earnest”: A Reconstructive Critical Edition of the Text of the First Production (Gerrards Cross, 1995), 123.

  9. Peter Raby, “‘The Persons of the Play’: Some Reflections on Wilde's Choice of Names in The Importance of Being Earnest,Nineteenth Century Theatre 23 (1995), 71.

  10. Raby, “Origins,” 143. See note 2.

  11. To his credit, William Green was on track in pursuing a source among actual people.

Critic (review date 12 May 1894)

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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. Wilde has been so happy as to secure a noble lord as his translator into English.

His illustrator, Mr. Aubrey Beardsley, searches in as many fields for the elements of his fantastic drawings. He takes from modern fashion plates, ancient designs for jewelry, the inevitable Japanese print and the caricatures of Caran d'Ache. He has the boldness to steal Whistler's butterfly and Willette's Pierrot. He answers the conundrum about the morality of Burne-Jones's type of beauty by employing it to convey decidedly immoral suggestions. Several of his pictures appear to have nothing to do with the text, but he satirizes Oscar as a showman whose “grand attraction” is his grotesque Herodias. He has the decorative instinct which tells him where to put a line or a spot of black, and he misuses it as wilfully as some Frenchmen do their more valuable artistic gifts. Five hundred copies of the book have been printed “for England”; how many for America does not appear.

Edward E. Hale Jr. (essay date 1 July 1894)

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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 Rome exhibitions, unless perhaps we might count college oratorical contests and commencements. But the feeling that there might be something worse should make us look with benignity, if not pleasure, on such books as Mr. Hamlin Garland's Crumbling Idols and Mr. Oscar Wilde's Salomé. Different as they are in all other points, both books are of that foam and froth of literature which is indicative of true life and action somewhere, which is itself shortly blown away and lost to sight and remembrance.

Mr. Garland's book, we are informed by an unknown sponsor, is “a vigorous plea for the recognition of youth and a protest against the despotism of tradition.” It might have been added that it is an assertion of the necessity of Americanism in American Literature. Surely these things are very good things, looked at in their ordinary light. But when we look at them in Mr. Garland's light, it must be confessed that the feeling is not one of approbation but of irritation. One is led to inquire, What earthly use can there be in Mr. Garland's saying all this? For the main points in Mr. Garland's discourse are by no means new. He takes Walt Whitman's thesis as to a native literature, looks at it in the light of the experience of the last twenty-five years, and puts forth the whole thing as his own prophecy for the future.

As one reads Crumbling Idols it comes more and more strongly to mind that the book is a sort of apology for existence on the part of its author. Now Mr. Garland of course need make no such apology. “Main Travelled Roads” and “Prairie Songs” are reasons enough for anyone's existing, temporarily. They are their own excuse for being; no one doubted the fact, until Mr. Garland set himself to force us into admitting it. For, unfortunately, Mr. Garland is not persuasive: he is bellicose, obstreperous, blatant. Nobody could possibly agree with him, whatever he said.

The real difficulty seems to be that Mr. Garland, being himself able to write excellent things of a certain sort, cannot conceive that there can be anything else excellent of a kind totally different. Feeling himself very virtuous, he becomes enraged that anyone else should venture to be still attached to cakes and ale. Now this is all wrong. Literature in America may never come to anything without plenty of local color and provincialism (to use Mr. Garland's expressions), but it will never be a great literature so long as it has nothing besides. Mr. Garland would do us but poor service if he could persuade people to write nothing but “local novels.”

But of course one need not take the book very seriously. Mr. Garland's engrossing fear seems to be that Americans will turn their entire attention to writing “blank-verse tragedies on Columbus or Washington,” or that they will “copy the last epics of feudalism.” Such an apprehension seems to have very slight basis. It is probable that during the last year there have been thousands of what Mr. Garland would call “local” stories written by young America for every single blank-verse tragedy or epic of feudalism that has seen the light this side the Atlantic. Everybody writes “local,” stories nowadays; it is as natural as whooping-cough. There is no need of encouragement: to tell the truth, a little restraint would do no harm. For, even with the best of intentions, one may write a “local” story so badly that it will be worse than a blank-verse tragedy on Washington or anybody else,

But to turn from such serious foolishness to a more sprightly trifler. Mr. Oscar Wilde never troubles one with taking himself too seriously, and the history of Salomé is Oscar Wilde all over. It was written in French and produced in Paris. Desirous then of favoring his own countrymen, Mr. Wilde made preparation to present it in London. In this worthy attempt, however, he was hindered—so the papers told us—by some official folly which enraged him so much that he was even strongly tempted to stop being an Englishman, in favor of that less imbecile people across the Channel. But not wishing to keep his anger forever. Mr. Wilde finally allowed his noble friend Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas to do the play into English. It was then “pictured,” as the phrase is, by Mr. Aubrey Beardsley, and is now ready for the delight of a somewhat indifferent world.

Such an extraordinary conjunction of affectations is ominous. But, strangely enough, there are some things in Salomé that are good. It is impossible to read it without feeling curiously moved and stirred. The careless talk of the loungers on the terrace, the soldiers and the Cappadocian, is good; the squabbling of the Jews, the Pharisee, the Sadducee, the Nazarene, is good. So, also, is Herod,—indeed the character of Herod is quite the best conceived thing in the play, as his description of his treasure is the best written. The play may well have been very effective on the stage, for there is a constant feeling of movement, of life, and it is certainly worth reading now that it is published.

With all this, however, the play is wholly ephemeral. Its action is trivial and its dialogue affected. Its ideas, and its language too, are extravagances, without much more foundation than the extravagances of Mr. Hamlin Garland. But while in Mr. Garland we have the prophet of Literature as Life, we have in Mr. Wilde the follower of Literature as Art. Mr. Garland is a “veritist,” and prefers the fresh novelties of nature. But Mr. Wilde seeks beauty, in art and art's most latent subtleties. He contrives expressions and conceptions of the most curious and self-conscious refinement, of the strangest and most ultra-precious distinction. As ever, he scorns the ordinary, the every-day, the generally pleasing, and is unremitting to attain the romantic beauty, the strange, the wonderful, the remote, the reward of no art but the most devoted, the delight of no taste but the most distinguished.

As such, his work lends itself eminently to the illustration of Mr. Aubrey Beardsley. Mr. Aubrey Beardsley receives a good many hard words nowadays,—and certainly his pictures are strange things, more affected than Oscar Wilde himself, and more remote from obvious apprehension. What one is first inclined to criticise in Mr. Beardsley is his lack of originality. His pictures remind us of almost every phase of art that has ever existed; or, at any rate, of every phase which had ever a tinge of the grotesque or the trivial in its character. From the bald priestly pictures mingled among Egyptian hieroglyphics, down to the graceful frivolities of Willette of the Red Windmill. Mr. Beardsley seems to have laid everything under contribution. His work seems by turns one thing and then another—Japanese, Gothic, Preraphaelite, what you will. So it seems at first. But the great excellence is that, however Protean. Mr. Aubrey Beardsley, like Satan in Paradise Lost is always himself, even in the midst of his disguises. Just what is his own quality, is hard to say; but there can be little doubt that it exists, and it would be worth somebody's while to determine it in the shifting dazzle of his influences,—to fix it for an instant for us, to get its true character and flavor unadulterated. But whatever be his quality, it is eminently in keeping with the work of Mr. Oscar Wilde.

Of our two literary eccentrics, some will prefer Mr. Wilde and some Mr. Garland. If they could be seized each with an admiration for the other, it would have an excellent effect on the work of both. But even as they are, they are good evidence of life in literature, and an assurance that it will not yet awhile harden down into utter conventionalism.

William Saunders (essay date September 1922)

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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 erased, and it is as clear now as it was on the occasion upon which it was first engraved.

The play in question was Oscar Wilde's Salomé. I remember all the inauspicious circumstances of that memorable encounter. It was a cold November evening and, rummaging through the scanty collection of French plays in the reference department of our local free library, I suddenly came upon a small volume dated 1893, and claiming to have been issued from the Librairie de l'Art Indépendent, Paris, and Elkin Mathews et John Lane, LondresSalomé, Drame en un acte. Of what particularly attracted me to the volume, I have no clear recollection, but no doubt it was partly the fact that it was by Oscar Wilde, with two at least of whose plays I was already familiar, and partly the curious and bizarre device with its motto “Non hic piscis omnium,” on the title page. I read the play at a single sitting, under the impression all the time that it was a translation from an English work by the famous dramatist. Although later on I had added the volume to my own private library, I did not again read it until the evidence in a libel action gave it such an advertisement as nothing else in the world could have accomplished. Yet all the time the powerful and salient aspects of the play, and the rare imagery of the language in which it is couched, never faded from my memory. During the long interval of more than twenty years I thought about it often and on more than one occasion meant to read it again, but somehow I never found either the time or opportunity until the necessity of absolutely making a renewed acquaintance with the play, in view of my original and vivid impression of it was forced upon me by the evidence submitted at the trial in question.

On that occasion the chief indictment against the play seemed to lie in the frequency with which the various characters refer to the moon, and the evidence of several eminent alienists was given to prove that such references were understood only by moral perverts. That Oscar Wilde, when he wrote the play, intended his lunar allusions to be taken in that sense, I do not for one moment believe. If the witnesses who argued in the manner referred to are right, then the almanac is the most dangerous book in circulation, and the same reasons that were urged against Salomé are equally potent for the banning of that useful, if too frequently uninspired, publication. The whole of the evidence, so far as it tended to the condemnation of this play, was, I am convinced, entirely ex post facto. Had the career of the author ended otherwise than it ended, I doubt that we should ever have heard anything about the perverted morality of his work. Salomé is essentially a work of art, just as its creator was before everything, an artist.

Wilde lived at the time when the Wagnerian influence in music was beginning to make itself universally felt, but this influence was by no means confined to music and musicians alone. The leit-motif principle, based as it was upon a foundation of pure artistry, exercised a fascination, not only upon the musicians, but to almost as great an extent upon the writers and poets of the eighties and nineties of the last century. Wilde early evinced a fondness for it. We find it both in A Woman of No Importance and in Lady Windermere's Fan, the end of Act 1, of the former play, for example. Mrs. Allenby and Lord Illingworth are tête-á-tête, discussing the ingenious young American, Hester Worsley, in the course of which, the following dialogue takes place:

MRS. Allenby:
You think there is no woman in the world who would object to being kissed?
LORD Illingworth:
Very few.
MRS. Allenby:
Miss Worsley would not let you kiss her.
LORD Illingworth:
Are you sure?
MRS. Allenby:
LORD Illingworth:
What do you think she'd do if I kissed her?
MRS. Allenby:
Either marry you, or strike you across the face with her glove.

And at the very end of the act, Lord Illingworth sees Mrs. Arbuthnot's letter on a table, and taking it up, he looks at the envelope and thus rounds off the conversation:

LORD Illingworth:
What a curious handwriting! It reminds me of the handwriting of a woman I used to know year ago.
MRS. Allenby:
LORD Illingworth:
Oh! no one. No one in particular. A woman of no importance.

Now, these are clearly leit-motifen, especially designed as fore-shadowing the dénouement of the play. When, in the final scene, Mrs. Arbuthnot, the woman that Lord Illingworth had ruined, had been left alone, while her son and his fiancée, Miss Worsley, go for a turn in the garden together, in the little house in which she had endeavoured to hide herself, she is visited again by her lover of former days. He trys to reopen friendly relations but is repulsed.

LORD Illingworth:
[Rises slowly and goes over to table where his hat and gloves are. MRS. ARBUTHNOT is standing close to the table. He picks up one of the gloves and begins putting it on.] There is not much then for me to do here, Rachael?
MRS. Arbuthnot:
LORD Illingworth:
It is good-bye, is it?
MRS. Arbuthnot:
Forever, I hope, this time, Lord Illingworth.
LORD Illingworth:
How curious! At this moment you look exactly as you looked the night you left me twenty years ago. You have just the same expression in your mouth. Upon my word, Rachael, no woman ever loved me as you did. Why, you gave yourself to me like a flower, to do anything I liked with. You were the prettiest of playthings, the most fascinating of small romances. … (Pulls out watch) Quarter to two! Must be strolling back to Hunstanton. Don't suppose I shall see you there again. I'm sorry, I am, really. It's been an amusing experience to have met amongst people of one's own rank, and treated quite seriously too, one's mistress, and one's—”
[MRS. ARBUTHNOT snatches up glove and strikes LORD ILLINGWORTH across the face with it. LORD ILLINGWORTH starts. He is dazed by the insult of his punishment. GERALD and HESTER return immediately after LORD ILLINGWORTH has gone. GERALD goes to table L. C. for his hat. On turning round he sees LORD ILLINGWORTH'S glove lying on the floor, and picks it up.]
Hallo, Mother, whose glove is this? You have had a visitor. Who was it?
MRS. Arbuthnot :
[Turning round] Oh! no one. No one in particular. A man of no importance.

But to return to the so-called luner allusions, we have this in Salomé:

Une grande terrasse dans le palais d'Herode donnant sur la salle de festin. Des soldats sont accoudés sur le balcon. A droite il y a un énorme escalier. A gauche, au fond, une ancienne citerne entourèe d'un mur de bronèe vert. Clair de lune.

LE Jeune Syrien:
Comme la princesse Salomé est belle ce soir!
LE page d'Herodias:
Regardeê la lune. La lune a l'air très étrange. On dirait une femme qui soit d'un tombeau.
Elle ressemble à une femme morte. On dirait qu'elle cherche des morts.
LE jeune Syrien:
Elle a l'air très étrange. Elle ressemble à une petite princesse qui porte une voile jaune, eta des pieds d'argent. Elle ressemble à une princesse qui a des pieds comme des petites colombes blanches* … On dirait qu'elle danse.
LE page:
Elle est comme une femme morte. Elle va très lentement.

When Salomé enters from the banqueting-hall, she also remarks upon the appearance of the moon, and it may perhaps be said that this is the one instance in the play where the reference might have been omitted without doing violence to the principle involved:

Que c'est bon de voir la lune! Elle ressemble à une petite pièce de monnaie. On dirait une toute petite fleur d'argent. Elle est froide et chaste, la lune. … Je suis sûre qu'elle est vierge. … Qui, elle est vierge. Elle ne s'est jamais souillés. Elle ne s'est jamais donnée aux hommes, comme les autres Déesses.

It is a tragic note that these lunar allusions are designed to strike, and never throughout the whole of the drama is this more apparent than when, on the occasion after the young Syrian has ordered the prophet to be brought out in response to Salomé's demand, the page again remarks:

Oh! comme la lune a l'air étrange!1On dirait la main d'une morte qui cherche à se couvrir avec un linceul,

And the Syrian replies:

Elle a l'air très étrange. On dirait une petite princesse qui a des yeux d'ambre. A travers les nuages de mousseline elle sourit comme une petite princesse.

And after the prophet has appeared and cursed and prophesied as was his wont, Salomé, dwelling upon his emaciated condition, remarks:

Je suis sûre qu'il est chaste, autant que la lune. Il ressemble à un rayon de lune, à un rayon d'argent.

And again: Les roses du jardin de la reine d'Arabie ne sont pas aussi blanches que ton corps. … ni le sien de la lune quand elle couche sur le sien de la mer.

But when she has been repulsed once, she retracts and curses his body:

Ton corps est hidieux. … Les longues nuits noires, les nuits ou la lune ne se montre pas, ou les étoiles ont peur, ne sont pas aussi noires.

The first real manifestation of the impending tragedy occurs however, when the young Syrian kills himself on realizing that the passion of Salomé for John the Baptist is indeed an undoubted fact, and in the torrent of grief which his friend the page immediately pours out, he claims to find a realization of what the moon had foretold:

Je savais bien que la lune cherchait un mort, mais je ne savais pas que c'était lui qu'elle cherchait, Ah! pourquoi ne l'ai-je pas cachè de la lune? Si je l'avais caché dans une caverne elle ne l'aurait pas vu.”

The strange mystical appearance of the moon strikes Herod in much the same manner as it has done to the others, when he enters from the banqueting-hall, with Herodias and all his court. But to the latter, hard, practical, and utterly lacking in artistic taste, or appreciation of the beautiful, the moon is just the moon. This is one of the most brilliant strokes of genius that Wilde had ever made:

La lune a l'air très étrange ce soir. N'est-ce pas que la lune a l'air très étrange? On dirait une femme hystèrique, une femme hystérique qui va cherchant des amants partout. Elle est nue aussi. Elle est toute nue. Les nueges cherchant a la vétir, mais elle ne veut pas. Elle se montre toute nue dans le ciel. Elle chancelle à travers les nueges comme une femme ivre. … Je suis sûr qu'elle cherche des amants. … N'est ce pas qu'elle chancelle comme une femme ivre? Elle ressemble à une femme hystérique, n'est-ce pas?
Non. La lune ressemble à la lune, c'est tout. …

And evidently with this still simmering in her mind, Herodias, bored nearly to death by the wrangling of the Jews, some time afterwards flashes out:

Ces gens lá sont fous. Ils ont trop regardé la lune …

And still again we hear the voice of worldly wisdom when John having prophesied in these terms:

En ce jour la le soleil deviendra noir comme un sac de poü et la lune deviendra comme du sang, et les étoiles du ciel tomberont sur la terre comme des figues vertes tombent d'un figuier, et les rois de la terre auront peur.

The queen replies:

Ah! Ah! Je voudrais bien voir ce jour dont il parle, on la lune deviendra comme du sang et on des étoiles tomberont sur la terre comme des figues vertes. Ce prophète parle comme un homme ivre.

The words there attributed to John are strictly Scriptural, although there is no Biblical authority as to their having actually been uttered by the Baptist.2

The crux of the tragedy is Salomé's Dance of the Seven Veils, and it is to that and the all-pervading death theme that the leit-motifen apply. While Salomé's slaves are in the act of removing her sandals, and arraying her head and face in the famous seven veils, in preparation for the dance, Herod remarks:

Ah! vous alleè danser pieds nus! C'est bien! C'est bien! Vos petits pieds seront comme des colombes blanches. Ils resembleront à des petites fleurs blanches qui dansent sur un arbre.

Compare this with the passage in the first speech of the young Syrian, and the point of the argument will at once appear. Herod continues:

Ah! regardez la lune! Elle est devenue rouge. Elle est devenue rouge comme du sang. Ah! le prophète l'a bien prédit. Il a prédit que la lune deviendrait rouge comme du sang. N'est-ce pas qu'il a prédit cela? Vous avec tous entendu. La lune est devenue rouge comme du sang. Ne le voyez-vous pas?

Herodias, still sceptical and sarcastic, assents:

Je le vois bien, et les étoiles tombent comme des figues vertes, n'est ce pas? Et le soleil devient noir comme un sac de poil, et les rois de la terre ont peur. Cela au moins on le voit. Pour une fois dans sa vie le prophéte a eu raison. Les rois de la terre ont peur. …

What follows in reference to the moon has little significance. The real crisis of the play is the dance, and all that then succeeds is the merely inevitable consequence of that tremendous episode. The king had promised to give the daughter of Herodias anything that she chose to ask, “even to the half of his kingdom,” as a reward for her dancing, and when she demands the head of the Baptist on a silver charger, he immediately repents his promise, and offers her anything else she cares to ask for. In the most entrancing language, he reels off a catalogue of all his possessions from which she is free to take whatever she fancies, if only she will not ask for such a gruesome thing as the severed head of a half crazy prophet. In his garden he has a hundred wonderful white peacocks,—“la pluie vient quand ils crient, et quand ils se pavanent la lune se montre au ciel,”—fifty of these he offers to Salomé and promises that “ils vous suivront partout, et au milieu d'eux vous serez comme la lune dans un grand nuage blanc.” And where should one derive a more beautiful figure of speech than Herod's description of his four-tier collar of pearls?—“On dirait des lunes enchainées de rayons d'argent. On dirait cinquante lunes captives dans un filet d'or.” And from the catalogue of his possessions,—“J'ai des sélénites qui changent quand la lune change et deviennent pâles quand elles voient le soleil. J'ai des saphirs grands comme des oeufs et bleus comme des fleurs bleus. La mer erre dedans, at la lune ne vient jamais troubler le bleu de ses flots.

At last the crime is consummated, and, overcome with horror, the terrified king desires only to hide, and to be hidden:

Viens! Je ne veux pas rester ici. Viens, je te dis. Je suis sûr qu'il va arriver un malheur. Manassé, Issachar, Ozias, éteignez les flambeaux. Je ne veux pas regarder les choses. Je ne veux pas que les choses me regardent. Eteignez les flambeaux. Cachez la lune? Cachez les étoiles? Cachons-nous dans notre palais, Hérodias. Je commence à avoir peur.

And as the slaves obey his order to extinguish the torches, the stars likewise, as if in obedience to his will, disappear, and a great black cloud passes over the moon and obliterates it from the view. It is then, in the darkened court, that Salomé kisses the mouth of the dead head on the charager, and when once more the moon comes out, it reveals to Herod the woman who had thus brought him to shame, in a state of ecstacy and exaltation, and his crisp and rapid command, “Tuez cette femme!” brings the tragedy to its logical and inevitable conclusion.

Its logical and inevitable end! Salomé might as easily have been a tragedy of Euripides as an essay in histrionic creation by the greatest dramatic epigrammatist of the nineteenth century. The tragedy is essentially Greek in character, and after making the necessary allowances for the difference in periods, purely Euripidean in style. From the first word to the last, the inevitability of the tragedy is clearly demonstrable, and the leit-motifen merely accentuate the fact. The atmosphere of gloom and tragedy is never absent, but a gleam of light does occasionally fall across the scene,—a spark of wit suddenly flaring up, blazing forth with all the glamour of Wilde's genius for a moment, and then as quickly dying out again; or a flash of passionate love borne along in a chariot of momentary happiness that more than atones for the age of misery it leaves behind,—and there is surely no straining of metaphors in utilizing the moon as the symbol of such resplendent episodes. Like the plot of the Greek tragedy, that of Salomé evolves, and develops in a scene of shadow and depression, but if all is darkness, there are yet degrees and differences of its intensity, and there could be no apter exemplification in concrete form of this, than that which the author, with the true and unhesitating confidence of genius, has actually adopted. The point of my argument then centers in this, that the tragedy of Salomé, being Greek in conception and character, is dependent to a large extent for its power and terrifying qualities upon figures that are Greek in spirit and pagan in effect. Yet there is a vast difference between pure Hellenic paganism on the one hand, and moral obliquity on the other, and to suggest that the one term connotes the other, or vice versa, is indeed merely to attempt the reconciliation of opposites one with another, and the comparison of things that are absolutely unlike. Apart from its alleged moral degeneracy, a fault which, in spite of the dicta of some of the so-called greatest men of our time, Salomé is one of the greatest tragedies of recent times, and had its author never written another line, there is enough genius embodied in the ninety pages on which it lies,—not emblamed, but a virile and living force for good, and a source of never-ending intellectual joy and satisfaction to all who are capable of appreciating it, to ensure for him an immortality in the world of artistic humanity, and an everlasting niche in the Valhalla of literature, and of pure and unquestioned psychological delineation.


  1. This was a favorite simile of the young Syrian. Later on, referring to Salomé, he remarks, “La princesse a cache son visage derriere son eventail! Ses petites mains blanches s'agitent comme des colombes qui s'envelent vers leurs colombiers.” And again, “Elle est comme une colombe qui s'est egaree.” The passages so treated are the really significant ones from the leit-motif point of view.

  2. See Matthew, xxiv-29.

Richard Ellmann (essay date spring 1969)

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Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7573

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 distinctive. As there are many Iseults, many Marys, so there were many Salomés, without monotony.

The fact that Wilde's Salomé is a play, and a completed one, distinguishes it from other versions and helps to make it more original than Mr. Praz would have us believe. Mallarmé was not merely flattering when he congratulated Wilde on the “definitive evocation” of Salomé,2 or when he took care to avoid seeming to copy Wilde when he returned to work on his own Hérodiade.3 Wilde's simple sentences and repeated words may indeed owe something to Maeterlinck or even (as a contemporary critic suggested) to Ollendorff—the Berlitz of that age—but they have become so habitual in modern drama as to seem anticipatory rather than derivative. The extreme concentration upon a single episode which is like an image, with a synchronized moon changing color from pale to blood-red in keeping with the action, and an atmosphere of frenzy framed in exotic chill, confirms Yeats's oblique acknowledgment that he had learned as much from Wilde as from the Noh drama for his dance plays.4 A torpid tetrarch (three Herods telescoped into one), lusting yet inert, a prophet clamoring from a well below the floorboards, are more congenial figures now that Beckett has accustomed us to paralysis, senile drivelling, voices from ashcans, and general thwart.

Mr. Praz, quick to deny Wilde any novelty, insists that the play's culminating moment, when Salomé kisses the severed head of Iokanaan, is borrowed from Heine's Atta Troll.5 But in Heine's version kissing the head is a punishment after Herodias's death, not a divertissement before it, and the tone of caricature is quite unlike that of perverted horror which Wilde evokes. If some source has to be found—and it always has—I offer tentatively a dramatic poem called Salomé published in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1862, by a young Harvard graduate named J. C. Heywood,6 and subsequently republished during the 1880s in London in the form of a trilogy. I have to admit that in Heywood as in Heine, it is Herodias, not Salomé, who kisses the head, but at least she does so while still alive, and in a sufficiently grisly way. Wilde knew one part of Heywood's trilogy—he reviewed it in 1888, three years before writing his own play7—and he may well have glanced at the other parts. Still, he isn't really dependent on Heywood either, since he exchanges mother for daughter and, unlike Heywood, makes this monstrous kissing the play's climax. [Author adds in a footnote: According to E. Gomez Carrillo, a young Guatemalan writer who saw much of Wilde during the composition of the play, other details changed considerably in the planning, but the climax was always the same.8].

To read Heywood or other writers about Salomé is to come to a greater admiration for Wilde's ingenuity. The general problem that I want to inquire into is what the play probably meant to Wilde and how he came to write it. Villainous women were not his usual subject, and even if they had been, there were others besides Salomé he could have chosen. The reservoir of villainous women is always brimming. The choice of Salomé would seem to inhere in her special relationship to John the Baptist and Herod. Sources offer little help in understanding this, and we have to turn to what might be called praeter-sources, elements which so pervaded Wilde's imaginative life as to become presences. Such a presence Amadis was for Don Quixote, or Vergil for Dante. In pursuing these I will offer no explication de texte, but what may well appear a divagation; perhaps to give it critical standing I should pronounce it divagation, though I hope to persuade you of its clandestine relevance. It includes, at any rate, those fugitive associations, often subliminal, which swarm beneath the fixed surface of the work, and which are as pertinent as is that surface to any study of the author's mind.

It will be necessary, therefore, to retrace certain of Wilde's close relationships. If Rilke is right in finding a few moments in a writer's life to be initiatory, then such an initiatory experience took place when Wilde left Ireland for England. He later said that the two turning-points in his life occurred “when my father sent me to Oxford, and when society sent me to prison.”9 Wilde matriculated at Magdalen College, Oxford, on October 11, 1874, at the age of nineteen. The two men he had most wanted to know at that time, he said, were Ruskin and Pater,10 both, conveniently enough, installed at the same place. He managed to meet Ruskin within a month, and though he didn't meet Pater so quickly, during his first three months at Oxford he made the acquaintance of Pater's Studies in the History of the Renaissance,11 which he soon called his “golden book,”12 and subsequently referred to in a portentous phrase as “that book which has had such a strange influence over my life.”13

Three weeks after Wilde arrived, Ruskin gave a series of lectures on Florentine painting. During one of them he proposed to his students that, instead of developing their bodies in pointless games, in learning “to leap and to row, to hit a ball with a bat,”14 they join him in improving the countryside. He proposed to turn a swampy lane near Ferry Hincksey into a flower-bordered country road. Such muscular effort would be ethical rather than narcissistic, medieval rather than classical. [Author adds in a footnote: Pater, on the other hand, much preferred the activities of what he called in italics the palaestra.]. Although Oscar Wilde found rising at dawn more difficult than most men, he overcame his languor for Ruskin's sake. He would later brag comically that he had had the distinction of being allowed to fill “Mr. Ruskin's especial wheelbarrow” and even of being instructed by the master himself in the mysteries of wheeling such an object from place to place. At the end of term Ruskin was off to Venice, and Wilde could again lie late abed, comfortable in the thought that, as he said, “there was a long mound of earth across that swamp which a lively imagination might fancy was a road.”15 The merely external signs of this noble enterprise soon sank from sight, but Wilde remembered it with affectionate respect, and his later insistence on functionalism in decoration and in women's dress, and on socialism based upon self-fulfillment in groups, were in the Ferry Hincksey tradition.

The road proved also to be the road to Ruskin. Wilde met his exalted foreman often during the ensuing years. In 1888, sending him a book, he summed up his feelings in this effusive tribute: “The dearest memories of my Oxford days are my walks and talks with you, and from you I learned nothing but what was good. How else could it be? There is in you something of prophet, of priest, and of poet, and to you the gods gave eloquence such as they have given to none other, so that your message might come to us with the fire of passion, and the marvel of music, making the deaf to hear, and the blind to see.”16 That (like this prose) the prophet had weaknesses, made him if anything more prophetlike. Wilde was aware of Ruskin's weaknesses as of his virtues. His letter of November 28, 1879, by which time he had taken his Oxford degree, mentions that he and Ruskin were going that night to see Henry Irving play Shylock, following which he himself was going on to the Millais ball. “How odd it is,” Wilde remarks.17 The oddity lay not only in attending this particular play with the author of The Stones of Venice, but in proceeding afterwards to a ball which celebrated the marriage of John Everett Millais's daughter. Mrs. Millais had for six years been Mrs. Ruskin, and for three of those years Millais had been Ruskin's friend and protégé. The details of Ruskin's marriage and annulment were no doubt as well known at that time at Oxford by word of mouth as they have since become to us by dint of a dozen books. It was the fact that Ruskin and the Millaises did not speak to each other that obliged Wilde to leave Ruskin with Irving and proceed to the ball alone.

To call the Ruskin ambiance merely odd was Oxonian politeness. As soon as Ruskin was married, he explained to his wife that children would interfere with his work and impede necessary scholarly travel. Consummation might therefore wisely be deferred until later on, perhaps in six years' time when Effie would be twenty-five. Few of us here could claim an equal dedication to learning. In the meantime Effie need have no fear about the possible sinfulness of their restraint, since many early Christians lived in married celibacy all their lives. Effie tried to accommodate herself to this pedantic view, and Ruskin in turn was glad to oblige her on a lesser matter: that they go to live in Venice, since he was already planning to write a book about that city.

In Venice, while Ruskin sketched buildings, Effie survived her boredom by going about with one or another of their friends. Ruskin encouraged her, perhaps (as she afterwards implied) too much. If he accompanied her to dances and masked balls, he often left early without her, having arranged that some gentleman friend escort her home. If she returned at 1:30 in the morning, he duly notified his parents in England, at the same time adding that he was completely at rest about her fidelity.18 Yet her obvious pleasure in pleasure, her flirtatiousness, her impatience with his studies, her delight in frivolity and late hours, struck Ruskin sometimes—however much he repudiated the outward thought—as forms of misconduct and disloyalty. He said as much later. That Effie wasn't sexually unfaithful to him didn't of course prevent Ruskin, any more than it prevented Othello before him, from considering her so, or from transposing her mental dissonance into larger, vaguer forms of betrayal.

The Stones of Venice will always stand primarily as a work of art criticism. But criticism, as Wilde said, is the only civilized form of autobiography,19 and it is as a fragment—a large fragment—of Ruskin's autobiography that the book claims an added interest. In novels and poems we take for granted that some personal elements will be reflected, but in works of non-fiction we are more reluctant, and prefer to postulate an upper air of abstraction in which the dispassionate mind contemplates and orders materials that already have form and substance. Yet even the most impersonal of writers, Thucydides, writing about the fortunes of another city, shaped his events, as Cornford suggests, by preconceptions absorbed from Greek tragedy. Ruskin made no pretense of Thucydidean impersonality, and the influence of his reading of the Bible is manifest rather than latent. But some problems of his own life also were projected onto the Venetian scene. Rather than diminishing the book's value, they merge with its talent and add to its intensity.

It may be easier to be convinced that The Stones of Venice is in part autobiographical if we remember Ruskin's candid admission that Sesame and Lilies, a book he wrote a few years later, was a reflection of one particular experience. His preface expressly states that the section in it called “Lilies” was generated by his love for Rose La Touche. This love impelled him to idealize women, he says, even though “the chances of later life gave me opportunities of watching women in states of degradation and vindictiveness which opened to me the gloomiest secrets of Greek and Syrian tragedy. I have seen them betray their household charities to lust, their pledged love to devotion; I have seen mothers dutiful to their children, as Medea; and children dutiful to their parents, as the daughter of Herodias. …” His love for Rose La Touche also covertly leads him to quarrel in the book with pietism because Rose was that way inclined. The Stones of Venice deals less obviously, but with the same insistence, on the virtues and defects of the feminine character. As Ruskin remarks in Sesame and Lilies, “it has chanced to me, untowardly in some respects, fortunately in others (because it enables me to read history more clearly), [My italics], to see the utmost evil that is in women. …”20 To Ruskin Venice is always she (to Mary McCarthy, invariably it), and the gender is not merely a form of speech but an image to be enforced in detail.

Accordingly Ruskin distinguishes two stages, with medieval Venice as virgin and Renaissance Venice as whore. The moment of transition is, apparently, the moment of copulation, and the moment of copulation is therefore (as in a familiar view of the Garden of Eden) the fall. When Ruskin describes the fallen state, he attributes to the city the very taste for masqued balls and merriment which he had ostentatiously tolerated in his wife. “She became in after times,” he declares, “the revel of the earth, the masque of Italy: and therefore is she now desolate, but her glorious robe of gold and purple was given her when first she rose a vestal from the sea, not when she became drunk with the wine of her fornication.”21 At the end of the first volume he again asserts, “It was when she wore the ephod of the priest, not the motley of the masquer, that the fire fell upon her from heaven. …”22 After that fire came another which changed the virgin city to its contrary: “Now Venice, as she was once the most religious, was in her fall the most corrupt, of European states; and as she was in her strength the centre of the pure currents of Christian architecture, so she is in her decline the source of the Renaissance. It was the originality and splendour of the Palaces of Vicenza and Venice which gave this school its eminence in the eyes of Europe; and the dying city, magnificent in her dissipation, and graceful in her follies, obtained wider worship in her decrepitude than in her youth, and sank from the midst of her admirers into her grave.”23 Ruskin cannot bring himself to sketch out “the steps of her final ruin. That ancient curse was upon her, the curse of the cities of the plain, ‘pride, fulness of bread, and abundance of idleness.’ By the inner burning of her own passions, as fatal as the fiery reign of Gomorrah, she was consumed from her place among the nations, and her ashes are choking the channels of the dead salt sea.”24 Just how passions should burn except inwardly may not be clear, especially since we can't suppose Ruskin favored the translation of sensual thought into sensual action, but pride, gluttony, and sloth secure a more sinister confederate in the unnamable sin of lust, whose self-generated fire is contrasted with that fire which had earlier fallen on the city from heaven.

Ruskin's stridency shows how much he had this problem at heart. In fact, consummation and defilement were irrevocably united for him, in his life as in his criticism. The Renaissance (a new term then but already favorable in its connotations)25 was for him not a rebirth but a relapse. (In De Profundis Wilde accepted this view.) Ruskin's revulsion extended from coupling to begetting to having been begot. He had more trouble than most people in allowing that he was himself the product of his parents' intercourse. A small indication is to be found in an epitaph which he wrote for his mother (who already had an epitaph) long after her death, consecrating a memorial well, as he writes, “in memory of a maid's life as pure, and a mother's love as ceaseless. …”26 In Ruskin's mind his mother had immaculately passed from maid to mother without ever becoming a wife.

This singular epitaph may illuminate a point never adequately explained, why Ruskin dated the fall of Venice not only to an exact year, but to a specific day, May 8, 1418.27 His own explanation is that this was the deathday of the aged Venetian military leader Carlo Zeno, and he makes his usual citation of Pierre Daru's Histoire de la République de Venise as his authority. But Daru doesn't give Zeno's death such consequence.28 Ruskin might more easily, and more consistently with his own views, have taken the year 1423, when the old Doge Tommaso Mocenigo died and the new Doge, Foscari, began his less glorious rule. He is alone among writers on Venice in attaching this significance to Zeno's deathday, and in view of his known penchant for numerology the date invites attention. If Ruskin had been born exactly four hundred years after this date, in 1818, rather than in 1819, the choice might seem related to his theatrical self-laceration, as if to regret he had even been born. But his terrors were for intercourse and conception rather than for birth. At the risk of impugning my own sanity as well as Ruskin's, I venture to propose that the date so carefully selected was, putatively, four hundred years to the day before his own conception—that act so impossible for him to meditate on with equanimity. That the moment of Venice's fall should be reiterated in the moment of his own begetting and be followed by his birth into an England only too ready (as he announces on the first page of his book) to fall—like a semi-detached Venice—anchored firmly the relationships Ruskin wished to dwell upon. In his parents' fall as in that of his first parents, he saw the determination of an age's character and of his own.

There was this difference, however, that Margaret Ruskin's marriage had made her a mother, while Effie Ruskin's “dissolute” behavior in Venice had made her—in fancy if not in fact—an adulteress. Moral blame, from which his mother was freed, was shunted to his wife. Ruskin's own later summary of The Stones of Venice confirms that he had this theme in mind. In The Crown of Wild Olive (1866) he wrote, “The Stones of Venice had, from beginning to end, no other aim than to show that the Renaissance architecture of Venice had arisen out of, and in all its features indicated, a state of concealed national infidelity, and of domestic corruption.”29 The trip to Scotland which Ruskin, his wife, and Millais took in 1853 strengthened the metaphors, and in later life he accused Millais of infidelity—artistic infidelity he called it30—to the Pre-Raphaelite principles as Ruskin had earlier enunciated them. Venice, his wife, and his friend were all guilty of the same crime.

Necessary as Ruskin found it to think of himself as wronged, there were moments when he recognized his own culpability. After the annulment of his marriage he came, by a series of mental leaps, to try a revision of his character. In 1858, while looking at Veronese's “Solomon and Sheba” in Turin, he suddenly felt a wave of sympathy for the “strong and frank animality” of the greatest artists.31 He disavowed his earlier religious zeal, and became (though at the urging of his father and of Rose La Touche's mother he didn't publicly say so) quite skeptical. Then, as Wilenski points out, he began to acknowledge that his theory of history in The Stones of Venice was mistaken. Writing to Froude in 1864, he stated firmly, “There is no law of history any more than of a kaleidoscope. With certain bits of glass—shaken so, and so—you will get pretty figures, but what figures, Heaven only knows. … The wards of a Chubb's lock are infinite in their chances. Is the Key of Destiny made on a less complex principle?”32 This renunciation of historical law was intellectually daring, and emotionally as well, for it meant that he was trying to alter those “pretty figures” which earlier had enabled him to lock his own conception and marriage into the history of Venice. As part of this change, he resolved to propose marriage to Rose La Touche, and in 1866 he at last did so. The day he selected for the proposal was probably an effort to change his temperament as well as his luck by another numerological flurry, for it was February 2, his parents' wedding day. By this symbolism he planned, perhaps, to overcome his revulsion at the thought of both consummation and procreation. Rose La Touche, no mean calendar-watcher herself, said she could not answer for two years, or perhaps for four. Ruskin abided her verdict with desperation; his diary records the passing of not only these anniversaries but, since she died soon after, of year after year following her death.33 No one will mock Ruskin's pain, or his struggle to overcome his fears and become as animal as Veronese.

Rose La Touche had been dead less than a year when Ruskin and Wilde met and took walks together. Neither professor nor pupil was reticent, and Wilde probably divined the matters that Ruskin was unwilling to confide. At any rate, the moral law as imparted by Ruskin, even with the softenings he now wished to introduce, was for Wilde sublime—and berserk. In Ruskin, whom everyone called a prophet, the ethical life was noble and yet, in its weird chastity, perverse. Against its rigors life offered an antidote, and what life was had been articulated by Walter Pater, who saw it not in terms of stones but of waters, not of monuments but of rivery passions. Pater was like Wilde in that, at the same age of nineteen, he too had fallen under Ruskin's sway. He soon broke free, his conscience unclenched itself. He surprised a devout friend by nonetheless attempting, although he had lost his faith, to take orders in the Anglican Church. His friend complained to the bishop and scotched this diabolic ordination. The Studies in the History of the Renaissance, Pater's first book, doesn't mention Ruskin by name, but uses him throughout as an adversary. Pater's view of the Renaissance did not differ in being more detached; in its way it was just as personal, and it ended in a secular sermon which ran exactly counter to that of The Stones of Venice. It is Ruskin inverted. Pater is all blend where Ruskin is all severance. He calls superficial Ruskin's view that the Renaissance was “a fashion which set in at a definite period.” For Pater it was rather “an uninterrupted effort of the middle age.”34 One age was older, one younger, they encountered each other like lovers.

An atmosphere of suppressed invitation runs through Pater's book as an atmosphere of suppressed refusal runs through Ruskin's. The first essay of Studies in the … Renaissance recounts at length how the friendship of Amis and Amile (in a thirteenth-century story) was so full and intense that they were buried together rather than with their respective wives. Later essays dwell with feeling upon such encounters as that of young Pico della Mirandola, looking like a Phidian statue, with the older Ficino, or as that—planned but prevented by murder—of Winckelmann and the still callow Goethe. For Ruskin the Renaissance is an aged Jezebel, while for Pater it is a young man, his hair wreathed in roses more than in thorns, such a youth as Leonardo painted as John the Baptist. In describing this painting, Pater lingers to point out that the saint's body doesn't look as if it had come from a wilderness, and he finds John's smile intriguingly treacherous [Author adds in a footnote: Wilde wrote from Algiers in 1895 to Robert Ross, “The most beautiful boy in Algiers is said by the guide to be ‘deceitful’; isn't it sad? Bosie and I are terribly upset about it.” (Unpublished text from Sir Rupert Hart-Davis)] and suggestive of a good deal35—which may be Victorian hinting at the heresy, a specially homosexual one, that Christ and John (not to mention Leonardo and his model) were lovers.36

Whatever Ruskin says about strength and weakness, Pater opposes. The decay against which The Stones of Venice fulminates is for Pater “the fascination of corruption,”37 and images of baleful female power, such as Leonardo's Medusa and other “daughters of Herodias,” are discovered to be “clairvoyant” and “electric,”38 when Ruskin had found the daughter of Herodias monstrously degraded. Instead of praising the principle of Noli me tangere, so ardently espoused by Ruskin, Pater objects to Christian asceticism that it “discredits the slightest sense of touch.” Ruskin had denounced “ripe” ornamentation in terms which evoked elements of the adult female body: “I mean,” he said, “that character of extravagance in the ornament itself which shows that it was addressed to jaded faculties; a violence and coarseness in curvature, a depth of shadow, a lusciousness in arrangement of line, evidently arising out of an incapability of feeling the true beauty of chaste forms and restrained power. I do not know any character of design which may be more easily recognized at a glance than this over-lusciousness. … We speak loosely and inaccurately of ‘overcharged’ ornament, with an obscure feeling that there is indeed something in visible Form which is correspondent to Intemperance in moral habits. …”39 But for Pater overcharged ornament is rather an “overwrought delicacy, almost of wantonness,” or “a languid Eastern deliciousness.”40

Ruskin combated strenuously what he considered to be a false fusion of classicism and Christianity in the Renaissance. “It would have been better,” he said, “to have worshipped Diana and Jupiter at once than have gone through life naming one God, imagining another, and dreading none.”41 Galleries had no business placing Aphrodite and the Madonna, a Bacchanal and a Nativity, side by side.42 But this juxtaposition was exactly what Pater endorsed. For him European culture was what he called, following Hegel to some extent, a synthesis. To countervail Ruskin's diptych of Venice as virgin of the Adriatic and whore of Babylon, he offered as his Renaissance altarpiece the Mona Lisa of Leonardo. His famous description begins, “The presence that rose beside the waters,” and it is clear that he is summoning up not only Lisa, but Venus rising like Ruskin's favorite city from the sea. Lisa has, according to this gospel of Saint Walter, mothered both Mary and Helen, exactly the indiscriminateness, as well as the fecundity, which Ruskin condemned. Pater's heroine, as Salvador Dali has implied by giving her a moustache more suited to Pater, is an androgyne: the activities attributed to her, dealing with foreign merchants and diving in deep seas, seem more male than female. She blends the sexes, she combines sacred and profane. Like Saint John, she has about her something of the Borgias.

Against Ruskin's insistence upon innocence, Pater proffers what he bathetically terms, in the suppressed and then altered and reinstated conclusion to the Renaissance, “great experiences.” He urges his readers to seek out high passions, only being sure they are passions; later, only being sure they are high. The Renaissance is for him the playtime of sensation, even its spiritual aspects being studies in forms of sensation. W. H. Mallock parodied this aspect by having Pater, as the effete “Mr. Rose” in The New Republic, lust for a pornographic book. Something of the extraordinary effect of Pater's Renaissance comes from its being exercises in the seduction of young men by the wiles of culture. And yet Pater may not have seduced them in any way except stylistically. When Wilde presented Lord Alfred Douglas to him, the flagrancy of the homosexual relationship was probably, as Lawrence Evans conjectures, the cause of the rift between Pater and Wilde which then developed.

Pater and Ruskin were for Wilde at first imagined, and then actual figures; then they came to stand heraldically, burning unicorn and uninflamed satyr, in front of two portals of his mental theatre. He sometimes allowed them to battle, at other times tried to reconcile them. A good example is his first long published work. This was an ambitious review of the paintings in a new London gallery; he wrote it in 1877, his third year at Oxford, for the Dublin University Magazine. The article takes the form of a rove through the three rooms, which had been done, Wilde said admiringly, “in scarlet damask above a dado of dull green and gold.” (Ruskin, who also attended, complained that this decor was “dull in itself” and altogether unsuited to the pictures.) Upon entering, Wilde immediately belauds Burne-Jones and Hunt as “the greatest masters of colour that we have ever had in England, with the single exception of Turner”—a compliment to Ruskin's advocacy of Turner and to the sponsorship of the Pre-Raphaelites by both Ruskin and Pater. Wilde then, to praise Burne-Jones further, quotes Pater's remark that for Botticelli natural things “have a spirit upon them by which they become expressive to the spirit,” and as he swings through the gallery he finds occasion to savor the same sweet phrase again. He also manages to mention the portrait of Ruskin by Millais, though it was not on exhibition. Reaching the end, he salutes “that revival of culture and love of beauty which in great part owes its birth to Mr. Ruskin, and which Mr. Swinburne and Mr. Pater and Mr. Symons and Mr. Morris and many others are fostering and keeping alive, each in his peculiar fashion.” He slipped another quotation from Pater into this final paragraph, but a watchful editor slipped it out again.

Wilde's review of the exhibition is not so interesting as Ruskin's, in Fors Clavigera 79, which roused Millais to fury and Whistler to litigation. But it did result in Wilde's finally meeting Pater who, having been sent a copy of the review, invited him to call. Their subsequent friendship afforded Wilde a chance to study the student of the Renaissance. He did not lose his admiration, as we can surmise from the poem “Hélas” which he wrote a little later. In it he invokes both of his mentors as if they were contrary forces tugging at him. After owning up to frivolity, Wilde says,

Surely there was a time I might have trod
The august heights, and from life's dissonance
Struck one clear chord to reach the ears of God.

The chief reference is to Gothic architecture, celebrated by Ruskin because, though fraught with human imperfection—“life's dissonance”—it reached towards heaven. In the next lines Wilde confesses to having fallen away a little:

Is that time dead? Lo, with a little rod,
I did but touch the honey of romance.
And must I lose a soul's inheritance?

Here he is quoting Jonathan's remark to Saul, “I did but taste a little honey with the end of the rod that was in mine hand, and lo! I must die,” which Wilde remembered Pater's having conspicuosly quoted and interpreted in the Renaissance in his essay on Winckelmann. For Pater Jonathan's remark epitomizes “the artistic life, with its inevitable sensuousness,” and is contrasted with Christian asceticism and its antagonism to touch.43 If the taste for honey is a little decadent, then so much the better. Wilde is less sanguine about this appetite here. But as Jonathan was saved, so Wilde, for all his alases, expected to be saved too, partly because he had never renounced the Ruskin conscience, only foregone it for a time.

The tutelary presences of Pater and Ruskin survived in Wilde's more mature writings. If he mentions one, he is almost certain to call up the other. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, for example, Pater is enclosed (like an unhappy dryad caught in a tree trunk) in Lord Henry Wotton. Lord Henry's chief sin is quoting without acknowledgment from the Renaissance. He tells Dorian, as Pater told Mona Lisa, “You have drunk deeply of everything … and it has been to you no more than the sound of music.” He predicts, against the “curious revival of Puritanism” (a cut at Ruskin), a new hedonism, the aim of which will be “experience itself, and not the fruits of experience.” It will “teach man to concentrate himself upon the moments of a life that is but a moment.” These are obvious tags from the Conclusion to the Renaissance. Lord Henry's advice to Dorian, “Let nothing be lost upon you. Be always searching for new sensations,” was so closely borrowed from the same essay that Pater, who wrote a review of the book, was at great pains to distinguish Lord Henry's philosophy from his own. Wilde seems to have intended not to distinguish them, however, and to offer (through the disastrous effects of Lord Henry's influence upon Dorian) a criticism of Pater.

As for Ruskin, his presence in the book is more tangential. The painter Hallward has little of Ruskin at the beginning, but gradually he moves closer to that pillar of esthetic taste and moral judgment upon which Wilde leaned, and after Hallward is safely murdered, Dorian with sudden fondness recollects a trip they had made to Venice together, when his friend was captivated by Tintoretto's art. Ruskin was of course the English discoverer and champion of Tintoretto, so that the allusion is not vague. The ending of Dorian Gray executes a Ruskinesque repudiation of a Pateresque career of self-gratifying sensations. Wilde defined the moral in so witty a way as to content neither of his mentors: in letters to newspapers he said Dorian Gray showed that “all excess, as well as all renunciation, brings its own punishment.”44 Not only are Hallward and Dorian punished by death, but, Wilde asserted, Lord Henry is punished too. Lord Henry's offense was in seeking “to be merely the spectator of life. He finds that those who reject the battle are more deeply wounded than those who take part in it.”45 The phrase “spectator of life” was one that Wilde used in objecting to Pater's Marius the Epicurean.46 However incongruous his conception of himself as activist, with it he lorded it over his too donnish friend. For Pater, while he touted (sporadically at least) the life of pleasure, was careful not to be caught living it. He idealized touch until it became contemplation. He allowed only his eye to participate in the high passions about which he loved to expatiate. Dorian at lest had the courage to risk himself.

In Dorian Gray the Pater side of Wilde's thought is routed, through not deprived of fascination. Yet Hallward, when his ethical insistence brings him close to Ruskin, is killed too. In The Soul of Man under Socialism, also written in 1891, Wilde superimposes Ruskin's social ethic upon Pater's “full expression of personality,” fusing instead of destroying them. In Salomé, to which I come at last, the formulation is close to Dorian Gray, with both opposites executed. Behind the figure of Iokanaan lurks the image of that perversely untouching, untouchable prophet John whom Wilde knew at Oxford. When Iokanaan, up from his cistern for a moment, cries to Salomé, “Arrière, fille de Sodome! Ne me touchez pas. Il ne faut pas profaner le temple du Seigneur Dieu,” a thought of Ruskin, by now sunk down into madness, can scarcely have failed to cross Wilde's mind. By this time Wilde would also have recognized in the prophet's behavior (as in Ruskin's) something of his own, for after his first three years of marriage he had discontinued sexual relations with his wife. Iokanaan is not Ruskin, but he is Ruskinism as Wilde understood that pole of his character. Then when Salomé evinces her appetite for strange experiences, her eagerness to kiss a literally disembodied lover in a relation at once totally sensual and totally “mystical”47 (Wilde's own term for her), she shows something of that diseased contemplation for which Wilde had reprehended Pater. Her adaptation, or perversion, of the Song of Songs to describe a man's rather than a woman's beauty also is reminiscent of Pater's Renaissance as well as of Wilde's predisposition. It is Salomé, and not Pater, who dances the dance of the seven veils, but her virginal yet perverse sensuality is at home in Paterism.

Admittedly the play takes place in Judea and not in Oxford. Wilde wanted the play to have meaning outside his own psychodrama. Yet his tutelary voices from the university, now fully identified as forces within himself, seem to be in attendance, clamoring for domination. Both Iokanaan and Salomé are executed, however, and at the command of the tetrarch. The execution of Salomé was not in the Bible, but Wilde insisted upon it [Author adds in a footnote: Gomez Carrillo says that the play was originally to be entitled “La Décapitation de Salomé,” thus slighting St. John by precisely equating the two deaths.48]. So at the play's end the emphasis shifts suddenly to Herod, who is seen to have yielded to Salomé's sensuality, and then to the moral revulsion of Iokanaan from that sensuality, and to have survived them both. In Herod Wilde was suggesting that tertium quid which he felt to be his own nature, susceptible to contrary impulses but not abandoned for long to either.

Aubrey Beardsley divined the autobiographical element in Herod, and in one of his illustrations gave the tetrach the author's face. Herod speaks like Wilde in purple passages about peacocks or in such an epigram as, “Il ne faut pas regarder que dans les miroirs. Car les miroirs ne nous montrent que les masques.” Just what Wilde thought his own character to be, as distinct from the alternating forces of Pater and Ruskin, is implied in a remark he made in 1883 to George Woodberry, who promptly relayed it to Charles Eliot Norton. Wilde told Woodberry that Ruskin “like Christ bears the sins of the world, but that he himself was ‘always like Pilate, washing his hands of all responsibility.’”49 Pilate in the story of Christ occupies much the same role as Herod in the story of John the Baptist. In other letters Wilde continues to bewail his own weakness, yet with so much attention as to imply that it may have a certain fibre to it. In March 1877 he wrote, “I shift with every breath of thought and am weaker and more self-deceiving than ever,”50 and in 1886 he remarked, “Sometimes I think that the artistic life is a long and lovely suicide, and am not sorry that it is so.”51 What he more and more held against both Ruskin and Pater was a vice they shared equally, that of narrowness. To keep to any one form of life is limiting, he said in De Profundis, and added without remorse, “I had to pass on.”52

Herod too passes on, strong in his tremblings, a leaf but a sinuous one, swept but not destroyed by successive waves of spiritual and physical passion, in possession of what Wilde in a letter calls “a curious mixture of ardour and of indifference. I myself would sacrifice everything for a new experience, and I know there is no such thing as a new experience at all … I would go to the stake for a sensation and be a sceptic to the last!”53 Here too there is martyrdom and abandonment, with a legal right to choose and yet stay aloof. Proust had something of the same idea when he said of Whistler's quarrel with Ruskin that both men were right.54 In that same reconciling vein Wilde in De Profundis celebrates Christ as an artist, and the artist as a Christ. And in Wilde's last play, when Jack declares at the end, “I've now realized for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest,” he is demonstrating again that Ruskin's earnestness and Pater's paraded passionateness are for the artist not mutually exclusive but may, by wit, by weakness, by self-withholding, be artistically, as well as tetrarchically, compounded.


  1. Mario Praz, The Romantic Agony, tr. Angus Davidson (Meridian Books, 1963), p. 191.

  2. “… cette jeune princesse que définitivement vous évoquâtes.” Unpublished letter, Mallarmé to Wilde, March 1893.

  3. “J'ai laissé le nom d'Hérodiade pour bien la différencier de la Salomé je dirai moderne …” Draft of a preface to Hérodiade, in Stéphane Mallarmé, Les Noces d'Hérodiade (Paris, 1959), p. 51.

  4. See Yeats's comments on A Full Moon in March and The King of the Great Clock Tower.

  5. Praz, p. 299.

  6. This edition was anonymous.

  7. Heywood's Salomé was one of several books discussed in Wilde's review, “The Poets' Corner,” Pall Mall Gazette, XLVII:7128 (January 20, 1888), 3.

  8. E. Gomez Carrillo, En Plena Bohemia, in Collected Works (Madrid, n.d. [1919?]), XVI, 170 ff.

  9. Oscar Wilde, Letters, ed. Rupert Hart-Davis (London, 1962), p. 469.

  10. Vincent O'Sullivan, Aspects of Wilde (London, 1936), p. 139.

  11. Wilde, Letters, p. 471.

  12. Yeats, Autobiography (New York, 1965), p. 87.

  13. Wilde, Letters, p. 471. At the Marquis of Queensberry trial Wilde spoke of Pater as “the only critic of the century whose opinion I set high. …”

  14. John Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies (London, 1900), p. 203.

  15. Based on newspaper clippings of Wilde's American tour, 1881-82.

  16. Wilde, Letters, p. 218.

  17. Ibid., p. 61.

  18. Derrick Leon, Ruskin, The Great Victorian (London, 1949), p. 152.

  19. In The Critic as Artist.

  20. Sesame and Lilies, p. xxxiii.

  21. Ruskin, The Stones of Venice (New York, n.d.), I, 150.

  22. Ibid., p. 8.

  23. Ibid., pp. 38-39.

  24. Ibid., III, 165.

  25. Wallace K. Ferguson, The Renaissance in Historical Thought (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1948), pp. 142-44.

  26. Entry for 30 November 1880, in The Diaries of John Ruskin, ed. Joan Evans and John Howard Whitehouse (Oxford, 1959), III, 995. Ruskin's earlier dedicatory tablet had been taken down because the well became polluted. It specified that the name “Margaret's Well” be given, but did not otherwise mention his mother, though the donor's name was given as “John Ruskin Esq., M.A., LL.D.” The new inscription, never installed, was to read in full:

                                            “This Spring
    In memory of a maid's life as pure
              And a mother's love as ceaseless,
              Dedicate to a spirit in peace
              Is called by Croydon people,
                                            Margaret's Well.
              Matris animae, Joannes Ruskin
  27. The Stones of Venice, I, 18.

  28. Pierre Daru, Histoire de la République de Venise (Paris, 1853), II, 198-99.

  29. Ruskin, The Crown of Wild Olive (1866), in The Works of John Ruskin, ed. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (London, 1903), XVIII, 443.

  30. “But the spectator may still gather from them some conception of what this great painter might have done, had he remained faithful to the principles of his school when he first led its onset.” Fors Clavigera 79 (July 1877), in Works, XXIX, 161.

  31. Ruskin, Diary, II, 537, and Notes on the Turin Gallery. Quoted by R. H. Wilenski, John Ruskin (London, 1933), pp. 231-32.

  32. Wilenski, p. 69.

  33. Diary, II, 720, 737.

  34. Walter Pater, The Renaissance, ed. Kenneth Clark (Meridian, 1961), p. 214.

  35. “It is so with the so-called Saint John the Baptist of the Louvre—one of the few naked figures Leonardo painted—whose delicate brown flesh and woman's hair no one would go out into the wilderness to seek, and whose treacherous smile would have us understand something far beyond the outward gesture or circumstances.” Ibid., p. 118.

  36. See Wilde, Letters, p. 756.

  37. Pater, Renaissance, p. 108.

  38. Ibid., p. 116.

  39. The Stones of Venice, III, 8.

  40. Pater, Renaissance, p. 47.

  41. The Stones of Venice, III, 109.

  42. Ibid., p. 110.

  43. Pater, Renaissance, p. 211. Compare Ruskin, Diary, III, 972, for 1 January 1878: “And now, thinking of the mischief done to my own life and to how many hundred thousand, by dark desire, I open my first text at I Corinthians Vii.1. [‘It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless … let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband.’] And yet the second verse directly reverses the nobleness of all youthful thought, expressed in a word by Dr. King: ‘Not to marry that they may be pure; but to be pure that they may marry.’”

  44. Wilde, letter to the Editor of the St. James's Gazette, June 26, 1890, in Wilde, Letters, p. 259.

  45. Ibid.

  46. Wilde, Letters, p. 476.

  47. Jean Paul Raymond and Charles Ricketts, Oscar Wilde: Recollections (London, 1932), p. 51.

  48. Gomez Carrillo, p. 214.

  49. Unpublished letter in the Houghton Library, Harvard.

  50. Wilde, Letters, p. 31.

  51. Ibid., p. 185.

  52. Ibid., p. 475.

  53. Ibid., p. 185.

  54. “Whistler is right when he says in Ten O'clock that Art is distinct from morality; and yet Ruskin, too, utters a truth, though on a different level, when he says that all great art is a form of morality.” Marcel Proust. Correspondence avec sa mère, ed. Philip Kolb (Paris, 1953), p. 279. Quoted in George Painter, Marcel Proust (London, 1965), II, 29-30.

Jason P. Mitchell (essay date spring 1996)

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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 John the Baptist.” And she came in straightway with haste unto the king, and asked, saying, “I will that thou give me by and by in a charger the head of John the Baptist.” And the king was exceeding sorry; yet for his oath's sake and for their sakes that sat with him, he would not reject her. And immediately the king sent an executioner, and commanded his head to be brought, and he went and beheaded him in prison. And brought his head in a charger, and gave it to the damsel; and the damsel gave to her mother.

(6: 21-28, King James Version)

Clearly, if we are to follow this account, all guilt rests with Herodias, and such was the prevailing belief until the Baptist became a more widely venerated saint, with the result that the image of Salomé became increasingly negative (Zagona 20).

The Salomé theme was a prominent one in both literature and the visual arts until the end of the Renaissance, when its prominence began to lessen, until it was revived in the nineteenth century by Heinrich Heine, whose Atta Troll served to inspire an entire series of explorations by such divergent authors as Flaubert, Mallarmé, and Huysmans, ending with Oscar Wilde's Salomé.

Critical reaction to Wilde's effort has been mixed. Mallarmé, in a letter full of praise, commended Wilde for his portrayal “de cette jeune princesse, que définitivement vous evoquâtes1 (Ellmann, Oscar Wilde 375). Maurice Maeterlinck wrote his thanks for the presentation of the volume after reading it for the third time, describing it as a “rève dont je ne me peux pas expliquer la puissance,2 and assuring Wilde of his “admiration très grande3 (Ellmann, Oscar Wilde 375). Pierre Loti said of Salomé.c'est beau et sombre comme une chaptre de l'Apocalypse—je l'admire profondement4 (Ellmann, Oscar Wilde 375). Other critics were less favorably impressed. William Butler Yeats, though often an admirer of Wilde's works, considered Salomé's dialogue “empty, sluggish, and pretentious” (259). (His dislike of the play was not, however, so strong as to prevent his rewriting it not once but twice [Worth 72].) Even one of Wilde's friends, Edgar Saltus, was not sure quite what to make of Salomé, describing it as a product “of genius wedded to insanity” (22).

Many have viewed Wilde's Salomé as a mere composite of earlier treatments of the theme overlaid with Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck's characteristic diction. Typical of this appraisal is a anonymous review appearing in the (New York) Critic of 12 May 1894 accusing Wilde of literary theft, declaring that “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” (Anonymous 285). Pearson notes that Wilde's Salomé “shows the influence of Maeterlinck … who wrote symbolical dramas … with a rigid simplicity of language and a haunting balladic effect” (201). Robert Ross considered Maeterlinck “among the obvious sources on which [Wilde] has freely drawn” (Zagona 129). Ernst Bendz states his perception of Wilde's debt to the Belgian rather plainly: “en ecrivant son drame de Salomé Oscar Wilde s'est fortement inspiré d'un … ouvrage d'un ecrivain contemporain, je veux parler des Sept Princesses de Maeterlinck” (92).5

The matter of inspiration (or derivitiveness) does merit some examination. Wilde never made a secret of his literary borrowing; to Max Beerbohm he once said, “Of course, I plagiarize. It is the privilege of the appreciative” (Ellmann, Oscar Wilde 375-76). Wilde was certainly familiar with those who had gone before him; he revered Flaubert and Mallarmé, the latter of whom was a friend for many years, and his admiration for Huysmans is also well known (Ellmann, Oscar Wilde 213). Further, Wilde once remarked that he found only two modern playwrights interesting: Hugo and Maeterlinck (Worth 54). When asked why he had chosen to write Salomé in French, Wilde cited Maeterlinck as an example of the interesting effect resulting when an author writes in a language not his own (Worth 54). Once allowed reading material in prison, Wilde requested, among many other items. Maeterlinck's complete works (Harte-Davis 521-22).

However, while Wilde's debts are undeniable, the question of whether he created something new from the materials which inspired him remains. Wilde surely did. While the kissing of the head was an element not only of Heinrich Heine's Atta Troll but also of an American work on the Salomé theme by J. C. Heywood, there are some important distinctions. The horrible kiss does take place in the former work, but as Ellmann notes, “it is a punishment after Herodias' death, not a divertissement before it, and the tone of caricature is quite unlike that of perverted horror which Wilde evokes” (Golden Codgers 41). In the works of Heine and Heywood, the character who kisses the head is Herodias, not Salomé, and neither author makes “this monstrous kissing the play's climax” (Ellmann, Golden Codgers 41). Even Zagona, who holds that Wilde based the structure of his work on that of Flaubert's Hérodiade, praises Wilde's great improvement in dramatic unity (124).

Further, Mallarmé's Hérodiade seeks to “triumph over all her longings” (Fowlie 139) which is quite different from the flaw (compulsion?) of Wilde's Salomé, who is distinguished by her inability to restrain a human nature “entirely evil because entirely uninhibited and unmodified by any restriction” (Nassaar 92). Both heroines are obsessed with chastity, but the similarity ends there. As one examines the earlier works, Wilde's original approach becomes clear; Ellmann observes that “to read Heywood or other writers about Salomé is to come to a greater admiration for Wilde's ingenuity” (Golden Codgers 41).

Given Wilde's penchant for borrowing and his admiration for his contemporaries, it is certainly not unreasonable to assume that his choice of diction was inspired by his Belgian contemporary. However, a reasonable assumption is not proof. While Wilde would certainly not have hesitated to borrow Maeterlinck's technique, Salomé's unusual diction is too closely integrated with the play's symbolism to be a mere overlay. Consequently, it is more plausible that Wilde's inspiration was something far older than “a work of a contemporary author,” namely the poetic works of the Old Testament. Wilde, raised in the Church of Ireland, was very familiar with the Old Testament, and his debt to it, particularly to the Song of Solomon, is often acknowledged but never discussed at length. Pearson, in the context of citing a possible Maeterlinckian influence does note the “obvious influence of the Song of Solomon on some of the longer passages” (226). Ellmann likewise observes that Salomé's description of Jokanaan is “an adaptation, or perversion, of the Song of Songs” (Golden Codgers 57). The influence of Old Testament verse on Salomé is clear from an examination of the text alone, but not, it seems, widely discussed.

Wilde, in his Salomé, not only employs a number of the images favored by Israel's kingly poets, but also makes masterful use of their chosen modes of poetic expression. The main technique of Old Testament versification is parallelism, the use of paired phrases containing some common element, with that in the second phrase answering, echoing or otherwise corresponding to that in the first. The types of correspondence tend to be fairly regular, often dealing with subordination, sequence of actions, and even repeated words (Kugel 4-7). The latter element is closely akin to another poetic device, repetition, in which “phrases, verses or short passages [known as repetends] recur, sometimes in different forms, at varying intervals” (Fox 210).

The play opens with what is to become a repetend, the statement of the Young Syrian: “How beautiful is the Princess Salomé tonight!” (392). This is repeated twice. After the second repetition, the same character remarks on the paleness of the Princess, in an example of parallelism: “How pale the Princess is. Never have I seen her so pale” (39).

The Page of Herodias also enters with a repetend. “Look at the moon,” which is repeated (with variations) by Salomé, the Young Syrian, and Herod, each of whom sees very different significance in the moon. To the Page, “She is like a woman rising from the tomb. She is like a dead woman. … she is like a woman who is dead” (393). To the Young Syrian, enamored of Salomé, the moon “has a strange look. She is like a princess who wears a yellow veil, and whose feet are silver. She is like a princess who has little white doves for feet” (393). To Salomé, the moon is pure and virginal. “She is cold and chaste. I am sure she is a virgin. Yes, she is a virgin. She has never defiled herself. She has never abandoned herself to men, like the other goddesses” (397). However, Herod, as does the page, sees a sinister aspect in the moon:

The moon has a strange look tonight. Has she not a strange look? She is like a mad woman who is seeking everywhere for lovers. She is naked, too. She is quite naked. She shows herself naked in the sky. She reels through the clouds like a drunken woman. … I am sure she is looking for lovers. Does she not reel like a drunken woman? She is like a mad woman.


Only Herodias, of all the main characters of the play, sees nothing in the moon: “No; the moon is like the moon, that is all” (407). Thus do these characters share variations on the repetend “Look at the moon,” expressing it in language filled with parallelisms.

As noted, some have proposed that Wilde simply copied the frequent repetition employed by Maeterlinck. Phillip Cohen suggests that this proposal, as well as San Juan's theory that the repetition in Salomé's and Jokanaan's speeches “opposes their fixated state to the wavering indecisiveness of Herod” (164), simply does not apply. Instead, Cohen maintains, “verbal repetition functions as a complement to repetition of plot. In a significantly structured manner, characters echo the words and re-enact the deeds of others” (164).

True as this observation is, however, it does not go far enough, ignoring as it does the important role which repetition and parallelism play in the exposition of the work's symbolism and failing to take into account Salomé's near complete integration of Biblical poetic devices with symbolic expression. Because of this integration, one must approach the play's use of Biblical diction in the context of its symbolism.

Such language as we find in Salomé is certainly well-suited to an effective use of symbols, allowing the author to give them much greater stress than would otherwise be possible while minimizing the risk of monotony. For example, the repeated references to the moon cited earlier serve to accentuate its importance as a symbol, yet are saved from tediousness by the judicious use of variation. This same method of repetition also makes it possible to reveal through different characters the various aspects of this most crucial symbol.

The link between the moon and Salomé's paleness is our first clue to the former's importance. From the very beginning, it is clear that the moon is to be identified with Salomé; the juxtaposition of the Young Syrian's opening remark on the beauty of the Princess with the subsequent exhortation of the Page of Herodias to look at the strange and deathlike moon is but one clue. The Young Syrian himself identifies the “dancing” moon with Salomé in his description of it as a princess. To reinforce the point, Salomé, herself protective of her virginity, remarks on the moon's chastity (which quality is later the source of her attraction to Jokanaan). In short, repetitions and parallel statements serve to intensify the reader's awareness of these correspondences, just as they were once used for purposes of intensification in Hebrew poetry (Alter 11).

What is to be made of the Salomé-moon relationship, once established? Nassaar proposes that “the moon is meant to suggest the terrible pagan goddess Cybele,” who, like Salomé, was obsessed with preserving her virginity and thus took perverse pleasure in destroying male sexuality (84). The priests who served Cybele had castrated themselves and sacrificed their own blood to her. Their self-mutilation parallels the suicide of the Young Syrian, and, Nassaar asserts, serves to reinforce the connections between Cybele, the moon, and Salomé (86).

Repetition may also serve to grant an incantatory quality, as in Salomé's beseeching of Narraboth (the Young Syrian) to bring her the Prophet, in which the statement “Thou wilt do this thing” is repeated, with variations eight times. Almost as though Salomé has cast a spell over him does Narraboth consent to do what inevitably leads to his death. If we grant Nassaar's parallel to Cybele, then Salomé's power over the unfortunate young man is clearly an analogy to that of the goddess over her devotees; thus the presentation of her demand in the form of a litany is very apt.

With the entrance of the prophet comes an important series of parallelisms and repetitions involving crucial color symbols. Salomé, first looking on Jokanaan as he emerges from his cistern, remarks on the blackness of his eyes, saying,

They are like black holes burned by torches in a tapestry of Tyre. They are like the black caverns of Egypt in which the dragons make their lairs. They are like black lakes troubled by fantastic moons.


Immediately after, she marvels at his paleness, just as others had remarked on hers:

How wasted he is! He is like a thin ivory statue. He is like an image of silver. He is like a moonbeam, like a shaft of silver. I would look closer at him, I must look at him closer.


Quite a bit in these two passages demands closer examination. In the first, the idea of blackness is repeated, with images of holes, caverns, and lakes. As Nassaar notes, all of these things suggest depth, and thus, coupled with the color of death, the tomb. Salomé's fascination with the blackness of Jokanaan's eyes clearly implies an attraction based upon his deathly quality. Again, repeating images of extreme blackness and depth aids in stressing an important aspect of the play's symbolism.

The second of the passages is even richer. Salomé extols the Prophet's paleness, a quality which she and the moon share, yet does so in images which suggest lifelessness: statues and moonbeams. This is an important point; white may symbolize chastity or death, and which of these is at issue in the passage is crucial. The repetition of whites and silvers serves to reinforce their status as important symbols, and the parallelism: “He is like a moonbeam, like a shaft of silver,” in its identification of Jokanaan with the moon, may answer which aspect of white so fascinates Salomé.

Having seen how the Biblical diction in this passage reinforces the image of a lifeless (as opposed to pure) chastity, one must concur with Nassaar that “it is the deathlike coldness of [Jokanaan's] flesh that attracts” Salomé (84). The Princess, in her Cybelic obsession with virginity, is drawn to the corpse-like Jokanaan because he poses no threat to her (Nassaar 83). As San Juan suggests, the final pair of phrases, “I would look closer at him. I must look at him closer,” does powerfully suggest Salomé's fixation.

Acting upon her sterile attraction to Jokanaan, Salomé tempts him three times, resuming and extending the theme of color symbolism. Once again, she praises the Prophet's whiteness:

I am amorous of thy body, Jokanaan! Thy body is white like the lilies of a field that the mower hath never mowed. Thy body is white like the snows that lie on the mountains of Judea, and come down into the valleys. The roses in the garden of the Queen of Arabia are not so white as thy body. Neither the roses of the garden of the Queen of Arabia, the garden of spices of the Queen of Arabia, nor the feet of the dawn when they light on the leaves, nor the breast of the moon when she lies on the breast of the sea. … There is nothing so white as thy body. Suffer me to touch thy body.


Not only is the word white used four times, it is employed in parallelisms that not only allow great stress to white without the risk of monotony, but also extend yet further the identification of Jokanaan with the moon—he is whiter still.

After the Prophet rejects her advances (“Back! Daughter of Babylon …”), Salomé begins the second phase of her temptation of him, by claiming that his body is “hideous … like the body of a leper” and that in reality she is attracted to his hair.

It is thy hair I am enamoured of, Jokanaan. Thy hair is like clusters of grapes, like the clusters of black grapes that hang from the vinetrees of Edom in the land of the Edomites. Thy hair is like the cedars of Lebanon, the great cedars of Lebanon that give shade to the lions and to the robbers who would hide in them by day. The long black nights, when the moon hides her face, and when the stars are afraid, are not so black as thy hair. The silence that dwells in the forest is not so black. There is nothing in the world that is so black as thy hair. … Suffer me to touch thy hair.


So Salomé turns once again to blackness, with imagery nearly as sinister as before. Though the grapes seem innocent enough, one cannot say the same for the cedars of Lebanon: beautiful as they are, they give shelter to lions and robbers. Black as is the moonless night, “when the stars are afraid” is a particularly foreboding comparison, given the supreme importance that Salomé attaches to the moon. Repeatedly, Salomé stresses black in contexts that serve to reinforce its negative associations.

Rebuffed once more, Salomé enters the third phase of her temptation, this time asserting that it is not the blackness of the Prophet's hair which attracts her but the redness of his mouth:

Thy mouth is like a band of scarlet on a tower of ivory. It is like a pomegranate cut in twain with a knife of ivory. The pomegranate flowers that blossom in the garden of Tyre, and are redder than roses, are not so red. The red blasts of trumpets that herald the approach of kings and make afraid the enemy, are not so red. Thy mouth is redder than the feet of doves who inhabit the temple and are fed by the priests. It is redder than the feet of him who cometh from a forest where he hath slain a lion, and seen gilded tigers. Thy mouth is like a branch of coral that fishers have found in the twilight of the sea, the coral they keep for kings! … It is like the vermillion that the Moabites find in the mines of Moab, the vermillion that the kings take from them. …


These images are the most sinister of all, recalling as red does blood, and thus sacrifice, suggesting Salomé's realization, given the Prophet's immunity to her charms, that she may only possess him by killing him (Nassaar 91). The reference to the pomegranate, like that to grapes, seems innocent, until Salomé's declaration, after Jokanaan's death, that she “will bite [his mouth] with [her] teeth as one bites a ripe fruit” (427). As Nassaar notes, it is only in this passage that imagery of sacrifice appears: the knife described as ivory-handled (suggesting a ceremonial blade) and “the slaying of lions” (91). The temple doves also suggest sacrifice rather strongly, forcing one to recall how those too poor to afford a lamb or kid could offer turtledoves as a sacrifice in the temple. Blood, we must remember, was a key element in the worship of Cybele. Again and again in this passage red is emphasized, its value as a symbol of blood, sacrifice and martyrdom enhanced by its repetition in contexts involving such elements of religious worship.

Not only are colors important symbols whose effectiveness is increased by the use of repetition combined with parallelism and other variations; this is also true of the word look. Throughout the work, characters exhort one another to look or not look. As though in warning, the Page of Herodias urges the Young Syrian to look at the moon (393), where perhaps there is some sign of Salomé's true nature, and not to look at Salomé herself, because “something terrible may happen” (393, 396-97). Salomé, too, is aware of the significance of looking: she knows only too well why Herod looks at her as he does. Likewise, she appreciates the significance of looking at the moon (397), and is eager to see Jokanaan after hearing his voice from the cistern, saying, “Bring out the prophet. I would look upon him” (399).

Clearly we are not dealing with an ordinary meaning of the word look, but rather with action as symbol. To look, in this context, is obviously to accept or to make oneself vulnerable to something. The Page fears that disaster will result if the Young Syrian looks upon Salomé. Salomé is well aware of the significance of the Tetrarch's looking at her “with mole's eyes under shaking lids” (397). Jokanaan says of Salomé, “I will not have her look at me” (402), and averts his eyes from her. Each of these characters knows that to look upon Salomé is to accept her evil nature, or at least to confront it, and none is willing to do so. The continued repetition of look by such dissimilar characters makes clear the word's status as an important symbol.

Herodias's frequent berating of Herod for looking at Salomé reinforces the point: “You must not look at her. You are always looking at her” (406). Herod, while quite willing to look upon Salomé, at least her body, refuses to confront what frightens or displeases him. He locks the prophet in the cistern, hiding him from view, yet John's shouted denunciations continue to reach all within earshot. When the Tetrarch comes onto the terrace and sees the body of the young man who has slain himself, he considers it “an ill omen” and says, “I will not look on it” (407).

After Salomé has danced and made her terrible demand, Herod declares,

Thy beauty has grievously troubled me, and I have looked at thee overmuch. Nay, but I will look at thee no more. One should not look at anything. Neither at things nor at people should one look. Only in mirrors is it well to look, for mirrors do but show us masks.


Herod now knows Salomé's true nature and cannot bear to confront it. As Nassaar notes, “a mirror will show Herod a mask, but Salomé reveals his soul to him” (94).

Both the color symbols and the word look are stressed by continued repetition combined with images and parallelisms in whose contexts their meanings are made yet clearer. This is the weakness of the argument that the parallelisms and repetitions in Salomé are simply a superficial stylistic overlay adapted from Maeterlinck or the Bible. Though most certainly inspired by the latter and quite possibly influenced by the former, Wilde created, in Salomé, a work in which diction and symbolism are inextricably linked. Far from being a pastiche of all that had gone before it, Wilde's Salomé is admirably unified; the language which struck Yeats as “empty, sluggish and pretentious” serves a clear purpose: the greater emphasis of important symbols. Through modes of expression favored not by his beloved Greeks but rather by the poets of Israel, with their songs and prophecies, Wilde achieves a masterpiece of drama in which language and symbol are one.


  1. “of this young princess, whom you have definetively evoked,” (my translation).

  2. “dream whose power I cannot explain to myself” (my translation).

  3. “very great admiration” (my translation).

  4. “it is beautiful and solemn like a chapter from the Apocalypse—I admire it profoundly” (my translation).

  5. “in writing his drama of Salomé Oscar Wilde was strongly inpired by a work of a contemporary writer; I speak of Materlinck's Seven Princesses (my translation).

Works Cited

Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Poetry. New York: Basic Books, 1985.

Bendz, Ernst. “A Propos de la Salomé d'Oscar Wilde.” Oscar Wilde. Folcroft, PA: Folcroft P, 1969.

Cohen, Phillip K. The Moral Vision of Oscar Wilde. Camden, NJ: Associated UPs, 1976.

Ellmann, Richard. Golden Codgers: Biographical Speculations New York: Oxford UP, 1973.

———. Oscar Wilde. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988.

Fowlie, Wallace. Mallarmé. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1962.

Fox, Michael V. The Song of Solomon and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1985.

Harte-Davis, Rupert, ed. The Letters of Oscar Wilde. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1962.

Kugel, James L. The Idea of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and Its History. New Haven: Yale UP, 1985.

Nassaar, Christopher S. Into the Demon Universe: A Literary Exploration of Oscar Wilde. New Haven: Yale UP, 1974.

Pearson, Hesketh. Oscar Wilde: His Life and Wit. New York: Harper, 1946.

Saltus, Edgar. Oscar Wilde: An Idler's Impression. New York: AMS P, 1968.

Wilde, Oscar. Salomé: The Portable Oscar Wilde. New York: Penguin, 1982. 392-429.

Worth, Katherine. Oscar Wilde. London: Macmillan, 1983.

Yeats, W. B. Letter to T. Sturge Moore, 6 May 1906. Oscar Wilde: The Critical Heritage. Karl Beckson, ed. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1970.

Zagona, Helen Grace. The Legend of Salomé and the Principle of Art for Art's Sake. Paris: Librarie Minard, 1960.

Christopher S. Nassaar (essay date winter 1999)

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Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 891

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 inexperience, then, are the real “fan” in this case. As he comes to realize the true Salomé, the fan imagery is dropped.

The imagery is picked up by Jokanaan in his attacks on Herodias. At one point, Jokanaan cries out from his cistern prison: “Bid her rise up from the bed of her abominations, from the bed of her incestuousness, that she may hear the words of him who prepareth the way of the Lord, that she may repent her of her iniquities. Though she will never repent, but will stick fast in her abominations; bid her come, for the fan of the Lord is in His hand” (588). This passage, like many others uttered by Jokanaan, has a double meaning. At the conscious level, Jokanaan is attacking Herodias, but unconsciously he is bidding her to come to him even though she will not repent: He wants her for himself (Nassaar 80-109).

The reference to the fan, though, is interesting. The fan is in Christ's hand and by extension Jokanaan's. It is a threefold symbol. Primarily it is aggressive, a weapon with which Jokanaan can strike Herodias much as Lady Windermere wished to strike Mrs. Erlynne. In the Gospels, Christ is referred to by John the Baptist as having a winnowing-fan in his hand, with which he will separate the wheat from the chaff and toss the latter into the fire (Matthew 3.12; Luke 3.17-18). Jokanaan's aggressive intentions towards Herodias are thus quite clear. An open fan can also be protective, serving to shield the pure and holy from moral evil. But the fan has a third, suppressed meaning. Jokanaan declares early in the play that his rod is broken. If closed, the fan can thus be seen as a phallic symbol, a substitute for the rod and an indication of Jokanaan's unconscious desire for Herodias.

The fan as weapon and sexual symbol soon finds its way into the hands of Herodias. She says, as Herod's guests discuss the coming of Christ:

“Ho! Ho! Miracles! I do not believe in miracles. I have seen too many.” (To the Page): “My fan! […] How these men weary me! They are ridiculous!” (To the Page): “Well, my fan!” (The Page gives her the fan.) “You have a dreamer's look, you must not dream. It is only sick people who dream.” (She strikes the Page with her fan.)

(page 595)

In Herodias's possession, the fan becomes a weapon against men. Just as Salomé pushes the young Syrian to commit suicide, so Herodias hits the Syrian's best friend, the page, asserting her power over him. The fan becomes a declaration of the superiority of women over men.

Finally, and most important, the fan demonstrates Herodias's power over Jokanaan. When Salomé asks for and receives the prophet Jokanaan's head at the end of the play, Herod hides his face in shock but “HARODIAS smiles and fans herself” (603). Just as the daughter took Jokanaan's head, the mother relieves him of the fan and makes it her own, thus symbolically beheading him in a minor leitmotif that parallels Salomé's actual taking of his head.

There is one last reference to fans that must be noted. Toward the end of the play, Herod desperately offers Salomé all the delights of aestheticism if only she will withdraw her request for Jokanaan's head. The aesthetic objects that so delighted Dorian Gray are rejected by Salomé, but among them are “four fans fashioned from the feathers of parrots” that had been sent to Herod by “the King of the Indies” (602). Earlier, Salomé had used a fan to hide her nature, but now she rejects the fans partly because she no longer wishes to hide her true self in any way. The thrust of the play is for Salomé to express her personality and to strip away all veils obscuring her real self.

Works Cited

Nassaar, Christopher S. Into the Demon Universe: A Literary Exploration of Oscar Wilde. New Haven: Yale UP, 1974.

Wilde, Oscar. Salomé. Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. 3rd Edition. Glasgow: Harper, 1994. 583-605.

David Wayne Thomas (essay date March 2000)

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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 numerous references in this vein clarify that his association of Salomé and verbal musicality is not merely a passing one (Letters 331, 475, 492). But to clarify what interest we might bring to this association of music and words, we need to find a richer basis than the fact of Wilde's own consistent affirmation. That basis lies in the formal implications of a verbal-musical connection. I argue that the idea of verbal music arises in Wilde's Salomé to illuminate the nature and limits of any will to critical interpretation. So even as this discussion aims to spotlight an aspect of Wilde's play that has received virtually no critical attention, it also aims to demonstrate the generality of theoretical provocation at hand in Wilde's literary practice.

There have been earnest efforts to comprehend music and words within a seamless unity, but Wilde was not one for earnest efforts of that sort, and I do not try to locate an authentic musicality in the words of Salomé. Instead, I suggest that Wilde's concern in his Salomé is to enact and also to destabilize the very idea of a verbal-musical conjunction, to evoke an array of interpretive cruxes brought out precisely through his work's equivocal aspiration toward the condition of music. The strangeness of the play's dramatic music—the very interest of this dramatic music—inheres in the unstable dynamism of the transpositional aspiration itself. In this respect, Salomé's verbal music is not about the communion of words and music. Instead, it is about the attractions and the inevitable precariousness of formal correspondences, artistic transpositions, encoding and decoding. The action of Salomé, presided over by a reflective moon, engenders a staging of critical reflection as such, bringing manifold issues of identity and difference into a carnival of inverted imaging and shaky introspections. So the work implies a comment on the uncertain condition of interpretation. In Wilde's approach to the conjuring of verbal music, nothing succeeds like failure.

This redemptive approach to failed aspiration seems prescient in the light of the personal disasters that awaited him. In a letter of early June, 1897, written a few weeks after his release from a two-year imprisonment with hard labor for acts of gross indecency, Wilde reviews his literary career by invoking the terms of subjectivity, objectivity and aesthetic formalism that will organize this discussion:

One can really, as I say in Intentions, be far more subjective in an objective form than in any other way. If I were asked of myself as a dramatist, I would say that my unique position was that I had taken the Drama, the most objective form known of art, and made it as personal a mode of expression as the Lyric or the Sonnet, while enriching the characterization of the stage, and enlarging—at any rate in the case of Salomé—its artistic horizon.

(Letters 589)2

Wilde's letter encourages us to find in his works a reflection of the artist himself, an objectified subjectivity. His longtime friend and confidante Ada Leverson suggests what such objectification of the Wildean self might actually involve—at least, in the matter of Salomé—for she proposes that, beyond the drama's cosmetic influences from the works of Maeterlinck, Flaubert, and Huysmans, it is still more decisively Wildean how “Salomé expressed himself in his innate love of the gorgeous and bizarre” (110-11). It is not initially clear, however, what it means for Wilde to have loved the gorgeous and the bizarre, nor even what makes the gorgeous gorgeous, finally, or the bizarre, bizarre.

Critics routinely examine these questions with reference to Wilde's sexuality. In that light, Wilde's concern to be “subjective in an objective form” might seem to indicate a desire to advance homosexual representation within a philistine and hyper-conventionalist world that reserved its affirmation for the regular, upright, unambiguous, immanent, objective. For fin-de-siècle Victorians, as the investigations of Michel Foucault have suggested, the newly minted category of the “homosexual” functioned in some measure of antithesis to all of those normalizing rubrics—it was an ambiguously open secret, a matter of sexual inversion (or, soon, perversion), the affliction of an errant soul, housed mistakenly in the wrong body. In the context of a social debate so fundamentally informed by metaphors of rule and deviation, the arch-inverter Oscar Wilde often seems to us a subversive artist in encoding, a guerrilla tactician who baffled Victorian conservatism by fashioning “new discursive strategies to express concerns unvoiced within the dominant culture” (Cohen 806). His popular comedy The Importance of Being Earnest, ostensibly about connubial prospects and cucumber sandwiches, becomes in this critical light a study in representing the homosexual male through the very mechanisms of Victorian compulsory heterosexuality (Craft). The Picture of Dorian Gray becomes, in turn, a depiction of the Image as construction site of male-male desire, a dilation on artistic influence as seminal confluence (Cohen; Dellamora). And readings of Salomé tend to decipher a “secret or unspeakable subtext” (Showalter 152), revealing a “masked depiction of one man's prohibited longing for another” (Finney 65), with Salomé herself as Wilde's transvestic alter ego (Garber 339-45). These critical precedents—along with readings by Jonathan Dollimore, Lee Edelman, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and others—have served as models for negotiating the ironic necessity of taking Wilde's works in an “earnest” critical spirit.

Like all interpretive styles, however, strategies of decoding hazard their particular blindnesses. In criticism on Wilde, one problem lies in the narrowing effect brought about finally by any suggestion that his subversive encoding encompasses the breadth of his literary concerns. Even if Wilde's enthusiasm for a London high-life of social and sexual carousing is indubitable—he recalled in De Profundis his period of “feasting with panthers” (492)—none of his comments in letters or secondhand reports underwrites an assumption that his primary interest as a literary artist lay in creating esoteric representations of this aspect of his life. Far more regularly, he reveals a distaste for the essentially stabilizing and arithmetical commitments of all decoding, for, in the end, encoding and decoding remain but two expressions of a fundamental literalism. And as a grudging Henry James once noted, writing, it so happens, a couple of months after Wilde completed Salomé: “Everything Oscar does is a deliberate trap for the literalist” (253).

James's literalist is not merely an earthbound bore but a figure arrested in flight from certain truths of reflection. This view pertains, at least, whenever reflection signifies not pure reproduction but rather, as in Salomé, inversion, permutation, transposition. Not simply a text made up of reflections or images, Salomé is a text about them, and nowhere more so than in its strange musicality. But once we have broached that distinction between reflections and reflections on reflection—a distinction between a logic and a metalogic—we will do well to put an even finer point on it. I propose that Salomé is a text about that very distinction, about the slippage between a logic and a metalogic. A critical vantage point on the very juxtaposition of logic and metalogic opens up exactly the conceptual recursion that Wilde cultivated so adeptly. Fundamentally informed by such positionings, his most characteristic literary gestures exhibit an intricate species of doubleness, what I call here an equivocal enactment, that leaves behind merely oppositional or self-canceling paradoxes and enters instead into a playful and unreckonable tangling of interpretive hierarchies. Sustained reading complicates the sense that any procedure of decoding can be at all appropriate to Salomé, for her image energizes and maintains a critical contest between the enticements of decoding and those of indeterminacy.

To those already knowledgeable about Wilde, music will probably seem a feeble springboard into these highly general dimensions of his thinking, because of all the arts, music was without a doubt the least congenial to his temperament and intellectual range. Richard Ellmann claims that music was “always a closed book” to Wilde (27). An overview of the literary and critical writings supports Ellmann's characterization, for Wilde's references to music, although frequent, are generally lackadaisical and, at their most deliberate, rise only to the provocatively impressionistic. In “The Critic as Artist I,” for example, Gilbert observes that Dvorák “writes passionate, curiously-colored things” (243). Hardly a high-water mark in Dvorák criticism, it must be admitted. And in the opening lines to The Importance of Being Earnest, Algernon casts aside tiresome notions of accuracy in piano playing: “[A]nyone can play accurately,” he observes. “As far as piano is concerned, sentiment is my forte” (480).

But Wildean flippancies generally merit some thought, and Algernon's word sentiment in fact collapses together at least two distinct and even contrary indications—one, a suggestion of unarticulated feeling, a feeling beyond words but gathered somehow into music; another, a suggestion of articulate feeling, of feeling gathered precisely into words. The duplex term sentiment highlights a slippage embedded in the Wildean notion of musicality generally, because for Wilde art is inevitably a matter of articulation, even while music remains for him essentially a matter of inarticulation. In this scheme, therefore, the essence of music as an art form is deeply at odds with Wilde's own suppositions about art itself. So if Salomé is a musical-verbal drama, it can only be so as the bearer of a fundamental representational complication. For that reason, the consistently uninspiring quality of Wilde's musical acumen cannot amount to a critical disincentive for this essay, because Salomé's “success” as verbal music is not the central issue. More pertinent are the interpretive issues forced on stage through the play's equivocally interartistic enactment. Even when it is possible to identify features of Wilde's Salomé that enter the terrain of verbal musicality—features that evoke the structural, even phenomenological aspect of music—Wilde's own biases bring him inevitably back to music not just as a structure but as a figure, not just as a self-sufficient formalism but as the signal art of opposition, difference and otherness.

To uncover that interpretive crossfire in the drama's verbal-musical enactment, it will be well to consider first the nature of the drama's musical gesture, and to hold at bay, for the time being, those complications to be located in that gesture. We need not review the practical and theoretical history of verbal musicality, as accessible overviews are readily available (e.g., Scher 155-66), and Wilde's highly unprofessional relation to music would make an earnest and rigorous consideration of musical phenomenology something of a non sequitur in any case. Perhaps it can suffice to recall the vitality and pervasiveness of the interartistic motion within the Romantic and post-Romantic periods. Debussy's musical setting of Mallarmé's poem L'Apres-midi d'une faune was as characteristic as Whistler's painted “nocturnes” and “preludes.” Especially in the poetry of Mallarmé, the verbal imagery of music, even the attempt to suggest that the poem is music, would signal one of the most characteristic tendencies of the Symbolist movement in literature and provide the defining background of Wilde's Salomé. Apparently a part of the contemporary fascination with synesthesia—as in Baudelaire's sonnet “Correspondances,” where, in “the ecstasies of sense,” “[a]ll scents and sounds and colors meet as one” (Flowers of Evil 12)—the interartistic gestures weaves like a thread through nineteenth century literature. (Another Baudelaire poem might be said to have handed Wilde the very notion of “strange music”: “une étrange musique” names the buzzing of flies around a decaying animal carcass in “Une Charogne” [Flowers of Evil 265].) From its earlier formulations by figures like Percy Shelley, for whom transpositional notions could suggest the integration of phenomenal reality and the perceiving mind into an imaginative Oneness, to its later manifestations in the Wagnerist Gesamtkunstwerk and French Symbolist discourse, 19th-century interest in these integrative aesthetic gestures reflects the rise and the transformational decline of Romanticism, broadly conceived. As M. H. Abrams observes in his influential The Mirror and the Lamp, the late 19th century marks the culmination of a period inclined to the coordination of verbal and musical effects in particular (88-94 and passim).

Wilde's Salomé evinces such transpositional inclinations in several ways. To begin, its one-act structure allows it a distinctly monological and formally integrated narrative texture, much like a lyric poem or a musical composition. Uniquely among his plays, Wilde's Salomé appears not to have been initially conceived as a staged work, according to Ellmann, nor was Wilde deeply committed to the notion that it could only find its fulfillment as a staged effort (344). In Salomé, neither changes of setting nor discrete soliloquies introduce the perspectival disjunctions or adjustments characteristic of many narrative forms, most notably the novel, in regard to which Bakhtin has argued that a fundamental dialogism, a heterogeneity of voices and discursive directions, provides the essential feature. Bakhtin himself proposes that poetic expression exhibits “a unity of style,” an effect both of the organicism of its language and of the personalizing lyric persona, whereas the novel “makes of the internal stratification of language, of its social heteroglossia and the variety of individual voices in it, the prerequisite for authentic novelistic discourse” (264). Cultivating a highly unitary and “poetic” flavor, then, Salomé reaches toward musicality in that sense outlined in Lawrence Kramer's Music and Poetry, which attempts to forge an inclusive interpretive framework for musical and poetic signification. Kramer disputes the easy antitheses between music and poetry and proposes instead that they exhibit a reciprocal and to some extent invertible participation in the polar opposition of significant structure—music's strong point—and referential connotation—the hallmark of poetic expression (5-8). As poeticized expression, therefore, Salomé attains some of the verbal musicality that aestheticians have found to inhere in poetry generally.

Salomé also suggests a kind of musicality in its elaborately artificial, highly mannered patterning of dialogue. If architecture can be called frozen music, then perhaps Salomé's architecturalized dialogue invites similar associations. Most of the drama's formal measuredness is conveyed through its numerous tripled addresses: Salomé's seductive speech to the Young Syrian, her extravagant encomium to Iokanaan, Herod's pleadings to her that she alter her fatal request, Herodias's derisive comments to the anguished Herod. Like music, then, the play imposes a stylized and even metronomic procession, marking out its extensions through time with an alienating independence from a more usual fluid and unconscious experience of time. Wilde's fairy tales also illustrate his pleasure in such deliberately languorous extensions, for their folkloric tripartite structures periodically eliminate narrative tactics of suspense and replace them with a sometimes enchanting, sometimes frustrating indifference to narrative progress. There Wilde co-opts the tripling tendency of traditional folkloric procedures, putting those structures in service to the aestheticizing delectations of an opulent, even self-indulgent imaging.

Finally, the drama's studied dialogue is congruent with Western forms of musical exposition, wherein elementary patterns are proposed and developed through progressive elaborations on initial ur-patterns or motifs. The incantational rhythms of the opening lines, for example, counterpoise regularizing effects of verbal and syntactical repetition with carefully alternating enlargements and constrictions, thereby conveying a sense both of interconnection and development:

THE Young Syrian:
How beautiful is the Princess Salomé tonight!
THE Page of Herodias:
Look at the moon. How strange the moon seems! She is like a woman rising from a tomb. She is like a dead woman. One might fancy she was looking for dead things.
THE Young Syrian:
She has a strange look. She is like a little princess who wears a yellow veil, and whose feet are of silver. She is like a princess who has little white doves for feet. One might fancy she was dancing.
THE Page:
She is like a woman who is dead. She moves very slowly.


Here already in these first lines one sees those deliberate “recurring phrases of Salomé” that Wilde had said would bind the drama into a cohesive, highly formalized plenitude, “like a piece of music.” Indeed, Salomé finds its definitive “musical” stratagem precisely in the matter of repetition.

Evident in many respects throughout the work, repetition is crucially deployed in Salomé's refrain to the prophet Iokanaan: “I will kiss thy mouth, Iokanaan” (310-11). Like a verbal residuum, the word simmered down to a foundational sonorous materiality, Salomé's refrain becomes the essential indicator of her absorption in the image of the prophet. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud links the repetition compulsion with primary libidinal self-involvement, as well as with the tendency not to remember, arguing that the repetition compulsion takes place in lieu of full consciousness of the pastness of the past, in lieu of memory (12-14). Pursuing her own unprincipled pleasures, Salomé reveals her oblivion to history—to cultural memory, that is—in her initial unfamiliarity with the identity of the prophet Elias, whom even the common soldiers can identify as a Judean prophet who has perhaps been revived now in the person of Iokanaan (268). So while her chanted words signal her absorption in another, they also underline her involuted consciousness, her disengaged solipsism and self involvement. While repetition serves in many other literary contexts as a binding force, an integrative gesture lending consecutive moments a resonant affinity—consider Walt Whitman, for example—the repetitions in Salomé delineate as well the unfolding conflicts of the play, communicating with considerable economy the play's disassociated atmosphere, its perspectival contests, and its epistemological unease.

Through repetition, in fact, the drama's orderly tripartite architectures are subjected to a dramatic disintegration. Lavishly praising his black hair and, next, his white body, Salomé is rebuked in both events by Iokanaan. Finally she fixes on the image of his red mouth and, rejected a third time here, she breaks the pattern of her address, dwells at this point, and settles definitively into her resolve to have her pleasures with this prophet. While Iokanaan, the Young Syrian, the Page, and the others address her, resist her, and try variously to unseat her resolve, Salomé has now found her focus and will not be diverted. Nine times she repeats that she will kiss the prophet's mouth, and, indeed, this thought is all she has to say for an extended period. (We hear nothing else from her until well after the arrival on stage of Herod, Herodias, and the party guests.) Her retirement from any outward engagement is signaled, as well, by her utter indifference when the emotionally overtaxed Young Syrian kills himself in frustration over her disregard for him. It is well to note that the Young Syrian kills himself not upon first confronting Salomé's passion for the prophet, but upon hearing the repetition of Salomé's words—“I will kiss thy mouth, Iokanaan”—for that repetition forces on the Young Syrian, in its demonstration of Salomé's autonomous will, the collapse of his own narcissistic vision, just as Narcissus himself died upon the consummation of his encounter with the radical otherness of the reflecting pool.

Simultaneously a figure of speech and of the body, the mouth of Iokanaan bridges a chasm of conceptual and material realities. (His presence in the drama actually underlines diachronically the distinction between verbalized conceptions and material presences, for we first experience him as a bodiless voice from the well, and we see him in the end as a voiceless, inert head on the stage.) The mouth—richly sensuous, an organ of tremendous intimacy, for Freud the original erotogenic zone—is here the origin, as well, of what Salomé calls “terrible” words (305), scandalous and portentous outpourings that have not only struck fear into Herod and plagued Herodias, but also possessed Salomé herself with a sense of the physicality or materiality of these words. His voice, she exclaims in the original French text, has made her “drunk”: “Ta voix m'enivre” (26). Almost as if to underline a connection between such physicality and the effects of music, these French lines became in the English version, “Thy voice is as music to mine ear” (308).

The mouth of Iokanaan, when brought together with Salomé's own mouth, provides the drama's essential image of illicit, overflowing union, leaving the legend's typical centerpiece—the famous dance—to pale in comparison. It is not the dance, after all, but the moment of the kiss that Aubrey Beardsley depicted first in his illustration “Je baisé ta bouche” in the Studio of April, 1893. Wilde saw the unsolicited drawing and was inspired to invite Beardsley's illustrations for the 1894 English publication of Salomé; Beardsley contributed many more illustrations, including a revision of the first, now retitled “The Climax.” Wilde's decision to create and to spotlight the kiss would be recalled and interpreted, too, by Yeats in his 1935 play The King of the Great Clock Tower, a late rendering of the Salomé theme wherein the severed head sings: “What marvel is / Where the dead and the living kiss?” (640). This meeting of life and death in that marvelous climax represents not simply an inert concept of death, of “nothingness” or “negation,” as it were, but the confrontation of life with death. Arriving at this dizzying juxtaposition through a spiral of repetitions, Wilde's Salomé exemplifies Victorian dramatic literature's boldest and most persuasive illustration of the libidinal, thanatonic involvements that we commonly link to obsessive repetition, the bodily raptures and the suspending, desocializing trajectory of passionate objectifications.

As Roland Barthes has it, “to repeat excessively is to enter into loss, into the zero of the signified,” a process which for Barthes indicates, in our culture, an “eccentricity, thrust toward various marginal regions of music” (41). Deliberately eccentric, definitively marginal, the musicality of Salomé's words to the prophet prefigures the threat that her eccentric music can usher forth in an apocalyptic confrontation with Iokanaan, that ambassador of the Word. Salomé is approaching her own crisis at this moment, however, for she herself is soon to be put to death at Herod's command. Toward the end of this discussion, it will come time to return once again to this final episode in order to see that Salomé, participating in this verbal-musical drama, participates as well in a catastrophe of verbal-musical assertion, a catastrophe in which she, like the music with which she has been aligned, falls prey to the retaliation of Herod's word. Among the several unveilings in Wilde's tale—and “unveiling” or “revelation” is the root sense of the term apocalypse—one finds the revelation that representations, essentially, are vital but disappointed bids for consummation, acts of frustrated grasping. In the Judean princess's desire to partake of the corporeal-verbal union figured by the prophet's mouth, one sees her narcissistic aspiration toward the condition of music, but one sees as well a reflection of that lack through which all such aspiration is constructed.

Wilde's version of verbal musicality is, therefore, an equivocal enactment, articulating the uncertain, paradoxical terrain of the Wildean pose. As Wilde plays at avant-garde artistic transpositions, he at the same time builds a critical vantage point in relation to those exploits. This procedure highlights a loopy logic intrinsic to the very impulse toward breaking down artistic boundaries, for just as agitation can take form only within a contextual orthodoxy, so too does Salomé's verbal music depend finally on the vitality of a distinction between music and the word. To gain the image of Wilde that I advance here, it is crucial to see that the twin concepts of immediate engagement and mediating criticism form no opposition merely, but a sort of knot, a nexus; this knotting together of action and criticism presents what one might well call the most decisively “Wildean” mode of literary operation, even a Wildean conception of human consciousness.

Said Wilde once, “In art I am Platonic, not Aristotelian, tho' I wear my Plato with a difference” (Raymond and Ricketts 15). He surely deployed the word difference with less freight than we give it today, but his meaning appears to be much the same as our contemporary meanings: in his Platonism, as in most things, Wilde's operational mode is neither one of obedient consent nor of polemicizing opposition, but rather one of participation via a manifold, differential enactment. Although Wilde's remark is tied to an occasion—it reflects his decision to change details of time and place in The Importance of Being Earnest—this remark also shows a general truth about Wilde, illustrating his inveterate habit of taking upon himself a role or a label, although not quite in a spirit of accurate or correct representation. Likewise, Wilde's manner of anti-Romanticism was never simply a rejection of Romanticism, but a mode of enacting it, wearing it, “with a difference.” Perhaps the most decisive paradox of Oscar Wilde emerges in this neatly paradoxical formulation: he was quite sincere in his posing.

So just as Ada Leverson could remark that Wilde's Salomé in some sense “expressed himself,” we might add that the drama “sincerely poses” as music. If one cannot finally establish that Salomé is a musical-verbal production, and if one, likewise, cannot finally dispose of that notion, the ensuing critical undecidability is not finally a problem; it is simply a conundrum of the sort that Wilde would extol in perhaps his most characteristic quip: “A Truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true” (“The Truth of Masks” 432).

Because Wilde's many references to music are hardly of a serious kind, it would be little trouble to dismiss his gesture across art forms as a manner of escapist dabbling, just a facile artistic ploy. His invocations of musicality are not, however, merely outbursts of militant frivolity, for even in his most lighthearted or absurd references to the idea, he gives the idea of music a specific role to play in his narrative structures or characterization. That role is exhibited typically through his most characteristic poseurs. One of his epigrammatically inclined aristocrats, for example, Lord Goring of An Ideal Husband, declines a young Miss's invitation to enter the music room after it becomes clear that there might actually be music within; he stays away for the sake of continued conversation, much more to his tastes (400). And in The Picture of Dorian Gray, when one of Wilde's society ladies praises Wagner's music by noting that its high volume permits one to converse without worrying about listeners in neighboring boxes (81), Wilde is having his fun with Wagner, but managing as well to counterpoise music with what is, for him and many others, its perpetual opponent: language.

The contest of sound and sense is more consequentially figured in Dorian Gray himself, who plays the piano in both the second and the second-to-last chapters of Wilde's only novel. Dorian's quite proficient playing sets his unarticulated, unselfconscious expressiveness apart from the highly deliberate verbal intelligence of Lord Henry Wotton, a presence in each of these chapters. But throughout the novel, Wotton's voice is itself insistently described as musical, and it is precisely the musicality of his words that allows Wotton to affect Dorian so profoundly. Wotton's voice is then no mere vehicle of logos, but an indefinitely situated phenomenon, meaningful yet crucially elusive. This enigmatic quality becomes evident through Dorian's thoughts as he labors to fathom the insinuating power that Wotton's voice has for him:

Music had stirred him [Dorian Gray] like that. Music had troubled him many times. But music was not articulate. It was not a new world, but rather another chaos that it created in us. Words! Mere words! How terrible they were! How clear, and vivid and cruel! One could not escape from them. And yet what a subtle magic there was in them!


Through Dorian's reflections, Wilde fashions music as an alluring but chaotic anti-figure, alien to any structural articulation, even without rules. Recalling so originary a motion as that of a new world brought forth from chaos, Dorian finds that music, which simply creates “another chaos,” does not bridge that divide, while the Word does begin to do so. One sees in this passage that Wotton's influence on Dorian's life is not, as is often supposed, a matter of introducing something wholly new to an innocent youth, but one of rendering sensible to him the chaotic force of an elusive form, figured as musicality, but now with a difference—or, as today's semiological vocabulary will allow, “with difference.” Dorian's awakening is an effect of that musical form rendered articulate—“clear, and vivid and cruel”—and music becomes both an illuminating enchantment and, just as much, l'art fatal.

The structural complexity of the musical canon and fugue, to say nothing of myriad other musical forms, makes plain that Wilde's conception of music as an elusive and destabilizing chaos hardly provides the truth of the matter. But Wilde's shortcomings as a music theorist may better serve to fuel our thinking than to license deprecation. Let it instead be instructive that music, the least discursive of art forms, remains alien to the most avidly dialectical and verbal of literary intelligences. In the classic manner of an impressionist criticism, Wilde's thoughts on music tell us less about music than about his critical intelligence and concerns. His continual resort to an idea of music, despite his manifest lack of traditional musical acumen, signals just that much more clearly how music is for him something significant but crucially remote, an art that is essentially and actively other. Music in words will finally not be music at all, but will remain, quite simply, music in words—music figured, music represented.

Wilde's actual concern, it seems, is to conjure the structural characteristics of a loosely conceived musicality so as to render musicality itself into a figure within his literary texts. Salomé's peculiar power among Wilde's works to make something of this figuring of music emerges directly from the extent to which he in fact attempted, his verbal biases notwithstanding, to play at realizing or consummating that figuration, rather than merely to cast a verbal glance toward it. More than in any of his other works, the musical words of Salomé assume a consequential significance not only as an idea but as an aesthetic enactment. Where his critical dialogues, his reviews, his fictional prose, dramas and his poems all quite regularly invoke the concept of music, Salomé goes uniquely far in the direction of actually proposing to be music, to evoke it.

To the extent that Salomé's musicality then serves no longer as a topical reference merely, as a critical figure signifying the anti-figural, but instead becomes imported into the fabric of the literary work itself, the representational issues become refocused away from the propositional or conceptual understandings of the work and into the “body” of the work itself, into its form as it is apprehended sensorally. This notion of attending to the sensuous body, of forcing the materialization of a form, is a matter of thematic importance within the action of the play, where Salomé's and Herod's fascinations both highlight the disruptive allure of an idea's radical objectification in sensually “present” form. Already in the very formal quality of the dramatic dialogue, however, we can see or hear the matter of form urged implicitly. Salomé's bid to be musical serves to underline an aspect of materiality in language, emphasizing the necessity of its aural and temporal paths of transmission. The word must come to us embodied. Thus the matter of Salomé's form is not merely an abstract issue; it incorporates the materiality through which alone a linguistic or conceptual form becomes accessible to thought. The transposition across art forms is a defamiliarizing tactic, an aspiration toward unification, surely, but just as much a reminder that form and matter—name and thing, concept and content—interdepend in a fruitful but perpetual suspense.

The essentially suspended quality of aspiration figures deeply in Walter Pater's “The School of Giorgione” (1877), an essential period essay that Wilde undoubtedly knew. (Stealing from it was his characteristic tribute: in “L'Envoi,” Wilde's introduction to Rennell Rodd's 1882 collection of poems Rose Leaf and Apple Blossom, Pater's essay is an unmistakable source of ideas and phrasing [Miscellanies 30-41, esp. 31].) Today, the most often-quoted line in Pater's essay is typically given without context: “All art constantly aspires toward the condition of music” (106). Without doubt, Wilde's Salomé aspires toward the condition of music, but why it does so remains uncertain as yet, and it seems unlikely, at any rate, that one could see Wilde himself as aspiring to the condition of a composer. A closer-than-passing consideration of Pater's notion might help clarify matters.

The condition of music, for Pater, involves an impeccable harmony of form and subject, and the other arts aim at this condition perpetually: “For while in all other kinds of art it is possible to distinguish the matter from the form, and the understanding can always make this distinction, yet it is the constant effort of art to obliterate it” (106). For Pater and Wilde both, music consummates an intercourse between matter and form, and the etymological provenance of Pater's word obliterate—to go ‘against the letter,’ to ‘erase’ what is articulated—suggests how deeply this aspiration toward the unity of matter and form is affiliated with a longing to repress articulated difference, to elude the chains of an essentially linguistic operation of distinction and determination. Still more decisive than the Paterian concepts of condition and constancy, therefore, will be the concept of aspiration. Like desire, aspiration denotes a dynamic state, a differential structure of longing for what is not with the aspirant, for what the aspiring mind in itself finally is not. Where condition and constancy might then be understood in terms of a positive stability, aspiration must finally name a protracted tension, a longing in the context of its own definitive denial or frustration. For Pater, it seems, the “effort” of art is to obliterate the very distinction that music has in fact already obliterated. Pater's formulation therefore entails that music qua art form has no effort before it at all. Music figures here a phenomenal plenitude that all other arts lack.

In this view, the nonmusical arts are constitutionally invested with a radical negativity, so that any gesture toward musical-verbal transposition can only come into being with a foretaste of that gesture's inevitable undoing. All the nonmusical arts, that is, only aspire to the condition of music by virtue of the fact that they never really achieve that condition. For Pater, a truly fine painting will not be that miraculous—and impossible—work which somehow succeeds to the condition of music, but rather that work which most fully realizes its own longing after that music-like integration of medium and meaning. An idea's self-realization becomes, in this light, not a creation or a resuscitation of pre-original unities, but a thematizing of what deconstructionists following Derrida call “difference at the origin.”

Perhaps it is no coincidence, then, that the sobering quality of negative determinations constitutes the almost forgotten theme of “The School of Giorgione,” an essay which is not, after all, about music, nor even about all the arts together, but about how educated people like Pater might deal most fruitfully with the recent determinations by scrutinizing critics that many works once thought to be Giorgione's are, in truth, not by Giorgione at all. One sees Pater's sense of loss in such determination when he writes that recent criticism has “so freely diminished the number of [Giorgione's] authentic works” (115; emphasis mine). Of course, recent criticism had not changed their number in any sense but that of historical memory. Perhaps there lurks in Pater's wording no mere imprecision, however, but a truer truth. (The notion of a “true truth,” avraie vérité” undetermined by trammeling fact, is Pater's refrain in this essay.) Perhaps historical memory is the decisive matter after all, and Pater's sadness is one more reverberation of the Victorian era's more general difficulties with several profound historical determinations, revelations that the world's larger history has become no longer what one might have thought it to be, once.

The revelations about Giorgione carry for Pater the flavor of an apocalypse—or the sense of an ending, in Frank Kermode's still useful formulation. The verbal gesture toward music can then be seen in light of this historical context, for here that gesture reaches toward that art in which a form will be splendidly apparent, even while it seems exempt from the linguistic tangles and disillusionments of reference and representation. Linda Dowling's Language and Decadence in the Victorian Fin de Siècle offers intelligent support for the notion that literary aestheticism and decadence were fundamentally expressions of linguistic crisis, and, indeed, Pater is among her focal figures. (Her investment in a Derridean speech/writing dichotomy leads her to pay less attention to Wilde, whom she casts as a devotee of the presences of speech over the radicalism of écriture [185-88 and passim].) Pater finds in music, it seems, an art of reassuring incontrovertibility, untroubled by the disillusionments of any Higher Criticism: music begins and ends in ways accessible to human experience; it unfolds in harmony; its dramatic conflicts are internal and finally neutral, rather than referential and differentiated. The condition of music, thus figured by Pater and Wilde, contrasts with nothing so much as with the condition of humanity. In human life, that is, the origin and consummation lie outside of experience, and the whole referential issue of realism and anti-realism—fundamental for Wilde's art, and not uniquely—cannot be neatly mooted or contained. With such a vision of music, a vision that aligns music with a nonbeing that enigmatically surrounds and defines human being, one might finally make the best sense of Wilde's lack of sympathy with it: inarticulate for him, music remains fascinating but fundamentally inhumane, not a dead art, but an art as alienating, indisputable, and inevitably victorious as death. The little art of words is rounded with a sleep—a sleep of music, of consummation, of death.

When a consideration of musicality and words in Salomé brings one to invoke the concept of death, it is time to consider Herod. His final gesture is itself an invocation of death, terse, decisive, expressing a deliberate resolution: “Kill that woman” (329). With his kingly judgment, however, Herod enacts a different order of fatality than does Salomé, whose insistence on having the head of the prophet expresses her thralldom to an unreflective, proto-Freudian pleasure principle. Although the biblical tale and ensuing adaptations generally cast Salomé as the pawn of Herodias, who herself either detests the prophet for his insults or, occasionally, desires him, Wilde's drama makes a point of Salomé's autonomy: “It is not my mother's voice that I heed. It is for my own pleasure that I ask the head of Iokanaan on a silver charger” (323). Obliged to grant Salomé's appalling wish, Herod finds in the chain of his own word a revelation of the logic of his world. His lesson is a horror, and his retaliation constitutes Wilde's most consequential addition to the legend. (No prior rendering of the theme has Herod putting Salomé to death.) Herod's fatal command allows a closure which not only creates a dramatic final tableau, but also forces into stark representation the intimate relation between literary closure and death, between literary death and “literal” death.

Critics commonly figure death as the crucible of representation, the site ultimately of the formation, the dissolution, and the reconstitution of all ideas of order. It is well to note, however, that one merely figures death in this way. At times, of course, one resorts to the convenience of asserting what death “is,” but this amounts to a sort of shorthand or even an obfuscation, for it is finally the distinction of the concept of death that it names something profoundly at odds with any instinct to empirical investigation. Intractable reality, utter enigma—the definitively impractical topic—death defines the organic circumstances of each life but frustrates any will one might have to know what death in itself really is. Thus any discourse on death necessitates some degree of Kantian-style critique, one which asks not what the thing itself is, but considers instead under what conceptual conditions, and employing what presuppositions, one finds oneself in a position to entertain the idea at all. All predications to death of quality and essence proceed from some originating conceptual framework, revealing the psychological and cultural structures of such frameworking. (Goodwin and Bronfen collect essays exploring this premise in diverse contexts.) Outfitted with the blindness and partiality essential to any “viewpoint,” ideas of death entail the most fundamental versions of critical supplementary thinking, of interpretive criticism. Like the famous veils of Salomé, the figure of death does not make apparent what is really behind the figure, but instead highlights the mandate of consciousness to constructive interpretation, to penetrative investigation. Little surprise, then, that the provocation of an interpretive enigma provides the opening note of this drama. As one sees in the initial dialogue of the Young Syrian and the Page, some ideas will be approachable only through the most impressionistic and ultimately private metaphors: “Death/Salomé is like […]”; “One might fancy Death/the Moon to be.”

Herod's own mode of symbolic investigation introduces a conceptual or interpretive dissonance, one might say, into the musical atmospherics generated by the symbolist-styled figures of Salomé, Iokanaan, the Young Syrian and the Page of Herodias. This disruption does not betoken Herod's lesser involvement with the drama's musicality; instead, it underlines his specifically oppositional function within the verbal music of the work. Together with Herodias, Herod serves as an antipodal—or, if you will, contrapuntal—figure against the musical words of Salomé and her satellites. Like ambassadors from a realist work, Herod and Herodias set into the drama a different order of speech, just as they set into action a different order of psychological conflict, more recognizably realistic and “natural” at the same time that it is patently self-deceiving. Far from being an anti-realistic text, then, Salomé formulates an allegory of the contested consciousness, conjoining, on the one hand, the characteristically truncated, prereflective psychologies of the contemporary symbolist drama and, on the other hand, an elaborated, presciently Freudian vision of the repressed consciousness. So the story leads decisively into the “real” world at the moment of Salomé's death at Herod's command: the unrepentantly passionate figures—Salomé, Iokanaan and the Young Syrian—have been closeted away, and the King is full in his powers, although he is now haunted by fear for those powers and privately tormented by their dismaying cost.

Herod's unrest, as well as his determination to act out against that unrest, illustrates a by-now familiar dynamism of ambivalence, where desire and passion are not so much negated as negotiated, redirected, subsumed. Perhaps as pointed an indication as any of Herod's essential modernity will be how fully he can seem to be Foucault's topic in the following passage from A History of Sexuality, where Foucault considers the seeming paradox of a culture in which prudery and the obsessive investigation of sexuality would cohabit so easily:

[T]he learned discourse on sex that was pronounced in the nineteenth century was imbued with age-old delusions, but also with systematic blindnesses: a refusal to see and to understand; but further—and this is the crucial point—a refusal concerning the very thing that was brought to light and whose formulation was urgently solicited. For there can be no misunderstanding that is not based on a fundamental relation to truth. Evading this truth, barring access to it, masking it: these were so many local tactics which, as if by superimposition and through a last-minute detour, gave a paradoxical form to a fundamental petition to know. Choosing not to recognize was yet another vagary of the will to truth.


Herod's order to kill the virgin temptress—his own last-minute detour—might at first seem a heavy-handed, spiteful meting out of punishment, a sort of “crude but conventional kind of poetic justice,” as one critic has it (Schweik 135). But when Herod proposes to refuse or blot out the very thing his urgent solicitations have brought to light, he is not merely exercising a commonplace sort of power, not merely flexing the muscle of brute authority; he is embarking on that path of determined blindnesses that Foucault—like Nietzsche, like Freud—would find to characterize a comprehensive model of “civilized” life, wherein the will to knowledge is intricated with, rather than opposed to, a will to mask such knowledge. The ensuing structure of thought and action acquires what Foucault calls a “paradoxical form”; such formations, famously, are Wilde's essential medium.

Another consideration militates against the notion that Herod's brute authority should be reckoned the final victor in this play: unlike all other characters here, Herod is compelled to a fundamental change of vision, a development of perspective. It has been suggested by Christopher Nassaar (101) and others that Herod, with his concluding command, in some sense puts an end to himself as well as to Salomé. More precisely, perhaps, one might propose that, in putting an end to Salomé, Herod effects a corresponding end to some aspect of his own world. Salomé thus gains against Herod a reciprocal, rather less crude poetic justice, for while he ushers her into death, she introduces him into a new consciousness of death, into an inescapable, unwelcome, utterly human predicament.

The play closes with a dead object, the now speechless head of Iokanaan, returning to Salomé on a silver charger. We are back where this analysis began, then, at the point where Salomé names the “strange music” of this occasion. Although this play constitutes Wilde's most decided vision of the literary aspiration toward the condition of music, he finally gives the stage over not so much to any ardent musicality as to an estranging verbal discourse about it. This distinction between Salomé's musical enactment and the eponymous heroine's closing words about such enactment returns us to my earlier distinction between a logic and metalogic. W. J. T. Mitchell's Iconology, which examines ideological dimensions in the word/image nexus, suggests that such a metalogical distinction is called for within all comparative study in the arts. Mitchell urges that we attend to “the way we depict the act of picturing, imagine the activity of imagining, figure the practice of figuration” (5). His “hypericons” name those representations that seem designed both to represent and to render problematic the act of representing, and he cites such figures as Plato's cave in The Republic, Aristotle's wax tablet in De Anima, Wittgenstein's hieroglyphic, and the painting Las Meninas read by Foucault in The Order of Things. Each of these images, says Mitchell, is no mere figure, but a figure of figuration.

Wilde's Salomé is a sort of hypericon, then, given the divided and even conflicted representational mandate embedded in its aspiration to verbal musicality. The equivocal reflection of musicality through words might best be seen as a representation of that representational impasse. The final moments of this drama reveal Salomé at the threshold of a rupture, just as the play's action—set entirely on another sort of threshold, a terrace—dramatizes the notion of a transitional passageway, a crossroads. Salomé's approach toward the differential universe of language marks the imminent end of the drama itself, and the voice that was music now speaks about music:

Ah! Iokanaan, Iokanaan, thou wert the man that I loved alone among men! All other men were hateful to me. But thou wert beautiful! Thy body was a column of ivory set upon feet of silver. It was a garden full of doves and lilies of silver. It was a tower of silver decked with shields of ivory. There was nothing in the world so white as thy body. There was nothing in the world so black as thy hair. There was nothing in the world so red as thy mouth. Thy voice was a censer that scattered strange perfumes, and when I looked on thee I heard a strange music.


As she lavishes words on the decollated head of the prophet, Salomé provides what one might call, with appropriate irony, a “recapitulation” of the drama's progress: she rehearses pointedly that lengthy address she had earlier directed to the still-living Iokanaan, whose body, hair, and mouth had consecutively proved so engrossing. The conjunction of represented decapitation and literal recapitulation illuminates, if obliquely, what is perhaps the most vital condition of literary representation: the possibility, even the necessity, of accommodating an estranged presence with the coping benedictions of the Word. Her means of coping is to repeat what she has said before, but here is a repetition littered with crucial differences. Salomé's first address to Iokanaan resulted in a decided cessation, a cutting off of her discourse, which then devolved into a sheerly libidinal and disengaged repetition. Her final address introduces a break as well, but this time with a telling rhetorical difference. Before, Salomé's words to the living prophet had been cast in similes, but at this point (both in the French and the English texts) she replaces simile with metaphor. The body that was once figured through simile after simile—“Thy body is white, like the lilies of a field that the mower hath never mowed” (309)—has apparently undergone a sort of graduation ceremony in its decapitation, for her associative figures of speech no longer propose mere resemblance, but identity: “Thy body was a column of ivory set upon feet of silver” (emphasis mine). Her use of the past tense, however, suggests also that she is not simply mad, but is reconstructing the situation. The music has fallen silent, but with her fictions of metaphoric unity, Salomé begins to theorize the prophet in relation to herself, to fathom that he is utterly lost to her, even as she begins to recover what he in fact was to her. Salomé's words amount to an advance into rhetorical interpretation: she takes flight in apostrophe, in an address to a definitively absent presence.

At the fountainhead of a Western philosophy of reflections on presences, Plato notes that reading differs from living conversation in one crucial particular: when questioned by the reader, the written word maintains an austere silence (Protagoras 329a). This silence is the originating circumstance of interpretation, and Salomé, in this light, has been forced to encounter finally a paradigm of reading or interpreting itself. Like the silent page of Plato, the silenced head of Iokanaan is a provocation to discourse. Where Salomé's first tripartite address had culminated in her swerve into a drunken, disassociated repetition, a reduction or a simplification, her departure here marks her passage into heterogeneous associations: “Thy voice was a censer that scattered strange perfumes, and when I looked on thee I heard a strange music.” (328). Transposing into one another scent, sound and sight—in the classic synesthetic manner—her words reflect in this final event not a regressive verbal deterioration, but an exorbitant blossoming, highlighting no less for her than for us the ruptured categories of perception that underlay her infatuation with Iokanaan. Smelling his voice, hearing his looks, Salomé makes clear finally that she was stunned by a figure who embodied the paradoxical breaching of the very boundaries conventionally demarcated by those sensory rubrics. Iokanaan's attractions, therefore, are not merely effects of his “natural” sensible image, but are somehow products of the unhinging heterology suggested to Salomé by that image.

Where an image no longer reflects an unproblematic reality but instead a precise and pointed incommensurability with reality, that image is no longer a representation simply but a representation of representation, a figure of figuration. Here, values of objective mimesis become confounded by the perspectival involvements of the subjective interpreter. As Michael Riffaterre has remarked, the conjunction of description and imagery in literary discourse is taken rather too often to indicate that imagery can be a decorative addition to description, providing a continued confirmation of the referential commitments of description, even though imagery's “primary purpose is not to offer a representation, but to dictate an interpretation” (125). One finds in the construction and interpretation of such figures a perpetual logic of recursion, an ongoing negotiation of subjective perception and its objective occasion. In staging that negotiation, Wilde's Salomé might be said to find its nearest approach to a thesis: this play of revelations or unveilings defines the very dialectics of desire and revelation, where the thing revealed is finally not a thing in itself, but a figure defined by the personal and the cultural structures of a desiring, interpretive consciousness.

That proposition amounts, in fact, to a paraphrase of a Wildean comment offered earlier in this essay: “One can really […] be far more subjective in an objective form than in any other way.” Salomé's passion for Iokanaan resembles Wilde's own enduring attraction to this drama, which Ada Leverson had said “expressed himself in his innate love of the gorgeous and bizarre.” For Wilde, the gorgeous and the bizarre are not merely affronts to Victorian moral convention, but affronts as well to the schematizing, anatomizing impulses of representational thought as the Victorians would know it. The “strange music” of Salomé, in its turn, is not finally a music in any distinct or rigorous sense, but a figure of an instructive impasse embedded in verbal musicality. Salomé registers no mere attempt at a literary music appreciation. Instead, this “strange music” allows one more way in which Wilde can spotlight the definitively, perpetually unfulfilled aspirations of representation itself.


  1. Quotations from Wilde's Salomé are drawn primarily from the first English edition, although I refer once to the original French version of the play. The authority of the English text merits some comment. Translated rather incompetently by Lord Alfred Douglas—Wilde mentions “the schoolboy faults” of that “attempted translation” (Letters 432)—Salomé was later polished up by Wilde to an indeterminate extent, and critics have differed considerably in assessing the final authority of the English version. In any event, the points that I develop do not depend substantially on the peculiarities of any given version, so the original English text seems the logical choice in an English discussion.

  2. Wilde here echoes his remarks from several months earlier in the long prision letter De Profundis (466). His reference to Intentions seems to indicate a passage in “The Critic as Artist II,” where Gilbert dilates upon the proposition that “the more objective a creation appears to be, the more subjective it really is” (281).

Works Cited

Abrams, M. H. The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition. New York: Oxford UP, 1953.

Allen, Virginia M. The Femme Fatale: Erotic Icon. Troy: Whitson, 1983.

Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.

Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1975.

Baudelaire, Charles. Flowers of Evil. [Les Fleurs du Mal.] Eds. Marthiel and Jackson Matthews. Various Trans. New York: New Directions, 1989.

Cohen, Ed. “Writing Gone Wilde: Homoerotic Desire in the Closet of Representation.” PMLA 102.5 (1987): 801-13.

Craft, Christopher. “Alias Bunbury: Desire and Termination in The Importance of Being Earnest.Representations 31 (1990): 19-46.

Dellamora, Richard. “Representation and Homophobia in The Picture of Dorian Gray.Victorian Newsletter 73 (1988): 28-31.

Dijkstra, Bram. Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 1986.

Dollimore, Jonathan. “Different Desires: Subjectivity and Transgression in Wilde and Gide.” Textual Practice 1.1 (1987): 48-67.

Dowling, Linda. Language and Decadence in the Victorian Fin de Siècle. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1986.

Edelman, Lee. “Homographesis.” The Yale Journal of Criticism 3.1 (1989): 189-207.

Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. New York: Knopf, 1988.

Finney, Gail. Women in Modern Drama: Freud, Feminism, and European Theater at the Turn of the Century. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1989.

Foucault, Michel. An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage, 1980. Vol. 1 of A History of Sexuality. 3 vols. 1978-86.

Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1961.

Garber, Marjorie. Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Representation. New York: Harper, 1993.

Goodwin, Sarah Webster, and Elizabeth Bronfen, eds. Death and Representation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1993.

James, Henry. Henry James: Selected Letters. Ed. Leon Edel. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987.

Kermode, Frank. The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1967.

Kosofsky-Sedgwick, Eve. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: U of California P, 1990.

Kramer, Lawrence. Music and Poetry: The Nineteenth Century and After. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984.

Leverson, Ada. “Reminiscences.” Wyndham 103-23.

Mitchell, W. J. T. Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986.

Murray, Isobel, ed. Oscar Wilde. The Oxford Authors. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989.

Nassaar, Christopher S. Into the Demon Universe: A Literary Exploration of Oscar Wilde. New Haven: Yale UP, 1974.

Pater, Walter. “The School of Giorgione.” The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry. The 1893 Text. Ed. Donald Hill. Berkeley: U of California P, 1980. 102-22.

Raymond, Jean Paul, and Charles Ricketts. Oscar Wilde: Recollections. Bloomsbury, London: Nonesuch, 1932.

Riffaterre, Michael. “Descriptive Imagery.” Yale French Studies 61 (1981): 107-25.

Scher, Steven Paul. Verbal Music in German Literature. New Haven: Yale UP, 1968.

Schweik, Robert. “Oscar Wilde's Salomé, the Salomé Theme in Late European Art, and a Problem of Method in Cultural History.” Twilight of Dawn: Studies in English Literature in Transition. Ed. O. M. Brack, Jr. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1987. 123-36.

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Wilde, Oscar. “The Critic as Artist I.” Murray 241-66.

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Christopher S. Nassaar and Nataly Shaheen (essay date spring 2001)

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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 the severed head, her ultimate coupling with the dead prophet. She has won him, but Wilde leaves us, not only with a woman who has killed a prophet, but also with a woman declaring: “Ah! I have kissed thy mouth, Jokanaan. I have kissed thy mouth. There was a bitter taste on thy lips. Was it the taste of blood … ? But perchance it is the taste of love” (605). The pause that comes after “taste of blood” is significant. Salomé has bitten her victim and has drawn blood. The teasing silence that comes before her announcement that this is “the taste of love” is a moment for the audience to comprehend the nature of the vampire in the princess.

Another association that Wilde draws in his depiction of Salomé is that of a siren. One of the most famous literary stories of sirens is that found in the Odyssey, but the nineteenth-century literary landscape is full of them.1 Salomé seduces men and directly causes their death, be it physical or spiritual, although paradoxically it is she who is ensnared by the voice of Jokanaan. The play opens with the Young Syrian fascinated by the princess. He unwillingly gazes on her. He is incapable of looking away even after his friend, the Page of Herodias, warns him. He is aware that his attraction is unsuitable because of her lineage and his position in her stepfather's palace, but he is captive to his raging desire. He defies the Tetrarch in his wish to please the princess, but when she rejects him, he destroys himself like the shipwrecked victims of Homer's sirens.

Immediately after the captain's death, Herod walks onto the terrace, only to find himself lured by Salomé. Salomé rejects his advances until she realizes that only through him can she capture Jokanaan. She weaves her spell around Herod as she dances her erotic dance. He is completely captured, and she takes advantage of the situation. She asks of him the only thing that he dare not give her, the head of Jokanaan. The promise that she has extracted in the heat of his passion forces Herod to surrender to her power of seduction. He becomes the slave of her desire who loses his hold on reality as he watches her feasting on the prophet's head. Herod's death by a siren is not physical. He remains alive, but his mental and spiritual existence is demolished by Salomé.

Even Jokanaan, the man/prophet who resists her overtures, is not free of her spell. Salomé, using her charms on others, is the active agent in his death sentence. Sirens, like vampires, transgress rules of human sexuality. Wilde plays on all taboos in this play.

Another violation is Wilde's use of human transformation. He does not accept the traditional separation between man and beast. He introduces the image of a werewolf, another creature that lived in the late Victorian imagination.2 Under the light of a full moon, Salomé undergoes a change in her personality as the play's action rises. The change happens gradually as she is introduced and as she wins over the Young Syrian, but then she quickly takes on the more demonic role of seductress. At the end of her erotic dance, Salomé unashamedly announces her bestiality. She needs to “devour” Jokanaan to survive. The mutation reiterates Wilde's belief that human beings are beasts with bestial needs. This shocking statement would not have left his Victorian audience unmoved. Wilde is poking fun at their dearly held beliefs in the near-divinity of humankind and in their supremacy over all of God's other creations. To be reduced to mere animals with a need to kill is an insult to an audience that thought of themselves as the masters and conquerors of the world. In Salomé, Wilde aims to shock by all means possible, presenting a view of human nature that is at once compelling and terrifying.


  1. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, in his late poetry, is siren-haunted, as in “Troy Town,” “The Orchard-Pit,” and the “Body's Beauty” sonnet of The House of Life.

  2. William Morris's references to werewolves in The Volsung Saga (1876) are one example of the late Victorian interest in werewolves, as is Clemence Housman's The Werewolf (1896).

Work Cited

Wilde, Oscar. Salomé. Complete Works. 3rd ed. Glasgow: Harper, 1994.

Further Reading

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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 Group: British Writers, Vol. 5; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography 1890-1914; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104, 119; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 10, 19, 34, 57, 141, 156, 190; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Dramatists, Most-studied Authors, and Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Drama for Students, Vols. 4, 8, 9; Exploring Short Stories; Literature Resource Center; Reference Guide to English Literature; Reference Guide to Short Fiction; St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 11; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 7; Something About the Author, Vol. 24; Supernatural Fiction Writers; Twayne's English Authors; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 8, 23, 41; World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 4; World Literature Criticism; and Writers for Children.

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Oscar Wilde World Literature Analysis


Wilde, Oscar (1854 - 1900)

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