Bamberg University English Drama Group.
Oscar Fingal O’ Flahertie Wills Wilde was born on 16 October 1854 at 21 Westland Row, Dublin. His father was a well known eye specialist who was to be knighted for his services to medicine in 1884. He was outlived by his wife, née Jane Francesca Elgee, who died in 1896. Lady Wilde had grounded her two sons in the classics and introduced them to English, French and Italian literature so that when Oscar went to board at the Portora Royal School, Enniskillen, he was far ahead of the other pupils in academic ability and literary culture. In 1871 he went to Trinity College, Dublin, and proved himself a brilliant scholar. Three years later Wilde moved to Oxford where he entered Magdalen College which he left in 1878 after winning the Newdigate Prize for Poetry and gaining a first in Greats.
When, in 1878, Wilde descended on London he had little else to his credit, as he himself was to declare, than his genius, a commodity which, at that stage in his career, had little attraction for bank managers or money-lenders. Cash he certainly lacked, at any rate in comparison with the income of some of his friends and the society which he intended to enter at the first possible opportunity. Almost inevitably he turned his attention to dramatic work – writing for the stage. The theatre was immensely popular throughout the whole of the 19th century and offered rich rewards to popular dramatists – one of which Wilde soon became.
When The Importance of Being Earnest opened in 1895, it was from first to last a resounding triumph. The audience rose in their seats and cheered and cheered again. In general the critics were equally enthusiastic and the whole of London, social, literary, frivolous and serious, agreed that there was not a more amusing evening to be spent anywhere than at the St. James’ Theatre.
Wilde’s (s)wordplay and slashing wit
„The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”
Oscar Wilde’s witty remark projects a major theme of The Importance of Being Earnest. „Truth” in Victorian England was expressed in stagnant social conventions which suppressed individual expression. Wilde hated this conventional notion of truth because it was used to keep blinders on society and blocked individuals from looking at life from different angles. Earnest is Wilde’s most perfect attempt to fence with Victorian mores. Wilde uses his wit like a sword to slash through rules of etiquette, to poke fun at the aristocracy and academia, and to thrust forward his own philosophy as a committed aesthete (one who finds truth and meaning only in beauty)
„You cut life to pieces with your epigrams,„ exclaims one of Wilde’s characters in his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. However, Wilde never makes a direct stab in Earnest. By emphasizing the absurdity of the characters’ situation he maintains a comic tone. As is typical of farce, the characters have attitudes, reactions, and customs which defy reason. Indeed, the improbability of this farce provides the necessary distance for the audience to laugh at the situation. This quality explains why the play enjoyed such success with the elite crowd who attended its first performance. Although Wilde was „biting the hand which fed him,„ Earnest bites in a gentle, playful way, always retaining a joyful quality while avoiding both cynicism and sentimentality.
A major theme in Earnest is John Worthing’s search for his own identity. John inquires, „Lady Bracknell, I hate to seem inquisitive, but would you kindly inform me who I am?„ Both John and Algernon are dandies who seek to escape the restrictive moral mask of Victorian etiquette and be true to their own impulses. The audience cheers their playful schemes as they artfully dodge the conventions of the day. Wilde admires those with the courage to follow their impulses because they have thrown off the shackles of an imposed identity. He proclaims that „disobedience is the first step in the growth of a man or a nation.”
Wilde’s work would, perhaps, have been more appreciated during the reign of Charles II, when witty repartee was the hallmark of Restoration comedies, than during the repressive Victorian era in which he wrote. He utilizes some of the same themes as Restoration comedy and his play is clearly within the tradition of comedy of manners. This type of play is usually focused on an elite social group which relies more on wit and intellectual repartee than on emotional depth or complexity. Gwendolyn states that „in matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.„ She is explaining one of Wilde’s fundamental beliefs. He does not advocate insincerity, but rather the idea that the aim of art, as well as life, is to seek beauty. Sincerity without style, without a sense of the beautiful, is undesirable. Wilde often ruminated that Nature should copy Art, not vice versa. „Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art.„
Wilde celebrates artificiality (Art over Nature) because in beauty one finds a truth that is infinitely more intriguing and pleasurable than fact. In order to distance the viewers from their own narrow view of truth, Wilde has turned the real world on its head and „treat(s) all the trivial things of life seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.”
Wilde’s particular style of wit uses epigrams (a terse, satirical saying) to attack perceptions of fixed truth. He would often substitute key words in a sentence to produce its opposite meaning. For example, „I hear her hair has turned quite gold from grief,„ „Divorces are made in heaven,„ „The home seems to me to be the proper sphere for the man,„ „It is simply washing one’s clean linen in public,„ „All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling.„
Wilde’s deliberate manipulation of epigrams challenged the conventional values and expectations of the period. He created a world which wages war on ordinary speech and mundane everyday life. Farce is the perfect medium for this battle since it uses exaggerated life situations to make its point. By changing the key word of a „moral” tag, Wilde turns the phrase and the sentiment in upon itself, exposing middle class assumptions and biases. In fact, he deliberately distorts expectations by allowing the characters’ unexpected thoughts, attitudes and reactions to expose the hypocrisy of social convention. Sense and nonsense, fantasy and reason, triviality and seriousness are jumbled together, forcing new perspectives and offering new possibilities.
Wilde’s satire jabbed at a world which disdainfully and harshly judged his life. In the end, however, he was destroyed by his foe, Victorian society. Earnest was the last play Wilde wrote before he went to prison on a charge of sexual misconduct. It was, in fact, during the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest and at Wilde’s height of fame as a playwright (he had two West End hits in London running simultaneously) that a sequence of events occurred which would bring about his public disgrace. He was accused of having an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas by the Marquess of Queensberry, Douglas’ powerful and influential father.
Queensberry tried to break into the opening performance of Earnest to publicly humiliate Wilde. He was denied entrance to the theatre, but following the huge success of the opening night he plotted other means to bring about Oscar’s downfall. Wilde parried the charge of sexual impropriety in three separate trials but without success. He was publicly disgraced, defeated and sentenced to two years in prison.
Wilde ultimately triumphed, however, since his wit has outlived both Victorian mores and his enemies. His legacy continues to challenge our expectations and entertain us. His sparkling epigrams still prick contemporary perceptions of truth and convention. Through The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde continues to poke fun at those who take life too seriously and become far too earnest!