In his own time, Oscar Wilde was known as much for his flamboyant, stagy personality as for his plays and novels. He delighted in shocking Society, and refused to abide by Victorian standards, either in his life or in his art. Even as a young man, he delighted in using his wit to deflate the pompous and self-important. Once, at a party, he asked an older woman to dance. Outraged, she said, "Do you think I am going to dance with a child?" Wilde, who was 16 at the time, replied, "Madam, if I had known you were in that condition, I never would have asked you."
Wilde's wit was irrepressible; following are a few examples:
- Of a character in his play, Vera, he said, "He would stab his best friend in the back for the sake of writing an epigram on his tombstone."
- While traveling in the United States, he met the novelist Richard Harding Davis, who was rude to him. Wilde asked Davis what he thought of a new French painter. Davis snapped, "I never talk about things when I don't know the facts!" Wilde replied innocently, "That, my dear fellow, must limit your conversation frightfully!"
- "Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much."
- In Paris, he met a woman who took pride in her ugliness. She said to Wilde, "Don't you think that I am the ugliest woman in all Paris?" "No, madame," he replied, "not in Paris alone--in all the world!"
- In response to Andre Gide's criticism of a play, he said, "Andre, I put all my genius into my life; I only put my talent into my writing."
- From his play, The Duchess of Padua: "We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell."
- "Of course, America had often been discovered before Columbus, but it had always been hushed up."
- "Anyone can sympathize with the sufferings of a friend, but it requires a very fine nature to sympathize with a friend's success."
- "The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it."
- "Good resolutions are simply checks that men draw on a bank where they have no account."
- "There is hardly a single person in the House of Commons worth painting, though many of them would be the better for a little whitewashing."
- His last words (probably apochryphal): "Either this wallpaper goes, or I go."
Wilde was influenced deeply by Walter Pater's ideas. He believed in Art for Art's sake. Art should not teach a lesson or have a moral. Its only responsibility was beauty. In a letter defending his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, against charges of decadence and obscenity, he wrote, "An artist, sir, has no ethical sympathies at all. Virtue and weakness are to him simply what the colours on his palette are to the painter." Truth, Wilde believed, could be found in Art--but truth was simply another name for Beauty.
He abided by Pater's admonition to live as intensely as possible, in the moment. Life, he felt, should also be a work of art, with beauty--not duty or improvement or morality--as its sole purpose. "I treated Art as the supreme reality and life as a mere mode of fiction," he said. In The Decay of Lying, the protagonist, Vivian, says,
...Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life. This results not merely from Life's imitative instinct, but from the fact that the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression, and that Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realise that energy...
Wilde paid a heavy price for his refusal to take Victorian mores seriously, but even in prison, he held to his principles:
People thought it dreadful of me to have entertained at dinner the evil things of life, and to have found pleasure in their company. But they, from the point of view through which I, as an artist in life, approached them, were delightfully suggestive and stimulating. It was like feasting with panthers.
Wilde liked to pretend that he wrote his plays effortlessly, but in fact he made meticulous revisions, especially on The Importance of Being Earnest. However, working hard was a Victorian virtue that he wished to avoid even the appearance of imitating.
In all of his work, and especially in The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde parodies the "high moral tone" of Victorian society, and the "intellectual respectability" demanded by Victorian theatric conventions. The dialogue in Earnest, for example, mocks the conventional etiquette of love and marriage. When he proposed, a young man was supposed to confess the "sins" of his bachelor life. But Jack asks Gwendolen to forgive him for not having been deceitful, and Cecily upbraids Algernon for not being wicked.
Lady Bracknell embodies some of the worst hypocrises of the Victorian age: preoccupation with appearances, obsession with social status, and materialism. But Lady Bracknell is funny, rather than hurtful, and thus the audience laughs at her--and at itself.
Wilde is also making fun of plots and theatrical conventions which would have been familiar to theatergoers of his time: secrets known to the audience but not to the characters; the "woman with a past"; the obvious manipulation of the plot to create a last-minute happy ending; the witty drawing room conversation. As John Russell Taylor says,
The plots are creaking old contrivances, and far from trying to disguise the fact, he glories in it. They are strong enough to hold up a glittering display of epigrams,...and that is all the plot is there for...The point is that here all the machinery of the well-made play finds a triumphantly and unarguably proper use. The convention is paramount: nobody really talks or acts like this, or certainly not for more than a few moments at a time, but to paraphrase Turner's remark to a lady who objected that she never saw sunsets as he painted them, don't we all wish they did?
Wilde would have loved the irony of a play of his being taken seriously enough to be studied in a literature class!
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Some of the information in this lecture derives from:
1. "Commentary on The Importance of Being Earnest", Patricia Hern
2. Oscar Wilde, Richard Ellman
3. The Importance of Being Oscar, Mark Nicholls
4. "The Importance of Being Earnest," Russell Jackson, in The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde, ed. Peter Raby
5. "Wilde and the Victorians," Reginia Gagnier, in The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde, ed. Peter Raby