Thursday, December 2, 2010

Oscar Wilde: The Dramatist


A Successful Run

The first major play written by Oscar Wilde was Lady Windermere’s Fan. It was first presented on the stage* on the 20th February, 1892, and ran to packed houses for five months until 29th July. It had a successful run of several months in New York. Audiences recognized that it was undoubtedly the wittiest and best-constructed play seen on the stage for over a hundred years ; and it earned Wilde an honourable place in the distinguished line of comic dramatists, all of them Irish, descending in time from Congreve, Sheridan, and Goldsmith.

Unity of Time

There are four acts and three changes of scenery in the play even though Wilde respected the Aristotelean principle of the unity of time by making the events take place within twenty-four hours, beginning on a Tuesday afternoon at five o’clock and ending the next day at one-thirty in the afternoon––twenty-four hours crowded with incident. In addition, there is a cast of sixteen with parts equally distributed among men and women.

Psychological Truth

Lady Windermere’s Fan is so brilliantly written, so sparkling in style and so full of incident that any weakness of plot is of little consequence. Wilde’s concern with psychological truth was a new departure in the theatre. During April 1891 he saw two performances of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler which may have strengthened his sense of the need for psychological truth in drama. The central situation of a daughter behaving badly, with some justification, it must be admitted, towards a woman she believes to be her husband’s mistress but who is her mother, and that same mother’s sacrifice of her newly-gained respectability to save her daughter’s reputation is sufficiently vital to command the whole attention of an audience.

The Characterization

The characterization is generally adequate. If the roles of Lord and Lady Windermere seem to be somewhat thin on the printed page, they are surprisingly effective on the stage. Lord Darlington is the witty man about town par excellence. From his lips come some of Wilde’s best-known epigrams such as the following

Experience is the name men give to their mistakes.

Nowadays to be intelligible is to be found out.

A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Lord Darlington is sufficiently charming to be a passing temptation to Lady Windermere, although hardly wicked enough to be taken seriously as the villain of the play, for Wilde knew that he was offering a social comedy and not a realistic tragedy. The difficulty with this man is that, apart from his epigrams and absurdly romantic declarations to Lady Windermere, he has no basic character, for the simple reason that he exists only as a potential threat to her virtue. The minor characters such as the Duchess of Berwick, Lady Plymdale, and Lady Stutfield serve much the same purpose as Mrs. Candour and her friend in the School for Scandal by chattering and gossiping with sharp and malicious delight and passing on useful information in the process. These minor characters are decorative, amusing, and they pad out the body of the play.

Am Indictment of Society

Lady Windermere’s Fan is not serious drama but social comedy seasoned with sensational elements which are not without theatrical and emotional impact. It is an indirect indictment of a heartless and mercenary society of which the fan, an extravagant and useless toy, is an accurate symbol. By customary standards, the leading characters are detestable. Mrs. Erlynne knows that the wages of sin are not death but a comfortable private income, an aristocratic husband, and a desirable place in the highest society. She does not hesitate to stoop to blackmail; and she freely admits that she has never experienced maternal feelings. Lady Windermere, too, has few scruples about leaving her husband and placing herself under the protection of Lord Darlington. That man has no scruples about doing anything to his own advantage, least of all in making advances to his friend’s young wife. Lord Windermere deceives his wife as to Mrs. Erlynne’s identity and himself as to her character. Almost everyone in the play is an unrepentant .casuist. Wilde in this play introduces us to the aristocratic section of society in which self-interest and self-protection direct every action. That he has some compassion for Mrs. Erlynne is obvious; and, indeed, that kind and tolerant humour for which he was famous embraces all his characters without, however, sugaring their weaknesses.

Critics Mixed Reaction

The critics gave the play a mixed reception. Some of the contemporary reviews were complimentary in tone but others were critical and hostile, while still others were a mixture of praise and blame. Here is an extract from one of those reviews :

“Lady Windermere’s Fan is by no means a good play. Its plot is always thin, often stale. Indeed, it is full of faults, glaring faults. Yet, again, it is a good play, for it carries you along from start to finish without boring you for a single moment. While it is a-playing, it convinces you that life is not monotonous. If we have had more sparkling dialogue on the stage in the present geueration, I have not heard it. It presents at least one fresh and piquant study of character. The man or woman who does not chuckle with delight at the good things which abound in this play should consult a physician at once.”


Lack of Sufficient Action

A Woman of No Importance opened at the Haymarket Theatre, London, on the 19th April, 1893 with a distinguished cast. Apart from a break of three nights it ran until the 16th August. The run was actually shorter by some weeks than that of Lady Windermere’s Fan, but Wilde had no cause for complaint so far as his earnings from this play were concerned. On the 11th December, 1893 the play opened in New York where the audiences gave it a rather lukewarm reception. Wilde’s mother had written to him that his plays needed more plot and more human feeling, and she had urged him to strengthen the plot and heighten the human interest in his next play. He himself said that he had written the first act of A Woman of No Importance in answer to the critics who said that Lady Windermere’s Fan had lacked action. Nevertheless, the plot of A Woman of No Importance is weak. In fact, the plot is practically non-existent. The incident of a woman meeting a former lover and being involved in a tug-of-war over their child does not offer sufficient action or opportunity for development to fill four acts. At the request of one of the principal actors, Wilde cut out a speech against puritanism and substituted a number of epigrams.

Weaknesses in the Construction

An initial weakness of construction in this play is that, while there are reversals of attitude, there are no reversals of any importance in the plot ; and such as there are of both kinds are concentrated in the last act. Another weakness arises from the scene at the end of Act I when Lord Illingworth and Mrs. Allonby chat together about the attitudes of men and women towards each other : the conversation turns into a duel of wits from which Mrs. Allonby emerges undefeated––which, perhaps, implies that Mrs. Arbuthnot’s yielding to Lord Illingworth years ago was as much the consequence of her own emotional nature and her own desires as the importunities of Lord Illingworth. But it is apparent to the audience that Lord Illingworth and Mrs. Allonby are actually flirting with each other and that there is clear degree of sexual attraction between them. Since Wilde does not exploit this situation further, he has only managed to set the audience off on a false trail which is not directly relevant to the action although it does emphasize the moral ambiguities of a society which is prompt to condemn a sinner like Mrs. Arbuthnot while ignoring equally objectionable behaviour provided it is discreetly conducted and not brought out into the open. Another major weakness, this time of actual construction, is. Hester’s hysterical complaint of having been insulted by Lord Illingworth, for this comes as too violent a shock, Wilde never having prepared us previously for this aspect of the man’s character. The audience knows that this is merely a device to prepare them for the reversals of the finale.

The Characterization

The characterization in A Woman of No Importance is no more than adequate. Lord Illingworth dominates the action whenever he appears. Into his mouth, Wilde puts his most sparkling epigrams. For instance, we have the following bit of dialogue ;

Lord Illingworth. I adore simple pleasures. They are the last refuge of the complex. But, if you wish, let us stay here. Yes, let us stay here. The Book of Life begins with a man and a woman in a garden.

Mrs. Allonby. It ends with Revelations.

The other characters merely serve as foils. Neither Mrs. Arbuthnot nor Gerald has much life, at any rate in relation to the plot, although their attitudes deserve attention. In fact, the weakness of the characterization lies in the fact that the persons whom we meet here do not convince us that they have any life apart from the immediate scenes in which they appear. Wilde seems to have given us the stock characters of nineteenth-century drama without fully bringing them to life. Mrs. Arbuthnot may be classified as the wronged woman and the loving mother, and as virtue redeemed. She is even the fallen woman. Hester personifies true love which overcomes everything. Lord Illingworth is the wicked lord or the victor vanquished. And so on.

Other Features of the Play

A Woman of No Importance certainly has a theme and a number of highly dramatic situations. But the greater part of the play is talk, not action. When Wilde is obliged to get the plot moving, he tacks on to the end of the act another development The characters are poorly balanced ; and at the beginning of the play it looks as if Mrs. Allonby is to take an important part in the action when, in fact, she proves to be a minor character. Wilde gives her a superfluity of epigrams from the moment of her entrance :

“I think to elope is cowardly. It is running away from danger. And danger has become so rare in modern life.”

“The one advantage of playing with fire is that one never gets even singed. It is the people who don’t know how to play with it who get burned up.”

“We have a far better time than they (the men) have. There are far more things forbidden to us than are forbidden to them.”

Another character who plays no part in the action is Mr. Kelvil M.P, who is throughout referred to by Lady Caroline as Mr. Kettle. He does not object to being misnamed and, although no cause of wit in himself, is a cause of wit in others, for which purpose, no doubt, Wilde introduced him into the play. The more the play is examined, the less important does the plot appear.

Critics’ Reactions

The public and the critics were at variance in their opinion of A Woman of No Importance, since despite its long run the critics had hardly anything to say in praise of it. The following extract from a contemporary review illustrates the point :

“In his second play of modern life, Mr. Oscar Wilde has blighted some of our great expectations. We do not deny that, in a certain way, A Woman of No Importance is a play of distinction : its dialogue is polished ; there are here and there little traits of observation which are uncommonly striking ; it is full of humour, and many of the conversations are brilliant with flashes of caustic wit. But as a work of art A Woman of No Importance is unsatisfactory. The story of the woman who has been abandoned by her lover, who has borne him a child and meets him afterwards when that son has grown up, has been often told before, and told with greater effect and more sincerity than in this case. All the personages in this play make on us the impression of a set of wonderfully clever people who say wonderfully clever things couched in a grace of language. But their very distinction becomes tedious because there is no soul, no real sentiment behind their talk. They are all poseurs, and in all their actions and words we do not feel the spontaneity of natural motives ; but we see the author who holds the wires in his band, pulls them at his will, and makes them speak like a ventriloquist who works his dolls.


A Great Success on the Stage

An Ideal Husband was presented on the stage on the 3rd January, 1895 at the Haymarket Theatre and was received with the greatest enthusiasm. The Prince of Wales was present on the opening night to see the performance and, when the performance ended, he sent for Wilde to congratulate him. Wilde regretted that the play was too long and said that he would certainly make some cuts in it. But the Prince said : “Pray do not take out a single word,” meaning that he had fully enjoyed the play, though long it might be.

Flaws in Plot-Construction

The plot of An Ideal Husband has its elements of improbability, like Wilde’s other plays ; but it is also over-loaded by an excessive number of reverals and twists. Sometimes the plot verges on the nonsensical. Why, for instance, should Mrs. Cheveley hand over to Lord Goring the compromising letter written by Sir Robert Chiltern because he would otherwise hand her over to the police as a thief and yet walk out of his house, undenounced, with the -bracelet still clasped on her arm ? Again, the credibility of Mrs. Cheveley’s. identity is rather suspect ; and it is difficult to believe that a woman who was at school with Lady Chiltern and engaged to be married to Lord Goring should not have been extremely well-known in the closely-knit fabric of London aristocratic society. There seems no need to have telegraphed Vienna for details of her later career since a woman who had been the mistress of an international financier, who had been immensely enriched after his death, who dabbled in international finance, and who still retained links with London society––with Lady Markby at any rate––must have been recognized by many people. Unless Lord Goring is quite, quite old and, therefore, too old to become the husband of Mabel Chiltern, his engagement to Mrs. Cheveley must have been comparatively. recent. And who was Mr. Cheveley––and how does be fit into the picture ? Although kleptomania* as a theatrical device had become rather stale, it cannot be denied that Wilde uses the theft of the letter effectively. That there was a similarity between Sardou’s** Dora and An Ideal Husband must be admitted, but a play can be interesting to the ordinary play-goer even if the plot is not particularly original. As in the case of Shakespeare, originality of plot, similarity of structure, and the use of dramatic devices of a conventional nature are matters which concern professional critics and scholars rather than the public which, by and large, wishes to be entertained.

The political Over-Tones of This Play

It could perhaps be affirmed that An Ideal Husband is the most serious of Wilde’s social comedies, not because of its exploitation of the woman with a past, but because of its political over-tones. Wilde’s portraits of Sir Robert, Mrs. Cheveley, and the late Baron Arnheim (who is only spoken of but whose character emerges clearly) are both just and exact ; and the irony of the play is all the more cogent in our own day when cabinet ministers form family trusts to escape the taxation which they thrust on others or have salaries paid abroad in tax-free havens or fly found the world in support of the latest Baron Arnheim Argentine Canal Scheme, with no hesitation in speaking in support of such a scheme in which they will probably have a large investment themselves, continuing meanwhile to lecture their electorate on morality, honesty, patriotism and honour. It would be an unrealistic person who says that parliamentary, and private secretaries is those days were above the taints of bribery and corruption or that the realm of Victorian politics was pure and sinless.

A World of Vulgar and Tasteless Luxury

Indeed, the phrase “A Gilded Age” could have aptly served as a sub-title for this play, because in this as well as in his other plays Wilde realized a world of vulgar and tasteless luxury as well as of personal and national corruption, a world which was to reach its climax during the Edwardian years when the most tasteless of objects was embellished with initials, real or false stones, silver or gold mountings, and lavish workmanship all paid for with the income from cheap and’ under-paid labour. (Wilde’s plots revolve round such items. In Lady Windermere’s Fan it is the fan bearing Lady Windermere’s Christian name which has been given to her as a birthday present by her husband, a miniature of her mother as a young woman, and a photograph of herself and her child. In An Ideal Husband it is a diamond brooch which can, improbably, be transformed into a bracelet ; and in The Importance of Being Earnest much of the first act is concerned with an engraved cigarette-case).

The Character of Lady Chiltern

If Sir Robert Chiltern shows himself to be a man who is honest only so long as it suits his convenience to be so, Lady Chiltern is hardly much better. After the disclosure of the letter to Baron Arnheim, she looks at her husband “with strange eyes, as though she was seeing him for the first time,” and cries : “Don’t touch me!” Among other things she says that a common thief would be better than her dishonest husband. Later she uses the denial of her love as a weapon to make him agree to resign public life. However, once the threat of exposure is safely behind them and a glitteing career in the cabinet lies ahead, ,she feels love for him, “love and only love”. She adds that for them both a new life is beginning. Her inability to forgive Mrs. Cheveley’s school-girl misdemeanours finds no counterpart in her attitude to her husband. Such is the morality of Lady Chiltern ! Not a selfless word of pity or of compassionate understanding passes her lips.

The Reaction of Contemporary Critics

The contemporary critics reiterated their usual charges of lack of originality, cheap wit, and poor craftsmanship against Wilde in the case of An Ideal Husband, as they had done in the case of his earlier plays. H.G. Wells said that An Ideal Husband was “unquestionably very poor”, but at the same time he made a comment which was repeated in different words by other critics : “In many ways Wilde’s new production is diverting, and even where the fun is not of the rarest character the play remains interesting.” The comment by another critic may also be here quoted

An Ideal Husband is not only an excellent piece of art, but an excellent piece of sense : perhaps the two ought never to be thought of apart, but they are. The author handles in it very skilfully and very honestly the problem of a most happily married man, who in earlier life (he is still young, though an eminent parliamentary leader) sold a State secret and got a little fortune for it. The little fortune becomes a great fortune, and just at the joyous moment when he can least bear to be confronted with his sin, a sulphurous female appears with the letter he had written to a Viennese stock-broker telling him that the English government was about to buy the Suez Canal, and she threatens the parliamentary leader with the exposure of this transgression unless he will support her scheme of an Argentine Canal. There is money in that too, but the husband is committed against the scheme as a piece of rascality, for being no longer dependent upon money he can afford to despise it. This often happens in life : men clean up as soon as they have the financial means; but the play does not insist upon the point ; nor am I going to insist upon the several points, very neatly and clearly made, by which it reaches an admirably reasoned conclusion. I was not able to convict the author of a single false step in the play, and there are some by which he mounts to a pretty wide prospect of human nature ; for instance, that where the husband up braids the wife for idealizing him, and for not counting upon his weaknesses and his potential sins in loving him. This is very well, and it is very well where, when he has been saved from exposure, and she unwisely agrees that he must withdraw from public life, the friend of both makes her see that she is taking from him his sole chance of atonement and retrieval, and creating a future of hatred for her and despair for himself. In fact, Mr. Wilde manages his problem so as to come out best in the struggle. Yet the play left me with some very grave misgivings as to the usefulness of the moral problem in the drama.


A Comic Masterpiece

The Importance of Being Earnest marks the climax of Wilde’s career as a dramatist. This play is regarded as his masterpiece in this sphere of his writings. It is, indeed, a brilliant play and all the praise which has been lavished upon it is fully justified. Of course, it has several improbabilities and even absurdities in its plot. But it is a triumph of comic writing. As a contemporary critic pointed out, the merit of this play is that the laughter it excites is absolutely free from bitter after-thought. Wilde makes his personages ridiculous, but he does not ridicule them. He introduces personages of the time when the play was written––young men about town, rebellious daughters, a clergyman, a prim governess, a glib valet ; but he does not poke fun at them as types ; he makes us laugh at their conduct for its sheer whimsicality, not as illustrating the foibles of their class.

The Source of Laughter in This Play

The principal situation in this farcical comedy shows why we laugh at Wilde’s personages. There is a character by the name of John Worthing, who is John in the country and Ernest in town. He determines to kill off his imaginary brother Ernest and arrives at his country-house clad in complete mourning. The mere sight of him in this garb sets us off laughing. For we guess at once what he is going to do ; and we have just seen his bosom friend arrive at the house in the assumed character of the very Ernest who is now to be given out as dead. We laugh because, knowing what we do, we recognize John’s conduct as absurd ; but, on the other hand, we recognize it as natural because he does not know what we know. The same is largely the case with some of the other actions in the play. Two girls, believing themselves engaged to the same man, and deadly foes in consequence, show their enmity by squabbling over the division of the cake at the tea-table. A young man, about to be kicked out of the house, declines to go until he has finished the muffins. Another, finding that his sweetheart only loves him because she believes him to have the name of Ernest, resolves to be christened “Ernest” immediately and anxiously asks the parson whether he is likely to catch cold in the process. A smooth-spoken valet gravely announces himself as a pessimist and, being ironically complimented by his master, replies that he has “always tried to give satisfaction.” A hand-bag in which Worthing was left thirty years ago in a cloak-room is produced as a clue to a romantic mystery ; and, as an anti-climax, the owner of the hand-bag, who is a prim governess, remarks that she has been much inconvenienced by the want of it. All this shows that, while the conduct of these people is in itself rational enough, it is exquisitely irrational under the particular circumstances. Their motives, too, are quite rational in themselves, but they are irrational as being fitted to the wrong set of actions. And the result is that, while we have something like real life in detail, yet in the aggregate something absolutely unlike real life. The familiar materials of life are shaken up, as it were, and re-arranged in a strange, unreal pattern. It is this combination of the natural and the absurd which causes our laughter in this play.

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