Oscar Wilde, 1854-1900: A Descriptive Chronology of His Plays,Theatrical Career, and Dramatic Theories
Excerpted with additions and other modifications from Charles A. Carpenter’s Modern British, Irish, and American Drama: A Descriptive Chronology, 1865-1965:
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde is born into a prominent Dublin family on October 16. His father is a noted eye surgeon, his mother a novelist and poet who is widely recognized by her pen name “Speranza.”
Wilde enters Oxford University, where he will be strongly influenced by John Ruskin and Walter Pater. His terms there and intermittent trips abroad reduce his nominal residence in Dublin to insignificance, and near the end of 1878 he settles permanently in London.
Wilde publishes his first play, Vera; or, the Nihilists, at his own expense. A thoroughly apprentice effort (Punch will call it “vera bad”), the four-act drama deals with a group of Russian democratic socialists conspiring against the Czarist administration in 1800. However, as Wilde says, “it is a play not of politics but of passion,” and the full panoply of discourse which that invites reveals a talented stylist. It will be accepted for performance at the Adelphi Theatre in December 1881 but shelved to avoid offending the Russian monarchy, among them the popular Princess of Wales. Wilde turns to America and secures a production in New York for two weeks in August 1883.
Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience caricatures “aesthetes,” among them Wilde (in the guise of Bunthorne), who attended opening night and enjoyed the humor.
Wilde finishes his second play, the five-act poetic drama The Duchess of Padua, and sends it off to an American manager who had contracted for it. But it is rejected both by the manager and the actress for whom he had written it, and it will not be produced until January 1891—and then under the title Guido Ferranti with no acknowledgment of Wilde’s authorship until he intervenes. The run of 26 gives Wilde some satisfaction, but he later pronounces the play unfit for publication. Set in the early sixteenth century and featuring historical figures including the Duke of Padua and Malatesta, the drama is an imitation Jacobean tragedy whose only “modern” ingredients are a few epigrams (“The most eccentric thing a man can do / Is to have brains”).
Some time during this period Wilde writes 28 manuscript pages of a never-to-be-finished play entitled A Wife’s Tragedy, which features an aloof poet and a long-suffering wife. (He claims that of course he loves her, but “It’s very vulgar to show one’s love for one’s wife.”) It is not published until the Spring of 1982 (in Theatre Research International).
Wilde begins writing his first comedy, Lady Windermere’s Fan, at first entitled A Good Woman; he will finish it in September. During this year, considered in retrospect his annus mirabilis, he will publish “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” and four books, including the final version of The Picture of Dorian Gray. In October he will begin writing Salomé.
Wilde finishes writing a symbolic one-act partly inspired by Maurice Maeterlinck, Salomé, in French. Although he did not plan it for the stage, an elaborate London production starring Sarah Bernhardt is set in motion until the play is banned by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office because of its depiction of biblical characters. It is published in February 1893 and performed in Paris in 1896. Wilde’s English version (a revision of Lord Alfred Douglas’s translation) is published a year later, but not staged in London until 1905, and then only for private performances by the New Stage Club that much of the press boycotts because of Wilde’s notoriety. Finally in 1929 the experimental Gate Theatre in London performs the play and receives such a strong response by the general public that the Censor grants it a license to avoid ridicule, and the venerable Lyceum follows up with a 30-performance run in 1931. Its choice of subject, Salome’s insistence after she dances erotically for Herod that the extravagant gift he promised be the head of a prisoner who shunned her advances (in this case a prophet, not John the Baptist), and its musically patterned prose style, which alternates from ornate and passionate to cynical and conspiratorial, mark its strong alliances with nineteenth-century opera, and indeed Richard Strauss will transform it into an exotic avant-garde opera in 1905.
During rehearsals of Lady Windermere’s Fan, Wilde wrestles with the strong opinion of the actor / manager George Alexander that he should let the audience in on the play’s chief secret near the end of the second act instead of delaying it until the finale. At first he insists that if he had intended to do this, he “would have written the play on entirely different lines,” since the early disclosure would remove “the element of suspense and curiosity, a quality so essentially dramatic,” and “would destroy the last act” with its “sudden explanation of what the audience desires to know, followed immediately by the revelation of a character as yet untouched by literature.” After the premiere, however, he yields to the urging of friends as well as the manager to alter the second act, and in retrospect he will realize that the play is better for it.
The first of Wilde’s witty and innovative comedies of manners, Lady Windermere’s Fan: A Play About a Good Woman, is staged at the St James Theatre and enjoys a run of 197, earning him £7000. Wilde wrote it in 1891 expressly to improve his shaky financial condition, using the sure-fire devices of French well-made plays, tailoring the characters for Alexander’s acting company, and injecting an array of the iconoclastic epigrams for which he was well known. However, the basic line of action reverses a crucial well-made convention: while it relies on an all-important secret, it never divulges this secret to the person who would be most affected by its disclosure. The central crisis arises from the threat that a deplorable action in the past will be repeated in the present: a woman who had left her husband and child early in her marriage to unite with another man sees her daughter on the verge of doing the same. The young lady had been told that her mother had died so that she would not know the woman had “fallen.” Recently married to a well-to-do man, she misconstrues the attention (and money) her husband is lavishing on a young-looking and unashamedly coquettish stranger—actually her mother exploiting her good fortune to regain social position and the high living it entails. Convinced she is losing her husband’s love, she violates her rigid moral principles (the “good” woman becomes a “bad” one) by fleeing to the rooms of a free-thinking man who has professed his love and proffered his assistance if the need might arise. In the scéne à faire the “bad” woman becomes a “good” one by tracking her down and convincing her to return. She does so not by explaining that her husband was acting nobly by keeping her mother’s identity a secret, but by pleading with her not to repeat the most disastrous mistake she had made in the past, abandoning her child. (The germ of the play, Wilde tells a friend, is the “psychological idea” of the blasé, pleasure-loving woman experiencing maternal passion that made her suffer so much that it becomes a strong motive for leaving the country. “I don’t want to be a mother any more,” she says.) The finale arouses the strong expectation that all will be explained, but an escape route is found and the young wife is left ignorant but happy. Alexander insisted that Wilde shift the revelation of the secret to the audience from the fourth to the second act, but did not object to the unique resolution. After the curtain of the premiere, Wilde (audaciously sporting a lit cigarette) congratulates the actors on “a charming rendering of a delightful play,” and the audience on thinking “almost as highly of the play as I do myself.“ Bernard Shaw is among those who express admiration for it, but Henry James calls it “infantine . . . both in subject and form.” In May the play and its writer are parodied by Charles Brookfield and J. M. Glover in The Poet and the Puppets, and in March 1893 by Edward Rose in The Babble Shop; or, Lord Wyndhamere’s Fan.
In an unpublished speech given in May, Wilde comments on Lady Windermere’s Fan and his ambitions for English drama. Responding to a man who praised him for “lashing vice” in the play, he says, “I assure you that nothing was further from my intentions. . . . If there is one particular doctrine contained in it, it is that of sheer individualism. It is not for anyone to censure what anyone else does, and everyone should go his own way, to whatever place he chooses, in exactly the way that he chooses.” Then he attacks the belief that drama is a mere adjunct to literature: “Whatever form of literature is created, the stage will be ready to embody it, and to give it a wonderful visible colour and presentation of life. But if we are to have a real drama in England, I feel quite sure it will only be on condition that we wean ourselves from the trammelling conventions which have always been a peril to the theatre.” He tops it off by stating that he does not “consider the British public to be of the slightest importance.”
Wilde reacts to the censoring of Salomé by deploring the fact that “the Censorship apparently regards the stage as the lowest of all the arts, and looks on acting as a vulgar thing.” The painter “can go to the great Hebrew, and Hebrew-Greek literature of the Bible and can paint Salomé dancing, or Christ on the cross, or the Virgin with her child. . . . Nobody says, ‘Painting is such a vulgar art that you must not paint sacred things.’” The same is true for the sculptor and the poet. For himself as a poet, “there is no Censorship. I can take any incident I like out of sacred literature and treat it as I choose and there is no one to say to the poet, ‘Poetry is such a vulgar art that you must not use it in treating sacred subjects.’ But there is a Censorship over the stage and acting, and the basis of that Censorship is that, while vulgar subjects may be put on the stage and acted, while everything that is mean and low and shameful in life can be portrayed by actors, no actor is to be permitted to present under artistic conditions, the great and ennobling subjects taken from the Bible. The insult in the suppression of Salomé, is an insult to the stage as a form of art and not to me.” He adds: “What makes the Lord Chamberlain’s action to me most contemptible . . . is that he allows the personality of an artist to be presented in a caricature on the stage, and will not allow the work of that artist to be shown under very rare and very beautiful conditions” (Pall Mall Budget).
The drama critic William Archer protests the banning of Salomé in the Pall Mall Gazette: “Ever since Mr Oscar Wilde told me . . . that his Salomé had been accepted by Madame Sarah Bernhardt, I have been looking forward, with a certain malign glee, to the inevitable suppression of the play by the Great Irresponsible. Quaint as have been the exploits of that gentleman and his predecessors in the past, the record of the Censorship presents nothing quainter than the present conjuncture. A serious work of art, accepted, studied, and rehearsed by the greatest actress of our time, is peremptorily suppressed, at the very moment when the personality of its author is being held up to ridicule, night after night, on the public stage, with the full sanction and approval of statutory Infallibility. . . . Mr Wilde’s talent is unique. We require it and we appreciate it—those of us, at any rate, who are capable of any sort of artistic appreciation. And especially we require it to aid in the emancipation of art from the stupid meddling of irresponsible officialism. As soon as the English drama attains to anything like intellectual virility, the days of the Censorship will be numbered; but how is it ever to attain virility if men of talent, on their first brush with the enemy, ‘succumb to the temptation to seek out another nation’?” The first performance of Salomé will occur in Paris.
New York playgoers get their first look at a Wilde comedy when Lady Windermere’s Fan is performed. Many are bemused by the topsy-turvy witticisms, but the play endures a ten-week run.
Wilde writes to Shaw: “You have written well and wisely and with sound wit on the ridiculous institution of a stage-censorship: your little book on Ibsenism and Ibsen is such a delight to me that I constantly take it up, and always find it stimulating and refreshing: England is the land of intellectual fogs but you have done much to clear the air.”
The second of Wilde’s comedies of manners, A Woman of No Importance, is staged and draws mixed reviews, but enjoys a run of 113. It was billed as a “New and Original Play of Modern Life,” probably in an attempt to exploit the rising interest in Ibsen’s plays. Written from July to October 1892, the play is generally considered the least skillful of Wilde’s mature dramas. It alternates disconcertingly between radically different modes: Restoration comedy wit-combats and impassioned moral debates. Act I evades well-made-play strictures by replacing exposition and plot development with a witty, satirical, and often hard-to-follow talkathon about the current high-society scene. (Lytton Strachey will comment, “Epigrams engulf it like the sea.”) But the plot that emerges is a well-made-play standard: the return of a woman with a past. A lady who has lived on the fringe of society since she became pregnant twenty years ago learns that the impregnator who refused to marry her has offered her cherished son a job as his secretary. The man is the same self-styled “dandy” who orchestrates most of the playful conversations. From bantering with his group of admirers, especially a woman whom he admits can “fence divinely” (and who reveals similar “dandy” credentials), he must confront the sordid reality of an indignant former mistress (whom he has called “a woman of no importance”) arguing on purely emotional grounds to keep him from taking over his newfound son. When, on a dare, he tries to kiss a young American “Puritan” who turns out to be his son’s beloved, the son turns sharply against him. At the curtain the woman violates a tenet of Victorian morality by refusing the man’s offer to make an honest woman of her after all (to secure the son, whom he likes), and she is able to conclude that to her he is “a man of no importance.”
Shaw praises Wilde in a letter to Lady Colin Campbell for “teaching the theatrical public that ‘a play’ may be a playing with ideas instead of a feast of sham emotions compounded from dog’s eared prescriptions.” Later he twits, “there are only two literary schools in England today: the Norwegian school and the Irish school.”
Enclosing a manuscript copy of An Ideal Husband, Wilde writes to an artist: “To the world I seem, by intention on my part, a dilettante and dandy merely—it is not wise to show one’s heart to the world—and as seriousness of manner is the disguise of the fool, folly in its exquisite modes of triviality and indifference and lack of care is the robe of the wise man. In so vulgar an age as this we all need masks.”
The best of Wilde’s seriocomic dramas, An Ideal Husband, is staged and receives only a mixed reception despite the author’s popularity. Its run will reach 124 before it is abruptly closed because of the scandal arising from his arrest. Although billed as a “New and Original Play of Modern Life” as its predecessor was, the play reuses the timeworn figures of the “woman with a past,” the “man with a past,” and the puritanical wife. But the three are again characterized distinctively, and this time the dandy thrown into the mix is not an amusing villain but a Wilde-surrogate: “the first well-dressed philosopher in the history of thought.” Moreover, the witty and satirical sallies are reduced so that gripping melodramatic action can predominate. A fortyish politician suddenly finds his highly promising career and blissful marriage threatened when an unscrupulous woman who learned the basis of his original fortune—selling a Cabinet secret about the Suez Canal to a Stock Exchange speculator—blackmails him into agreeing to favor a parallel scheme which he was going to condemn. The lady reminds him that if she exposes him the “mania for morality” in England, which requires every public figure “to pose as a paragon of purity, incorruptibility, and all the other seven deadly virtues,” will finish him in both politics and high society. Moreover, he is sure that if his idealizing wife learns the secret of his past her overblown image of him will dissolve and he will lose her. He gives a full account of his misdeed to his close friend, the wise dandy, which provokes a debate worthy of Ibsen or Shaw. The statesman argues compellingly that in his youthful attempt to gain power through wealth he “fought the century with its own weapons, and won”; the dandy responds by calling his principles “thoroughly shallow” and noting that he is in mortal danger of losing. Twists and turns of plot, some hardly probable, result in a bout of truth-telling which bails out the un-ideal husband. His wife finally reconciles herself to him after he does all the noble, self-sacrificing things that should destroy his career; she can then affirm the dandy’s admonition that “A man’s life is of more value than a woman’s. It has larger issues, wider scope, greater ambitions. . . . A woman who can keep a man’s love, and love him in return, has done all the world wants of women, or should want of them.”
Interviewed in St James’s Gazette, Wilde is asked why so few men of letters have written for the stage. “Primarily the existence of an irresponsible censorship. The fact that my Salomé cannot be performed is sufficient to show the folly of such an institution.” The second chief factor is what he calls “the rumour persistently spread abroad by journalists for the last thirty years, that the duty of the dramatist was the please the public.” On the contrary, “the aim of art is no more to give pleasure than to give pain. The aim of art is to be art. . . . The work of art is to dominate the spectator—the spectator is not to dominate art.”
Perhaps the best-known farcical comedy ever written in English, Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, is presented to the acclaim of nearly everyone but Bernard Shaw (who objects to its lack of humanity). William Archer’s review catches its contemporary flavor: the play “imitates nothing, represents nothing, means nothing, is nothing, except a sort of rondo capriccioso, in which the artist’s fingers run with crisp irresponsibility up and down the keyboard of life” (World, February 1895). Written from July to September 1894 as a four-act comedy planned for one West End theatre, it was given to another (to offset the failure of James’s Guy Domville) and, at actor-manager George Alexander’s urging, reduced to three acts by combining and compressing Acts II and III. (Wilde’s letter to Alexander describing the new scenario, written in July 1894, was not uncovered until November 1999.)
The abandonment of problematic issues and free indulgence in improbable situations and iconoclastic epigrams in The Importance of Being Earnest insured its immediate and continued popularity, and the symmetrical elegance of its parallel / contrast love plot evoked admiration for its artistry. Both a parody of the well-made play and a satire of reactionary ideals, the merger of the two strains produces such gems as a Victorian lady’s indignation that a suitor for her niece’s hand was found in a handbag; the insistence of two young ladies that their potential husbands be named Ernest, whatever their characters, because “there is something in the name that inspires absolute confidence”; and the rapturous discovery that not only are both men willing to undergo rechristening but the lost-and-found suitor was actually given that name at birth. Wilde subtitled the play “a trivial comedy for serious people,” reflecting its alleged philosophy that “We should treat all the trivial things of life very seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality” (St James’s Gazette, January 1895). The dandy figure (as opposed to the earnest one) applies this doctrine in his litany of nonsense in the latter part of Act I, prompting his companion to remonstrate, “Oh, that’s nonsense. . . . You never talk anything but nonsense”—to which he replies, “Nobody ever does.” (In the early productions, this was followed with “Besides I love nonsense.”) But the final line of the play prompts readers, if not spectators, to take the text seriously—to recognize “the vital Importance of Being Earnest.” An illuminating “reconstructive critical edition of the text of the first production,” edited by Joseph Donohue with Ruth Berggren, will be published in 1995.
Wilde tells Alexander that he wants to read or send “the vital parts of my Florentine play” to him. In his incredibly long letter to Alfred Douglas written in prison later published as De Profundis, he says that in late 1894 he had not only finished An Ideal Husband but conceived and “almost completed” two plays “of a completely different type, the [blank-verse] Florentine Tragedy and La Sainte Courtisane.” Circumstances prevent him from completing either play, although in September 1897 he told Robert Ross that he was going to “rewrite my Love and Death—Florentine Tragedy. Fragments of both are published in the 1908 collected works (Methuen).
An anonymous skit, “The Advisability of not being Brought up in a Handbag: A Trivial Tragedy for Wonderful People,” appears in Punch. Wilde’s friend Ada Leverson had told him earlier that she had written it; he told her that the title was “quite charming.”
Wilde starts legal proceedings for libel against the Marquess of Queensbury, Alfred Douglas’s father. Friends advise him to drop the suit, and after he does (grudgingly), recommend that he flee to France. He does not, even after the first trial results in a hung jury and Frank Harris, Shaw, and Yeats strongly urge immediate flight. In a second trial in late May Wilde will be convicted of committing acts of gross indecency with male persons and sentenced to gaol for two years at hard labor.
The American premiere of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is a disaster largely because the author’s scandal-exposing trial has begun.
Wilde’s two plays running in the West End are taken off (Earnest after a run of only 83), and his dramatic career effectively ended, when his conviction on morals charges becomes imminent. In retrospect, Shaw comments that Wilde “had a niche beside Congreve in the drama.”
Frank Harris’s development of a scenario that Wilde described to George Alexander in a letter of August 1894, Mr and Mrs Daventry, is staged and has a run of 116. During the run (on November 30), Wilde dies in Paris of meningitis.
Yeats, speaking to the San Francisco Examiner drama critic, gives his perspective on current English and Anglo-Irish playwrights: “After Sheridan and until Wilde, the English drama had machinery, good machinery, but no personality. I think a disturbed life, such as an Irishman’s, makes for drama. . . . Conflict develops character in men as well as in plays; it develops personality, without which there is nothing strong nor lasting. The modern Englishman . . . is skillful in the mechanism of the drama, but that is all; his drama is a machine, for it lacks personality. Turn from it to the drama of Wilde or Bernard Shaw and you will find not so much machine but real personality. These men have something to express; it is more than a manner and a form. Their dramatic construction is intuitive, instinctive, you may say; it expresses personality. Wilde’s contempt for the modern British drama of Britons has been equalled only by Shaw’s. Why, when Wilde was asked why he went to a London theatre where one of his plays was being acted, he said: ‘I go to see if the audience succeeds.’”
In “The Collected Plays of Oscar Wilde” (Fortnightly Review), St John Hankin looks at the full dramatic oeuvre of Wilde and concludes that he was a born playwright who “despised the theatre” and chose to write potboilers, and thus remained “an imitator rather than an original artist.” The partial exception is The Importance of Being Earnest. Not only is it his most serious and artistic play, but a new type of drama: “In form it is farce, but in spirit and in treatment it is comedy.” Hankin links it with Shaw’s Arms and the Man and The Philanderer as plays that breathed “a new spirit” into farcical comedy and became “psychological farce, the farce of ideas.” This was “the only quite original thing he contributed to the English stage.” Otherwise, “in the age of Ibsen and of Hauptmann, of Strindberg and Brieux, he was content to construct like Sardou and think like Dumas fils.”
The Court presents two matinees of Wilde’s Salome. (The Strauss opera based on the play had been performed in Covent Garden in December 1910.)