Oscar Wilde

Feature | Oscar Wilde, saint or sinner?

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Sarah Balkin, Lecturer in English and Theatre Studies at the University of Melbourne, shares her notes on one of the most renowned and produced playwrights of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Oscar Wilde was born in 1854 to the Dublin oculist and ear-surgeon Sir William Wilde and the poet and Irish nationalist Jane Fingal O’Flahertie Francesca Elgee, Lady Wilde, who wrote under the name Speranza. He studied at Trinity College Dublin and then Oxford, where he earned a First in Greats (now called Classics).

In December 1881 Wilde sailed for America, where he gave a successful lecture tour on subjects including ‘The English Renaissance,’ ‘The House Beautiful,’ and ‘The Decorative Arts’ Wilde’s tour introduced the American public to the aesthetic movement, which prized ‘art for art’s sake,’ resisting the idea that the value of art is dependent on moral purpose. The tour also launched Wilde as a celebrity aesthete.

Wilde married Constance Lloyd in 1884. They lived in London and had two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan. During the early years of his marriage Wilde wrote widely, including journalism, critical essays, and short stories. In 1886 Wilde met Robert Ross, who is believed to have been his first male lover. Ross remained Wilde’s friend throughout his life and became his literary executor. The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde’s only novel, was first published in Lippincott’s Magazine in 1890. In 1891 he met Lord Alfred Douglas, nicknamed Bosie, who became his lover.

The 1890s saw Wilde’s maturity and success as a playwright, with productions of Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895), and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) mocking and delighting high society audiences in London’s best theatres. Rehearsals of his decadent Salomé, starring Sarah Bernhardt, were halted in 1892 when the Lord Chamberlain banned the play on the basis that it was illegal to depict biblical characters on stage; it finally premiered in Paris in 1896.

Despite the society plays’ popularity, many critics pointed to elements Wilde borrowed from other French and English playwrights as evidence that he had not yet mastered the form. Wilde did borrow shamelessly; in 1893 he bragged, ‘Of course I plagiarise. It is the privilege of the appreciative man.’ To dismiss Wilde as a plagiarist is to miss a fundamental aspect of his writing, which transformed what it borrowed. This is particularly true of the society plays, which imitated high society in a way that displayed its many hypocrisies, and which deployed and departed from stereotyped plots to make audiences question their moral structure.

An Ideal Husband invokes and transforms two of the fundamental principles of nineteenth-century melodrama: the duality of good and evil and the exposure of truth. Lady Chiltern represents the melodramatic position with her moral absolutism and insistence that there is no difference between public and private life.

The play’s more compassionate moral arbiter, the ‘flawless dandy’ Lord Goring, guides her to nuance her worldview. Thus, in some respects the play reinforces Robert Chiltern’s claim that ‘public and private life are different things,’ but its tolerance for a degree of moral compromise across both spheres bespeaks its modernity.

Wilde’s own private life became a public scandal in 1895, when An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest were both playing to large audiences. On 28 February the Marquess of Queensberry, Lord Alfred Douglas’s father, left a card for Wilde at the Albemarle Club that read, ‘To Oscar Wilde, posing [as a] Somdomite’ (sic). Wilde sued for libel but Queensberry was acquitted. On 5 April Wilde himself was arrested on charges of ‘gross indecency.’ Although the first jury could not agree, a second trial was ordered and on 25 May Wilde was convicted and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment with hard labour.

Even before the conviction, Wilde’s name was removed from the hoardings of both theatres, and soon the plays themselves were taken off. The first revival of An Ideal Husband in 1905 was euphemistically described as ‘by the author of Lady Windermere’s Fan.’

Wilde wrote a long letter to Douglas while he was imprisoned; it was later published as De Profundis. On 19 May 1897, Wilde was released. He lived abroad, plagued by debt and health problems until his death from meningitis on 30 November 1900. During this period he wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol under the name C.3.3., his former cell number.

Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband plays at Arts Centre Melbourne from 16 July to 25 August.

Photography by Napoleon Sarony.

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