Oscar Wilde has contributed his most important works to the theatre: “Lady Windermere’s Fan” (1892), “A Woman of No Importance” (1893), “An Ideal Husband” (1895), “The Importance of Being Earnest” (1895) and “Salome” (1893).
Of the first four which had a success without precedent, it must be said that they are constructed with extraordinary skill; they are interesting for their settings, pathetic without evoking tears, witty to the point of excess, and written in a pure literary language. In these plays, Wilde brings together the social intrigues and the witticism. “Salome”, which was not presented in London and which “Theatre De L’Oeuvre” mounted deplorably in Paris, is especially a marvellous poem, which has nothing in common with the modern pieces of the author.
These first four plays are what one could call society plays, picture of fashionable life in which au unmistakable air of reality is happily wedded to playful satire. The greatest merit is their dialogue. In other words, Oscar Wilde did not dive very deeply below the surface of human nature. But found to a certain extent rightly, that there is more on the surface of life then is seen by the eyes of most people. He believed as much in veneer as in deep untarnishable colour. And as in the drama veneer is likely to please while depth of colour is often productive of dullness, he preferred to concentrate his acumen of the language rather then on the underline humanity of his place. In this he proved he knew himself for lightness of touch, not to say a certain flippancy, was a paramount feature of his gifted nature; and when he was all gaiety, sardonism, and persiflage, as in “The Importance of Being Earnest”, he was the happiest. The Aristophanic vein1 sparkled in it, and it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that this last English play of the unfortunate author was the wittiest comedy of the nineteenth century.
Wilde was spoken of as an aspiring dramatist long before any peers sighed by his name was acted. In the theatre the writing of society comedies, within the framework of a well-made play, was to provide him with his most stunning successes.
The first of these, “Lady Windermere’s Fan”, opened on 20 February 1892, to generally enthusiastic reviews, though to some critics Wilde’s paradoxical wit seemed a facile, easily constructed device.
Of the critical reviews, the most enthusiastic was by A.B.Walkley, one of the most respected and influential drama critics of his day, who found the play and its “brilliant talk” entirely successful. “Black and White”, a literary critical review, thought that the play, despite the obvious formula of the well-made play was very amusing, and the “Westminster Review”, another critical journal, opened its review with the observation that “Mr. Oscar Wilde is nothing unless brilliant and witty”2. Both of these journals questioned whether “Lady Windermere’s Fan” was a play or a series of brilliant paradoxes and epigrams, but concluded that if someone was interested in plays he should go at once to see it.
O.Wilde’s plays were written in a light satirical vein, cultured and refined, and in good taste. His characters served as the mouths to enunciate the author’s exquisitely funny remarks on society. The remarks of the cynical young men about life, love and society and the garrulous Duchess of Berwick, may show a keen appreciation of the vices of the upper-class society.
Surely a good moral woman, such as Lady Windermere is made out to be, would not desert her husband because of the mere gossip of a scandal-mongering old lady. Lord Windermere also would never have allowed matters to come to a crisis without taking his wife into confidence and explaining to her a little sooner his relationship with Mrs. Erlynne. But this is not Mr. Wilde’s idea. He was anxious to express to the world his reflections on things in general, to lash the pretty vices of people of fashion, and did not, in the least, wish to tell a good story. So, the plot does not matter, as the whole interest lies in the conversation, which is as if many Wildes, male and female, were talking together. The dialogue is exquisitely funny and successful. It is satirical without being aggravating to audience. It is beating, and at the same time genial and good-humoured. It is an original, clever and ridiculous piece portraying London society as it is seen through the spectacles of Mr. Oscar Wilde.
However, some reviewers were less impressed. The sullen Clement Scott (whom B.Shaw caricatured in his play “The Philanderer”, 1893) devoted much of his review in the “Illustrated London News” to chastising Wilde for bad manners in appearing before the curtain, after the play had concluded, with a cigarette in his hand and for the cynicism which he detected in his play.
Justin McCarthy’s signed notice in “Gentleman’s Magazine” was also concerned more with Wilde than with the play – an indication that, to these critics, Wilde, not the play, was the thing.
“Lady Windermere’s Fan” ran for five months before it was taken on tour of the provinces. An early indication that Wilde’s fame as a dramatist was known on the Continent occurs in a letter, dated 5 September 1892, to Wilde from J.T.Grein, a founder of the Independent Theatre, who drew up on Wilde’s behalf a contract with a Doctor O.Blumenthal for the sole right of production of “Lady Windermere’s Fan” in Austria and Germany, half of his fees and other royalties to go to Wilde3. Publication of the play occurred in November 1892, by the Bodley Head. The play was first translated into French in 1913.
When the New York production of the play opened on February 6, 1893, the drama critics of the leading dailies were generally restrained in their judgements. Despite the lack of critical enthusiasm, the play had a highly successful run of several months.
Following Wilde’s death revivals of the play at the St. James’s Theatre were given in 1902, 1904, 1911. Clearly, “Lady Windermere’s Fan” was a stunning recovery from Wilde’s two previous theatrical failures, and since this was his first play, produced in England. The triumph was of singularly greater significance.
His next venture, “Salome”, rehearsals for which were proceeding with Sarah Bernhardt in the leading role, encountered the displeasure of the Examiner of Plays for the Lord Chamberlain, who refused to license it since it contained Biblical characters.
This time, however, Wilde, who was perhaps the most talked-about writer in England, though not the most widely read, expressed his anger with less then his usual restraint, no longer concerned with merely humouring his detractors with witticisms. Wilde complained bitterly that the ordinary English newspapers were trying to harm “Salome” in every way, though they have not read it.
The play was published in French in 1893. In its review of the play “The Pall Mall Gazette” concludes that “Salome” lacks freshness in both idea and presentation, conceding, however, that it does have “cleverness” – that fatal word which reviewers relied upon in discussing Wilde’s works. “Salome” was first given in Paris in 1896. The play was not produced in England until 1905, when Max Beerbohm, reviewing it, found the staging faulty. Indeed, he was convinced that the play was read better than acted for the “tragic thrill” of the action had to be imaginatively experienced. On the Continent, “Salome” was performed in most of the major cities between 1902 and 1912, where it was widely regarded as Wilde’s masterpiece. But in America its first production in 1905 by an avant-garde group was poorly received.
“A Woman of No Importance”, Wilde’s second play produced in London, attracted a glittering first-night audience. Despite enthusiasm of some critics, the play ran until only 16 August, a month less then that enjoyed by “Lady Windermere’s Fan”. The reviews, as Max Beerbohm ironically indicates, were surprisingly good, considering the fact that the play was weaker than “Lady Windermere’s Fan”.
William Archer, contending that Wilde’s dramatic work “stands alone… on the very highest plane of modern English drama”, praised the play but lamented that Wilde’s “pyrotechnic wit” was one of the defects of his qualities. He added that he looked forward to the day when Wilde would “take himself seriously as a dramatic artist” – which for Archer would presumably mean that Wilde should become a disciple of Ibsen. Archer’s praise of Wilde brought such adverse criticism from various quarters that he had compelled to defend himself in a review of Pinero’s “The Second Mrs. Tanqueray”, in which he reaffirmed his contention that Wilde was a writer of the first rank4.
Walkley’s review praises Wilde’s “true dramatic instinct”, but he confesses that witty paradoxes begin to tire him by their sheer number. But the majority of critics were disappointed by it. Despite the minority opinion, the play was widely regarded as a success.
The purpose of Wilde’s idea is to show the decomposition of English society. It can be really seen in the words of Hester, an American young lady:
“You rich people in England, you do not know how you are living. You shut out from your society the gentle and the good. You laugh at the simple and the pure. With all your pomp and wealth and art you do not know how to live – you don’t even know that. You love the beauty that you can see and touch and handle, the beauty that you can destroy and do destroy, but of the unseen beauty of life, of the unseen beauty of a higher life, you know nothing. You have lost life’s secret. Oh, your English Society seems to me shallow, selfish and foolish. It has blinded its eyes and stopped its ears. It lies like a leper in purple. It sits like a dead thing smeared with gold. It is all wrong, all wrong”5.