The American production of “A Woman of No Importance” opened in New-York on 11 December 1893 to audiences that appeared to be amused, but to drama critics who seemed even more grudging in their reactions than before in their response to “Lady Windermere’s Fan”. The play’s audacity – particularly its sympathy for the unmarried mother – seemed particularly repugnant to some. The “New-York Times”, for example, referred to Wilde as one whose mind seemed to be as “impure as the river Thames by London Bridge”.
“A Woman of No Importance” is very interesting and has a great power of Oscar Wilde’s brilliant witticism.
In June 1894 Wilde published his lengthy poem “The Sphinx”, portions of which he had written as early as 1897, while a student at Oxford. Despite Wilde’s reputation as a dramatist it was not widely reviewed. The reviews included in this volume are characteristic of the lack of enthusiasm for the poem. “The Sphinx” did little to advance Wilde’s reputation. Coming after the success of “A Woman of No Importance”, it was perhaps an error of judgement on Wilde’s part to commit to print, at a high point in his career as a dramatist, a poem conceived and partly written in his youth.
B. Shaw defended Wilde; he said that Wilde’s wit and his fine literary workmanship are points of great value. In the year of his trial and imprisonment, Wilde saw his last two plays produced on the London stage.
“An Ideal Husband”, which opened January 3, 1895 at the Theatre Royal, did not draw praise from H.G.Wells and Clement Scott, who were never able to see much value in Wilde as a playwright. But Archer, Shaw, Walkley and William Dean Howells all agreed that it was a work the high order, despite some obvious weaknesses in its characterisation or the lessened output of Wilde’s “epigram-factory”, as Archer called it. But the majority of critics agreed that this play had an unmistakable success.
“An Ideal Husband” had a run of three performances, closing on April 6 (the day following Wilde’s arrest, though announcements had been made beforehand that the play would soon close to permit production of another play). It was reopened at the Criterion Theatre on April 13 and was withdrawn on April 27.
In New-York “An Ideal Husband”, which opened at the Lyceum Theatre on March 12, 1895, was judged by most of the critics as Wilde’s best play to date. A notable feature of the reviewers is that they contain fewer personal attacks than in the past. What particularly irritated the critics, however, was that the audiences seemed to enjoy the play.
With the production February 14, 1895 of “The Importance of Being Earnest”, Wilde achieved his greatest theatrical triumph. “The Importance of Being Earnest” is a drama. As we know, drama is an art form that tells a story through the speech and actions of the characters in the play. In most cases drama is performed by actors who impersonate the characters before an audience in a theatre. Although drama is a form of literature, it differs from other literary forms in the way it is presented. The drama achieves its greatest effect when it is performed. Some critics believe that a written script is not really a play until it has been acted in front of audience. Drama probably gets most of its effectiveness from its ability to give order and clarity to human experience. The basic elements of drama – feelings, desires, conflicts, reconciliation – other major ingredients of human experience.
“The Importance of Being Earnest” is widely recognised as one of the finest comedies of the English stage. But like all true comedies, the play reveals a variety of people, talks and events in a short period of time. This comedy also has a title “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People”. In this play Wilde departed from his standard formula of building up the high comedy farce. The characters do not take the life seriously and the result of it is a satire of the author on the English society shallowness. The play is very witty and with many epigrams and paradoxes.
The audience at the St. James’s theatre on opening night was deeply admired at this wonderful comedy. Most of critics were equally impressed. Wells, who had been disappointed with “An Ideal Husband”, found Wilde’s new play thoroughly delightful. Archer, intrigued by its curiously elusive wit, declared the play as “an absolutely wilful expression of an irrepressibly witty personality”. The newspaper “Truth”, observing that Wilde dominates the play, saw it as highly amusing precisely because he does. Indeed, in perceiving that Wilde makes no attempt at individual characterisation, the reviewer seems to grasp the nature of Wilde’s dandical world. Walkley, one of Wilde’s staunchest defenders says in his review that Wilde at last has found himself as an artist in “sheer nonsense… and better nonsense”.
But some critics dissented from this widespread praise. Bernard Shaw, who had delighted in “An Ideal Husband”, found “The Importance of Being Earnest” amusing but insisted that “the general effect is that of a farcical comedy dating from the seventies”. Moreover, added Shaw, the play lacked humanity – a quality, presumably, which Shaw would associate with his own drama of social and political reform. But, curiously, Shaw seems to have overlooked the obvious and significant point that Wilde, like Shaw himself, had taken conventional dramatic form and infused it with the new vitality.
The journal “Punch” printed a fictitious interview with Wilde to suggest its own attitude towards his new play and a common attitude towards his wit:
Questioner: Why give a play such a title?
Author: Why not?
Q: Does the trivial comedy require a plot?
A: Nothing to speak of.
Q: Or characterisation?
A: No, for the same kind of dialogue will do for all the company – for London ladies, country girls, justices of the peace, doctors of divinity, maid – servants, and confidential butlers.
Q: What sort of dialogue?
A: Inverted proverbs and renovated paradoxes.
(February 23, 1895, p.260) 6.
Despite Wilde’s arrest on April 5 the play ran until May 8 for a total of eighty-six performances.
Unlike the London production, the New-York production at The Empire Theatre, launched on April 22, 1895, two days before Wilde’s trial, was not well received by the critics. William Winter, the well-known critic for the “New-York Daily Tribune” who usually disapproved Wilde’s works, did not even review the play. Despite the generally unfavourable reception, from most of the critics, the play ran for a few weeks, but its closing marked the beginning of a period of oblivion for Wilde in America, that would last for ten years.
The reputation of Oscar Wilde as a writer and a critic was doubtful for many critics, but almost all of them considered him a brilliant dramatist of his time. Wilde’s fame rests chiefly on his comedies of fashionable life: “Lady Windermere’s Fan”, “An Ideal Husband”, “A Woman of No Importance” and “The Importance of Being Earnest”. The sparkling wit and vivacity, characteristic of these plays, helped them to keep the stage for more than half a century. In spite of their superficial drawing-room treatment of human problems, they are still attractive to numerous theatregoers because of their brilliancy of dialogue and entertaining plot.
The basis of the moral conflict is usually the idea that the past of his heroes has the greatest influence on their present and future, and, thus, it defines their actions and directs their soul development. In his play “An Ideal Husband” Wilde says: “One’s past is what one is. It is the only way by which people should be judged”. And this idea is very productive in his plays. Wilde shows that justice does not exist in the society of the upper class (Mrs. Arbuthnot – “A Woman of No Importance”, and Mrs. Erlynne - “Lady Windermere’s Fan”, are the real victims of this “moral justice” of the English society).
Oscar Wilde’s characters are the people of high society. He gives some typical features to his characters, but refuses the most famous way of that time to settle accounts with the enemies through the literary characters. Wilde’s heroes have no prototypes in real life. He named them by places’ titles where he worked writing these comedies. The moral conflict structure of Wilde’s plays is usually presented by means of action suspense. The first act of “Lady Windermere’s Fan” is almost all consisting of the saloon talks. But Wilde considers it to be the perfect act. These talks are full of witty fights with the help of wonderful epigrams. “The Importance of Being Earnest” – his masterpiece – was written without any pretension to the psychological depth. It is the light and merry farce – comedy. All its intrigues are based on the homonyms (for example: “Earnest” – adjective means “serious”; and the personal name - Ernest). The delicate humour and comical situation provide it for the longevity on the stage.
Oscar Wilde tried to create the fame of the great aesthete. His speech was full of paradoxical judgements. Here are some examples taken from different plays:
“Conscience and cowardice are really the same things. Conscience is the trade name of the firm. That is all.”;
“Being natural is simply a pose, and the most irritating pose”;
“Men marry because they are tired; women because they are curious. Both are disappointed.”;