The Plays of Oscar Wilde – Some Thoughts

An Ideal Husband
A Woman of No Importance
Modern Library, Boni and Liverlight, New York, 1919

The Importance of Being Ernest
Norton Anthology of English Literature Vol 2

The good ended happily, the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.
-Wilde, the Importance of Being Ernest

I have  long neglected the works of Oscar Wilde, except for the Picture of Dorian Gray, but recently he seemed just the irreverent and funny antidote to a bad reading experience I had had. If you know little about Oscar Wilde, the two things you may know he was a masterful wit full of witticisms (or bon mots if you must escape into the French) and his unjust imprisonment. While he certainly did provide the humor I wanted, the plays took some adjusting too, not only in accepting the melodramatic endings (one might say Victorian) that seem to permeate his works, which is the curse of the modern, socially active reader, but distancing oneself from the immediacy of the characters and their snobbery, priggishness and most of all that Wildean detachment that always has one stock character who talks as if nothing matters but jokes. Still, his work, even at its most historical, is a departure from its time.

An Ideal Husband, while more concise than the overly witicised Woman of No Importance, seemed the epitome of the Wildean humor, filled with characters who at the outset of the play are more interested in either making the kind of detached wit that despises the world:

Chiltern: A Political life is a noble career!
Cheveley: Sometimes. And sometimes it is a clever game, Sir Robert. And sometimes it is a great nuisance.
Chiltern: Which do you find it?
Cheveley: I? A combination of all three.

At other times it is the boredom of the rich, an incessant dissatisfaction with what they have, although they would never see it changed, “Ah, nowdays people marry as often as they can, don’t they? It’s most fashionable.” If a dinner party or a play or some other social event isn’t tedious, it is something one has to do because that is what one does. End of story.

It would be a mistake, though, to see these witticisms as all coming from the same shallow or decadent place. Wilde uses the comments to demonstrate the ossified thinking of the upper classes, and to also step away from them and show the silliness of society. The first is the most obvious and his plays are full of characters that now seem shallow, not in their depiction, but their concerns. A Woman of No Importance is filled with these, since the first act is primarly given over to witicisms and less the plot. For example, Lady Caroline says, “I am not at all in favor of amusements for the poor, Jane. Blankets and coals are sufficient. There is too much love of pleasure amongst the upper classes as it is. Health is what we want in modern life.” It is a statement that is particularly out of touch, as if the poor were going to over amuse themselves if they can’t afford blankets. She exhibits an elitist moralism that posits that the poor should be grateful for their superiors and do as they wish. It is his classic depiction of the rich, who even when they try to be political actors cannot but show themselves as understanding much.

Every one of the plays under consideration also has his second type of joker, a trickster who is so aloof that everything he says, if taken at face value, would be disgusting. But these characters actually reveal the shallowness of the society they live in. What makes them funny and infuriating at the same time, though, is they do not propose solutions, only show the failings. This feature is in direct opposition to the social realists of the time and a little latter who often proposed solutions, no matter how unrealistic. Even literary kin such as an Edith Wharton, not a social realist, there is a sense of the problem to be solved, as in the House of Mirth. The humor that makes fun of the society is one of the powers of his work. But if you wants a condemnation of society in these aloof characters, you will seldom find it. Only seeing the witticisms as a kind of omniscient and impotent wisdom, can they be seen as critical engagement and not a fatalistic sarcasm.

However, that is not to say Wilde’s characters are all the same. In An Ideal Husband, Lord Goring plays the role of the joker, but ultimately he acts to save a character from ruin. Where as Lord Illingworth in A Woman of No Importance refuses to own up to his error, fathering a child and abandoning the mother, and then expects that 20 years latter the mother will want to marry him. In the former case, the character is able to move beyond their role in society, in the second the witticisms are sterile and become foolish games and the real focus shifts to the the woman of no importance.

Of course, the plays of Wilde are not focused only on witticisms. They have plots and it is with varying success he merges his style with his take on society. The Importance of Being Ernest is the most successful of his works in this sense. He is able to make the stories of all his characters intertwine throughout the play and, most importantly, make use of his witty characters as central actors in the drama, something that doesn’t quite work in the Ideal Husband and A Woman.

A Woman of no Importance although clumsy is in many ways, is also his most scandalous work. While I don’t know the reaction from the time, its focus on a woman who has had a child out of wedlock and refuses to marry the father even 20 years latter is certainly not a Victorian subject. Moreover, when the woman of no importance refuses to marry the father of the child 20 years latter, even though he will help legitimate their child, she takes control of her own life. She is the most independent of all his female characters. Sure, there are the widows with money, but she stands on principle and refuses everything she might gain for herself or her son. In this sense Wilde celebrates the independence and freedom of a woman who by the standards of the times should have lived in shame. The play is Wilde’s most black and white, too, presenting a stark contrast between the woman with scruples and little money, and the rich father who is one of his aloof wits. It is obvious he sympathizes with her despite his obvious delight in Lord Illingworth’s bon mots.

An Ideal Husband, on the other hand, is more tame and pokes fun at the way people can idealize each other, demanding morality at every turn even though it is impossible. The story, briefly, is a satire of society’s idealistic demand that one seek the perfect mate, the ideal husband. Sir Robert Chiltern is a man of the highest moral standing and a leading political figure known for his honesty and morals. His wife idealizes her husband, seeing in his morality the perfect mix of manhood and godliness. She is so attached to the ideal that she could not accept him as anything but perfect. As far as she knows, she will only Mrs Cheveley, on the other hand, has no scruples at all and wants Sir Robert to make a speech in parliament the next day supporting the fraudulent canal project his is going to denounce.

The tension between the amoral Mrs Cheveley and the naively good Mrs Chiltern is the crux of the action. Interestingly, it is the aloof character, Lord Goring, who saves the good from themselves. Lord Goring, because he is outside of the everyday expectation of morality is able to act for those who are too naive to defend themselves. Mrs Chiltern’s absurd notion that the only way she can respect her husband is if he has been perfect all his life, is an impossible standard to live up to and is easily abused by a Mrs Cheveley who has no scruples. For Wilde, the lack of an ideal type frees one, not only to see new things, but is a defense mechanism. Only someone like Lord Goring who has been cut loose from the strictures of society has the ability to go beyond the arbitrary rules of society. That freedom, though, comes at a cost and Lord Goring is, like his typical wit, alone and jaded.

In the Importance of Being Earnest Wilde is able to have a wit as a central character and let those witticisms plays the role of outside commentator, and at the same time, the life of the wit is also undone by its own cleverness. Since this is Wilde’s last play it is tempting to say he had reached some sort of conclusion with the work, but that is just creating a trajectory where there may not be one. However, it is his most complete play and he is able to make fun of the ways that people live multiple lives, while those who know them only see that one life. All his plays are about the secrets people have, but Ernest makes that the focus of the work. What also changes is the weight of his focus. Whereas A Woman and Ideal Husband both focus on the dark outcomes of the secrets, Wilde softens his touch and the repercussions for having secrets is softened. In contrast to the other plays, too, he final achieves the comic twists and turns that make the play so good. Except for the ending. The ending has the deus ex machina elements that comedies that rely on mistaken identity often have. It makes for a happy ending, if a little too pat.

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