Oscar Wilde - Playwright and Wit
Created | Updated Mar 29, 2010
It is no use for me to address you, people who can do these things must be dead to all sense of shame... I shall be expected to pass the severest sentence that the law allows. In my judgement it is totally inadequate for such a case as this. The sentence of the court is that you be imprisoned and kept to hard labour for two years.
- Mr Justice Wills
On 26 May, 1895, with these words, the career, reputation and ultimately the life of one of the world's greatest playwrights was brought to an end.
The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.
Born in Dublin in 1854, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was the son of Sir William Robert Wills Wilde, a respected eye and ear surgeon. His mother was the controversial poet and novelist Jane Francesca Elgee. Elgee had wanted a daughter rather than a second son, and for many years the young Oscar was dressed only in girls' clothing.
Children begin by loving their parents; after a time they judge them; rarely, if ever, do they forgive them.
After school in Enniskillen, Wilde studied the Classics at Trinity College, Dublin, and from there he won a scholarship to Oxford University. It was at Oxford that he won the prestigious Newdigate prize. The winning poem, Ravena, was subsequently published by the university.
The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately, in England at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever.
Once his studies had been completed, Wilde moved to London, and quickly established a reputation for himself as a great wit and eccentric. He associated himself with many of the famous actresses of the time, including Lillie Langtry (mistress of Edward VII) and Sarah Bernhardt. Indeed, his impact on London society was so great that he soon became the subject of satirical pieces in Punch and other magazines. Before long even Gilbert and Sullivan had included him - under the name 'Bunthorpe' - as a character in one of their operettas, Patience.
There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.
Cashing in on this newfound notoriety, Wilde published his first play Vera. This was poorly received and was to be rejected by a succession of theatre managers. A year later, in 1881, Oscar published a collection of his poems. Again, the critical reception was poor. Many thought the man's verse owed far too much to other, well-established poets, notably Keats. Wilde earned little money from the venture.
I have nothing to declare but my genius.
Having exhausted the inheritance his father had left him in 1876, Wilde badly needed a new source of income. For this reason, he accepted an offer to lecture in the United States. The operetta Patience had been very successful, and the American public were anxious to know more about the man who had inspired one of its principal characters. Declaring his genius to the customs men in New York in 1882, Wilde began a highly successful tour. His legend grew with each lecture he delivered. Though many Americans came simply to laugh at the man, they were at least willing to pay him for his time, and Wilde gathered sufficient funds to support himself comfortably for a time on his return to Europe.
Every great man nowadays has his disciples, and it is always Judas who writes the biography.
Wilde chose Paris as his new home, and it was here that he wrote his blank-verse drama The Duchess of Padua. Like Vera before it, this play was not well received by the critics. The poetic style merely underlined the fact that Wilde could never be another Shakespeare.
To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.
The following year, the playwright married. Wilde had been in love for some time. Constance Mary Lloyd was the daughter of a successful Dublin barrister. The couple set up home together in London and for a time Oscar seemed content, but his finances were not in good order. Constance gave birth to two sons in quick succession and Wilde's extravagant lifestyle could not be maintained indefinitely. A new source of income quickly became a priority. He found work as a reviewer for the Pall Mall Gazette. Then, in 1887, Wilde became editor of Woman's World.
There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written.
In 1890, an American publisher commissioned him to write a novel. Wilde produced The Picture of Dorian Gray. This was first published in Lipincott's Magazine before being issued in book form a year later. The story of a man who remains young and beautiful while a portrait he keeps hidden away grows old in his stead, The Picture of Dorian Gray was an immediate success. Critics, however, charged Wilde with immorality - choosing to ignore the obvious fact of Dorian's self-destruction. Wilde refuted the accusation, saying that all art was in any case amoral in nature - immorality did not come into it.
I can resist everything except temptation.
During this time, Oscar Wilde was becoming increasingly aware of his own homosexuality. Though devoted to his wife, he nonetheless began to explore his newfound desires and, in some senses, even to flaunt them. This was at a time in Britain when homosexuality was a criminal offence.
A cynic... a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
There was a quicker and easier way of making money than editing magazines. People had frequently remarked on Wilde's great wit and conversational abilities. He decided to make use of this in his next play, a comedy entitled Lady Windermere's Fan. This was to be his first theatrical success. It was staged at St James in 1892, to exceptional acclaim. Though the structure of the piece was entirely conventional, its wit and satirical edge were unlike anything else being played at the time.
The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.
The play Salome, which was in rehearsals at the time, was altogether less successful. A macabre piece, written in French, it was banned by the Lord Chamberlain because of its use of biblical characters1. Wilde threatened to leave the country if the decision was not reversed. Then he achieved a second hit with A Woman of No Importance and changed his mind. The acclaim for this new comedy was the equal of his last. One critic said that Wilde's play 'must be taken on the very highest plane of modern English drama' (William Archer). In quick succession, Wilde's final plays, An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest were produced. In the latter, considered by many to be his finest work, Wilde used the structure of a conventional farce to launch a merciless attack on Victorian hypocrisy. Wilde had a genius for using trivial dialogue to expose greater truths, and in this play it reached its apogee.
Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.
One of the ideas most frequently explored in his work is the sudden exposure of a guilty secret and the individual's subsequent disgrace. Wilde often said that life imitated art and in his own case this was to prove only too true. In 1891, Oscar had met a handsome young man, Lord Alfred Douglas, and the two had quickly become lovers. Douglas's father, the Marquis of Queensbury, was incensed at the affair. The Marquis was not a liberal man and hated the very idea of homosexuality. It was he who brought his son's relationship out into the open by publicly accusing Wilde of being a sodomite (someone who practises anal intercourse). Encouraged by Douglas, Wilde sued the Marquis for criminal libel. This was not a sensible course of action, since the accusation was obviously true. Wilde was forced to abandon the suit. This was not the end of the affair, however. Having been publicly shown - in a court of law - to be a sodomite, it was only a matter of time before criminal proceedings began. Wilde was arrested and brought to stand trial. His friends had pleaded with him to flee the country at the end of the original lawsuit, but Wilde had been convinced he would never be prosecuted.
The truth is rarely pure and never simple.
The criminal trial failed to reach a verdict. Written accounts attest that Wilde performed spectacularly under cross-examination, but the jury failed to reach a unanimous decision. A retrial was ordered and this time Wilde was found guilty of gross indecency. Mr Justice Wills was the judge on that occasion.
A man cannot be too careful in his choice of enemies.
Wilde spent two years in prison. Most of this was served at Reading Gaol, where he was put to hard labour, and from there he wrote a long, angry letter to Lord Alfred Douglas blaming the man for his role in Oscar's fall from grace. This was later published, in an edited form, as De Profundis.
I never saw a man who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
Which prisoners call the sky
Wilde was released from prison in 1897. Bankrupt, disgraced and unwanted by society, he returned to France where he hoped to re-establish himself as a writer. Sadly, his only remaining work was to be The Ballad of Reading Gaol. This was published in 1898 under the pseudonym C33 - his prison identification number. It is widely regarded as his best poem.
I have put my genius into my life; all I've put into my works is my talent.
Wilde never properly recovered from the ill treatment he had received as a convict. Repeated financial problems, accompanied by the death of his wife in 1898, also took their toll. Wilde began to suffer from increasingly severe headaches. He was diagnosed as suffering from cerebral meningitis. He died on 30 November, 1900. Wilde's tomb is one of the major attractions at Père-Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, France.