Reading Wilde, Querying Spaces: Part 2

Oscar Wilde's Epigrammatic Theater

Oscar Wilde won his greatest literary fame in the theater, and his chosen mode of expression was the epigram -- a form which allowed him to flaunt his style and sophisticated mastery of life and literature. It is well known that Wilde's plays have epigrams liberally sprinkled throughout them, but it is important to realize the extent to which the epigram shapes Wilde's dramatic structure and themes.

Wilde's epigrams invoke a response and then frustrate it. For example, a character in The Importance of Being Earnest wryly notes that a widow's "hair has turned quite gold from grief." We are surprised by the particular hair color in the otherwise familiar literary construction, and may also be surprised that our widow refuses to conform to our clichéd idea of her. Wilde's plays are formed by the same process: familiar dramatic situations and tropes are invoked and then altered. Situations repeatedly refuse to resolve themselves the way our previous theatrical and literary knowledge would suggest.

While this has left Wilde open to charges of being a mere theatrical manipulator, it is in fact central to the type of theater Wilde wanted to create: a space in which the audience is allowed to recognize the rules of literary and theatrical history, and to share the pleasure of watching those rules circumvented. Wilde thus shares the pleasure of being in an elitist community with his audience, establishing an alternate aristocracy of the "ins" and "outs," with knowledge -- not money or birth -- required for membership. This is the pleasure of Wilde's epigrammatic theater.

--Francesca Coppa

Sydney Smith, (1771-1845)
Richard Sheridan, (1751-1815)

Bon Mots of Sydney Smith and Richard Sheridan. London: J. Dent, 1894.

Epigrams are a knowledge game, a demonstration of their author's mastery. In Wilde's time, this game was a common and popular one, attested to by collections of famous writers' Bon Mots, printed in handy pocket editions. Many 18th century wits, such as Sidney Smith and Richard Sheridan, had their best lines preserved in such books. However, after Wilde's downfall, the epigram also fell into intellectual disrepute. Beardsley provided the "grotesques" which illustrate this volume.




Elizabeth Robins, 1862-1952,
"Oscar Wilde: An Appreciation"
Typed Manuscript, Signed
London, No Year
From the Elizabeth Robins Papers

Elizabeth Robins, Ibsenite actress and friend of Oscar Wilde, notes in this unpublished tribute essay that "Oscar Wilde was born more a creature of the theater than most actors are. He needed the audience." The audience is essential for an epigrammatic writer, who wants to illustrate his mastery of conventions and his cleverness and courage in challenging those conventions. An audience with the necessary knowledge must notice and appreciate what he has done; in return, it will be allowed to share a position of authority with the epigrammatist.

Program for Lady Windermere's Fan

In Lady Windermere's Fan, Mrs. Erlynne, a "woman with a past," comes into the life and home of young, moralistic Lady Windermere, who is in fact her daughter. The conflict between the two isn't resolved quite the way past examples would suggest. Mrs. Erlynne's experience in life has not led her to become pathetic and motherly; rather, she is practical, sophisticated and witty. The unexpected behavior of the dramatis personae has led some to characterize the play as two-dimensional. Henry James, for example, remarked of the play that "There is of course absolutely no characterization and all the people talk equally strained Oscar." The epigrammatic language Wilde used was and still is identified with him personally, rather than being taken as indicative of characters who, while fully realizing what is expected of them, smilingly refuse to conform to other people's standards of conduct.

Mrs. Henry Wood, (1814-1887)
East Lynne. London: Richard Bentley, 1861.

In Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan, the "woman with a past," Mrs. Erlynne, carries within her name the title of Mrs. Henry Wood's novel, which had been adapted for the stage in 1862 Wilde's Mrs. Erlynne consciously refuses the ending proscribed by "E. Lynne." In that adaptation, a young wife, Lady Isabel, runs off with a scoundrel, and is thereby condemned to a pathetic fate: ruined and abandoned by her lover, she returns unrecognized to her former home only to see her son die. She has barely enough time to reveal herself to her husband and beg forgiveness before she herself dies. Wilde's Mrs. Erlynne has also abandoned her husband and child, and also arrives, unidentified, to see her daughter. However, she does not reveal herself, does not beg forgiveness, and lives happily ever after.

Alexander Dumas (fils) (1924-1895)
La Dame au Camélias. London: W. H. Griffiths, no date.

Lady Windermere's Fan is Wilde's take on the theme of the "woman with a past." The "woman with a past" was the subject of countless other plays of the time, from Arthur Wing Pinero's The Second Mrs. Tanqueray to Sydney Grundy's The Glass of Fashion to the ever-popular La dame aux camélias. Dumas work was central in establishing the conventions for dealing with the "woman with a past" conventions that Wilde through his character Mrs. Erlynne would consciously refuse. Wilde's Mrs. Erlynne stands in epigrammatic relation to Dumas Marguerite, who sacrifices, weeps, and dies. Mrs. Erlynne might have a past, but she's past it. "Oh, don't imagine I am going to have a pathetic scene," she says, speaking as much to an audience raised on Dumas as to the character she's supposedly addressing. Shown is a "yellow back" edition of the novel in translation.

Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898)
The Toilet of Salomé.

Beardsley's drawings, which were published by John Lane and Elkin Mathews in the first English translation of Wilde's play, were scandalous. Shown here is The Toilet of Salomé in its suppressed state. The young boy in the lower left hand corner appears to be masturbating. The image was altered for publication.




Elizabeth Robins as Hedda Gabler, 1891


Wilde's friend, the actress Elizabeth Robins, was also a theatrical reformer who produced and starred in the first productions of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler and The Master Builder. Wilde had seen Robins's performance as Hedda at about the time he set out to write Salomé. Ibsenites noticed similarities between the two works: Salome was regarded as an Oriental Hedda Gabler by William Archer, one of Ibsen's major advocates in England. Both Salomé and Hedda were shocking to the London scene -- they were strong, desiring, murderous women, unlike most others then portrayed on the stage. With Salomé, Wilde was again able to reverse Victorian expectations of womanhood while aligning himself with Ibsen, whom he admired.


Program for A Woman of No Importance

This play is considered to be Wilde's least successful drama, largely because it is not successfully epigrammatic in its structure and themes. Although Wilde sets his play in an interesting dialogue with Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter, and has many brilliantly witty epigrammatic lines in the course of the play, the underlying story is actually a fairly conventional one. Lord Illingworth and Mrs. Arbuthnot vie for influence over their illegitimate son, Gerald, and although Mrs. Arbuthnot eventually wins her son's allegiance and his acceptance of her socially-taboo past behavior, the end of the play sees them on their way into an exile of sorts, while Lord Illingsworth continues his life in the mainstream of smart London society. An ending such as this one would not have been particularly challenging or unexpected to London audiences.


Nathaniel Hawthorne, (1804-1864)
The Scarlet Letter. Boston: Tichnor, Reed, and Fields, 1850.

Oscar Wilde's A Woman of No Importance invokes Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter to tell its story of single motherhood -- Wilde's puritan Hester and villainous Lord Illingworth stand in epigrammatic relation to Hawthorne's Hester Prynne and Roger Chillingworth. In both stories, a mother confronts the father of her illegitimate child. The character of Hester Prynne, unwed, branded mother of Pearl, is divided between two women in Wilde's play: Mrs. Arbuthnot is the unwed mother of Gerald, and the puritan, American Hester is Gerald's wife-to-be. While Mrs. Arbuthnot enacts Hester Prynne's situation, Hester gives voice to her moral vision. It is Hester who defends Mrs. Arbuthnot's actions, saying what her literary counterpart was never able to directly articulate: God's law is only Love. In Hawthorne's novel, Hester Prynne and her child run away to Europe, where their shame will be unknown. In Wilde's play, America will provide their sanctuary: another reversal of expectations.

Program for An Ideal Husband

One of the issues being worked out in the Victorian theater was the so-called woman question. Plays like Pinero's The Second Mrs.Tanqueray illustrate the impossibility of accepting a woman for having led "a man's life." It is very like Wilde to take the opposite tack: An Ideal Husband shows that it is impossible for a man to lead a woman's life. The dramatic basis of An Ideal Husband, Lady Chiltern's demand that her ambitious husband be pure and without stain--seems to be a complete reversal of Victorian tradition. But actually, this was an issue: there was great debate at this time whether women were to be allowed the same lassitude as men, or whether men should be held to the same standard of conduct as women. Wilde's ending is very different from the typical ending to this sort of play: the net result is a validation of men's need to work on a different moral plane than women. Wilde is also claiming that the "fallen" position, that of differing from the norms of morality, is one of choice, a positive decision that requires strength and courage.

Arthur Wing Pinero, (1855-1934)
The Cabinet Minister. London: William Heinemann, 1892.

Wilde's play, An Ideal Husband, reverses the plot of Pinero's The Cabinet Minister with true epigrammatic flair. In both plays, a politician is caught up in scandal. Pinero's Cabinet Minister resolves his situation by taking what is known as the "Chiltern Hundreds," a politician's resignation. But Wilde's politician, ironically named Robert Chiltern, refuses his proscribed role of repentance and instead accepts a promotion.

Oscar Wilde, (1854-1900)
The Importance of Being Earnest. London: Leonard Smithers, 1899.

Universally hailed as Wilde's masterpiece, and as one of the most original comic works ever written, The Importance Of Being Earnest is also the play that has most "borrowed" from other plays of the day. This makes sense when you consider Wilde's epigrammatic strategy: because Wilde is an epigrammatic writer, his "most original" play would be one which illustrates his complete theatrical mastery, the play that allows for the largest re-mapping of theatrical territory. Wilde scholar Kerry Powell points out that a play called The Foundling, by W. Lestocq, provided the base plot for Earnest. Many of Wilde's other details -- including Algernon smuffin-eating, the Bunburying motif, the initially hostile relationship between Gwen and Cecily, and Jack's pretended mourning for his "dead" brother Earnest -- have their antecedents in now-forgotten Victorian plays. But because there are so many influences in Wilde's work, for all practical purposes there are none. It is simply that his plays are epigrams, intervening in already established theatrical discourses.

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