Oscar Wilde. Plays


 'The only link between Literature and the Drama left to us in England 
at the present moment is the bill of the play'

To my mind, categorising styles of art, architecture and literature according to their historical context is necessary, but generally qualifying certain forms of art and architecture as 'modern' or 'classical' doesn't make much sense at all.
In fact 'modern' might suggest a pretext or even a form of apology for ephemeral, and often unaesthetic results. At best one could say that such work that evokes no particular sentiment or depreciates beauty, belongs to its own epoch, if any at all.
In the final analysis a personal creation either qualifies as art, or it doesn't. Even the well known citation of Len Wein that 'art is always in the eyes of the beholder (...)' is valid according to individual taste and discernment, but also invalid according to individual taste and discernment. For not everyone is sensitive enough to discern the difference between art and mediocrity, but anyone has the right to be perfectly content with mediocrity.

Terms such as 'modern' or 'classical' have no bearing regarding great architecture such as that of the Campanile del San Marco in Venice, initiated in the IX century, to name only one in a nation so rich for its superb architecture. But there are fine, ancient and recent examples in most countries and capitals including New York City. All such master-pieces obviously defy time and fashion for as long as they exist.

This is also why Oscar Wilde's plays are still enjoyed today as are of course those of Shakespeare or any of the world's great playwrights. When the work was created is otherwise irrelevant, except in consideration to appropriate stage sets and costumes, but then only if deemed necessary.
As human nature never changes, it is also a constant source of inspiration for its strength and its weakness. Chaucer was one of the first great masters of the written portrayal of human nature in all its forms. His witty and amusing observations clearly reflect the eternal characteristics of humanity.

Recently I had the pleasure of seeing the 1949 film 'The Fan' by Otto Preminger. It was based on the play, 'Lady Windermere's Fan', written of course by Oscar Wilde (1892).
Because the story is good, the film can't be bad. Some of Wilde's witty conversational lines have been retained, but many of them seem to have been sacrificed for what Preminger may have thought as necessary post-war 'up-dating', which ironically would now be regarded as dated melodrama. The acting is nevertheless quite good, especially that of 'Mrs. Erlynne', the prodigal mother of 'Lady Windermere', who, without ever revealing her maternal identity to her daughter, persuades her from making the same mistake that she made when she had the same age as Lady Windermere (Margaret).
This is poignant in itself, showing Wilde's appreciation of how history can repeat itself if those who have suffered from their own experience do nothing to prevent it from happening again.
Prior to this, Lady Windermere is encouraged by those who wish to take advantage, to believe that her young husband, 'Lord Windermere', is having an affair with the charming and still attractive Mrs. Erlynne, when he, aware that she is in fact his wife's mother, is simply helping her out financially and socially.

In comparison to Preminger's film however, when one reads Wilde's play of four acts, the whole thing comes together in a much more vivid, amusing and convincing way. The characters and the timeless conversational lines give it that very special poetry which doesn't come across as much as it should in the film. The ability not to take oneself too seriously, the generosity, the staunch sacrifice for the sake of love, as well as the amusing hypocrisy, jealousy, pretentiousness, vanity and all the panoply of human nature are presented so wittily in Wilde's inimitable style.

Here are some examples from this particular play containing phrases that have since become famous in their own right.

Act one
(...)
Duchess of Berwick :  Dear Lord Darlington, how thoroughly depraved you are !
Lady Windermere :  Lord Darlington is trivial.
Lord Darlington :  Ah, don't say that, Lady Windermere.
Lady Windermere :  Why do you talk so trivially about life, then ?
Lord Darlington :  Because I think that life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it.
(...)
Lady Windermere :  Mrs. Erlynne ? I never heard of her, Duchess. And what has she to do with me ?
Duchess of Berwick :  My poor child ! Agatha, darling !
Lady Agatha :  Yes mamma.
Duchess of Berwick :  Will you go out on the terrace and look at the sunset ?
Lady Agatha :  Yes mamma. (Exit through window L.)
Duchess of Berwick :  Sweet girl ! So devoted to sunsets ! Shows such refinement of feeling, does it not ? After all, there is nothing like Nature, is there ?
(...)
Lady Windermere :  You needn't be afraid, Duchess, I never cry.
Duchess of Berwick :  That's quite right, dear. Crying is the refuge of plain women but the ruin of pretty ones. Agatha, darling !
Lady Agatha (entering L.) :  Yes, mamma. (Stands back of table L.C.)
Duchess of Berwick :  Come and bid good-bye to Lady Windermere, and thank her for your charming visit. (Coming down again.) :  And by the way, I must thank you for sending a card to Mr. Hopper- he's that rich young Australian people are taking such notice of just at present. His father made a great fortune by selling some kind of food in circular tins- most palatable, I believe- I fancy it is the thing servants always refuse to eat. But the son is quite interesting. I think he's attracted by dear Agatha's clever talk. Of course, we should be very sorry to lose her, but I think that a mother who doesn't part with a daughter every season has no real affection. We're coming to-night, dear. (Parker opens C. doors.) And remember my advise, take the poor fellow out of town at once, it is the only thing to do, Good-bye, once more; come, Agatha.

Act Three
(...)
Lord Augustus looks round angrily.
Cecil Graham :  Mrs. Erlynne sets an admirable example to the rest of her sex; It is perfectly brutal the way most woman nowadays behave to men who are not their husbands.
(...)
Lord Windermere :  What is the difference beween scandal and gossip?
Cecil Graham :  Oh !  gossip is charming ! History is merely gossip. But scandal is gossip made tedious by morality. Now, I never moralise. A man who moralises is usually a hypocrite, and a woman who moralises is invariably plain. There is nothing in the whole world so unbecoming to a woman as a Nonconformist conscience. And most women know it, I'm glad to say.
(...)
Dumby :  I don't think we are bad. I think we are all good, except Tuppy.
Lord Darlington :  No, we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars. (sits down at C. table)
(...)
Cecil Graham (lighting a cigarette) :  Well, you are a lucky fellow ! Why, I have met hundreds of good women. I never seem to meet any but good women. The world is perfectly packed with good women. To know them is a middle-class education.
(...)

In 'A Woman of no Importance', Wilde seems to give sincere praise to the USA. The story is clever, and once more one finds his characters' conversations full of his unique wit boosted with paradoxes, especially the cynicism expressed by 'Lord Illingworth'. Indeed the reader (and in principle the theatre audience) would also be charmed by Illingworth before the truth is revealed. Here are a few more excerpts of characteristic conversational lines.

Act One
(...)
Lady Caroline :  She certainly has a wonderful faculty of remembering people's names, and forgetting their faces.
(...)
Lord Illingworth :  It is perfectly monstrous the way people go about, nowadays, saying things against one behind one's back that are absolutely and entirely true.
(...)
Lady Hunstanton :  Politics are in a sad way, everywhere, I am told. They certainly are in England. Dear Mr. Cardew is ruining the country. I wonder Mrs. Cardew allows him. I am sure, Lord Illingworth, you don't think that uneducated people should be allowed to have votes ?
Lord Illingworth :  I think they are the only people who should.
(...)
Kelvin :  Still our East End is a very important problem.
Lord Illingworth :  Quite so. It is the problem of slavery. And we are trying to solve it by amusing the slaves.
(...)
Kelvin :  You are quite right, Lady Caroline.
Lady Caroline :  I believe I am usually right.
Mrs. Allonby :  Horrid word "Health."
Lord Illingworth :  Silliest word in our language, and one knows so well the popular idea of health. The English country gentlemen galloping after the fox- the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable.
Kelvin :  May I ask, Lord Illingworth, if you regard the House of Lords as a better institution than the House of Commons ?
Lord Illingworth :  A much better institution, of course. We in the House of Lords are never in touch with public opinion. That makes us a civilised body.
Kelvin :  Are you serious in putting forward such a view ?
Lord Illingworth :  Quite serious, Mr. Kelvil. (To Mrs. Allonby) : Vulgar habit that is people have nowadays of asking one, after one has given them an idea, whether one is serious or not. Nothing is serious except passion. The intellect is not a serious thing, and never has been. It is an instrument on which one plays, that is all. The only serious form of intellect I know is the British intellect. And on the British intellect the illiterates play the drum.
Lady Hunstanton :  What are you saying, Lord Illingworth, about the drum ?
Lord Illingworth :  I was merely talking to Mrs. Allonby about the leading articles in London newspapers.
Lady Hunstanton :  But do you believe all that is written in the newspapers?
Lord Illingworth :  I do. Nowadays it is only the unreadable that occurs. (Rises with Mrs. Allonby.)
Lady Hunstanton :  Are you going, Mrs. Allonby ?
Mrs. Allonby :  Just as far as the conservatory. Lord Illingworth told me this morning that there was an orchid there as beautiful as the seven deadly sins.
Lady Hunstanton :  My dear, I hope there is nothing of the kind. I will certainly speak to the gardener.
(...)
Mrs. Allonby :  I should have thought Lady Caroline would have grown tired of conjugal anxiety by this time ! Sir John is her fourth !
Lord Illingworth :  So much marriage is certainly not becoming. Twenty years of romance make a woman look like a ruin;  but twenty years of marriage make her something like a public building.
(...)
Lord Illingworth :  I never intend to grow old. The soul is born old but grows young. That is the comedy of life.
Mrs. Allonby :  And the body is born young and grows old. That is life's tragedy.

Act Three
(...)
Gerald :  But women are awfully clever, aren't they ?
Lord Illingworth :  One should always tell them so. But, to the philosopher, my dear Gerald, women represent the triumph of matter over mind- just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals.
(...)
Lord Illingworth :  Men marry because they are tired; women because they are curious. Both are disappointed.
(...)
Gerald :  Love is a very wonderful thing, isn't it ?
Lord Illingworth :  When one is in love one begins by deceiving oneself. And one ends by deceiving others. That is what the world calls romance (...).
(...)
Lady Stutfield :  The secret of life is to appreciate the pleasure of being terribly, terribly deceived.
Kelvin : The secret of life is to resist temptation, Lady Stutfield.
Lord Illingworth :  There is no secret in life. Life's aim, if is has one, is simply to be always looking for temptations. There are not nearly enough. I sometimes pass a whole day without coming across a single one. It is quite dreadful. It makes one so nervous about the future.
Lady Hunstanton  (Shakes her fan at him) :  I don't know how it is, Lord lllingworth, but everything you have said to-day seems to me excessively immoral. It has been most interesting, listening to you.
Lord Illingworth :  All thought is immoral. Its very essence is destruction. If you think of anything, you kill it. Nothing survives being thought of.
(...)
Mrs. Allonby (goes over to Lord Illingworth) :  There is a beautiful moon to-night.
Lord Illingworth : Let us go and look at it. To look at anything that is inconstant is charming nowadays.
Mrs. Allonby :  You have your looking-glass.
Lord Illingworth :  It is unkind. It merely shows me my wrinkles.
Mrs. Allonby :  Mine is better behaved. It never tells me the truth.
Lord Illingworth :  Then it is in love with you.

Act Four
(...)
Mrs Arbuthnot :  Don't be deceived, George. Children begin by loving their parents. After a time they judge them. Rarely if ever do they forgive them. 
(...)

For those who are not familiar with Wilde's plays, perhaps this allusion to them might incite more interest. Oscar Wilde wrote them over a hundred and twenty years ago, but as already stressed, l'art veritable ne prend jamais une ride.

The following is the full list of Oscar Wilde's plays. Salomé has already been alluded to. Perhaps more of them should also be referred to in the future, according to their particular content.

The importance of being earnest
Lady Windermere's Fan
A Woman of no Importance
An Ideal Husband
Salomé
The Duchess of Padua
Vera or the Nihilists
A Florentine tragedy (unfinished)
La Sainte Courtisane (or) The Woman covered with Jewels
__

  Oscar Wilde. On Individualism

Text © Mirino (PW). Portrait of Oscar Wilde by Toulouse Lautrec. Extracts from Collins' 
Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, with thanks.   February, 2014

2 comments:

Normandy Thenandnow said...

What an interesting comprehensive review, thank you. Poor Oscar, such a tragic end to a gifted, troubled life. We recently found a wonderful old postcard of him looking very young and dapper. The postcard and a bit about his final months (and humiliations) in France here
http://www.normandythenandnow.com/the-importance-of-being-sebastian-in-dieppe/

Mirino said...

@Normandy Thenandnow
Thank you for your kind comment, and the link to your site with the interesting picture of young Oscar Wilde. I shall make a point of reading the article as soon as I have the opportunity.

Wilde's life was indeed a drama. But he wrote the script, of course.
We know how he was used despicably by talentless Alfred Douglas, and finally also Douglas's father, for their own mutual hate campaign, but surely Wilde set the scene himself. He was too intelligent not to realise what he was getting into at that particular epoch.
In a way it seems to have been the last act, the way Wilde wanted it to be played out, honestly. And he knew what the ultimate price would be. But if for him it was part of his art, it couldn't possibly have ended any other way.