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More about the Playwright: The Importance of Being Earnest

By Daniel Frezza

Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin on October 16, 1854. His father, Sir William, was an eminent eye-and-ear surgeon and author of books on medicine and Irish folklore. Wilde’s mother, Jane (who used the pen name “Speranza”), was also a prolific writer and ardent Irish nationalist.

An avid reader, Oscar could be casual about studying and exams. Nevertheless he won scholarships to Trinity College, Dublin and later to Oxford. In his final year at Trinity he won a gold medal for Greek. It proved useful: throughout his life whenever money was scarce he would pawn it(Merlin Holland, The Wilde Album [New York, Henry Holt & Co., 1997], 30). A frequent party-giver, Oscar did so well in exams without apparent work that one Oxford classmate suspected he studied on the sly. His secret may actually have been his prodigious memory (Hesketh Pearson, Oscar Wilde: His Life and Wit [New York, Grosset & Dunlap, 1946], 19). During these years he became interested in Catholicism–initially more for esthetic than religious reasons, but the interest endured (Richard Ellman, Oscar Wilde [New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1988], 54).

After graduating with distinction in 1878, Oscar joined his now widowed mother and older brother in London and soon made himself famous by his extravagant style of dress and brilliant wit. “Not to know Mr. Wilde is not to be known,” said the prince of Wales (Karl Beckson, Ed. The Oscar Wilde Encyclopedia [New York, AMS Press, 1998], 90).

In 1881 Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience parodied Wilde. Capitalizing on the publicity its New York production brought him, Wilde toured America in 1882, lecturing on aestheticism and interior design. The tour covered the entire country and did quite well financially. It included Salt Lake City and a visit to a Colorado silver mine where he was entertained by the miners and out-drank them all.

Around 1881 Wilde met Constance Lloyd. They were married in 1884 and had two sons: Cyril and Vyvyan. At first they lived mainly on Constance’s modest inherited income; then in the late ’80s Wilde supported his family by journalism, becoming in 1887 managing editor of a women’s magazine. This gave him financial security and an opportunity to establish himself as a front-line writer beginning with The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888). Many of these and later works were elaborations of stories he first told in conversation (Ellman, 268, 309).

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) brought Wilde’s name to widespread, frenzied critical attention, most of it highly negative–the sort of reviews that today would generate enormous sales. It scandalized the Victorians, however. Constance remarked “Since Oscar wrote Dorian Gray no one will speak to us” (Ellman, 320).

Late in 1891 Wilde began his first play in nine years. (Two early plays had received unsuccessful New York productions.) He wrote Salomé in French, hoping to interest Sarah Bernhardt in playing the title role. It worked; Bernhardt started rehearsals, but the Lord Chamberlain’s office, the official censor, refused a performance license. Bernhardt, having financed the production herself, was furious with Wilde for not foreseeing trouble.

Around this time Wilde began his association with the actor-manager George Alexander who encouraged him in creating a string of spectacular hits: Lady Windermere’s Fan (premiered 1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893) and An Ideal Husband (January 1895). The prince of Wales attended and was delighted, along with everyone else. All three plays are society melodramas lightened by Wilde’s inimitable witty epigrams which subvert their conventional values. With his next hit, The Importance of Being Earnest (February 1895), Wilde distilled a pure comedy, perhaps the most perfect in the English language.

The spring of 1895 was the zenith of Wilde’s career–then disaster! Its roots stretched back to 1891, when Wilde first met Lord Alfred Douglas, (known to his family as “Bosie”). Dorian Gray had been Bosie’s introduction to Wilde; when they met, Bosie told him he had read it nine times (Holland, 138). From 1891 to 1895 Wilde and Douglas spent increasing amounts of time together. Around this time Wilde also began liaisons with young men in London. Douglas’s father, the marquess of Queensbury, objected to his son’s relationship with Wilde and made increasingly violent attempts to end it, without success. Foiled in his plan to disrupt the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest, Queensbury left at Wilde’s club his calling card on which he wrote a libelous remark. A number of Oscar’s friends tried to persuade him to ignore the incident; others, particularly Bosie, persuaded Wilde to sue Queensbury.

Queensbury’s lawyers produced a number of young men with whom Wilde allegedly had had affairs. Many of them gave perjured testimony; nevertheless, there was enough evidence to support Queensbury’s position as a father trying to protect his son from an evil influence, and Wilde withdrew his suit. Shortly afterward Wilde was charged with “gross indecency.” He was given time to leave the country but chose to stay and was arrested. Queensbury had been awarded court costs and he pressed to recover them. Though Wilde’s income had been high, his expenses were higher. He was declared bankrupt, and his possessions were sold at auction.

The first trial against Wilde ended in a hung jury. The crown chose to try him again, apparently for political motives (Ellman, 450). This time he was convicted and sentenced to two years hard labor. During his imprisonment (1895 to 1897), he wrote a long letter to Douglas (published after Oscar’s death under the title De Profundis) meditating on their relationship.

After the scandal of the trials, Constance changed the family name to Holland and moved to Italy with the boys. She still, however, loved her husband; despite poor health, she traveled to England to break the news when his mother died.

Upon his release Wilde settled in France and spent his remaining years traveling, drinking, cadging money from friends but, unfortunately, writing very little. He wrote two influential letters to the newspapers on prison reform and The Ballad of Reading Gaol. That was all.

Oscar wished to be reconciled to Constance and see his sons again, but friends persuaded her to delay. The delay was probably instrumental in pushing Wilde to see Douglas again. They spent several increasingly unhappy months together in Italy. Afterwards they saw each other only once or twice.

Constance’s death in 1898 ended Wilde’s hope of seeing his sons again. His last two years were spent unhappily wandering the Continent. An ear injury received in prison and improperly treated continued to trouble him. Late in 1900 the recurring infection required surgery; complications developed into meningitis. Shortly before Wilde’s death, Robert Ross, a former lover and now devoted friend, fulfilled an old promise and brought a priest who received Wilde into the Catholic Church. Wilde died on November 30, 1900 at the age of 46, surrounded by Ross, another friend, and the hotel proprietor who had generously provided for Wilde’s comfort. Douglas attended the funeral.

Wilde was buried in a Paris suburb. In 1908 Ross received £2000 from a friend of Wilde’s, Helen Carew, to move his body to the French National cemetery of Père Lachaise and to commission the sculptor Jacob Epstein to create his tomb (Beckson, 377).

While in jail, Wilde wisely made Ross his literary executor. By 1906 Ross had cleared Wilde’s estate of bankruptcy. He edited the first edition of Wilde’s collected works and was a friend to Wilde’s sons. Ross’s ashes now rest in Wilde’s tomb (Holland, 187).

Cyril died in World War I. Vyvyan survived and pursued a literary career. His son, Merlin Holland, writes and lectures about his grandfather.

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