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The Two Oscar Wildes

The Importance of Being Earnest

a film written and directed by Oliver Parker, based on the play by Oscar Wilde

1.

At the climax of Oscar Wilde’s comic masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest, we learn that a baby has been mistaken for a book. Until that improbable revelation, however, the play—Wilde’s wicked exposé of the artificiality of conventional morality, and his one unequivocally great work—is concerned less with procreation than with recreation. Earnest follows two fashionable young heroes, Algernon Moncrieff and Jack Worthing, as they lead elaborate double lives, complete with false identities and imaginary friends, that allow them to seek unrespectable pleasures while presenting a respectable face to their local societies: London for Algy, whose fictional invalid friend, Bunbury, provides frequent excuses to escape to the countryside; Hertfordshire for Jack, whose assumption of a fictional identity of his own (that of a ne’er-do-well brother named Ernest) allows him to misbehave in town.

Those artificial façades start crumbling when both men fall victim to natural impulses. Jack has fallen in love with Algy’s cousin, Gwendolen Fairfax, and Algy becomes besotted with Jack’s young ward, Cecily Cardew, during a mischief-making visit to Jack’s country house. (He arrives pretending to be the black-sheep brother, Ernest—which is just as well, since Cecily, like Gwendolen, has always yearned to marry a man named Ernest—and Jack can’t expose Algy without exposing himself.)

But Jack’s matrimonial aims are seriously impaired by the fact that he has no pedigree. As he sheepishly reveals during an interview with Gwendolen’s mother, the formidable Lady Bracknell, he was discovered, as an infant, in a large handbag in the cloakroom in Victoria Station, and subsequently adopted by the kindly gentleman who found him.

Just how the baby got into the handbag is revealed in the play’s final moments, when it evolves that Miss Prism, the tutor currently employed by Jack to educate Cecily, was once a nursemaid in the employ of Lady Bracknell’s sister—the same nursemaid who’d gone for a promenade with Algy’s elder brother twenty-eight years ago and subsequently disappeared, along with her charge. As the shocked company looks on, Prism describes how, “in a moment of mental abstraction,” she had switched the baby she was taking care of and the manuscript of the novel she was writing, placing the former in her handbag, which she deposited in the railway station cloakroom, and the latter in the pram, which she took for a stroll. On realizing that she’d lost the baby, Miss Prism fled London and never returned.

Miss Prism’s inability to distinguish between a human being and a work of fiction may have been the result of mental abstraction, but for Oscar Wilde, the conflation of life and art was always deliberate. The result, for us, is that it has never been easy to separate how Wilde led his life—particularly his personal craving for notoriety—from his aesthetic and creative impulse to subvert. As early as the 1870s, before he’d left Oxford for London, the Dublin-born student of both Pater and Ruskin was playing the young artiste with a flair for self-promotion that caught the attention of the wider world: the character of Bunthorne in the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta Patience was based on him; his post-collegiate debut as a public figure was at the splashy opening of the new Grosvenor Gallery, which the twenty-two-year-old Wilde attended in a coat cut to look like a cello.

Not everyone was seduced by the precocious youth and his attention-getting shenanigans. “What has he done,” the actress Helen Modjeska complained, “this young man, that one meets him everywhere?… He has written nothing, he does not sing or paint or act—he does nothing but talk.” Nonetheless, Wilde had become sufficiently famous as a proponent of Aestheticism by his mid-twenties that he went on a two-year lecture tour of the United States, during which he gave tips to the colonials on how to make life more aesthetic. “The supreme object of life is to live,” went Wilde’s refrain. “Few people live.”

By “living,” Wilde in his Aesthete mode meant living beautifully, down to the last detail. Despite its apparent superficiality—or indeed, because of its apparent superficiality—the insistence that every aspect of lived life be exquisite and unconventional was part of a philosophical and artistic project of subversion; the emphases on surfaces, appearances, and style flew in the face of conventional middle-class Victorian sensibility, with its leaden earnestness and saccharine sentimentality. This creed was intended to be a red flag waved in the face of bourgeois society, and was understood as such by those sophisticated enough to see what he was up to. (“So much taste will lead to prison,” Degas murmured while Wilde visited Paris just before Earnest opened early in 1895.)

Wilde’s life was intended to be a demonstration of his artistic philos-ophy—was intended, that is to say, to seem like a work of art. The self-consciously dandyish clothes, the flowing locks that he wore provocatively long, the promenades down Piccadilly holding a lily, the unconventional all-white décor in the house at 16 Tite Street, where he eventually lived with his wife, Constance, and their two children, and which, like the famous blue china that adorned his Oxford rooms, was the subject of much comment; the polished epigrams he kept in a notebook at the ready (“you have a phrase for everything,” a disapproving Walter Pater scolded him): all these suggested that there was not a little truth in that famous claim to Gide, one that—typically of Wilde, for whom “a truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true”—assumed a distinction between art and life even as it sought to blur that distinction. “I have put my genius into my life,” he declared. “I have only put my talent into my works.”1

The statement was probably true of everything except Earnest. Even at Oxford, where he showed extraordinary promise as a Classics student, it was clear that Wilde saw his intellectual gifts as a passport to celebrity; that he happened to be brilliant enough to earn fame in any number of honorable ways was merely a means to an end. “God knows,” the young Magdalen graduate replied, when asked what he wanted to do after university. “I won’t be a dried-up Oxford don, anyhow. I’ll be a poet, a writer, a dramatist. Somehow or other I’ll be famous, and if not famous, notorious.”

He got everything he hoped for. Like many Victorian youths who had a literary bent and a restless nature, Wilde set out to be a poet. His early efforts were not without some success: he won the prestigious Newdigate Prize at Oxford with a poem called “Ravenna.” Yet for all their surface dazzle and facility, and despite a patent eagerness to shock with “decadent” material—in “Charmides” a youth makes love to a statue of Athena, who takes predictably severe revenge—Wilde’s verse was always studied, and now seems dated, lacking the epigrammatic crispness and fluency of his prose, which by contrast seems surprisingly modern. (Punch dismissed his first volume of poems as “Swinburne and water.”) Pater had sensed early on that Wilde’s real voice was the sound of speech, not song: “Why do you always write poetry?” he chided Wilde. “Why do you not write prose? Prose is so much more difficult.” One answer was that it was as a poet that the young Wilde thought he could garner the most attention; his early career suggests he loved posing as a littérateur as much as he loved writing. “Pour écrire il me faut du satin jaune,” he announced; he insisted on writing the draft of his early play The Duchess of Padua on fabulously expensive stationery.

It was in prose that Wilde found his real voice, which was clearly that of a critic. The provocative titles of some of the essays—“The Truth of Masks,” “The Decay of Lying,” “The Critic as Artist”—suggest, in ovo, the scope and character of his future artistic and philosophical project, which Wilde’s biographer Richard Ellmann succinctly characterized as “conducting, in the most civilized way, an anatomy of his society, and a radical reconsideration of its ethics.” The most ambitious prose vehicle for that project was The Picture of Dorian Gray, which, for all its haphazard construction, still suggests—with its almost prurient and (whatever his post-facto demurs) never quite unadmiring portrait of beauty wholly divorced from morals—why Gide could have thought of Wilde as “the most dangerous product of modern civilization.” That judgment may seem excessive to our modern ears, but in the wake of Dorian—and of Wilde’s French-language drama Salomé, written at the same time and characterized by the same self-conscious desire to shock by means of decadent sexuality—it would have seemed quite justifiable. “Since Oscar wrote Dorian Gray,” Constance Wilde sighed in 1890, when her husband’s novel was being denounced as decadent and immoral, “no one will speak to us.”

Five years later, people weren’t merely speaking to Wilde, they were begging for him. By then, it was evident that even Dorian Gray, with its famous inversions of substance and reflection—of life and art—hadn’t been the ideal vehicle for his gifts; Wilde himself knew perfectly well he wasn’t really a novelist. “I am afraid it is rather like my own life—all conversation and no action,” he said of Dorian Gray. But what is a weakness in a novel can be a strength in a play. Helen Modjeska had been prescient: Wilde was, at bottom, a great Irish talker, and his true métier, as the course of his career would soon demonstrate, was dialogue—real dialogue, rather than the rococo verses he’d put in the mouths of his early characters. It’s the voice of Wilde the brilliant talker—amusing, incisive, economical, wicked, feeling, fresh, contemporary, right—that you hear in the plays. (And in the letters, too, which have the same quality of intellectual vivaciousness and delightfulness of expression that his best dialogue has.2 ) It wasn’t until he allowed that real-life voice to be heard in his work that Wilde achieved true distinction in art as well as life, however briefly. “Talk itself is a sort of spiritualised action,” he declared in May of 1887, at a time when he’d begun writing down narratives and dialogues as a kind of training for his mature dramatic work, of which Earnest—with its razor-like epigrams and perfect inversions of the natural and the artificial, of life and art, of babies and books—was the most exquisite, and devastating, expression.

2.

Typically, the creative breakthrough marked by Wilde’s great comedy was deeply entwined with another, personal watershed: his authentic artistic self emerged into view at the same time that his authentic emotional self was being revealed. After being initiated into homosexual sex by the precocious Robbie Ross in 1886—Ross was seventeen, Wilde thirty-one—Wilde became increasingly involved in enacting the Greek love to which he’d always enjoyed alluding, even when he didn’t actually practice it. (He’d scandalized his fellow Oxford undergraduates by observing, of a school athlete, that “his left leg is a Greek poem.”) Wilde’s marriage had begun to unravel after his wife’s second pregnancy, which left him physically repelled: “I… forced myself to touch and kiss her…. I used to wash my mouth and open the window to cleanse my lips in the open air.” By the late Eighties and early Nineties, he was spending his free time first with Ross, and then, after their fateful 1891 meeting, with the pale-skinned, fair-haired Lord Alfred Doug- las—“Bosie.” And, soon after, with the telegraph boys and rent boys and other lower-class youths of the homosexual demimonde, whose company gave Wilde—the gay among straights, the Irishman among Englishmen—the delicious, gratifying thrill of danger: “like feasting with panthers.”

  1. 1

    Quoted in Colm Toíbín’s excellent and sympathetic recent essay, “Oscar Wilde: Love in a Dark Time,” in Love in a Dark Time: Gay Lives from Wilde to Almodóvar (Scribner, 2002).

  2. 2

    See the superb recent edition edited by Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis, editors, The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde (Holt, 2000).

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