THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST And the Life of Oscar Wilde Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was an extraordinary character, a coveted party guest whose witty, urbane, irreverent, wise, generous, and kind presence was sought by many. Irish poet W.B. Yeats said, “the dinner table was Wilde’s event and made him the greatest talker of his time, and his plays and dialogues have what merit they possess from being an initiation, now a record, of his talk.” Wilde was more than just a posturing aesthete. His nature was governed by an irreconcilable duality. He was the most of men yet frequently destitute, graceful while unusually muscular, whimsical though keenly observant, no one’s fool and society’s whipping boy. Discuss the use of the word duality in this description of Oscar Wilde. How might one person possess these antithetical characteristics? Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin in 1854 to notable parents. His father, Robert Wills Wilde, was a well-established surgeon (and womanizer) and his mother, Jane Francesca Elgee, wrote poetry under the name “Speranza.” In this learned, if somewhat eccentric environment, Wilde was exposed to culture, drama and aesthetics. Aesthetics = The study of beauty and art. An accomplished student, Wilde attended some of Dublin’s finest educational institutions—the Protestant public school Portora Royal (1864) and Trinity College, to which he won a scholarship in 1871. He later attended Magdalen College, Oxford. Oscar Wilde at Oxford Under the tutelage of such eminent fine arts scholars as John Ruskin and Walter Pater, Wilde developed his particular sense of aestheticism. He affected a languishing air, wore eccentric clothes, grew his hair long, and often carried lilies or sunflowers. How do you think Wilde was received by the public? What modern-day celebrities have adopted a similar aesthetic? EARLY CAREER “It’s extraordinary how soon one gets known in London” ✺ Oscar Wilde’s first published works, the play Vera; or, The Nihilists and a collection of poetry called Poems received mixed reviews. ✺ In 1882, due to the growing popularity of Gilbert and Sullivan’s satirical opera, Patience, Wilde was invited to visit the United States on a lecture tour of the “decorative arts,” which was very successful. “When good Americans die, they go to Paris; What do you think are some characteristics of Decadent art based upon when bad Americans die, they stay in America.” the paintings below? --- Oscar Wilde “As a method, Realism is a complete failure…[T]he two things that every artist should avoid are modernity of form and modernity of subject matter.” -- Oscar Wilde As we read The Importance of Being Earnest, pay attention to the ways in which Wilde eschews the “real” in favor of developing a decadent aesthetic. PERSONAL LIFE Wilde’s income was meager and always short of his extravagant spending. In 1884 he married Constance Lloyd, the beautiful young daughter of a Dublin barrister, whose small fortune helped to rectify his financial difficulties. Of course, their marriage would not be his most celebrated romance… FINDING SUCCESS In 1887 Wilde became editor of The Woman’s World, a progressive magazine, and held that position for two years. Wilde garnered acclaim at first for his collections of stories and novels, and then for his great successes in theater. His final years were among his most prolific. In 1891, Wilde was introduced to Lord Alfred Douglas, then a student at Oxford and a handsome and spoiled young man. The two quickly struck an intimate friendship and soon became lovers as well as literary collaborators. Total ruin nipped at the heels of Oscar Wilde’s most lauded success, The Importance of Being Earnest… Alfred Douglas’ father, the Marquess of Queensbury, outraged by his son’s relationship with Wilde, went to the theater on opening night intending to embarrass the playwright by tossing rotten vegetables onstage. Wilde caught wind of the plan and denied Douglas entrance. Four days later the Marquess sent an insulting card to Wilde’s club which read, “For Oscar Wilde, posing as somdomite [sic].” What might be some of the social and professional implications of this event? The Marquess’ charge is serious. How do you think Wilde responded? Wilde’s friends urged him to be prudent and leave the country for a while. Wilde responded, “Prudent? How can I be that? It would mean going backward. I must go as far as possible.” Wilde sued the Marquess for libel, but during rigorous crossexamination Wilde’s homosexuality was revealed. He was arrested and convicted of committing “gross indecency.” “‘The love that dare not speak its name’ is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect . . . . It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. That it should be so, the world does not understand. The world mocks at it, and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.” -- Oscar Wilde Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years’ hard labor. After his release he took up exile in Paris where he died, lonely and penniless, of cerebral meningitis in November, 1900. De Profundis, a collection of his prison letters to Alfred Douglas, was published many years after Wilde’s death.