Monday, July 28, 2008

The Plays of Oscar Wilde

Wilde is certainly underestimated in Britain, though not in the rest of Europe. Indeed, in most other nations of Europe he seems to be considered one of Britain's very greatest artists. I am not sure if this is true as Italians, for example, often tend to worship surface brilliance, while neglecting what is deep and profound. Nevertheless, I am convinced that Wilde has been given short shrift in the Anglo Saxon world. Partly, this is due to Wilde being "too clever by half" for the English speaking world's taste, and partly due to the awful scandal at the end of his life which resulted in his imprisonment and eventual death. On the one hand, some of the mud still sticks (even in an Anglo Saxon world where homosexuality long ago ceased to be a crime) and, on the other, there is the collective guilt felt by a nation that destroyed one of its rarer talents. In light of these considerations, it is not surprising that Wilde is more respected abroad. His true genius was, in many ways, more Irish than English and his cynicism, anarchism, verbal brilliance and aesthetic affectations always labeled him as a rather strange fish in the England of his time.

What then are Wilde's qualities as an artist? His verbal brilliance is the most notable feature of his writing: time and again he is able to come up with the most perfect verbal encapsulation of an idea, attitude or feeling. More than anywhere else, we see this quality in his plays. The Importance of Being Ernest is rightly admired for its sheer delight in its own verbal brilliance. However, it is rarely noted that this play is actually very unlike the rest of Wilde's dramatic output. It is a farce rather than a dramatic comedy like Wilde's other London plays. For a long time, nothing much happens; and when things do start moving, the action is farcical and totally unbelievable. Jack invents a brother, Ernest, in order to give him an excuse to come up to London from the country. He is in love with Lady Bracknell's daughter Gwendoline, who accepts his proposal of marriage because she always dreamed of being married to a man called Ernest. Jack's friend Algy who has been intrigued to hear about Jack's beautiful 18 year old ward, notes down his friend's country address when he gives it to Lady Bracknell. In the next act, we meet Jack's beautiful ward who is mourning the news of Ernest's death, Jack having decided to get rid of him, when Ernest himself is announced! It is Algy who has come down to Hertfordshire posing as Jack's imaginary brother in order to meet his friend's ward. The two immediately fall in love and, when Jack returns, he is faced with a fait accompli. Jack and Algy decide to be baptised as two Ernests in order to keep the affections of their young ladies (for Jack's ward has also stated her inability to love anyone but an Ernest). The two men leave and only Jack's ward is present to greet Gwendoline when she arrives, unexpectedly, from London. The two women quickly discover that they both love Ernest and become bitter rivals. However, when the two men return the truth is revealed and the two women haughtily declare their intention to only wed Ernest. At this point Lady Bracknell is announced, having followed her daughter from London, and approves the match between Algy (her nephew) and Jack's young ward. However, she does not approve the union of Jack and Gwendoline as Jack was a foundling, discovered in a handbag in Victoria Station, when he was a baby. Finally all is cleared up when it becomes apparent that Jack is actually the son of Lady Bracknell's own brother-in-law--and that his real name is Ernest!

I have described the plot in detail in order to show what a farrago it really is. The other London plays all reach a dramatic point where tragedy seems the probable outcome. However, "Ernest" is pure farce. In my opinion An Ideal Husband is probably the best of these London plays with Lady Windermere's Fan not far behind. A Woman of No Importance is engaging, but over moralistic and sometimes a little faulty in characterisation. In the two previous plays mentioned, Wilde is absolutely at his best in terms of verbal wit; the plots are well spun and the conventional endings, ironic and arbitrary. We feel that in these latter two dramas Wilde is leading his audience by the nose, telling them exactly what he really feels and then providing them with a desultory "happy ending" in order to make them accept his bitterly anarchic pill. "Ernest", in contrast, is pure farce.

Below, I put up the first parts of "Ernest", "Lady Windermere" and "Ideal Husband" from You Tube. Anyone who so wishes, can follow each of them right through to their entertaining conclusions.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pure class!

8:32 PM  

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