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The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays

From “Lady Windermere’s Fan”: Parker: Is your ladyship at home this afternoon? Lady Winderemere: Yes – who has called?

A Woman of No Importance, for all its charm, exposes an aristocratic world that is smug, snobbish and morally bankrupt. An Ideal Husbandportrays a glittering diplomatic gathering which is revealed as a masquerade to cover up the shady past of a prominent establishment figure. Lady Windermere’s Fan is a brilliant critique of conventional morality. In The Importance of Being Earnest every character is revealed to be leading a hypocritical double life, while Salome and A Florentine Tragedy use historical settings to explore issues of sex, gender and power.”

I absolutely loved this book of Oscar Wilde’s plays; each was interesting in its own way, and many of them are so witty and amusing as well as layered. The edition I read (cover on right) also had really insightful notes; not only did they explain what certain historical things were, they also offered interesting commentary both in terms of historical context and social commentary on Wilde’s part and in terms of the ironies created by the staging. This is an aspect obviously unique to plays, and I was glad this was commented on in the notes. The introduction was also quite interesting, talking about the staging and also Wilde’s interest in masks of all sort, both literal and societal.

The first play in this collection was Lady Windermere’s Fan. Beautiful, aristocratic, an adored wife and young mother, Lady Windermere is ‘a fascinating puritan’ whose severe moral code leads her to the brink of social suicide. The only one who can save her is the mysterious Mrs Erlynne whose scandalous relationship with Lord Windermere has prompted her fatal impulse. And Mrs Erlynne has a secret – a secret Lady Windermere must never know if she is to retain her peace of mind.” I really enjoyed it; it focused both on morality and also the different standards to which men and women were (and are still) held. Quite tellingly, through the use of little details, Wilde paints this picture. For example, one of the characters has a daughter who is completely sheltered and controlled; her son, however, goes to Oxford and basically does whatever he wants with no one to rein him in. Both are really bad, and even more ironic is the fact that the women themselves are contributing to their predicament as a sex. 

In this play and all of the others, Wilde also portrays the hypocrisy of the very society he wrote for and belonged to. There are those who make judgements, but in fact they are morally suspect themselves; for example two characters who are kind of judging Mrs. Erlynne but are clearly in an adulterous relationship themselves, as exhibited by the fact that the man calls the woman by her Christian name. There are so many little examples of ironic hypocrisy. 

Wilde is also the master of aphorisms, pithy, succinct statements about life and society. They’re deliciously witty and oftentimes at least partly true. These are present mostly in the plays set in his present day, the late 19th century. I absolutely loved “Lady Windermere’s Fan”, populated by comic characters but with a seriousness belying the wit. Mrs. Erlynne was so complex, and the notes on the dialogue really helped further that development. I felt that a few of the characters such as Lord Darlington were a little shallowly developed, but other than that the play was amazing; I would love to see it some day.

It was quite a jarring transition to “Salome”, the next play in the book. “Written originally in French in 1892, Wilde’s one-act tragedy Salome enacts the biblical tale of a wanton woman’s erotic dance and the martyrdom of John the Baptist.” I have seen the Strauss opera, though not in a while, and I have to say that I really can’t imagine “Salome” just performed as a play without the music, which just adds so much. This play is quite different from most of Wilde’s others, with their wit and aphorisms. “Salome” lacks humor; I suppose Herod could be viewed as comical, but not really. The play is, however, really intense; I read it one sitting, unable to put it down. Salome is such a fascinating and hideous character (though not physically, of course). “Salome” is a bit confusing; there are lots of Biblical and historical references (the notes came in handy there). However, it’s really compelling; the use of the moon and the different characters’ perceptions of it is just brilliant. The play’s rather dense, but not overwritten; the elaborate phrasing serves to emphasize some of the characters’ foolishness. The foreign setting is quite different and interesting. The opera is better, but reading the text of the play was interesting nonetheless.

“A Woman of No Importance” returns us to Wilde’s present day, and it’s quite amusing as well. “Oscar Wilde’s audacious drama of social scandal centres around the revelation of Mrs Arbuthnot’s long-concealed secret. A house party is in full swing at Lady Hunstanton’s country home, when it is announced that Gerald Arbuthnot has been appointed secretary to the sophisticated, witty Lord Illingworth. Gerald’s mother stands in the way of his appointment, but fears to tell him why, for who will believe Lord Illingworth to be a man of no importance?” I really loved the banter between Lord Illingsworth and Mrs. Allonby; they’re both rather nasty people, but they certainly get along pretty well, and have interesting conversations. In the notes, it’s pointed out that Wilde originally had many of the quips written just for Lord Illingsworth, but dividing them up cemented the rapport between the two characters. It was certainly effective, and I enjoyed reading their exchanges. “A Woman Of No Importance” had a great plot, and it was also quite moving and skillfully, subtly written. There were several amusing quips, most of them said by Lord Illingsworth. For example, he says, “one should never take sides in anything…taking sides is the beginning of sincerity, and earnestness follows shortly afterwards, and the human being becomes a bore.” I found that quite interesting and funny; it’s also sort of true. I was fascinated by the character of Lord Illingsworth; he rather cruelly manipulates Mrs. Arbuthnot, verbally and pyschologically, yet he has a charm about him. He’s more than just the stereotypically cruel and wanton villain. Wilde portrays all the characters and their relationships so, so well, in this play and all of the others. 

“An Ideal Husband” was also a good play, although there was overall too much description of the characters as they were introduced. It was mainly intended for the audience as opposed to for a performance. However, there was lots of great banter, and even some blackmail, all of which proved to be very entertaining. I loved the character of Lord Goring, charming, funny, and witty. He sets everything to rights, giving the play its happy ending. The plots of many of these plays are somewhat similar, usually revolving on secret pasts and scandals, but they make for very good reading. And the many seeming cliches that populate the book are tweaked, and different. Plus, almost all of these works are full of wit, humor, and irony.

“A Florentine Tragedy” is obviously a tragedy,and I have to say that it was my least favorite. It’s so, so short (less than 20 pages), and the climax happens quickly and suddenly. There are only three characters: Simone, a merchant, his wife, Bianca, and Guido, a duke who Simone suspects of being Bianca’s lover. Everything happens in a rush, but in trademark Wilde, the ending is different than one might expect. I didn’t like the verse the play was told in; I mean, it was fine, but nothing special. “Salome” and “A Florentine Tragedy” are both set in settings different than Wilde’s own, and they were the two weakest (at least the least funny). Still, “Salome” was much better than this one. I hated the character of Simone; he treated his wife so cruelly, insulting her constantly; he also reminded me of Mr Collins from Pride and Prejudice; they both have the same obsequious quality. In the merchant’s case, he’s constantly on about his wares. “A Florentine Tragedy” was good but not great; I would probably give it 3 stars.

“The Importance of Being Earnest” is Wilde’s most famous play, and justly so. Although it bears many similarities to others in this volume, it’s also distinctive in terms of just how hilarious it is, farcical at times. There’s also a lot of use of mistaken identity to great effect. “Cecily Cardew and Gwendolen Fairfax are both in love with the same mythical suitor. Jack Worthing has wooed Gewndolen as Ernest while Algernon has also posed as Ernest to win the heart of Jack’s ward, Cecily. When all four arrive at Jack’s country home on the same weekend the “rivals” to fight for Ernest s undivided attention and the “Ernests” to claim their beloveds pandemonium breaks loose. Only a senile nursemaid and an old, discarded hand-bag can save the day!” I loved this play; it’s both laugh out loud hilarious, and offers some biting commentary on societal standards, different concepts of marriage, and our own opinions of ourselves. There are so many clever quips; here is a page of them. “The Importance of Being Earnest” also cleverly mocks the upper class, as do all of the plays. Algernon was such a great character; his antics were the most funny, particularly his talk of “Bunburying”, in which one makes up a relation or friend to get out of situations (although this can lead to complications). He’s also constantly eating, which provides a great deal of comedy in several scenes. Algernon always has some cynical or witty remark on hand. Some of the other characters were great too, such as Aunt Augusta, a kind of more genial version of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Gwendolen, who was quite saucy, and Lane, the butler, who in typical butler fashion is stoic and unresponsive to his employer’s foibles. The play goes at a really fast pace, and there are so many wonderful elements. I absolutely loved it, and loved this whole collection, which I would highly, highly recommend. I wouldn’t mind actually seeing some of these plays, as they would probably be even more funny if done well.

358 pages. 

Rating: *****

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