The Tragedy of Oscar Wilde

The tragic irony of Oscar Wilde is that he had written the English world's greatest comedy before his demons carried him away to despair and time spent behind bars. His life ended prematurely as his health gave out on him. Such a talent. Such a loss.

Oscar Wilde's last play was The Importance of Being Earnest which which started out as a big hit but closed after only 83 performances because of Wilde's growing notoriety. Perhaps, the perfect comedy, Wilde had offered an idea of the play to Stage Manager George Alexander. The idea had the remotest of connections to what it actually became as a play. Wilde had originally written the play in 4 acts, but Alexander suggested cutting it down to 3. It is amazing what a good editor can do for art.

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Wilde concerned himself with the esthetics of art, the beauty, and the search for beauty. There is a dichotomy present in his work of ugliness hiding under beauty such as in 'The Picture of Dorian Gray' where a man of bad morals stays young and beautiful while his portrait declines as his sins mount. There is also his short story; 'The Birthday of the Infanta' where he portrays the innocent broken heart of an ugly dwarf and the vacuousness and cold-heartedness of the beautiful princess of Spain.

Wilde as Algernon.
In The Importance of Being Earnest which was produced five years before his wretched descent into poverty and death, the gay young men; Jack and Algernon are leading double lives. They pose as men of morals while getting into all sorts of less-than-moral adventures. These adventures are not described. The dialogue is that of a superior wordsmith. Algernon is probably Wilde himself with creditors chasing him as he struggles to keep up appearances. Both men have, as in the case of Jack, or will, as in the case of Algernon fall in love with two women. Jack falls in love with the beautiful Gwendolyn, and Algernon falls in love with the pretty Cecily.

Lady Bracknell played is often by a man. Jack has to get through Gwendolyn's Mother and Algernon's aunt, the ultimate dragon lady in Lady Bracknell, which is often played by men in a cross-dressing manner. Lady Bracknell is afearsome blue-blooded matriarch, and as Jack was adopted as a boy, he has no blue-blooded lineage with which to sway Lady Bracknell into letting him marry her daughter.

The plot. In the mean time Algernon has learned that Jack has invented a useful younger brother by the name of Earnest so that he can escape from his moral duties to his ward, Cecily, and have fun in town(London). Algernon decides to become Jack's imaginary brother Earnest in order to woo Cecily.

Complicating matters is that Jack also adopts his imaginary brother's guise while in London, so Gwendolyn thinks Jack is actually Earnest and when Cecily falls madly in love with Algernon, she believes he too is Earnest, so when the two women finally meet up, they discover, wrongly it turns out, that they are in love with the same man; Earnest.

Wilde's play is a comedy of manners, but it is more importantly a celebration of wit and intelligence. Lines are discarded or thrown off quickly, but enclosed within are such biting gems that pillory anything England, politics, education, religion and romance. One sitting at the play cannot recover all the nuggets of dramatic gold.

Wilde had dropped the gloves with the Marquess of Queensberry and sued him for libel. Wilde had been having an affair with the man's son; Lord Alfred Douglas. As in any repressive society such as Victorian England, an underground market had developed for all things repressed, and so Wilde had been drawn into the underground gay world of Victorian England. Queensberry had accused Wilde of being a sodomite and he certainly wanted to end the writer's relationship with his son. In suing Queensberry, the case attracted a lot of publicity and Wilde lost the case which meant that he was subsequently charged for gross indecency and sentenced to two years hard labour in prison

Oscar Wilde at Oxford Mitch Nasheim as Algernon & Hannah Smith as Cecily
Oscar Hannah Smith (right), pictured with Mitchell Nasheim, is the star of the production. Michael Lee/The Whig-Standard

...I wanted to eat of the fruit of all the trees in the garden of the world... And so, indeed, I went out, and so I lived. My only mistake was that I confined myself so exclusively to the trees of what seemed to me the sun-lit side of the garden, and shunned the other side for its shadow and its gloom
-Oscar Wilde

The Death of Oscar Wilde.In 1897 Wilde was released from prison an impoverished and ill man. He died three years later in France. From glory to gutter in 5 swift years, Wilde revelled in the light but played in the shadows, and those shadows took over his life, a cold and lonely descent into the grave.

Openly gay lifestyle. By provoking English society as the witty jester and challenging the social mores of the time, Wilde improved it. In Wilde's openly gay lifestyle there is something that modern gay men and women can celebrate.

Download a free copy of The Importance of Being Earnest



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