Critics View on Oscar Wilde as A Playwright

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      Louis Cazamian: Oscar Wilde is the leader of the aesthetic school in the eyes of the average reader. A discipline of Pater, pushes master's academic and sober doctrine to an excessive and cynical display. As a young man, he made a name for himself through the intense and refined audacity of his clothes, his tastes, his language; his gifts of satirical wit and epigram thus lent his talent a drawing-room and rather superficial character. However, the sharpness of his delineations, and his biting verve, already revealed a born writer of superior merit.

      He tried his grand at several kinds of writing, without yet achieving that deeper agreement of sincerity with brilliance which shows the main strength and stable quality of a mind. His poems are elegant, charming, but do not disclose any original personality; in their impertinence, or their pathos, they strike us as unequally successful experiments in verse. His first articles or essays bear too obvious marks of his inordinate desire for paradox.

      Wilde's plays are remarkably successful, and stand out through their exceptional merit against the almost unrelieved mediocrity of the theatrical production for a whole century. His comedies have a rapid and brilliant animation; their dialogue shows the easy flow of the traditional French manner; the plots are cleverly wrought; the comic characters, mere sketches most of them, lay no claim to depth. The displays of wit and verbal fencing, which go beyond life, and at times over-reach themselves in a sort of enthusiasm, would remind one of Congreve, were it not that an under-current of bitter self-consciousness is felt behind the play of their fanciful irony. This contrasted character imparts to these light works their chief interest, and their weakness as well. To all appearances, their aim is only to amuse, and so laughter or a smile should do full justice to their meaning; but the laugh which they raise does not ring true; it leaves a corroding taste in the mouth; it opens the way for a bold criticism of the moral and social order, which is just adumbrated and never finds an opportunity to develop - an opportunity which the author, indeed, seems unwilling to create. In the same way, some personages are meant to be edifying: for instance in Lady Windermere's Fan, the goodness of the beings who live according to the truth of instinct is set in a favourable light, as opposed to the withering artificiality of conventional virtues. The antithesis, as it is presented, is hardly able to carry conviction. Those comedies, in spite of their brilliance, belong to a mongrel and somewhat unnatural kind. Wilde had it in him to write problem plays, with a frankly destructive aim; confronted with the resistance and the fears of the public, he toned down his themes, thinned out the substance of his works, wound up his plots so as to please the shallow taste of the audience. Salome, in which the cruelty of sensual passion is studied in a realistic manner, has more unity, though its art might be more delicately shaded.

      A. Compton-Rickett: There is no wittier or more insolent upholder of the "art for art's sake" theory than Oscar Wilde. In Walter Pater there is always the under-note of reserve. Wilde swept morality out of view altogether, and there is no grimmer comment upon his aesthetic creed than is supplied by his own tragic life.

      His imitativeness, his wit, have given special prominence to his fantastic novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) and to his plays. Their cleverness cannot he disputed; but with the exception of The Importance of Being Earnest, their merits are wholly superficial and derivative.

      The structure of Lady Windermere's Fan, A Woman of No Importance and The Ideal Husband is a skilful medley of Scribe and Sardsou. Shorn of the brilliant talk, it is scarcely dialogue, for the most of it could be transposed to other characters without causing the least feeling of incongruity, the characters reveal themselves as familiar figures of stage land - the stage-land of domestic melodrama; and the comedy and pathos do not blend, but are superimposed the one on the other like the slabs of a Neapolitan ice. Dorian Gray is Balzac and Huysmans, sharpened by Wilde's wit. Of course it is clever; but there is no originality or creative imagination about it.

      Similarly, Wilde's verse, graceful, scholarly, melodious, is essentially the work of a sensitive and intensely imitative mind. There is no authentic note — nothing but echoes; echoes of Hood, Tennyson, Arnold, Rossetti, Swinburne.

      Yet with all this imitativeness, this witty posing, this barefaced borrowing, the reader cannot help feeling that it is the work of a man of real power and imagination, who does not take the trouble to express himself. He played so long with affection, cultivated so strenuously an insincerity of speech, that he found it easier and more agreeable to treat letters as he was treating life. Yet genius will out, and in one department the greatness of the writer is certainly exhibited — that is in his criticism. His little volume, Intentions (1891), is a monument of sane and subtle criticism, expressed with admirable ease and pungency.

      Wilde might have become a great playwright — certainly a great maker of artificial comedy. The Importance of Being Earnest bears witness to that; for there he is himself, his witty paradoxes expressed with a fine sense of dramatic form, and not flung into the play as brilliant irrelevances.

      But he certainly is a great critic, whose extravagant sallies conceal a level-headed sagacity. He can be both wise and entertaining - an admirable blend; though we English so often think it seemly to link wisdom with dull sententiousness.

      James Laver: Oscar Wilde's literary position remains the subject of debate. Critics of the standing of Mario Praz deny him any real originality.

      To look upon him as a man of talent whose genius, if he had any, was a genius for assimilation. An exhaustive study of Wilde's 'sources' has been undertaken, chiefly by German scholars. George Bernard Shaw, whose ideas and ideals were so different from those of Wilde, yet concedes that in the theatre his place is with Congreve, and that his aphorisms are worthy to rank with those of La Rochefoucauld.

      Certainly his writings continued to excite public interest. The Importance of Being Ernest is immortal, but his other comedies have been received within recent years with spectacular success. As for Salome, produced first at the Theatre de I'Oeuvre, in Paris, while its author was in prison, it has been translated into German, Czech, Dutch, Greek, Hungarian, Polish, Russian, Swedish, Catalan, and Yiddish and thanks to the music of Richard Strauss, it has had more performances (in Germany alone) than any other English play including the plays of Shakespeare.

      His non-theatrical writings continued to be read by succeeding generations, and many a young man, in all the nations of Europe, has had a new world of aesthetic sensibility opened to him by Intentions and The Picture of Dorian Gray. His fairy-tales still delight children by their exquisite fancy and adults by the bitter sweet irony which underlies their telling.

      As a literary historical figure Wilde's place is unique. He stood, as he himself claimed, in a symbolic relation to his age. Without him neither the Aesthetic Movement of the eighties, nor the Decadent Movement of the Nineties can be understood. He has his permanent niche in the literature of England and in the literature of the World.....

      Oscar Wilde is still a controversial figure. On the continent of Europe his reputation stands as high as ever it did, and his name is probably, after Shakespeare's, the best known in English letters. Englishmen are inclined to think this estimate exaggerated, and some of them have gone so far as to suggest that Wilde would now have been forgotten if it were not for 'the scandal'. 'His verse', says Osbert Burdett in his admirable book on The Beardsley Period, "will not bear a moment's critical attention.....All this verse (and the ornate in his prose) is a series of echoes, relying upon a technical manipulation of phrase for such quality as it has." He is equally severe on his originality as a thinker. Only in the comedies will he admit that "we reach the farm wherein a theatrical intelligence displayed is proper quality."

      Henry-D. Davray: The Career of Oscar Wilde was brief, but, from its beginning, success smiled on him and he quickly achieved a triumph. Some of his verse, his essays, his poems in prose (The House of Pomegranates, The Picture of Dorian Gray) had affirmed that he was a pure artist and a great writer, for certain of his pages are as beautiful as the most beautiful in English prose. But these works were only amusements for him, and his versatile mind, so brilliant, so delicately ironic, so paradoxical, found a medium of expression which perfectly suited his uncommon gifts; it was the theatre. Oscar Wilde held particularly to his reputation as a dramatist, and this write some reason. He believed himself to be unquestionably the equal of Ibsen. When he turned to the theatre, he concerned himself with a social class which had not yet been presented on the stage. Pinero had achieved notoriety with plays drawn from middle class life and a large number of others were producing popular dramas. With a perfect sense of the theatre, Oscar Wilde took his characters from high society; he set his elegant marionettes in motion with such mastery that his comedies can be regarded as the wittiest that have been written in a very long time. When his career was so sadly and so tragically interrupted, he had given the theatre five plays. Lady Windermere's Fan, A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband, The Importance of Being Ernest, and Salome. Of the first four plays which a success without precedent, it must be said that they are constructed with extraordinary skill; they are interesting for their settings, pathetic without evoking tears, witty to the point of excess, and written in a pun literary language. Salome, which was never presented in London is especially a marvellous poem which has nothing in common with the modem pieces of the author.

      When, after two years of suffering Oscar Wilde was able to escape the jail where they had severely tortured him, he published a very beautiful poem: The Ballad of Reading Gaol, which gave the impression that he was again going to produce works worthy of his talents. But it was his swan song.

      W.H. Hudson: Sinister rumours gathering around Wilde led to the arrest and trial of this brilliant poseur, who was sent in 1895 to Reading Gaol for two years. Thereafter he was variously represented as a satyr and as a martyr and the controversy prevented a balanced appreciation of his work. It is now possible to see him in a clear light, and to recognise that his flashing wit, his penetrating paradoxes and his gay audacity remain as stimulating, as illuminating and as entertaining in our own time as they were at first. His elaborately decorated style has for the most part worn well; if there is perceptible tarnish, it is in patches only. There is still pleasure to be had from the polished and jewelled prose of Intentions, a series of dialogues on literature and the arts — with dissertation on lying, poison, and masks, subjects with which the decadents absurdly considered it almost an obligation to be familiar. Wilde's was more than a display of verbal gymnastics; it often crystallised into a memorable phrase some truth or some serviceable critical judgement which a pedestrian or a pedantic style would obscure in a mist of words. Even when his wit was exercised playfully, it left a lasting mark, as in The Importance of Being Earnest, a comedy of manners on a level with Sheridan's best. The fairy tales ("The Happy Prince" and others) are blemished by the sophistication and heavy-lidded world-weariness apparent below their surface simplicity; and among the poems, few are free from a suggestion of musty tinselled bedragglement. That something of Byron which lived in Wilde prevents the most intimate display of his bleeding heart from carrying the conviction of sincerity rightly demanded from a testament of suffering. De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Goal are affecting, but nothing more, neither touches the depths. Always a deliberate and calculating artificer, Oscar Wilde was incapable of absolute sincerity and simplicity; he was always posturing, even in his agony.

      J.W. Beach: The popularity of Oscar Wilde's comedies shows that, by the eighteen nineties, the public was civilized up to the enjoyment of wit and play of mind in the treatment of social comedy, and could appreciate something more light-footed than Taylor and Robertson. It is true that, in The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), Wilde is so light-footed that he actually treads no solid ground at all; and when, as in A Woman of No Importance (1893), he tries to reach down to something firmer, it is the firmness of eighteenth century sentimental cliche. The seduction and insults to maidenhood might be from Richardson and they are shockingly out of place in Wilde's gossamer web of light-hearted cynicism. It is as if he were trying to apply Lamb's formula in The Artificial Comedy of the Last Century. Lamb would have enjoyed the idea of a child of gentility mislaid in a railway station, but he would hardly have written a critical essay on The Importance of Being Earnest. In A Women of No Importance, he would have applauded the drollery of Mrs. Allonby's "Well, I will tell you, if you solemnly promise to tell everybody else", and Lord Illingworth's recommendation of the peerage as "the best thing in fiction the English have ever done." But one feels that lamb would balk at the drawling falsetto of Illingworth's statement on the secret of life:

Kelvil: The secret of life is to resist temptation, Lady Stutfield.

      Lord Illingworth: There is no secret of life. Life's aim, if it has one, is simply to be always looking for temptations. There is not nearly enough. I sometime pass a whole day without coming across a single one. It makes one so nervous about the future. This sort of thing, which set the tone for a generation, is the answer of the eighteen-nineties to the thunderous "sincerity" of Carlyle and the "sweet reasonableness" of Arnold. And however trifling and empty it may sound, it shows that the English stage was beginning to put off its Puritan swaddling clothes.

      J.T. Grein: With the morals of man I have nothing to do; I have to deal with the artist who has gone, for that artist has left his mark upon literature and upon the stage. He was, not so very long ago, one of the nimblest intellectuals the English world could boast of. I wish to speak here to the dramatist who raised such great hopes, who did so much in a short space of time, and then suddenly withered like a tree struck by lightning. Oscar Wilde has contributed but four plays to our stage, Lady Windermere's Fan, A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest, while the fifth, Salome, which was perhaps his best, was written in French and prohibited by the censor. These four play all run more or less on the same line. They are what one could call society plays, pictures of a fashionable life in which an unmistakable air of reality is happily wedded to playful satire. Their greatest merit is their dialogue; the plot is of secondary importance and the characterization is such as one would expect from any observant man who has seen much and read more. In other words, Oscar Wilde did not dive very deeply below the surface of human nature, but found, to a certain extent rightly, that there is more on the surface of life than is seen by the eyes of most people — he believed as much in veneer as in deep, untarnishable colour. And, as in the drama veneer is likely to please, while depth of colour is often productive of dullness in he preferred to concentrate his acumen on the language rather than on the unending humanity of his plays. In this he proved that he knew himself, for lightness of touch, not to say a certain flippancy, was a paramount features of his gifted nature; and when he was all gaiety, sardonism, and persiflage, as in The Importance of Being Earnest, he was the happiest. The Aristophanic vein sparkled in it, and it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that this last English play of the unfortunate author was the wittiest comedy of the eighteen-nineties.

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