Oscar Wilde Contribution to Mastery as A Playwriter

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1. Lady Windermere's Fan

      Lady Windermere's Fan is the first major play by Oscar Wilde. The first on-stage performance of the play took place on 20th February, 1892 and successfully ran for fine consecutive months till 29th July. The play also earned popularity in New York. The wit and the well-constructed plot of the play were appreciated by the audience and they hailed the play as a masterpiece that for over a hundred of years dramatic circle had not witnessed. With this play Wilde earned the reputation of a comic playwright and consolidated his position in this sphere in the line of Irish dramatists like Congreve, Sheridan and Goldsmith.

The Plot Structure

      The play consists of four acts and three places of action. In keeping with Aristotelian principle of unity of time, action of the play begins at five in the evening of one Tuesday and comes to its end next day at one-thirty in the afternoon. Within this duration a number of events take place. There are sixteen characters altogether, all of them equally distributed among both the sexes.

Psychological Analysis

      With the play Oscar Wilde introduced a new trend in English drama. In the play we observe Wilde's attempt to look into human psychology and critically analysing the way it works in a complicated situation. It was supposed to be an outcome of Ibsen's influence upon Wilde after seeing two performances of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler. This tension of psychology issues from mother-daughter relationship.

Character-Sketches

      The character of Lord Darlington is brilliant for his witty speeches. They are gems of the play and some of them have still retained their epigrammatic values, like:

Experience is the name men give to their mistakes.
A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
Nowadays to be intelligible is to be found out.

      In spite of his licentious nature and his immoral declaration of his love for Lady Windermare, Lord Darlington never appears to be an outrageous villain because of his witty epigrams that are very much in tune with comic ambience of the play. The character symbolises the potential threat to Lady Windermere's virtue, the characters of Lord and Lady Windermere is constructed in a flimsy manner. Nothing substantial is present in their character. The presence of characters like Duchess of Berwick, Lady Plymdale and Lady Sutfield have little significance except they provide some entertaining situations. These characters are marked by some common traits, namely gossiping that revolves around malicious criticism of others and in this process they also provide some important information unwillingly.

Testing about Heartless Society

      Under the mask of social comedy, the play targets ruthlessness and mercenary outlook of upper-class society.

      The viciousness of the characters make the readers irritable. A character like Mrs. Erlynne can go to any extent for the personal gain. Their aim in life is to ensure a comfortable private income, an aristocratic husband, and a recognition in the elite society. To meet this end she never hesitates to blackmail other. Such crude cunningness of her dries up her motherly affection. Both Lady Windermere and Lord Darlington have no qualms about getting involved in immoral relationship. The most striking quality about these characters in their unrepentant unscrupulous nature. Nevertheless, Wilde shows this compassion for Mrs. Earlynne and this is quite natural since Wilde’s humour is not severe but tolerant enough to mack at his characters. Without being too much caustic in his attack.

2. An Ideal Husband

A Pompous Opening of the Performance

      The play was enacted for the first time on 3rd January, 1895 at the Haymarket Theatre in presence of Prince of Wales. The Prince even congratulated Oscar Wilde for its dramatic excellence and also advised him not to edit any portion of this lengthy play when Wilde repressed his intention to cut down some of its content. The play ran successfully.

Weak Plot-Construction

      There are some improbabilities in the play along with abundance of reversal of situations and unnecessary complexities. The plot also lacks the originality since it bears the distinct similarities with French playwright Victorian Sardon's Dora.

The Political Message in the Play

      Wilde has clearly intended to depict exploitation by the political leaders. Sir Robert, Mrs. Cheveley and the late Baron Arnheim do belong to this category. They speak to the electorates on honesty, morality and patriotism but themselves scheme in such a way to evade the burden of tax in spite of accumulating enormous wealth. Through this play Wilde unveils the corrupt governing body in Victorian England.

Decorative Objects Symbolising their Luxurious Taste

      Like the pretentious characters in the play a decorative object like diamond brooch also assumes a symbolic significance in the play. Their corrupt mind also gets reflected in the display of their personal possession. The object embellished with real or artificial stone is a decorative piece which has been obtained at the cost of underpaid labour. This object is the testimony of their luxurious taste at the price of exploitation.

Self-interest is the Only Aim in Life

      Self-interest is the strongest instinct that rules every character. Where self-interest is concerned, stance in one's life does not decline to change. Same happens with Lady Chiltern. She forgives her husband foreseeing a brighter future ahead but her condemnation towards Mr. Cheveley never seems to assuage. In the latter case her standpoint remains fixed.

3. A Woman of No Importance

Little Action

      The first performance of this play took place at Haymarket Theatre on 19th April, 1893. The play ran quite successfully till 16th August. In the same year the play opened in New York. However, people's enthusiasm was moderate. The plot of the play is flat and lacks in human feelings as pointed out by Wilde's mother. Though Wilde claimed that first act of the play was written to counter the accusation that this play had little action, the play failed to prove so. The play revolves around the psychological tension that a woman suffers after meeting her ex-lover and consequent tug-of-war over their child. The story itself does not provide much opportunity to develop action. Even Wilde himself cut down some epigrams, cut short a speech against Puritanism to lend the play with a some paciness.

Weak Plot-construction

      Though the plot has reversal of attitude, it does not have any reversal of importance. Similarly Wilde's treatment of characters does not seem to be judicious. The promiscuity of Mrs. Arbuthnot is condemned but the same sin is overlooked when it is done in more prudent manner. Perhaps, this is how Wilde has shown the ambivalence in social judgement. The flirting scene between Lord Illingworth and Mrs. Arbuthnot has not much relation with the actual action. Superficial treatment of the entire episode only misguides the readers to false brick. Also shocking is the revelation of Lord Illingworth's nature by Hester's complaint, who is very much perturbed by Lord Illingworth's offensive attitude. Such revelation comes as a great surprise. Maybe, this is a dramatic device to prepare the audience for other reversals at the end.

Character-Sketches

      The character of Lord Illingworth is outstanding for the sparkling epigrams he speaks. Apart from his character none of the characters Seems that much lively. Both Mrs. Arbuthnot and Gerald appear rather mechanical in relation to the plot, whatever striking attitude they possess. The play is replete with stock characters of nineteenth century. Mrs. Arbuthnot is a fallen woman but with the redemption she appears a loving mother and a wronged woman. Hester stands for pure love and Lord Illingworth is a defeated wicked lord.

Some Noted Features of the Play

      Like other plays of Oscar Wilde, this play has little action. It is the dialogues that is the main attraction of the play. The play is remarkable for its highly dramatic situations. In fact for these dramatic situations the play moves on rapidly. The characters are not well-balanced. At first Mrs. Allonby appears playing a major role for her brilliant epigrams though in actuality she has nothing much to play. The character of Mr. Kelvil M.P. is another such example whose importance lies in providing humour to the audience though he plays an insignificant role in connection with the plot. Throughout the play he has been called Mr. Kettle by Lady Caroline.

4. The Importance of Being Earnest

Wilde's Masterpiece

      The Importance of Being Earnest is Wilde's masterpiece. With this play Wilde's mastery reaches the highest point. Despite the improbabilities of plot and absurdities of situations the play carves its place as a significant comedy. The play excites laughter and never intends to critics by ridiculing the oddities of the characters. Wilde creates the characters ludicrous instead of mocking at them. It is by the playwright's farcical treatment the follies and foibles of the character appear ridiculous. The two young woman with their queer mindset paired by two young man entrapped in dual identities, a prude governess, a clergyman and a middle aged woman, pronouncing her laughable idiosyncrasies, constitute the major source of laughter.

Farcical Situation

      The farcical situation of the play is the major source of laughter. Wilde has invented such a situation in the second act. John Worthing, the hero of the play, is a foundling and brought up by Mr. Thomas Cardew in a country. This man, to enjoy city life, invents a fictitious character Ernest as his brother whose troublesome nature always calls him to intervene and this makes possible for him to escape the mundaneness of the country life and to visit his friend Algernon's house, who is cousin of Gwendolen — a young lady and his love interest, In London Jack is known by the name Ernest. Algernon, another major character of the play, shows the same proclivity of leading a double life that primarily saves him from the boredom of social parties at his aunt Lady Bracknell's house. His fictitious friend Bunbury's illness sometimes makes Algernon's visit to him urgent thereby providing the opportunity to evade his aunt's invitation. In this regard both the characters, Jack and Algernon, are characterised by their dual existence. In the course of the drama their secret lives are divulged after causing lot of hilarious moments.

      The play also has the romantic twist. Algernon falls in love with Cecily the moment he sees her He introduces him as Ernest and proposes to her. Cecily is the ward of Jack who reciprocates Algernon's proposal positively. But the reason of her acceptance seems as farcical as Gwendolen. Both of them have the queer preference for the name 'Ernest' that apparently becomes the yardstick for a suitable husband. When the truth comes out, like their female counterparts, both Jack and Algernon feel the urgency to re-christen themselves as 'Ernest'.

      The minor characters like Lane, the manservant of Algernon, the prude governess. Mrs. Prism are not spared from this farcical treatment. Cynical Lane announces that he has 'always tried to give satisfaction' after receiving ironical compliment from his master. Miss Prism's oblivion is another example of improbability. It is because of her unmindfulness Jack lost his natural parents and later he was discovered in a hand bag by Thomas Cardew in a railway cloakroom. Her forgetfulness is exaggerated to an incredible end. Whatever be the irrationalities that dictate the action of the play, Wilde's craftsmanship lies in turning that irrationality into rationality in the context of the drama, thereby enlivening every character.

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