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The Complete Plays, Page 3

Oscar Wilde

  In the result Wilde agreed to condense the play into three Acts, scrapping some of the dialogue and cutting a whole scene with a new character, a solicitor named Gribsby, which was one of Wilde’s wittiest efforts.6

  The author, whom Alexander had persuaded to go away during rehearsals since he felt that Wilde’s interruptions distracted the cast – in fact, he went to North Africa with Alfred Douglas ’ returned in time for the dress rehearsal and the opening night, at both of which he appeared. When asked by a press reporter before the show whether he thought it would be a success, Wilde replied: ‘My dear fellow, you have got it wrong. The play is a success. The only question is whether the first night’s audience will be one!’ In the event it was.

  Recalling the occasion many years later, as an old man, Allan Aynesworth said: ‘In my fifty-three years of acting, I never remember a greater triumph than the first night of The Importance of Being Earnest. The audience rose in their seats and cheered and cheered again.’ The critics generally were just as enthusiastic as indeed was the author. ‘I don’t think I shall take a call tonight,’ Wilde told one of the actors. ‘I took one only last month at the Haymarket, and one feels so much like a German band!’ Instead he acknowledged the audience’s plaudits from his box, after which he went back stage to congratulate George Alexander on his production and performance. The other members of the cast were likewise complimented, particularly Rose Leclercq as Lady Bracknell and Irene Vanbrugh as Gwendolen Fairfax. Frank Dyall as the butler Merriman also got a pat on the back during the performance when he made his first exit in Act II to the accompaniment of an outburst of laughter from the audience. ‘I’m so glad you got that laugh,’ said Wilde to Dyall as he passed him in the wings. ‘It shows they’re following the plot!’

  There was one individual who might have marred the success of this unique first night, but his plan was forestalled by the author. This was Alfred Douglas’s father, Lord Queensberry, who had bought a ticket with the intention of creating a scene in the auditorium by addressing the audience. However, Wilde got the box office manager to cancel the ticket and return the irate Marquess’s money on the pretext that the seat had already been sold. Nevertheless Queensberry appeared at the theatre, where he tried unsuccessfully to gain admission by the stage door, but contented himself with leaving a grotesque bouquet of vegetables for the author there. He was accompanied by a prize-fighter, but Wilde had alerted Scotland Yard with the result that the theatre was guarded by twenty policemen. Eventually, since the weather was bitterly cold and it was snowing hard, the Marquess departed, ‘chattering like a monstrous ape’ in Wilde’s words. He thereupon retired to his club to think out his next move designed to expose Wilde and break up the author’s friendship with his son. This Queensberry did a few days later when he called at Wilde’s club and left his card with the hall porter asking him to give it to Wilde when he was next in the club. The card bore the offensive inscription ‘For Oscar Wilde posing as somdomite’ [sic], the Marquess having misspelled the last word in his fury. The hall porter looked at the card but he did not understand the meaning of the inscription. He then put the card in an envelope and wrote Wilde’s name on it. The envelope was handed to Wilde when he next appeared in the club, which was on 28 February. In the circumstances Wilde now felt that he had no alternative but to prosecute Queensberry for criminal libel. This he immediately proceeded to do, and a warrant for Queensberry’s arrest was issued. The preliminary hearing took place at Bow Street Magistrate’s Court on 2 March, when Queensberry, who pleaded not guilty, was released on bail pending the trial of the case at the Central Criminal Court.

  Up to this time, Wilde’s success as a playwright seemed assured, with money coming in steadily from two successes running simultaneously in the West End. At first Wilde thought he must win the case and silence Queensberry if the latter based his defence on Wilde’s writings such as The Picture of Dorian Gray.7 This was borne out by the written plea of justification of the libel which Queensberry put in as he was legally obliged to do. However, at the last moment Queensberry amended his plea with the addition of the names of various youths with whom Wilde was alleged to have committed homosexual acts – ‘acts of gross indecency’, in the words of the relevant statute. Nevertheless Wilde was still confident that he could defeat Queensberry, since he thought that none of the youths mentioned would dare to come forward and give evidence, thus incriminating themselves.

  The trial was due to open at the Old Bailey court on 3 April 1895. A couple of nights previously Wilde turned up at the St. James’s Theatre where he occupied his usual box, bringing with him his wife and Lord Alfred Douglas, with the intention perhaps that their being thus publicly seen together would dispel the impression that Mrs. Wilde disapproved of her husband’s friendship with Douglas. Between the Acts the author went back stage to have a word with Alexander, only to be reproached by the actor-manager for coming to the theatre at such a time, as people would be sure to consider it ‘in bad taste’. Wilde laughingly replied that he might as well accuse every member of the audience of bad taste in coming to see his play. ‘I would consider it in bad taste’, he added, ‘if they went to see anyone else’s play!’

  Alexander then proferred a piece of advice. ‘Why don’t you withdraw from the case and go abroad?’

  ‘Everyone wants me to go abroad,’ replied Oscar in the same jesting mood. ‘I have just been abroad, and now I have come home again. One can’t keep on going abroad, unless one is a missionary, or, what comes to the same thing, a commercial traveller!’

  It was the last occasion on which Douglas saw Constance Wilde. ‘She was very much agitated, and when I said goodnight to her at the door of the theatre she had tears in her eyes’, Douglas recalled long afterwards. ‘I felt dreadfully sorry for her. Though I then believed that Oscar would beat my father, and had not the slightest anticipation of the frightful catastrophe that was imminent, I knew that at the very best the whole business must be a terrible ordeal for her.’

  The Queensberry trial duly opened as arranged. Two days later it ended abruptly with Wilde’s withdrawal from the case, on his counsel’s advice, and Queensberry’s acquittal, the jury finding that the libel was true and that it was published in the public interest. Later the same day, Wilde was arrested, although the authorities had hoped that he would go abroad and had given him every opportunity of doing so by delaying the issue of the warrant until the late afternoon.

  In an attempt to prolong the run of the play, George Alexander pasted over Wilde’s name on the playbills and also omitted his name as the author from the programme. The same device was employed in New York where the play opened on 22 April, produced by Charles Frohman at the Empire Theatre, two days before Wilde’s trial began at the Old Bailey. But to no avail. At the St. James’s Theatre the play was withdrawn on 8 May, a week after the jury had disagreed at Wilde’s trial, having run for 86 performances and involved Alexander in a loss of just under £300. Meanwhile An Ideal Husband had come off at the Criterion Theatre on 27 April. Although it had only run there for barely a fortnight after its transfer from the Haymarket, it is noteworthy that the Criterion’s lessee Charles Wyndham did not attempt to conceal the author’s identity on the playbills and programmes as Alexander and Frohman did. However, it is only fair to Alexander’s memory to record that, according to him, he took the action he did in the author’s interest as well as his own by trying to prolong the play’s run by this device.

  Also, at the time of Wilde’s bankruptcy following his conviction, Alexander was able to buy the acting rights in both Lady Windermere’s Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest for a nomimal sum from the Official Receiver. Thus he secured a wonderful bargain, but greatly to his credit he made no attempt to take advantage of it as he might easily have done. Instead he turned over a percentage of the royalties to Robert Ross, Wilde’s literary executor, who administered the Wilde estate, and in his will bequeathed the rights to Wilde’s surviving son Vyvyan Holland, who continued to dra
w some thousands of pounds a year from them until the plays went out of copyright in 1950.

  In 1902, Alexander revived The Importance of Being Earnest at the St. James’s Theatre when it made a small profit. At the second revival, in 1909, following the publication of the first Collected Edition of Wilde’s works which Ross edited, it ran for 324 performances and made a profit of over £21,000, a large sum for those days. Alexander staged two further successful revivals in 1911 and 1913. Since then it has been revived many times, both on the professional and the amateur stage. One of the most notable revivals was at the Globe Theatre in London in 1939, with Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell, John Gielgud as John Worthing, Ronald Ward as Algernon Moncrieff, and Joyce Carey as Gwendolen Fairfax. Unfortunately the play’s run was cut short by the outbreak of World War II when all the London theatres were compulsorily closed for a time.

  In 1951, an excellent technicolour film was made by Anthony Asquith at the Pinewood Studios at Elstree near London. Edith Evans again played Lady Bracknell, while the other members of the cast included Michael Redgrave (John Worthing), Michael Denison (Algernon Moncrieff), Joan Greenwood (Gwendolen Fairfax), Miles Malleson (Dr. Chasuble), Margaret Rutherford (Miss Prism), and Dorothy Tutin (Cecily Cardew) who made her screen début in this production.

  The three-Act version of the play, as first performed in 1895 and as it has usually been given since, was originally published in this form by Leonard Smithers in 1899, when it was dedicated by the author to Robert Ross ‘in appreciation and affection’. Except for the Gribsby scene, the three-Act version is undoubtedly an improvement on the four-Act one, since the cuts in the dialogue have had the effect, for example, of making Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism more attractive and amusing characters by the omission of some of their studied moral sentiments.

  Like The School for Scandal by Wilde’s fellow Irishman Richard Brinsley Sheridan, The Importance of Being Earnest remains one of the few great modern social comedies in the English language which has survived the period in which it was written. The reason it has always been such a prime favourite with amateurs as well as professionals is that every member of the cast, even those with the most minor parts, has good lines to say, which can always be relied upon to raise a laugh. Perhaps the last word may be left with the author himself. Asked by a newspaper reporter about the merits of the play while it was being originally rehearsed, Wilde replied: ‘The first Act is ingenious, the second beautiful, the third abominably clever!’ Or better still, with Sir Max Beerbohm, who wrote on the occasion of its revival in 1902:

  In kind the play always was unlike any other, and in its kind it still seems perfect. I do not wonder that now the critics boldly call it a classic and predict immortality. And (timorous though I am apt to be in prophecy) I join gladly in their chorus … For, despite the scheme of the play, the fun depends on what the characters say, rather than on what they do. They speak a kind of beautiful nonsense – the language of high comedy, twisted into fantasy … What differentiates this farce from any other, and makes it funnier than any other, is the humorous contrast between its style and matter.8


  Besides the three comedies already described, Wilde wrote a fourth, originally called Mrs Arbuthnot but eventually entitled A Woman of No Importance. Written for the most part during the summer holidays in 1892 which Wilde spent with his wife and two boys at a farmhouse near Cromer, it was commissioned by the actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who had been favourably impressed by Lady Windermere’s Fan and wished Wilde to write a play for him. Later the same year, at a gloomy hotel in Glasgow where Tree was on tour with his company, Wilde read him the first three acts. Tree was delighted with the play, or rather what he heard of it, since there was still another act to be written. It appeared to Tree to be ‘a great modern play’ and he congratulated the author on the development of the plot.

  Wilde loftily brushed this last compliment aside. ‘Plots are tedious’, he told the actor-manager. ‘Anyone can invent them. Life is full of them. Indeed one has to elbow one’s way through them as they crowd across one’s path. I took the plot of this play from The Family Herald, which took it – wisely I feel – from my novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. People love a wicked aristocrat who seduces a virtuous maiden, and they love a virtuous maiden for being seduced by a wicked aristocrat. I have given them what they like, so that they may learn to appreciate what I like to give them.’

  The part of the wicked aristocrat, originally called Lord Brancaster and later changed to Lord Illingworth, Tree proposed to play himself, and in the event did so, although the author did not think him suitable for such a sophisticated part, preferring him in Shakespeare.

  Like Mrs Erlynne in Lady Windermere’s Fan and Sir Robert Chiltern in An Ideal Husband, Mrs Arbuthnot in A Woman of No Importance has a guilty secret. In her case it is the illegitimate birth of her son Gerald in her youth by Lord Illingworth before he had gained his title and when he was plain Mr George Harford. This fits in well with the theme of the play which is the sexual exploitation of women, a theme which attracted Wilde’s sympathy, the dialogue of the play being closely related to it, epigramatic and characteristically paradoxical. ‘We have a far better time than men have,’ Wilde makes the shrewd Mrs Allonby say in Act I. ‘There are far more things forbidden to us than are forbidden to them.’

  A Woman of No Importance opened at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket on 19 April 1893 and ran for 188 nights, 38 fewer than Lady Windermere’s Fan. Nevertheless the first night audience, which included several prominent politicians, such as one future Prime Minister (A.J. Balfour) and the father of another (Joseph Chamberlain), responded as enthusiastically as had been the case with the previous comedy. But this time Wilde did not take a curtain call on the stage smoking a cigarette. Instead he replied to the shouts of ‘Author’ by standing up in his box in full view of the audience and announcing in ringing tones: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I regret to inform you that Mr Oscar Wilde is not in the house.’ Immediately afterwards he went before the curtain to ‘make his bow’, as Tree’s younger brother Max Beerbohm noted, and ‘there was a slight mingling of boos and hisses, though he looked very sweet in a new white waistcoat with a large bunch of little lilies in his coat.’

  The notices, with one or two exceptions were abusive. The best was by the leading dramatic critic William Archer, who did not hesitate to call the scene between Lord Illingworth and Mrs Arbuthnot at the end of Act 2 ‘the most virile and intelligent – yes, I mean it, the most intelligent piece of English dramatic writing of our day.’9 This scene, in which the two characters discuss the future of their illegitimate son, also appealed to Max Beerbohm, who was himself to become a theatre critic, and at the time of Wilde’s death described A Woman of No Importance as ‘by far the most truly dramatic of his plays.’10 It is also the most amusing with the exception of The Importance of Being Earnest, although some parts are melodramatic and would make a present-day audience laugh, as when Mrs Arbuthnot addresses Gerald at the end of a long monologue in Act 4 as ‘child of my shame, be still the child of my shame.’

  On the other hand, of the four comedies it is the only one which is ‘dated’, and when it is revived, as it occasionally is, it is usually played as a period piece, while the other three broadly speaking are as contemporary in action as when Wilde wrote them in the nineties.

  Wilde liked to get his own back on the dramatic critics. ‘English critics always confuse the action of a play with the incidents of a melodrama,’ he told an interviewer after the first production of An Ideal Husband. ‘I wrote the first act of A Woman of No Importance in answer to the critics who said that Lady Windermere’s Fan lacked action. In the act in question there was absolutely no action at all. It was a perfect act.’11

  The play was published in book form by John Lane of the Bodley Head in October, 1894, and was dedicated to the fashionable society hostess Gladys Countess De Grey, later Marchioness of Ripon, a discreet beauty known for her extra-marital love affairs which s
he effectively contrived to conceal from the general public. Wilde was often her guest in London and also at her husband’s magnificent country place at Studley Royal in Yorkshire.

  Wilde’s remaining plays may best be considered in the chronological order in which they were written. The first, Vera, or the Nihilists, was composed in the earlier part of 1880 and was inspired by the activities of the pre-Bolshevik revolutionaries in imperial Russia, who were first called Nihilists by Turgenev and later Dostoievski. The Nihilists were terrorists pledged to the assassination of the Czar and his ministers and leading officials. In January 1878, a young Nihilist woman Vera Zasulich belonging to an aristocratic family shot and wounded General Trepov, the St Petersburg Chief of Police. Somewhat surprisingly she was acquitted by the jury at her trial. The police tried to re-arrest her as she was leaving the court, but she escaped with the help of confederate students. The case aroused wide international interest, the Pall Mall Gazette in London to which Wilde contributed stating that ‘her pistol shot rang like a bugle across Europe.’ In the ensuing years a number of unsuccessful attempts were made to kill the weak but well intentioned Czar, Alexander II, who had emancipated the serfs. Finally, another Vera, whose surname was Figner, belonged to the group which succeeded in murdering the Czar as he was driving through the capital in his carriage on 13 March 1881.12