A realist play with a touch of melodramatic
A story about an illegitimate son
by Oscar Wilde
Historical Background – 19th Century
Oscar Wilde lived between 1854 and 1900. He was born in a time which was very much influenced by new inventions. This upheaval started in the end of the 18th century. 1782, for example, James Watt invented the first steam engine. The industry became more and more important and its growth was increasing and far-reaching. In former days most of the areas of common land had been available for everybody’s use. But now rich landowners, who incorporated these common pieces of land into very big farms, took up the possibility of working in the country. As a result thousands of people moved to the cities.
These new cities and towns were often in the north of England, because raw materials for industrial purposes were available there.
The importance of London grew in this time. It became the business and trading centre of England, and already by the end of the 18th century it had a population of close to a million. But in spite of all the urban progress, people with possession of land in the countryside still had the social power and the prestige.
Oscar Wilde lived in the time of Queen Victoria, who reigned from 1837 to 1901. Although she had less power than other Kings and Queens had had before her, she became an increasingly popular person. She was a symbol of Britain’s success in the world. Unlike the monarchs before her, she set an example to people by being a representative of a hard-working mother of nine children, being very religious and devoted to her husband. Because of this she was regarded as the personification of contemporary morals.
In the end of the 18th century the war of independence had taken place and Britain had lost its most important colonies in America ( in 1783 Britain recognizes the independence of the American colonies ), but soon after the end of the 18th century Britain controlled the biggest empire the world had ever seen (Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, large parts of Africa). This, together with long years of political stability, gave the British a sense of supreme confidence, even arrogance, about their culture and civilisation. The British came to see themselves as having a duty to spread this culture around the world.
The beginning of the 19th century was the beginning of industrialization. Factory owners offering work, children aged 12 to 16 working eight, ten, twelve hours a day – unprotected by law – for almost no money, thousands of them dying, social injustice everywhere, classes coming into being (working class – middle class – upper class), in other words great changes in social structure. These factory owners held the real power in the country, along with the new and growing middle class of tradespeople. As they established their power, they did so following the…
Victorian Set of Values
a hard work
b thrift (Sparsamkeit)
c religious observance (Heilighaltung von Feiertagen)
d family life
e awareness of one’s duty
f absolute honesty in public life
g extreme respectability in sexual manners
Q u e e n V i c t o r i a
reigned from 1837 to 1901. During her reign, although the modern powerlessness of the monarch was confirmed (she was often forced to accept as Prime Ministers people she personally disliked), she herself became an increasingly popular symbol of Britain’s success in the world. As a hard-working, religious mother of nine children, devoted to her husband, Prince Albert, she was regarded as the personification of contemporary morals. The idea that the monarch should set an example to the people in such matters was unknown before this time and created problems for the monarchy in the twentieth century.
The first law regulating factory working conditions is passed. (It set a limit on the number of hours that children could work.)
Slavery is made illegal throughout the British Empire.
The Tuc (Trade Union Congress) is formed.
Free primary education (up to the age of eleven) is established.
The first socialist, Keir Hardie, is elected to Parliament. He enters the
House of Commons for the first time wesring a cloth cap (which remained a symbol of the British working man until the 1960s)
Biography: Oscar Wilde
Oscar O’Flahertie Fingal Wills Wilde, born in Dublin, Republic of Ireland, on 16th October, 1854, was the second son of Sir William and Lady Jane Wilde, a protestant family. Sir William was an Irish antiquarian, gifted writer, and specialist in diseases of the eye and ear. Lady Jane was a poet who wrote anti British poems.
Wilde studied the classics at Trinity College in Dublin and Magdalen College in Oxford, where he wrote his first poems. After graduation , in 1878, Oscar moved to London. Within two years, he had made quite a name for himself, but his first play, „Vera or The Nihilists„, was not well received. Nor was his first volume of poetry.
In 1884 he married Constance Lloyd and fathered two sons, Cyril (1885) and Vyvyan (1886). He even became editor of „Women’s World“ , a publication that supported feminism. He wrote things like „the growing influence of women is the only relief in the political life nowadays“. In his plays there are also a few female characters that are unusually emazipated for these days.
Wilde was admired as an author in the prudish Victorian England and at the same time he became notorious as a dandy, a scandalous writer, and a critic of the upper class. He was famous for his eloquence and extravagant behaviour. Some books had been refused by some booksellers.
After he separated from his wife he first met Lord Alfred Douglas in 1891. One year later their relationship became intimate. Wilde didn’t care much about his being homosexual in public, and so many rumours caused his slow decline.
Lord Alfred’s father accused him and he was sentenced to two years of hard labor in prison for the crime of sodomy. Oscar was first in the Wandsworth prison, and then in Reading Goal. During this time he wrote „De Profundis“, a dramatic monologue and audobiography, which was addressed to Alfred Douglas.
The last three years of his life he spent in France under the false name of Sebastian Melmoth in poverty and isolation.
At the age of 46 Wilde died of cerebral meningitis on 30th November, 1900, penniless, in a cheap Paris hotel. He was buried without much ceremony in the cemetery of Père Lachaise.
He wrote his only novel „The Picture of Dorian Gray“
He wrote the essay „The Soul Of Man Under Socialism“
He wrote his first play „Salomé“ (written in French)
Oscar Wilde was the best known playwright when it came to producing social comedies.
The following four are realist plays with a touch of the melodramatic.
They raise moral issues seriously, having comic structures and some very funny lines:
The good end happily – the bad end less happily !!!
„Lady Windermere’s Fan“ – ( morality is not absolute)
„A Woman Of No Importance“ – (story about an illegitimate son)
„An Ideal Husband“ – (story of intrigue and blackmail)
„The Importance Of Being Earnest“ – (story about leading a double life)
Brief Summary “ A Woman Of No Importance „
The story begins with Mrs Arbuthnot and George Harford, the later Lord Illingworth. George Harford – with not a penny of money, except what his mother used to give him – refused to give their child a name by leaving young Mrs Arbuthnot. His father, Sir Thomas Harford, wanted to force him into marrying her, and his mother, Lady Cecilia (daughter of the Duchess of Jerningham), would refuse and rather offer her £ 600 a year to get out of sight. Lord Illingworth’s elder brother Arthur had died in some accident. Nameless Mrs Arbuthnot becomes a woman of no importance. (The title of the play refers to a letter lying on some desk that is written by Mrs Arbuthnot. Before meeting her Lord Illingworth recognizes her hand writing. Asked what kind of a letter that was and who had written it, he answers: „A woman of no importance“).
The play begins with a typical upper class party hosted by Lady Hunstanton at her house in the country. After a very long period of time (up to 20 years) the first meeting between Lord Illingworth and Mrs Arbuthnot takes place. The reason for this meeting is based on account of Lord Illingworth offering Gerald the job as a secretary, which would be the beginning of a wonderful career and a chance that not many youngsters stand. He doesn’t know that this young man is his son, and vice versa. Mrs Arbuthnot told her son his father had died many years before.
Gerald falls in love with Hester Worsley, a puritan American. Lord Illingworth, as sort of a party joke, has a bet on telling all the ladies present he would try to kiss Hester the very same evening. The moment he tries to do so Hester Worsley escapes in fury and hatred. Gerald, who at the same time was trying to convince his mother that she had marry Lord Illingworth gets to know what had happened. Gerald now changes his mind and even wants to kill his „father“ for that. His mother prevents him from doing so and now tells her son the very truth about his father and the whole story from A to Z.
Mrs Arbuthnot refuses to marry Lord Illingworth although the latter had offered it to her, including a few premises Gerald could have. But the play ends by the idea of Hester, Mrs Arbuthnot, and Gerald leaving to the USA to celebrate a happy wedding, whereas Lord Illingworth changes into a „man of no importance“, which is the very last sentence of the play.
Characters Of The Play
Lord Illingworth (George Harford)
Lord Illingworth is a member of the house of the Lords. Once he was in love with Mrs Arbuthnot and he is Gerald Arbuthnot’s father.
He feels superior to poor people and believes that the upper class has to work for the slaves and not the other way round. He also thinks that the British sense is the only right one and only English upper class people are worth living.
Illingworth does not think much about women, he treats them like toys, nor about a marriage because it ruins women because always have to be jealous. If they are ugly they have to be jealous of their husbands, and if they are pretty they have to be jealous of other women’s husbands.
On the other side he says that society is dominated by women. Without any women no man would be able to succeed in life. He thinks that women are not to understand that they are just an image and that women are generally less worth than men.
Lord Illingworth is very proud of himself, is shallow, thinks that the only people worth living are the rich, what he does is always perfect and that he succeeds in all he wants to do. He is not always honest in what he says. He is selfish and can not understand Mrs Arbuthnot’s situation and problems.
Not until Gerald is an adult he wants to know anything about his son, now that he has grown up he starts to be a caring father…“My dear Rachel, you have had him to yourself for over twenty years. Why not let me have him for a little now?“
Lord Illingworth – then George Harford with nor a penny of money, except what his mother used to give him – refused to give their child a name because he had left Mrs Arbuthnot then. His father, Sir Thomas Harford, wanted to force him into marrying her, and his mother, Lady Cecilia (daughter of the Duchess of Jerningham), would refuse and rather offer her £ 600 a year to get out of sight. Lord Illingworth’s elder brother Arthur had died in some accident.
Like this he’s to be found at any „important” party where he compliments everybody who does not know his real character. Lord Illingworth is fairly well-off and the owner of many premises. He is a liar, and acts cold-bloodedly, he lives his life without caring about others, and doesn’t feel any pity for anyone but himself. At the end of the book he turns out to be „A Man of No Importance“.
Mrs Rachel Arbuthnot
Mrs Arbuthnot is a very natural, thoughtful, and an adorable mother and woman who went through a lot of agony. Mrs Arbuthnot is Gerald’s mother. She is frustrated, lonely, feels humiliated, and ruined because Lord Illingworth did not want to marry her when she was pregnant. So she suffered a great deal. Now she is convinced that Lord Illingworth has no right to see their son Gerald anymore.
Her son Gerald is all she has in her life, she lives for him and mothers him strongly. Mrs Arbuthnot has devoted her life to suffering and she can not overcome her past. She is a honest, sensitive, not a shallow woman like the other ones apart from Hester, and does not like the surface scratching upper class society. She says that men (Lord Illingworth) do not understand what women feel for their sons because they do not have to fight death giving birth to the child.
She is very disappointed with Gerald because he wants her to marry his father, Lord Illingworth. So she reproaches Gerald telling him that sons hurt their mothers, for when they are in trouble they blame their mothers, and when they are happy they do not share their good times with them.
Gerald the son of Lord Illingworth and Mrs Arbuthnot has a badly paid not very demanding job as a bank clerk.
His development is influenced by his mother who brought him up too strictly. But in a way it makes him be a better man than the other male characters in the play. He falls in love with Hester.
Lord Illingworth offers him the job to be his private secretary. When Gerald accepts his the offer it will mean to him an unexpected chance to become a member of an upper class society, and hope for a career.
Gerald is a simple but honest young man of twenty years of age. He is friendly and polite with everybody, thankful for everything and naïve. He loves Hester and wants, when he earns enough money one day, propose marriage the her. He would never ever allow anybody to do any harm to Hester. So he even wants to protect her from Lord Illingworth when the latter tries to kiss her, and would even be ready to kill him for that.
Gerald can’t understand his mother and what she is talking about till to the moment he gets to know that Lord Illingworth is his real father. His mother had previously told him his father was dead. Now he realises everything Lord Illingworth had done to her and feels very sorry for his mother, for she is everything he has and loves. He is not interested in Lord Illingworth and the job offered as his secretary anymore. The only thing he wants is that his mother gets her right. So he wants Lord Illingworth to marry his mother so that her honour will be saved. His personal opinion about Lord Illingworth changed a lot this evening. At the beginning he admired him and at the end, after the conversation with his mother and the incident with Hester, he despises him.
But at least he will marry Hester Worsley one day, probably in the United States, an be happy ever after.
Hester is a pretty young American lady. She is not arrogant, does not like the splendour and the superficiality of the upper class society in England. Hester falls in love with Gerald and likes Mrs Arbuthnot because she is different from the other women.
She is an American girl that has been in England for only some weeks. But she hates this English upper class society. She is an open-hearted and honest character, loving the beauty of her country, and talking about it with pride. In a way she is a typical American, convinced of the American Dream and that nothing should be out of the reach of hope. For her life is hope. It is incomprehensible for Hester how these English ladies can obey their husbands, she is quite emancipated.
She is in love with Gerald, likes his natural beauty, his honesty and simplicity. But almost more than Gerald she loves his mother, because she is full of humanity and care for her son. Something other women in the play totally lack. She critically thinks about all that is said, and she does not at all believe every word she hears. She is an orphan, which is one of the main reason why she loves Mrs Arbuthnot and her character so much, and she has quite some money. She is often called a Puritan, and she is one.
The other Ladies
They are proud of themselves, dislike America, and appreciate the strict rules of the upper class. The only thing they like is splendour and superficiality.
Lady Caroline Pontefract
Lady Caroline is very self convinced and thinks she knows everything better than anybody else. She is always treating John, her husband, like a child, telling him what to do, say or wear. She believes to know her husband better than he himself would possibly do.
Besides she is always criticizing anybody absent, especially Hester, and everybody and everything else. If somebody asks her an uncomfortable question she will immedialtely change the topic or turn towards another person. She is judging a person from what class he or she belongs to, their names and their possessions. But she tends to forget things faster than she changes her subjects.
Sir John Pontefract
Sir John is Caroline’s husband and follows every order she gives him, like a child follows his mother. He doesn’t start any conversation on his own and obeys.
Mr Kelvil, MP
Mr Kelvil is very convinced of purity and writes about it, because he thinks it is the most important topic now-a-days. He doesn’t agree with Lord Illingworth’s points of view because he is very interested in poor people and wants to solve their problems. (The question is, if he really stands on their side, for non of the rich people would ever). Besides, he has a very high opinion of woman and is not that conservative.
He thinks positively about America and knows some things about the political situation there. That is why on one hand he is quite modern, and on the other hand he has left his wife and children somewhere else.
Lady Jane Hunstanton
Lady Hunstanton is very enthousiastic and throughout the whole story she compliments everybody. Everything is great and nice with and about her though she rarely ever has an idea of what she is talking about, but she just wants to talk and comment on everything. In comparison to Lady Caroline she is to be trusted and will never find herself in the position of a bad host. Excluding the last act the whole play takes place at her place within twenty-four hours.
Lord Alfred is a cocky and snobbish guy who wants to impress everybody. He went into debts because he wants to smoke very expensive cigarettes. If he were out of debts, he would have nothing to think about.
Archdeacon Daubeny (Doctor Daubeny)
Dr Daubeny looks at Mrs Arbuthnot with respect and thinks that it will be a great privilege if she comes to visit one or one’s party (his wife will be jealous if she hears about it). He only speaks positively of his wife and shows a lot of respect towards her, althought she suffers from a lot of diseases and illnesses. He talks about her inner resources and how quite hopeful she is. She is never with him at whatever party he appears, but he is always talked to about his wife.
Mrs Daubeny respects and likes Mrs. Arbuthnot very much, which we only hear from the Archdeacon. Although she is interested in her own health, trying to look after herself, she is nearly always ill, and when she is ill she likes to be alone. She is deaf, or losing her sense of hearing, and also losing her eyesight. What so ever, a serious disease crippled her and since the last attack she hasn’t been able to remember anything except her childhood. She never appears in the book, all she is … is talked about. Her character represents comic relief throughout the play.
Mrs. Allonby only knows life in security and safety because nothing from outside comes near to her. She represents the point of view that danger is so rare now-a-days. This shows how far she is from reality in her golden upper class cage. Besides she thinks women lead a better life than men do. In fact she is just jealous of them. She thinks she always has to take care of them. She also believes in emotions never being shown in public life for she doesn’t want to be the target for her enemies. But she is clever the way she talks, because she is able to turn everything the way she wants it to be.
On one hand she is able to amuse the women excellently and hereby makes them believe what she wants them to. On the other hand she actually hides her real character.
Lady Stutfield exaggerates, emphasizes, carries to excess everything. She finds everything the others do or say very, very wonderful and never ever contradicts anybody. She hasn’t got the slightest idea of anything at all, and she just says something for the sake of saying something, even if what she says does not make any sense at all.
She is helplessly committed to the other people’s games because she doesn’t have her own personal opinion and is to be influenced very easily.
B i o g r a p h y
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde (he quipped that this was not so much of a name as a sentence) was born in Dublin, in October 1854, to an upper-middle-class Protestant family, being the second son of Sir William Charles Kingsbury Wills Wilde (an eminent eye surgeon) and Lady Jane Wilde, usually known as Francesca, who wrote Irish Nationalist poetry under the name of Speranza (Italian for hope). The Wilde family were at the centre of Dublin’s intellectual life in the 1850s and 1860s, with Lady Wilde hosting regular soirées for poets, writers and politicians. They were comfortably off, but they also provided their children (Oscar and his elder brother Willie) with a rich cultural background.
The events of Oscar Wilde’s life are relatively well-known. His is a story that has been popular with biographers because it has the shape of a Greek tragedy: a rapid rise to fame, followed by swift and sudden disgrace and ruin. Oscar Wilde himself said to the French novelist André Gide: „Do you want to know the great drama of my life? It’s that I have put my genius into my life; all I’ve put into my works is my talent.“ With the exception of ‚The Importance of Being Earnest‘ and occasionally of Oscar Wilde’s only novel ‚The Picture of Dorian Gray‘ (1891), critics have tended to agree with that judgement. Oscar Wilde was a deliberate self-publicist. He saw his personality as an intrinsic part of his work, and posterity has colluded with Oscar Wilde’s own judgement. So whilst no writer’s life directly ‚explains‘ his/her work, in the case of Oscar Wilde, some sense of his biographical context is indispensable to the student of his writings.
Oscar was educated first at the Portora Royal School in Enniskillen. At the age of sixteen he won a place at Trinity College in Dublin and, completing his degree, he was awarded a classical scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he studied Literae Humaniores (Greek and Roman philosophy and literature, which he took up in 1874. In 1878, still in Oxford, he won the Newdigate – Price with his poem “Ravenna“. In Oxford he lost his Irish accent. He was enthusiastic about the aesthetic theories of Walter Pater and John Ruskin, his tutors at Oxford, and hoped that all the world would soon be at his feet, though it actually took him a considerable time to become established as a writer and critic.
From Oxford he went to London, where he lived off the rents of some of the Irish property that his father had left him (Sir William had died in 1876); and he set about becoming famous in the capital. In 1881, he published his first volume of ‚Poems‘, works which are not much read today, and which were not especially well received at the time; reviewers felt that they were derivative. All the same, ‚Poems‘ had one important effect. They brought to Oscar Wilde an invitation to go on a lecture tour to the United States in 1882. In 1881 Gilbert and Sullivan had produced a sitire operetta entitled ‚Patience‘; or, ‚Bunthorne’s Bridge‘, which mocked the pretentions of the Aesthetic Movement in England. The aesthetes professed that art and beauty were the most important values in a society. D’Oyly Carte, whom Wilde had at first met in the USA and who promoted the woks of Gilbert and Sullivan, was worried that Americans would not understand the satire in ‚Patience‘, and therefore commissioned Oscar Wilde to lecture on ‚The English Aesthetic Movement‘, ‚The House Beautiful‘, and ‚Aesthetic Dress‘ as part of the promotion of the opera.
Oscar Wilde’s career began in advertising. He was advertising Gilbert and Sullivan, but he was also advertising himself. The tour was quite a success, and it helped to make Oscar Wilde’s name, in particular because of his flamboyant style of dress, and his exaggerated lecturing style; his intonation, pronunciation, and inflexions as he spoke his lectures caused much comment at the time.
On his return to England Oscar Wilde toured the country, giving lectures about his impressions of America. He also wanted to improve on nature’s creations concentrating on language and personal dress. He had long hair for example, he was a real dandy. It is important to remember, however, that the Victorian gentleman’s clothes were generally black or grey, and certainly did not call attention to themselves; and a gentleman’s hair would be close-cropped.
Oscar Wilde didn’t just adapt the ideas of Pater and Ruskin about aestheticism, he treated them with irony. He was quite eccentric. Wilde was respected as a real artist of conversation which endeared him to some of the best houses and circles in London. But his lifestyle was very expensive, and he often had to borrow money to be able of keeping up his niveau.
In 1884 he married Constance Lloyd, the daughter of a well-to-do Irish lawyer, who was so rich, that he now finally had the freedom to go out and about in society without worrying about money, and to concentrate on his writing. Their marriage was a love-match. They seem to have been very happy for the first two or three years of their time together.
Wilde was a father of two sons, Cyril (born in 1885) and Vyvyan (born in 1886). With these new family responsibilities, along with the expenses of keeping up his brilliantly furnished and decorated family home in Tite Street, Chelsea, it was imperative that he should start to earn a proper and more assured living than lecture tours and occasional book reviewing could give him. He therefore began to pursue a career in journalism, reviewing widely for the major magazines and, eventually, in 1887, he took up the editorship of a magazine entitled ‚The Lady’s World‘. His first act as editor was to change the magazine’s name to ‚The Woman’s World‘. Under his editorship, the magazine published articles on dress reform (polemics against the corset), literary reviews and essays on subjects as diverse as votes for women and the modern theatre. The magazine was a relative success, thoug Oscar Wilde soon became bored with the day-to-day routine of running it, and increasingly withdrew from the real work. He gave up the job in 1889.
Meanwhile Oscar Wilde had a reputation as the most interesting and entertaining dinner guest, dazzling London society with his brilliant conversation. Lots of contemporary commentators, men like the Irish poet W. B. Yeats and the comic writer Max Beerbohm, marvelled at his fluency, exaggerated diction and his wit. But for all his popularity and apparently stable family life, Oscar Wilde had not yet actually written anything in the field of literature except for that slim volume of poems from 1881.
From 1888 he began to remedy that omission. For the next seven years he was immensely productive. He began in 1888 with a volume of short stories for children, ‚The Happy Prince and Other Stories‘, probably written with his own sons in mind, but also drawing on the legacy of his parents who had been so interested in Irish folk tales. This was followed up in 1891 by fairy stories for more adult readers, ‚A House of Pomegranates‘. He published essays of theoretical criticism such as ‚The Decay of Lying‘ and ‚The Critic as Artist‘ which were eventually collected into a single volume called ‚Intentions‘ (1891). His short stories ‚Lord Arthur Saville’s Crime and Other Stories‘ also came out in 1891.
This writing was followed by ”The Picture Of Dorian Gray” and his dramatic work ”Lady Windermere’s Fan”, ”A Woman Of No Importance”, ”The Importance Of Being Earnest” and, of course, ”An Ideal Husband”. A totally different drama ”Salomé”, written in French in 1891, was staged only in February 1896 in Paris, though it was very difficult to be performed.
Oscar Wilde was homosexual. He had his first love affair with Robert Ross followed by some short-term affairs until he met, in 1891, his only true love Lord Alfred Douglas. ”Bossie”, who was 15 years younger, i.e. 21, who was girlishly pretty.
There were some problems in his relationship with Lord Douglas. First of all because Bossie was accustomed to luxurious lifestyle and permanently needed money, and secondly because of his father, the Marquis of Queensberry, who tried everything to end their relationship. Wilde brought a case of libel against Queensberry, which went to court in April 1895. Wilde lost his case and Queensberry filed a counter-suit, accusing Wilde of ’gross indecency’. He had gathered evidence in the form of Wilde’s letters to his son, his published works, and some young men testifying against Wilde. Oscar Wilde was finally found guilty and sentenced to two years imprisonment in Reading Goal. There, Oscar Wilde had to live a different life
compared to the one before. There was no hygiene, dirty food, and instead of nice conversations an overwhelming silence. He got the privilege of books and writing material and wrote ”De Profundis“, in which he defended his life and indicted Lord Douglas. When he was released in May 1897 he wrote ”The Ballad Of Reading Goal”, which he had already started in prison.
Although his work was translated and recognised all over the world he had given up his will to live. He had left England and was now living in Paris. In his last months he suffered from syphilis and he died – on 30th November, 1900 – from an abscess in his ear that worsened into meningitis.