Oscar Wilde: Brilliant AND Funniest Playwright
The Noncomformist Oscar Wilde
A bit about the witty Irish sardonic poet and playwright Oscar Wilde…
Photo of a Napolean Sarony portrait
Where it all began: Ireland
Well, one thing is evident; he had to be witty considering the name his parents tagged him with back then: Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde. In Dublin, Ireland, the days of 1854 when he was born, folks were lucky just to receive one middle name, let alone three! He probably had to dodge the school bullies on a regular basis, learning how to talk his way out of a beating. Guess that’s one path to becoming a successful writer! Perhaps the reality was that as a middle child he took nothing for granted, developing his skills, since he figured out early in life it took more to get noticed.
His successful parents
Seriously though, it looked like he was able to build upon a good family foundation of successful writing parents. His mother, Lady Jane Francesca Wilde (1820 – 1896), succeeded as both a poet and a journalist, writing patriotic Irish verse under the pseudonym of “Speranza.”
Oscar’s father was Sir William Wilde (1815 – 1876) who was well known as a gifted writer himself on the subject of archaeology and folklore. By profession he was a medical doctor, specializing in eye and ear surgery. Sir William Wilde was additionally well respected as a philanthropist.
Wilde’s house in London at Tite Street 34
A life hard-lived
Establishing his career
Obviously a child of privilege, Oscar received a stellar education at the fine colleges of the time, Trinity College of Dublin and Magdalen College of Oxford. By 1879 he moved to London to begin his literary career. Just the year before he won a prize for his poem “Ravenna” but, like anyone just getting established in the field of their choice, his first collected poems effort, called “Poems,” received the usual mixed reviews. Often these things happen because they are the new guy on the scene and the critics are out of their comfort zone. Also it is because a young writer is still working to create and firmly establish their writing voice.
Wilde’s long poem (5 online pages), "Ravenna," can be found to read here.
Wilde became an art reviewer in the United States and Canada by 1881. By 1883 he lived in Paris, lecturing in Britain and Ireland. By 1884 he regularly contributed to the Pall Mall Gazette and Dramatic View.
Wilde’s marriage and children
At the end of May in 1884 he married Constance Lloyd. Her father was the Queen’s Counsel Horace Lloyd. That union brought Wilde two sons, Cyril (1885) and Vyvyan (1886). Like any parent it was time to consider a job to bring home the money to pay the mounting bills. He accepted a job at Woman’s World Magazine as their editor for two years until 1889. During his tenure at the magazine he published fairy stories he wrote for his sons called The Happy Prince and Other Tales.
Critics at odds with Wilde’s early work
By 1891, Wilde wrote his first – and only – novel that we all know quite well: The Picture of Dorian Gray. While today we yawn at such books back then Wilde received an overwhelmingly negative reaction. Among the Victorian Age critics the book’s homoerotic overtones were quite the sensation, a bit too much for their senses.
The homosexual love affair that ruined his career
The year of 1891 was not a great year for Wilde as that is when he began his homosexual affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, nicknamed “Bosie.” Wilde trumpeted Douglas as the love of his life. The affair was also Wilde’s downfall in Victorian society. Of course, Wilde’s marriage ended in 1893. Divorce was not widely accepted in those days and was quite the dramatic step to take unless a woman knew society approved.
Wilde found his writing stride and shined as a witty comedic playwright
Wilde found his writing stride in comedic playwriting. His first play, Lady Windermere’s Fan, opened in 1892. A string of comedic plays were wildly popular: A Woman of No Importance (1893), The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) which is often studied in high school and college literature. My favorite, as it was produced as a wonderful 1999 movie with today’s Cate Blanchett, Minnie Driver, Julianne Moore, Jeremy Northam and Rupert Everett, is The Ideal Husband (1895). A century later this play is still very funny! You need a good laugh? Rent or buy this DVD as it is well worth it. It was these wildly acclaimed comedic plays that finally and firmly established Wilde as an accepted playwright.
The Ideal Husband SparkNotes can be found here.
The Ideal Husband in a 54-online page script form can be found to read here.
Wilde went to prison
Sadly, at the height of his career, his life went awry. He sued his lover’s father for libel and lost the case. Wilde was accused publicly by the Marquis of Queensbury as a homosexual. After Wilde lost his libel case, he was arrested and tried for gross indecency. Found guilty of the crime of sodomy he spent two years in prison at hard labor. He wrote “De Profundis” during his time in prison; it was a dramatic monologue and autobiography.
Wilde spoke out about deplorable prison conditions
After that prison ordeal, as Victorian prisons were no picnic, he was lucky to have survived deplorable conditions and was released in 1897. He wrote “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” to bring awareness to inhumane prison conditions.
The end of his short life
Wilde only lived another three years. He died of cerebral meningitis on a cold November day in 1900. For the three years since his prison release he had spent his life wandering Europe where he stayed with friends or in cheap hotels. Sad to say that such a talent met his end, penniless, in one of those cheap Parisian hotels.
A cheeky monument that would have amused Wilde greatly
Wilde's writing legacy
Ireland's gifted writer endures
The life of a gifted writer never seems easy. Often, the best writing comes through harsh life experience. What is important is to find a way to make peace with those experiences. In Victorian society it would appear there was little maneuvering room for Oscar Wilde. The witty Irishman left behind a wonderful body of work as his lasting legacy. And his cheeky quotes? Ironic humor thrives down through the centuries!
Some Cheeky Quotes from Oscar Wilde:
"I think God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability."
"I don't want to go to heaven. None of my friends are there."
"I am so clever that sometimes I don't understand a single word of what I am saying."
"America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between."
And one of my many favorites that rings so true:
"Be Yourself; everyone else is already taken."
I'm a Social Issues Poet (SIP). Pay a visit to my poetry, news, humor and political blog: The Social Poets. Posting is every day.
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Oscar Wilde would probably find it most amusing, especially how well he is regarded a century later. Ah, life!
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