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Introduction to Oscar Wilde: Plays, Novels, and Sexuality

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  • 0:05 Early Life
  • 3:08 WIlde's One Novel
  • 3:52 The Plays
  • 8:50 Sexuality
  • 11:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

From ''The Picture of Dorian Gray'' to the ''Importance of Being Earnest'', Oscar Wilde left an indelible mark on literature and theater. In this lesson, you'll learn all about the Victorian author.

Early Life

Oscar Wilde is a unique figure in Victorian literature or any literature. He's kind of crazy any way you want to slice it. He was born in 1854 in Dublin.

Portrait of Oscar Wilde
Portrait of Oscar Wilde

His father was a really successful doctor who actually got knighted in 1864. He's kind of the ancient-day, Irish McDreamy or something like that. His mother was a poet and intellectual. He's really got a great gene pool; it's kind of destined for greatness.

He was an awesome student, and his big contribution to literature in general was that he helped popularize aestheticism while he was still in school. A general definition of aestheticism (which is hard to say, try it yourself) is basically art for art's sake; it doesn't have a greater purpose. It's not trying to do anything socially, politically. It's just there. It's beautiful, and it's art. That's the idea behind aestheticism.

He had a childhood sweetheart named Florence Balcombe, who ended up marrying Bram Stoker, who's the author of Dracula. Not many people can say that. Actually, only Oscar Wilde can say that - that he had a childhood sweetheart who later married the author of Dracula. That's an early female interest that you'll see is in contrast to what happens later.

He primarily wrote poetry at first; that was what he started out with; although, he also lectured. He also tried journalism. He would later publish a bunch of short stories. He was still searching around for the right outlet for his artistic impulses and whatnot.

He'd already found a place for his voice in society, though. He was big on the social scene. It helped that he dressed really colorfully - some might say flamboyantly - more so than other Victorians. A 'dandy' might be the word you would use to describe him. He was known for his terrifically witty conversation skills. That was a big thing with Oscar Wilde.

He had his critics, though. Some people thought he was more famous for being famous than for really producing anything worth reading, especially early in his career. He's kind of like Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian or anyone from Jersey Shore. I feel blasphemous comparing him to those! At least early on, he hadn't really done anything to justify his fame. He definitely had an outsized ego; outsized at least compared to what he had produced at that point. Between acts at one of his plays, he said to the actors, 'I congratulate you on the great success of your performance, which persuades me that you think almost as highly of the play as I do myself.' Modesty wasn't really his thing. So, you can see why that might generate a little bit of criticism from people, especially those who thought he didn't deserve it.

But just like The Situation eventually proved that he was more than just his abs on Dancing with the Stars (maybe not really), Wilde would prove that he was more than just a fun guy to talk to at a party. He's definitely more than that.

Wilde's One Novel

He had a few unsuccessful plays (which we'll get to in a moment), then he published his really famous novel. It's actually the only novel he ever published - The Picture of Dorian Gray in 1891.

This story begins with Dorian Gray having his picture painted, as you might guess from the title. He's upset that he's going to grow old and lose his good looks because that's kind of his claim to fame. He's worried that he's going to get old, while the painting remains beautiful. But what actually happens is that the portrait begins to grow older, get ugly and haggard while Gray remains youthful. We're going to go into this more completely in a separate lesson, but that's the general outline of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

The Plays

Wilde turned more fully to drama after Dorian Gray. He's really best known as a playwright, so we're going to quickly go over what he wrote for the stage.

The first play was a tragedy - Vera or The Nihilists; that was in 1880. That sounds promising, right? It's set in Russia. It's full of revolutionaries, assassinations, tsars and other things that are very Russian. Like my Russian dancing, it was not popular, and it's rarely been performed since.

Next, we're moving on. The tragedy The Duchess of Padua was his next play. This was written in 1883. No one performed it until 1891. He wrote this play for a woman named Mary Anderson, who was a popular American actress. She wasn't that interested. It's kind of like when actresses decline parts, and then they have to find someone unknown who becomes super famous because of it. I don't think that happened in this case. This play is set in Padua in Italy (which is just like 'The Taming of the Shrew'), and it's about… you know, actually the play is kind of forgotten, so we're just going to move on. Not important.

Third time's the charm, right? These first two were not that successful. In 1892, Wilde completes Lady Windermere's Fan, which is very different from his first two, primarily, because it's not a tragedy. It's a comedy. It's a satire of Victorian society, which sounds more fun than Russian nihilists plotting against tsars (especially because I don't think they danced in theirs).

In this play, Lady Windermere thinks her husband is having an affair with Mrs. Erlynne. When she confronts him, he denies it - as men having affairs are wont to do. He invites Mrs. Erlynne to his wife's birthday ball, which really ticks her off. So, she runs away; she decides she's going to have an affair with Lord Darlington. All of this wacky chaos ensues because it's a comedy. In the end, it turns out that no one actually has an affair. In fact, Mrs. Erlynne is actually Lady Windermere's mother, and she only had a child because she was having an affair. So that was the secret that she was trying to conceal.

In 1893, Wilde has another hit with the dark comedy A Woman of No Importance. This is a play about the secrets of the Victorian upper class. It's set at a weekend party, which is an upper class-type thing to do. Lord Illingworth is a handsome and successful bachelor whom the ladies lust after (like a George Clooney figure). He helps out young Gerald Arbuthnot, so he can find his way in society. It turns out that Gerald's mother is Illingworth's former lover, and Gerald is Illingworth's son, which sounds a little bit familiar from Windermere: people finding out that their parents are people they didn't expect! After really big openings in London and New York, the play was set to go on tour, basically. Everything was great. Then Wilde was arrested for sodomy and indecency. We're going to get more on that later; we're coming back to that. I'm not just leaving you hanging. We're going to talk about more plays first, though.

In 1893, Wilde publishes the tragedy Salome. He actually wrote it in 1891, but it was censored because it was too racy. It's a retelling of the Biblical story of Salome, who's the stepdaughter of Herod Antipas. Herod offers Salome a reward for her dancing. She requests the head of John the Baptist on a platter. This play really has a lasting influence. It becomes integral to the way we think about that story. In 1905, Richard Strauss based his famous opera, Salome, on Wilde's play. So, it gets into the canon that way.

He completed An Ideal Husband in 1895. This is another comedy; this play is basically about blackmail, politics and all sorts of great upper class type things - first world problems. But it's also about relationships and marriage. The plot begins with Mrs. Cheveley blackmailing Sir Robert into supporting a scam about a canal in Argentina based on evidence she has that he illicitly made his fortune on the sale of the Suez Canal. So, very complicated rich people problems. It gets even more complicated in ways that I won't even begin to elucidate, but it manages to have a happy ending in the end. There was a very good movie version of this play in 1999 with Julianne Moore and Cate Blanchett. It's Wilde's second most popular play after his most popular play, which is The Importance of Being Earnest.

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