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Emily Eells, dir., Wilde in Earnest

Coll. « Intercalaires », Presses universitaires de Paris Ouest, 2015, 204 p., ISBN 978-2-84016-218-6
Nathalie Saudo-Welby
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Emily Eells, dir., Wilde in Earnest, Coll. « Intercalaires », Presses universitaires de Paris Ouest, 2015, 204 p., ISBN 978-2-84016-218-6

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1In Wilde in Earnest, Emily Eells has gathered some excellent pieces of scholarship written specifically about Oscar Wilde’s last comedy, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). The contributors include famous Wilde scholars from all over the world. The beauty of the book’s title is truer to its content than the rather austere cover design is, and admirers of Oscar Wilde, for whom style is a vital thing, should not let themselves be affected by it.

2Emily Eells’s introduction takes up William Archer’s description of the play as a ‘rondo capriccioso’ and weaves the metaphor with Wildean wit and daring. Her detailed analysis of the cast list is followed by an explanation of how it is rewritten and subverted in the last lines of the play. The essay brings together the issues which are particularly focused on in the rest of the book: names, nonsense and the absurd, art and aestheticism, performance and performativity. Petra Dierkes-Thrun’s essay offers a well-researched and pedagogical account of the genre(s) of the play; it also serves well the task of introducing the volume.

3Michael Patrick Gillespie, the editor of the Norton critical edition of the play, then makes ‘a close reading of The Importance of Being Earnest’, which simultaneously offers an interpretation and provides assistance for understanding the play. Richard A. Kaye’s informative essay in literary history then asks whether Oscar Wilde may have seen Sheridan’s The Rivals, and describes the different theatrical environments and the authors’ common interest in life as performance.

4Peter Raby takes his readers on a walk around ‘a subtly different country, a kind of England “Through the Looking-Glass”, in which everything is . . . tilted, slanted, distorted’ (63), pointing out the most scenic views and signposting the more opaque allusions. Christopher Nassaar describes the world of the play as a free transposition of Alice in Wonderland, thus foregrounding some of the ways in which the Victorian nonsense tradition influenced the writing of the play.

5While David Charles Rose’s essay gives an idea of the dense texture of the proper names in the play, by evoking many of their possible associations in the Victorian mind, Marie-Noëlle Zender provides a possible pattern for their interpretation by stressing the importance of the filiation motif.

6Stefano Evangelista situates the play in the context of Wilde’s previous art criticism and of his involvement in the popularization of Aestheticism. He convincingly shows the ways in which The Importance of Being Earnest ‘enacts Aestheticism’ (100) by presenting philosophical principles before ‘crush[ing] them under the weight of comedy’ (102). By commenting upon the ‘repetitions and variations’ in The Importance of Being Earnest, Gilbert Pham-Tham shows how Oscar Wilde’s wordplay works to destabilize Victorian society, with the result of ‘throwing it into confusion.’

7After considering how Wilde’s comedy stands in relation to problem plays and melodrama, Jean-Jacques Lecercle asks how serious its paradoxes are and how the play relates to reality, a question which has serious implications on its satiric import. Virginie Iché demonstrates ‘the vital importance of producing socially acceptable utterances’ (147) and looks into the question of authenticity in the light of Umberto Eco’s typology of fakes and forgeries in The Limits of Interpretation.

8Using examples from screen and stage versions of the play (1952, 1975, 1993, 1995, 2002), Sos Eltis looks into the play’s meta-theatricality and performance, and demonstrates that the essential difference is not between those who lie and those who are in earnest but ‘between those who are conscious of their own performance and those who blindly believe in the truth of the social and moral orthodoxies they have absorbed’ (150-51). As a result, she argues, ‘the play erodes any stable sense of social norms’ (158).

9Xavier Giudicelli’s approach of performance is based on Judith Butler’s use of the term to foreground how gender is a form of self-creation. His essay on the politics and poetics of the body shows how The Importance of Being Earnest is a well-choreographed ballet and concludes with the way bodies are ‘reinvented’ in the play. Nikolai Endres’s reading gives attention to its queer significance and sometimes ‘map[s] queer significance onto the text’ (184).

10Kerry Powell’s contribution very suitably closes the collection by looking into the postmodernism of Earnest, which he locates in Wilde’s interest in performativity and performance, and in the play’s capacity to ‘test  . . the limits’ of the emptiness of the ‘compulsory social scripts of which each of us is a (usually unwitting) performer’ (191). This appears to be an interesting way of adapting the satiric import of the play to contemporary audiences. ‘Although the word ‘performativity’ would not be coined until nearly a hundred years later,’ he writes, ‘Wilde deploys key aspects of that postmodern concept to work out the plot and comic effects of The Importance of Being Earnest’ (192).

11This account has, I hope, done justice to the quality and variety of the scholarship in the book, which offers a useful synthesis of the research done by some specialists of the field, alongside new perspectives. Michael Patrick Gillespie’s suggestion that ‘the play’s wonderful polyvocality offers a great deal to which a sensitive interpreter can attend’ and that ‘one need not address all of its voices to come to a satisfying reading. One need only articulate a clear, logical response that unifies a number of its elements’ (35) seems to me to shed light on both the richness of the play and on the present collection of essays. While the spectators of the play will happily yield to its swiftly paced witty power, students of the play, left ‘reeling . . .  between art and reality’ (16), might experience difficulties finding their way among the different theoretical approaches, not to speak of trying to ‘fit them all’ into a single essay or commentary. The contributions to this volume offer an answer to that difficulty by articulating a selection of theoretical tools or historical concepts into convincing interpretations, thus giving an idea of the wide range of available readings and a method for organizing them.

12The right balance has been struck between the essays in English (12) and in French (4), since it allows Wilde students in France to gather a fair and varied sample of the discourse used to describe the play in the two languages, from ‘society comedy’ to ‘silver fork writing’ to ‘anarchic idyll’ (159), from ‘comédie de boulevard’ to ‘comédie de salon’ to ‘pseudo-mélodrame’.

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Nathalie Saudo-Welby, « Emily Eells, dir., Wilde in Earnest »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 81 Printemps | 2015, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2015, consulté le 19 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Nathalie Saudo-Welby

Université d’Amiens

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