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Marianne Drugeon
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  • 1 Oscar Wilde, The Decay of Lying, Complete Works of Oscar Wilde [1948], Glasgow: Harper Collins, 200 (...)

1Oscar Wilde is a well-known figure of our contemporary world, although he seems to be remembered at least equally, if not more, for the life he led, and the infamous trial which sent him to prison, as for his literary works. It is obviously almost impossible to study his writings without linking them to the character he embodied in real life as, according to one of his most famous aphorisms, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life,”1 and critics have thus traced the paradoxes of Lord Darlington or Lord Illingworth back to Wilde’s own sayings at the social dinners he enjoyed in London.

2We have nevertheless tried, for the purpose of this collection of articles on the theatre of Oscar Wilde, to concentrate more on his literary creation than on his glories and setbacks as a favourite of London’s high society.

  • 2 Lou Ferreira, L’ombre d’Oscar Wilde, Paris: Elzévir, 2010.

3The first intention was to understand why Wilde’s plays, and above all his society comedies, are still so often put on stage today, and are so successful, in spite of their being so deeply rooted in Victorian society and their hardly questioning the Victorian values and morality. It seems to go beyond a feeling of nostalgia for the past, as contemporary writers and stage directors regularly adapt Wilde’s plays to our own literary and dramatic expectations, as well as to our own moral values. Thus in the first months of the year 2010, and in Paris alone, two plays have already been adapted by stage directors and actors: Le Mariage est aussi nocif que les cigarettes et tellement plus cher by the Compagnie de la Fortune at the Théâtre Darius Milhaud, and Une Fable sans importance by Clémence Weill at the Théâtre du Funambule. In both cases Wilde’s texts were summoned as a relevant comment on today’s world, whether the play was concerned with the relationships between a man and his wife, or with the way society reacts to disturbing and provocative public figures. Indeed, though Wilde is now widely regarded as a genius, there are many countries in the world where he would still face prison charges when openly admitting homosexual relationships. The year 2010 has also seen the publication of Lou Ferreira’s novel L’ombre d’Oscar Wilde,2 in which Octave Mirbeau is imagined debating with friends on the propriety of suing Wilde for being a “somdomite” (sic). This novel is the occasion for the writer to denounce the harsh Victorian laws which so forcefully censured Wilde, but it also offers a more general reflection on committed literature and committed writers, and this reflection aims at a more contemporary readership.

4The articles here gathered all shed a new light on the theatre of Oscar Wilde, often drawing parallels with other works which may have influenced our author, and with the various adaptations they have led to, up to the present. To allow the reader to follow this progression, the articles have been organized along two parts, the first one devoted to Wilde’s social comedies, and the second devoted to the very special case of Salomé. In each of these parts the articles are presented according to chronological order when possible. First, three articles analyse Wilde’s comedies per se, then two articles compare Wilde’s theatre with playwrights who may have influenced him, directly or indirectly. The last article analyses a contemporary adaptation of Wilde’s comedy The Importance of Being Earnest, Ravenhill’s Handbag.

  • 3 Kerry Powell, Oscar Wilde and the Theatre of the 1890s, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990

5Indeed, Wilde’s most famous play is certainly The Importance of Being Earnest, written in 1895, but the different articles also contemplate Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1894), An Ideal Husband (1895). The study of those four plays leads Jacqueline Fromonot to define Wilde’s theatre in terms of opposition and negation: indeed if the general view is that Wilde’s interest in the aristocracy reveals his respect for the Victorian values the higher classes defend, Fromonot interestingly twists the usual standpoint and has us consider that Wilde uses those cliché characters the better to denounce and undermine the social code they embody. Gilbert Pham-Thanh further develops that idea, concentrating on the phallogocentrism of Victorian society, and showing how, unexpectedly, Wilde’s seemingly conservative defence of the male elite is partly jeopardized by his resistance to and disrespect for this symbolic but reactionary order. This analysis could be linked to that of Powell3 who concentrated more on the place of women but also showed how Wilde’s theatre was stuck in contradictory tendencies towards more equality between men and women, but also towards a reaffirmation of the supremacy of men over women.

6Birgitte Bastiat also studies the dialectics that Wilde develops between conformity and resistance in The Importance of Being Earnest, convincingly demonstrating that the play, which is considered throughout the world as a light comedy, also deeply challenges the social norms and stereotypes of the time, not only in ideas but also in the form chosen: as Ignacio Ramos Gay emphasises in his own article, the influence of French drama on Wilde (Sardou and Dumas fils among others) is noticeable, as well as his subversion of this very popular form and genre, so as to develop a rebellious message. Here, rather unexpectedly once more, a parallel can be drawn between Oscar Wilde and Henrik Ibsen or G. B . Shaw who, more effectively and openly, rebelled against their contemporary social order. These three articles thus allow us to understand that if Wilde’s social comedies are still so successful today, it is partly because they announce a change in values, and a rebellion against the stiff moral standards of the Victorian era.

7The next three articles which deal with Wilde’s comedies offer us a different assessment, thanks to their comparison to other works. Anne-Isabelle François thus suggests illuminating comparisons between Wilde’s drawing-room drama and Hofmannsthal’s L’homme difficile. But this leads her to a different conclusion: both Wilde and Hofmannsthal are obsessed with the artificiality of the world they depict, and their stance is indeed critical, but only in a very light note. If, therefore, Wilde’s comedies are still put on stage today, it is because of their quaint, old-fashioned charm. This concentration on the beauty of decors, on light themes, has led the plays to be venerated and enjoyed as myths by today’s spectators, all the more so as all those values were shattered by the first World War. Centring his study on the character of the aventurière, Ignacio Ramos Gay also draws parallels with another playwright, whom Wilde has often been accused of plagiarizing, Dumas fils. Wilde’s comedies thus offer a fragile balance between creation and recreation, which is another common conclusion to many articles in this collection. Interestingly we find again the same paradoxical associations of adherence to traditional values and rebellion against them, with female characters who are simultaneously defined through their relation to men and tending to an autonomy which implies the implosion of the moral establishment of the time. The same blurring of boundaries appears concerning sexes, as Wilde’s aventurières turn out to be the most masculine characters of his plays, refusing motherhood and marriage. Dumas fils’s Étrangère, the model for Wilde’s female dandies, Mrs Clarkson and Mrs Erlynne being their most obvious embodiments, can in this light be considered as a forerunner of Wilde’s male dandies. Wilde thus once more appears to be poised between a repetition of the same clichés and a satire on other plays which represent the current societal myths.

  • 4 Liliane Louvel, Oscar Wilde, le double miroir de l’art, Paris: Ellipses, 2000.
  • 5 Christopher Craft, Another Kind of Love: Male Homosexual Desire in English Discourse, Berkeley, Los (...)

8The last article in this first part looks at a postmodern adaptation of this myth: Ravenhill being aesthetically a representative of in-yer-face drama, his plays and Wilde’s would seem at first glance to be worlds apart, and Ravenhill’s choice to adapt a social comedy can hardly be accounted for. Handbag appears to be a textual comment on Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest, as well as a social comment on Wilde himself, embodied satirically on stage by Lady Bracknell. We find here the influence of the Gay Studies and Queer theory which were developed in the 1980s and 90s. The common characteristic of both plays is their interest in duality, with a chiasmic structure which is reminiscent of Liliane Louvel’s study of the figure of the mirror in The Picture of Dorian Gray.4 Ravenhill’s play, mixing intertextuality and metatextuality, shows our contemporary obsession for the “materiality of the flesh,”5 which is also the direction taken by many modern stagings of Wilde, and hence emphasizes his modernity. Ravenhill seems indeed to have chosen Wilde specifically to show that our society is not that different from the Victorian society of the 1890s. Thus all articles converge on pointing out Wilde’s paradoxical duality: his plays represent women who have chosen men as models, the better to differentiate themselves from them; Wilde himself constantly imitates other playwrights so as to satirize their vision of society while at the same time complying with it; his plays offer a complex but genuine portrait of Victorian society and allow us, today, to cast a revealing light on our own society, its contradictions and its illusionary quest for a free identity.

9The second part of this collection of essays concentrates on the very specific play Salomé, which Wilde chose to write in French in 1893, and which is available in various translations, the first one by Lord Alfred Douglas in 1894, illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley, which was then amended by Wilde himself, plus other translations by John Lane or by Wilde’s own grandson Merlin Holland. As a tribute to French symbolism, this play is very different from Wilde’s social comedies, which has led us to consider it separately. The articles have been organized on the same lines as those concentrating on the comedies, beginning with two close studies of the text itself, followed by two comparative analyses of Salomé, with a lesser-known opera version by Mariotte, and with the different depictions of Salomé’s famous dance, among which Flaubert’s inspiring tale “Hérodias”. The last article strikes quite a different note, recounting the adaptation of Wilde’s Salomé as inspired by the style of Kabuki, by Dallas McCurley.

  • 6 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Kafka: Pour une littérature mineure, Paris, Éditions de Minuit, (...)
  • 7 Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, London: Penguin, 2003, p. 38.
  • 8 Oscar Wilde, Salomé, Toulouse: Petite Bibliothèque Ombres, 1996, p. 39. We can also consider here B (...)
  • 9 Richard Ellman, Oscar Wilde, New York: Vintage Books, 1987, p. 355.
  • 10 Ian Fletcher, Aubrey Beardsley, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987.

10But the first question which rises when studying the original text of this play is the choice of Wilde to have written it in French, thus aligning it with other texts of “littérature mineure” in the terms of Gilles Deleuze6. This is Emily Eells’s basic premise, which leads her to consider the motives behind this choice, whether literary, artistic, political or merely personal. Beyond those reasons, Eells also looks at the text and its translation, tracking revealing slips of the pen or conscious choices at the root of Wilde’s work of art. Jacques Coulardeau then suggests a psychologically-based analysis of the text, showing how Salomé audibly, visibly, and therefore theatrically suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, through her need to touch, count and balance. Both articles refer to Strauss’s famous libretto in German, but Déborah Bonin studies another adaptation of Wilde’s play as an opera, which has remained in the shadow of that by Strauss, in spite of its necessary closeness to the original text as it is written in French. Through the analysis of the discrepancies and similarities between the two creations, by Wilde and by Mariotte, and also referring to Strauss’s libretto as well as other versions of the myth of Salomé when relevant, Bonin sheds light on Wilde’s text, underlining telling intertextual references and self-references which put the emphasis, among other recurrent themes, on the obsession of Wilde for Eros and Thanatos, Love and Death. Those themes were already present in The Portrait of Dorian Gray, “this son of love and death”7 and tales, such as “The Nightingale and the Rose,” or stories, such as “The Canterville Ghost”. Bonin traces back those references to Mirbeau’s disconcerting novel Le Jardin des Supplices, and further back to the Song of Solomon. Atsuko Ogane also points out the multiple influences and references to be found behind Wilde’s Salomé, concentrating on the episode of the Dance of the Seven Veils. She chronologically explores the various adaptations of the biblical myth, starting with Flaubert’s tale “Hérodias,” as well as Mallarmé’s poem “Hérodiade” and Pierre Louÿs’s poem “La danse”. We may here remember that Wilde dedicated his play to Louÿs. This leads her to much more recent adaptations, with a constant interplay of references to the moon and to the sun. The same themes can be found here, that had already been developed in the first part of the collection, with Wilde’s play on duality through the various couples, set in opposition to each other in all those versions, and the use of the mirror revealing Salomé’s body, multiplying and changing sexes at will. Interestingly, the choices made by contemporary stage directors or writers in their adaptations of Salomé were all to be found in Wilde’s original text, as well as the illustrations that accompanied the first English edition of the play. Indeed Aubrey Beardsley’s drawings constantly play with androgynous characters, for instance “A Platonic Lament”8 where the Page, lamenting the death of the Young Syrian, seems sexless. Wilde himself was at first dissatisfied with Beardsley’s illustrations, reproaching him with a Japanese style which didn’t fit the Byzantine atmosphere he was trying to conjure up: “My Salomé is a mystic, the sister of Salammbô, a Sainte Thérèse who worships the moon.”9 He may also have been angry at what have been read as caricatures of himself for instance in “The Woman in the moon”10 (see also Emily Eells’s discussion of another caricature of Wilde by Beardsley, “Oscar Wilde at Work”).

  • 11 Kerry Powell, Oscar Wilde and the Theatre of the 1890s, p. 7.

11Interestingly, Wilde was thus arguing against a Japanese atmosphere for his play, while Dallas McCurley decided to rely on the Japanese theatrical genre of the Kabuki to present an adaptation of Salomé in New York in October 2000. She recounts her experience as well as the reflections which led her to this creation in the last article of this collection, which thus offers a more technical analysis of the play, concentrating as much on Wilde’s own vision of what Salomé should be, as on what the author of the article knows of Kabuki style. Indeed, bearing in mind the fact that Oscar Wilde wrote the role of Salomé for the actress Sarah Bernhardt, famous for her “monotonous, one-note chanting,”11 the choice of Kabuki seems more than justified.

12Once more we can find telling parallels, as this theatrical experiment was the occasion to contemplate the propriety of having a narrator opening the play with scene-setting remarks, and then coming at various points to set the mood and atmosphere. This further recalls Mariotte’s own choice of having a choir representing the Jews in the central scene of the play. She also discusses the androgynous quality of the characters which was emphasized by Beardsley’s illustrations, having imagined casting a man for the role of Salomé. McCurley eventually describes the result of her work in words that would also accurately describe the various adaptations discussed in all articles of the collection: “not quite Wilde’s Salomé, not quite Kabuki, but not entirely foreign to either; a play of tensions, arising and subsisting in its hybrid aesthetic”.

13Indeed hybridity seems to be the key concept to help us understand Wilde’s theatre in all the contradictions and potentialities it offers, for readers, spectators and stage directors today.

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1 Oscar Wilde, The Decay of Lying, Complete Works of Oscar Wilde [1948], Glasgow: Harper Collins, 2003, p. 1082.

2 Lou Ferreira, L’ombre d’Oscar Wilde, Paris: Elzévir, 2010.

3 Kerry Powell, Oscar Wilde and the Theatre of the 1890s, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

4 Liliane Louvel, Oscar Wilde, le double miroir de l’art, Paris: Ellipses, 2000.

5 Christopher Craft, Another Kind of Love: Male Homosexual Desire in English Discourse, Berkeley, Los Angeles, Londres, U. of California Press, 1994.

6 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Kafka: Pour une littérature mineure, Paris, Éditions de Minuit, 1975.

7 Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, London: Penguin, 2003, p. 38.

8 Oscar Wilde, Salomé, Toulouse: Petite Bibliothèque Ombres, 1996, p. 39. We can also consider here Beardsley’s conscious choice of the adjective “platonic” with its ambivalent innuendoes.

9 Richard Ellman, Oscar Wilde, New York: Vintage Books, 1987, p. 355.

10 Ian Fletcher, Aubrey Beardsley, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987.

11 Kerry Powell, Oscar Wilde and the Theatre of the 1890s, p. 7.

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Marianne Drugeon, « Introduction », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 72 Automne | 2010, 13-20.

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Marianne Drugeon, « Introduction », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 72 Automne | 2010, mis en ligne le 21 juin 2016, consulté le 06 décembre 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/cve.2713

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Marianne Drugeon

Université Montpellier III

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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