The Importance of Being Earnest

Oscar Wilde

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Oscar Wilde | Biography


Born in Dublin, Ireland, on October 16, 1854, Oscar Wilde lived a brief but turbulent life. His wit and talent brought him fame and admiration; however, his flamboyance and defiance of socially accepted behavior brought him ruin.

Wilde came from a well-respected family. His father, a doctor, was eventually knighted; his mother was an accomplished poet and linguist. Wilde studied Greek and Latin and excelled in both. After attending Trinity College Dublin and then Oxford, to which he had won a scholarship, Wilde moved to London. He published his first poetry collection in 1881 and toured the United States in 1882, giving some 140 lectures and meeting American authors, among them Walt Whitman and Henry James. In London Wilde devoted much of his time to literary pursuits. He continued to write poetry and edited the magazine The Lady's World. He published his own fairy tales and wrote fiction, criticism, and plays. These three genres made his reputation. His novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (published in Lippincott's Monthly in 1890, then in an expanded book form in 1891) mixed social critique with dark fantasy. His essays "The Critic as Artist" and "The Decay of Lying" go furthest in expressing Wilde's artistic philosophy, which elevates artifice and beauty above truth and reality.

His earliest plays were tragedies and were not well received. Wilde became much more successful when he turned to writing comedies. The first of these, Lady Windermere's Fan (1892), was Wilde's first truly popular play. Like The Importance of Being Earnest, it uses a number of conventions common to period drama, such as a case of mistaken identity and a child who is returned to its rightful parents. The second, A Woman of No Importance (1893), was a satire of the English upper class written specifically to build on the success of Lady Windermere's Fan. Both plays derived their power and humor mainly from the witty lines Wilde wrote for the various characters rather than from the originality of plot or situation.

In 1894 Wilde was living in London when he decided he and his wife, Constance Lloyd, whom he married in 1884, and their two sons needed a vacation. They spent weeks by the sea in West Sussex, where Wilde wrote The Importance of Being Earnest. This comedy shared a number of structural elements with his earlier works, such as character types and hidden secrets. The Importance of Being Earnest was much lighter in tone, however, and, on its surface, more farcical. The play opened on February 14, 1895. The audience loved the play, but because his unconventional personal life was intruding on his professional life, Wilde refused to take a bow after the premiere. In fact he was trying to avoid the Marquis of Queensberry, who wanted to confront Wilde over his affair with the marquis's son, Lord Alfred Douglas. The play closed after 86 performances.

Though Wilde was married and had children, his homosexual relationships—illegal at the time—ultimately played a larger role in shaping his life. The marquis made Wilde's homosexuality public, and Wilde sued him for libel. This action proved disastrous for Wilde. Considerable evidence of Wilde's homosexuality was publicized, and the libel suit was dismissed. Wilde was put on trial and sent to prison for two years for "gross indecency" starting May 25, 1895. When he got out, Wilde had lost his health, money, and artistic focus. He wrote very little and died on November 30, 1900.

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