I dislike arguments of any kind. They are always vulgar, and often convincing.

Importance of Being Earnest

This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.

CHASUBLE: What do you think this means, Lady Bracknell?

LADY BRACKNELL: I dare not even suspect, Dr. Chasuble. I need hardly tell you that in families of high position strange coincidences are not supposed to occur. They are hardly considered the thing.

(Noises heard overhead as if some one was throwing trunks about. Every one looks up.)

CECILY: Uncle Jack seems strangely agitated.

CHASUBLE: Your guardian has a very emotional nature.

LADY BRACKNELL: This noise is extremely unpleasant. It sounds as if he was having an argument. I dislike arguments of any kind. They are always vulgar, and often convincing.

CHASUBLE: (Looking up.) It has stopped now. (The noise is redoubled.)

LADY BRACKNELL: I wish he would arrive at some conclusion.

GWENDOLEN: This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.

(Enter Jack with a hand-bag of black leather in his hand.)

JACK: (Rushing over to Miss Prism.) Is this the hand-bag, Miss Prism? Examine it carefully before you speak. The happiness of more than one life depends on your answer.

MISS PRISM: (Calmly.) It seems to be mine. Yes, here is the injury it received through the upsetting of a Gower Street omnibus in younger and happier days. Here is the stain on the lining caused by the explosion of a temperance beverage, an incident that occurred at Leamington. And here, on the lock, are my initials. I had forgotten that in an extravagant mood I had had them placed there. The bag is undoubtedly mine. I am delighted to have it so unexpectedly restored to me. It has been a great inconvenience being without it all these years.

JACK: (In a pathetic voice.) Miss Prism, more is restored to you than this hand-bag. I was the baby you placed in it.

by Oscar Wilde (16 October 1854 – 30 November 1900)
from The Importance of being Earnest (1895)
Act III
image – Kurt Magoon

Oscar Wilde – too Fast to Live, too Young to Die

The Importance of Being Earnest is a comedy, meant to poke fun at late Victorian social conventions. The play continues to be performed today. Its premier in 1895 was a popular success, before performances were shut down because of Wilde’s increasing notoriety.

The short version is that Oscar Wilde was about to be put in prison for homosexuality – “Gross Indecency.” The long version wouldn’t put him in prison for “homosexuality” today, though his lover Alfred’s wild ways would probably still get both of them arrested for hiring prostitutes.

Oscar Wilde was famous for witty verbal jousting that pushed boundaries, and extravagant living that ranged from more-or-less tasteful to decadent, as he gave increasingly lavish gifts to appealing young men. He wasn’t especially good at reining himself in, and Alfred was worse. Under the influence of Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde went from flamboyant to flagrant, insulting the sensibilities of many, especially Douglas’s powerful father. Disaster was an inevitable part of being in a close relationship with someone as reckless, self-serving and erratic as Alfred Douglas, especially in a time when homosexuality itself was a crime.

The added dynamic of Douglas’s feuding with his enraged father brought in the law.

1895 was a big year for Wilde. The Importance of Being Earnest was his last big hurrah, opening to enthusiastic audiences on February 14th. He was in court on April 3rd, unsuccessfully charging Alfred’s father with libel. Wilde found himself on trial on April 26th, leading to a conviction on May 25th for “Gross Indecency,” for which he was sentenced to two years’ hard labor.

After his release, Oscar Wilde was physically and psychologically broken. He died less than three years later, at the age of 46.

If you like reading collected letters, The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde is an education. The last few years are hard to read; Wilde was paranoid and drifty. Previous years show a social, exuberant man who was in love with the creative arts.

I think Oscar Wilde would be chagrined that he’s still known for being flamboyant and gay – focusing on what fed his personal reputation, instead of his art. I’ll bet he’d like that we still laugh at his jokes, but he’d be truly delighted that those jokes still make us think.

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