Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900) was a popular Irish writer during the 1890s. A gifted student, he achieved great success in writing plays, poetry and novels, including The Picture of Dorian Gray. The Importance of Being Earnest was highly anticipated at the time, with many seeing it as the peak of his career, and even the Prince of Wales attending on the opening night. Though married with two sons, a series of trials against Wilde shortly after the opening of his play exposed Wilde’s homosexuality, leading him to be imprisoned for 2 years for ‘gross indecency’. He was then forced to live abroad until his death due to being rejected by British society.
Wilde lived during the Victorian Era, a time where individuals went to great lengths to ensure they maintained a respectable reputation in society. It was common for members of society to lead an almost double life, where their outward appearances exposed nothing of their secret desires and sins they displayed indoors. Religion dominated the social spheres, underpinning many of the beliefs and attitudes of the 1800s. Attending the theatre was a common form of entertainment for the upper classes to be involved in, making Wilde’s presence there notable for his success. Gambling in casinos also became a widely popular pastime which caused great controversy.
When The Importance of Being Earnest was first performed in 1895, contemporary critics were wary that the play did not tackle serious social and political issues, but did recognise the cleverness and humour in the play and acknowledged its popularity amongst the theatre goers. This seemingly mostly positive review of Wilde’s work was not sustained, as only 86 nights after it first opened, the play was closed down due to the trials Wilde faced in court regarding his homosexuality. Since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967, there has been an increased interest and awareness of the play and its historical context.
Gender and Class
The Victorian Era was known for its strong focus on the family as the centre of one’s life, regardless of class. There came about a distinct separation of ‘spheres’ in a person’s world, the public sphere and the private sphere. Largely, men would participate in the public sphere, consisting of politics and paid work, whilst women remained in the private sphere, with the children, taking care of the household and sustaining the family reputation. Wilde stereotypes these roles through his characters in The Importance of Being Earnest, intentionally depicting them as such in order to mock societal expectations of gender and class.
Wilde was greatly influenced by the intellectual and artistic movement known as Aestheticism. It is a philosophy that broadly believes in and celebrates ‘art for art’s sake’, where, instead of focusing on any deeper meaning in the artwork, appreciating its beauty as it is. Wilde’s following of this movement led to his reputation of being a flamboyant, eccentric and even vain individual in society. He advocated the view that art should be valued for its beauty alone and not have a positive moral influence like many Victorians believed. His beliefs in Aestheticism were particularly demonstrated in his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.
- What were the people of the Victorian Era most concerned about?
- Your answer should include: Reputation / Sustaining / Respectability / Keeping / Secret / Desires / Hidden
- How many performances did The Importance of Being Earnest run for and why?
- Your answer should include: 86 / Nights / Trials / Homosexuality / Wilde / Exposure / Gross / Indecency
- How does Wilde use gender and class to create humour in The Importance of Being Earnest? (six lines)
- Your answer should include: Stereotypes / Public / Private / Sphere / Men / Women / Reputation / Mocking / Societal / Expectations