Born: October 16th, 1854
Died: November 30th, 1900
Although his given name was Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills, most lovers of his plays, fiction, and essays know him as Oscar Wilde. Born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, his father was an esteemed surgeon. His father’s career and Oscar’s scholarships enabled the young man to attain an impressive college education:
- Trinity College, Dublin (1871 – 1874)
- Magdalen College, Oxford (1874 – 1878)
During his college years, he became part of the “Oxford Movement,” a group that expounded upon the virtues of classical culture and artistry. Also during his studies, Wilde became a devotee of the school of aestheticism, the belief that art should be created for the sake of beauty and not as a lesson in ethics. (In other words, he believed in “art for the sake of art”).
Throughout his college days, he exhibited a cunning wit and a love of attention. This increased when he moved to London in 1878. His first plays (Vera and The Duchess of Padua) were tragedies (not simply because they were depressing but also because they were dismal failures).
Scholars often debate the sexual identity of Oscar Wilde, labeling him either homosexual or bisexual. Biographers indicate that he had physical relationships with other males as early as age 16. However, in 1884 he married wealthy heiress Constance Lloyd. Thanks to her father’s fortune, Wilde was freed from economic concerns, and he focused more on his creative endeavors. By 1886 Oscar and Constance had two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan. Despite his seemingly idealistic family dynamic, Wilde still loved being a celebrity – and still loved the decadent parties and homosexual affairs which his social status afforded.
His greatest successes occurred when he began writing comedies for the stage:
Lady Windermere’s Fan:
A stormy and amusing four act comedy about an adulterous husband and a wife that decides that two can play at this game. What begins as a tale of romantic hi-jinks and amorous revenge turns into a tale with an unusual moral for its time:
LADY WINDERMERE: There is the same world for all of us, and good and evil, sin and innocence, go through it hand in hand. To shut one’s eyes to half of life that one may live securely is as though one blinded oneself that one might walk with more safety in a land of pit and precipice.
The play ends with the reconciliation of both the philandering husband and errant wife, with the agreement to keep their past affairs a secret.
An Ideal Husband:
A delightful comedy of manners about a lovably roguish bachelor who learns about honor, and his highly honorable friends who learn that the are not as righteous as they feign to be. In addition to the romantic aspects of this comedy, An Ideal Husband offers a critical look at a woman’s capacity for love in contrast with a man’s capacity. For more on this subject, read Wilde’s monologue spoken by the character Sir Robert Chiltern.
The Importance of Being Earnest:
One of Oscar Wilde’s more boastful quotes about himself happened when the famous author was visiting America. A New York customs officer asked if he had any goods to declare. Wilde replied, “No, I have nothing to declare (pause) except my genius.” If Wilde was justifed in such self-love it is perhaps because of his most acclaimed play, The Importance of Being Earnest. Of all the plays, this is the most merry, and perhaps the most balanced with witty dialogue, romantic misunderstandings, and laughter-inducing coincidences.
Oscar Wilde on Trial:
Sadly, Wilde’s life did not end in the manner of his “drawing room comedies.” Oscar Wilde had an intimate relationship with Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas, a considerably younger gentleman. Douglas’ father, the Marquis of Queensbury, publicly accused Wilde of sodomy. In response, Oscar Wilde took the Marquis to court, charging him with criminal libel.
The attempt at justice backfired, however. During the course of the trial, Wilde’s various sexual relationships were exposed. These details, and the defense’s threat of bringing male prostitutes to the stand, prompted Wilde to drop the case. Soon afterwards, Oscar Wilde was arrested on the charge of “gross indecency."
Oscar Wilde’s Death:
The playwright received the harshest penalty afforded by law for such a crime. The judge sentenced Wilde to two years of hard labor in Reading Prison. Afterwards, his creative energy waned. Although he did write the famous poem, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” his career as London’s celebrated playwright had come to an abrupt end. He lived in a hotel in Paris, adopting the assumed name, Sebastian Melmoth. Most of his friends no longer associated with Wilde. Afflicted with cerebral meningitis, he died three years after his prison term, impoverished. One friend, Reginald Turner, remained loyal. He was there by Wilde’s side when the playwright passed away.
Rumor has it that Wilde’s last words were: “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do.”