Opening Passages: I'll just take one from the tragedies and one from the comedies (ignoring stage directions), and then De Profundis. From Salomé:
THE YOUNG SYRIAN: How beautiful is the Princess Salomé tonight!
THE PAGE OF HERODIAS: Look at the moon! How strange the moon seems! She is like a woman rising from a tomb. She is like a dead woman. You would fancy she was looking for dead things.
From The Importance of Being Earnest:
ALGERNON: Did you hear what I was playing, Lane?
LANE: I didn't think it polite to listen, sir.
ALGERNON: I'm sorry for that, for your sake. I don't play accurately -- anyone can play accurately -- but I play with wonderful expression. As far as the piano is concerned, sentiment is my forte. I keep science for life.
From De Profundis:
H. M. Prison,
Dear Bosie,--After long and fruitless waiting I have determined to write to you myself, as much for your sake as for mine, as I would not like to think that I had passed through two long years of imprisonment without ever having received a single line from you, or any news or message even, except such as gave me pain.
Summary: In Wilde's first play, Vera, or, The Nihilists, Vera (loosely inspired by the Russian revolutionary Vera Ivanovna Zasulich) becomes deeply involved in the plots against the Czar after the death of her brother due to the Czar's men. She becomes involved with another conspirator, Alexis, who turns out to be himself the son of the Czar. When the Czar is in fact killed, Alexis ascends to the throne, thus violating his oath as a nihilist, and Vera, as the nihilists' best assassin has the mission to assassinate him.
The Duchess of Padua is much more melodramatic, but also revolves around an assassination plot. Guido Ferranti is seeking vengeance against Simone Gesso, the Duke of Padua, a rather nasty and malicious man. In attempting to infiltrate the Duke's inner circle, however, he falls in love with Beatrice, the Duchess of Padua. She returns his love, and Guido decides not to kill the Duke, but when Beatrice herself kills him, this will lead to a terrible estrangement that will lead only to death. The play is fast-moving, but suffers from the fact that everybody's motivations change every few pages. The shifts make sense in the abstract, but it's a lot of whiplash in a relatively short space.
In Salomé, the title character has an intense sexual desire for the prophet Iokanaan, who, however, is wholly devoted to his holy mission. Iokanaan is feared and admired by Herod, but hated by Herod's wife Herodias due to Iokanaan's condemnations of their relationship and of Herodias herself. This is only background, however; the focus is on Salomé herself, who will use the skill and beauty of her dance to have Iokanaan's head. The tale, of course, is that of the death of John the Baptist; Wilde's is a rather fanciful take. But it's perhaps the preeminent example of how Wilde approaches his plays; all of his plays are more like paintings or tableaux than like dramas. They are moving pictures, and have something of the structure of a painting. In the case of the tragedies, and this is especially true of Salomé, it is a very lush and textured depiction; in the case of the comedies, it is light in stroke and brush. As Wilde himself somewhere says, he likes his comedies modern and his tragedies robed in purple. Salomé thus works mostly as a dramatic poem depicting twisted desire, desire pitched to the point of a sort of lunatic madness.
Lady Windermere's Fan, A Play About a Good Woman depicts the marriage of Lord and Lady Windermere; but it goes wrong when Lady Windermere discovers that her husband has been spending large sums of money on another woman, Mrs. Erlynne, and this comes to a crisis when Lord Windermere insists that Lady Windermere should invite Mrs. Erlynne to a party, and, after her refusal, invites her himself. Mrs. Erlynne is indeed a coldly mercenary woman of the world, but there is one thing about her that Lady Windermere does not know; it does not make Mrs. Erlynne any less cold and worldly, but it makes her role in all these matters take a very different light.
A Woman of No Importance is something of an ensemble play; while there is a definite storyline, the play lets it build piecemeal through the actions of the characters rather than subordinating their actions to building the storyline. Briefly, Lord Illingworth, something of a lady's man, comes across a woman at a party, Mrs. Arbuthnot, and they discover that they both know each other. Lord Illingworth tries to take on her son, Gerald, as his secretary, but she opposes it; there is a secret in Mrs. Arbuthnot's past, one of those past secrets that by its nature does not stay in the past but always continues on into the present.
In An Ideal Husband, Sir Robert Chilton and his wife, Lady Chilton, are happily married; he is, indeed, an ideal husband, whose unimpeachable integrity Lady Chilton takes to be the cornerstone of their marriage. But he has a secret in his past -- one of those that tends to come back to haunt; when he was very young, he made his fortune by an unethical act violating a position of public trust. Chilton will be blackmailed, and it will strain their marriage to a breaking point, and it will only be by luck and the hard work of a friend that it will survive.
The Importance of Being Earnest, of course, is the most famous of Wilde's comedies; interestingly, it was early on one of those plays that the public liked but the critics thought a mixed bag; it's triviality was seen as being almost too ruthlessly trivial. Jack Worthing is engaged to Gwendolen, who thinks, however, that his name is Ernest -- she has always wanted to marry a man named Ernest. His friend, Algernon Macrieff, discovers his secret: Worthing is known as Jack in the country, where he is in charge of Cecily Cardew, but escapes to the city on occasion on the pretense that he has a rather libertine brother named Ernest there, and in the city, he is Ernest. Macrieff, who does the same to escape into the country, hatches a scheme to visit Worthing's estate and meet his ward, which he does under the name 'Ernest'. He and Cecily hit it off quite well, especially since she likes the name 'Ernest'. The schemes, of course, will be discovered, and there will have to be some quick thinking, and a lot of good fortune, to get out of the problem.
I also had a chance to listen to The Importance of Being Earnest episode from the radio show Favorite Story. Hosted by Ronald Colman, the gimmick of the series was that every week some notable figure in cinema or theater would pick a story to be presented. When they asked Margaret Webster, one of the great theater directors of the twentieth century, especially famous for her Shakespearean work, she picked this play as her favorite story.
The episode is only a bit more than twenty-five minutes long, so it is very heavily abridged, but it holds up to abridgement quite well. There are a few parts that are greatly missed though; in particular, we don't have the best scene in the play, the sweetly venomous showdown between Cecily and Gwendolen over tea and cake. But it is quite well done.
We also have two fragments, La Sainte Courtesaine and A Florentine Tragedy; as they stand, they are less dramatic pieces than poetic pieces with dramatic elements. The former depicts a Christian hermit, Honorius, who is tempted by the pagan Myrrhina; in the course of their interaction, Myrrhina converts to Christian asceticism and Honorius to pagan pursuit of pleasure. In the latter a husband and wife have lost interest in each other, but discovers a new interest when he finds his wife in the arms of another man; there is a duel, which ends up sparking the wife's interest in her husband again.
All of Wilde's comedies have an affectation of frivolousness, but in fact Wilde is able to make them so comic in part because certain moral principles in the background remain constant no matter how foolish, how sinful, or how trivial men and women turn out to be. In particular, they stress that the goodness of all good people is partly social presentation, and the badness partly social recoil, and that all good people have blemishes and all bad people may have an element that makes them at least not intolerable, and on which point they may excel those with a better representation. Our sins find us all out; so we only harm ourselves when we refuse to forgive.
Of the complete plays, the tragedies all have to do with assassinations and the comedies all have to do with marriage in one way or another, which is certainly classical. But despite the sharp stylistic differences, there is perhaps more in common between a marriage and an assassination plot than might at first leap to the eye. Assassination plots are conspiracies of many; engagements and marriages and adulteries are all themselves conspiracies of two. Successful assassination conspiracies aim at freedom from an oppressor, or some such; marriage conspiracies are also aiming at a kind of freedom, one based on love rather than politics. But they both can get twisted quite up, to general disaster. The real link, of course, is that Wilde sees the real interest in human affairs not to be the style and fashion for which he is famous but the relation of person to person, concrete, particular, and sometimes very, very personal.
We find both of these themes, forgiveness and the emphasis on person to person interaction, in his long letter to Douglas from prison, which was published as De Profundis (the title was given to it by his executor, Robbie Ross). If anything, Wilde's career is a narrowing down to these themes, both coming to a bright, sharp point due to his time in prison. In the first part of the letter, Wilde recounts various facets of his relationship with Douglas, and it becomes clear as it goes on that much of the problem in the relationship he sees as summed up in a comment Douglas made to him when he was sick: "When you are not on your pedestal, you are not interesting." The letter can in fact be seen as an argument that this is fundamentally shallow and wrong: off their pedestals, people are more intensely and purely themselves, and only insofar as they are themselves are people interesting. The accusations against Douglas can sometimes seem like nothing more than an anguished rant, but there is more going on here; by recounting Douglas's faults and failings, he is showing the shallowness of Douglas's view. Douglas is a sentimentalist -- he does not see people as people, but only as experiences. But Wilde even at his most superficial was always motivated by something deeper, which is inimical to sentimentalism, namely, Art, and his tribulations have intensified this into something that covers the whole of his life.
This leads into the second part of the letter, which is primarily concerned with two related themes: Christ as the summation in one person of the whole of romantic art and approach to life, and the relation of the life of art to conduct. Christ, of course, represents the very opposite of Douglas's comment: Jesus was deeply interested in the poor and sick, and he pitied the rich people on their pedestals, and he saw people as people, not as things for the purpose of entertainment or anything else. Wilde conceives this aspect of the life of Christ artistically. It expressed a vividness of imagination that could see the interest of people off their pedestals. An artist brings out the interest of a medium, but Christ's medium as an artist was people themselves, and he brought out the beauty in their lives, even if they were grave sinners. Likewise, the life of art is one that requires learning how to face oneself, one's true self rather than the masked presentation on pedestal. With this Wilde returns to Douglas, forgiving him for his failings, at least as best he can, and asking him to write -- so that they can finally and really begin to know each other.
Favorite Passages: There are obviously quite a few quotable passages; just a selection here. From The Duchess of Padua:
DUCHESS: Oh, I have been
Guilty beyond all women, and indeed,
Beyond all women punished. Do you think --
No, that could not be -- Oh, do you think that love
Can wipe the bloody stain from off my hands,
Pour balm into my wounds, heal up my hurts,
And wash my scarlet sins as white as snow?
For I have sinned.
GUIDO: They do not sin at all
Who sin for love.
DUCHESS: No, I have sinned, and yet
Perchance my sin will be forgiven me.
I have loved much.
From The Importance of Being Earnest:
CECILY (sweetly): Sugar?
GWENDOLEN (superciliously): No, thank you. Sugar is not fashionable any more.
CECILY looks angrily at her, takes up the tongs, and puts four lumps of sugar into the cup.
CECILY (severely): Cake or bread and butter?
GWENDOLEN (in a bored manner): Bread and butter, please. Cake is rarely seen at the best houses nowadays.
CECILY (cuts a very large slice of cake and puts it on the tray): Hand that to Miss Fairfax.
From De Profundis:
I bore up against everything with some stubbornness of will and much rebellion of nature, till I had absolutely nothing left in the world but one thing. I had lost my name, my position, my happiness, my freedom, my wealth. I was a prisoner and a pauper. But I still had my children left. Suddenly they were taken away from me by the law. It was a blow so appalling that I did not know what to do, so I flung myself on my knees, and bowed my head, and wept, and said, 'The body of a child is as the body of the Lord: I am not worthy of either.' That moment seemed to save me. I saw then that the only thing for me was to accept everything. Since then -- curious as it will no doubt sound -- I have been happier. It was of course my soul in its ultimate essence that I had reached. In many ways I had been its enemy, but I found it waiting from me as a friend. When one comes in contact with the soul it makes one simple as a child, as Christ said one should be.
It is tragic how few people ever 'possess their souls' before they die. 'Nothing is more rare in any man,' says Emerson, 'than an act of his own.' It is quite true. Most people are other people. Their thoughts are some one else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation....
Recommendation: The tragedies are Recommended, and the comedies and De Profundis (which I found more profound than I expected under the circumstances) Highly Recommended.