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«A thesis submitted to the Faculty of Arts of the University of Birmingham for the degree of DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY Department of English Faculty of ...»

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A thesis submitted to the Faculty of Arts

of the University of Birmingham

for the degree of


Department of English

Faculty of Arts

The University of Birmingham

March 1999

University of Birmingham Research Archive

e-theses repository

This unpublished thesis/dissertation is copyright of the author and/or third parties. The intellectual property rights of the author or third parties in respect of this work are as defined by The Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988 or as modified by any successor legislation.

Any use made of information contained in this thesis/dissertation must be in accordance with that legislation and must be properly acknowledged. Further distribution or reproduction in any format is prohibited without the permission of the copyright holder.

Abstract Oscar Wilde's plays on upper-class Victorian society are set apart from contemporary drama both by their wit and their reappraisal of conventions, particularly in dealing with transgressive women. The fallen woman's prominence in popular culture and the stage during a period of intense suffragism attests to woman's role as a touchstone of moral stability, contemporary plays viewing deviant women as threats to a man's world. Wilde mocks society's confinement of women, fallen or not, into prescribed roles and undercuts customary morality but fears self-determining women's disruptive power. A tool of perceiving this ambivalence is the self-fashioning dandy, who repudiates social constraints and yet foils transgressive women's attempts at self-fashioning. The surface mockery of conventional fears of female aspirations as threats to masculine orderliness conceals a greater fear of female autonomy as a threat to masculinity itself. This study locates the dramatic and moral urgency of Wilde's five major plays, Lady Windermere's Fan, A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband, The Importance of Being Earnest and Salome in this conflicting response to the feminine, which also determines his choice of theme and form both in his comedies of manners and symbolic drama.

[Approximately 80,000 words]


Preface 1 Chapter 1. Introduction: British Theatre of the Nineties and Wilde 5 Chapter 2. The Climate of Opinion 40 Chapter

–  –  –

The texts of Wilde's plays and other works used in this study are from The Works of Oscar Wilde (London: Methuen, 1908), except for Salome, the text of which is Lord Alfred Douglas' translation from the French in John Lane's Bodley Head edition (London, 1907). Following the orthography of this edition, the title is unaccented, while the name is accented. As these editions, like the early editions of all other plays cited, carry no line numbers, references are by page numbers in the editions used. Bibliographic entries are given for longer essays or articles by contemporary writers, but not for play reviews or unsigned articles included in the footnotes.

Preface Wilde's plays have been traditionally recognized as satires on his contemporary world of privileged men and women and the conventions by which they lived. His targets are not particular persons but the character types inhabiting the upper reaches of the world of late Victorian Britain and include all relationships, personal and social, the codes that govern them and the principles on which they were founded, especially those of gender identities and sexual conduct. The re-appraising imagination that informs Wilde's plays shapes itself most constantly around the idea of the feminine, which includes the way both men and women think about women's nature and function. Wilde's mockery analyses the conventionality of the idea in all its ramifications and setting it adrift from the security of received wisdom, invites redefinition. Wilde's work may thus be seen as fundamentally subversive, ranging from poking fun at minor follies to a sustained expose of hypocrisy of tragic proportions.

Because of this penetrating search for meaning in the social world as well as in the interior landscape of the individual, Wilde's work, both dramatic and non-dramatic, have come to be viewed as standing apart from run-of-the-mill Victorian self-reflection. Yet Wilde is far less of a maverick than he is often claimed to be. Looking closely at his themes, his plot-design and his stage technique, we find that he depended heavily upon the standards of the theatre for which he wrote. The peculiar force of Wilde's drama arises not from his rejection of contemporary theatre, its techniques and its ethos but from his ability to exploit its resources to engender a contrary reading of the world, especially of women's place in it.

It is not surprising that the growing critical awareness of the dynamic of this creative reversal should have encouraged a view of Wilde as a rebel against conventional morality.

But it remains to be seen whether his alternative stance warrants placing him so diametrically opposite late nineteenth century views of women as to discover in him a proto-feminist. While confirming Wilde's rebel status, the present study probes further into the nuances of his concept of women. Taking note of the climate of ideas into which he was born and measuring his indebtedness to the theatre tradition of his time, this study examines Wilde's systematic undercutting of his contemporary ideology of the feminine.

In the process, however, it discovers a paradox on a deeper level of idea formation in Wilde's representation of women: while Wilde mocks his society's confinement of women into prescribed roles, he also fears the disruptive power of women's self-determination.

Regressing through the gender identities and relations that Wilde dramatizes, we discover a constant tension between the assertion of women's autonomy and fear of women's ascendancy over men. We may therefore locate the dramatic and moral urgency of Wilde's plays in a deep-rooted conflict in his response to the idea of women which determines his choice as much of the themes as the forms of his plays, extending from the society comedy of manners to symbolic drama.

This study begins with two related surveys, chapters 1 and 2, the first taking note of the state of the British stage in the 1890s and of major critical approaches to Wilde.

Chapter 2 summarizes contemporary ideas about women, family and social organization, gender relations and sexual morality, set off against the burgeoning rebellion of a new generation of women against these ideas. The discussion of the individual plays and critical responses to them begins in chapter 3 with Lady Windermere's Fan, which argues that in this play Wilde redesigns the formula of the fallen woman not only by making her a mother but an unrepentant one. While this reversal of a formula compels the viewer to rethink conventional certitudes such as motherhood and womanly virtue, it still places at the root of potential social disorder women's attempts, idealistic as well as selfish, to assume authority over male domains. The next chapter, on A Woman of No Importance, shows how the fallen mother reappears in yet another unusual incarnation, creating the double paradox that the fallen woman is the most virtuous and the best mother the most harmful.

Demolishing the conventional constructions of good and bad, Wilde shows how vague labels and legends can be and questions whether it is the brutally self-serving man or the joyless good woman who has the greatest potential for disrupting lives. In An Ideal Husband, the subject of the chapter 5, we see the emergence of the Wildean dandy in his full powers. This chapter shows how by using the dandy's vantage point of detachment, Wilde plays with the familiar figures and motivations of the adventuress, the man with a past, the devoted wife and the selfless friend, in this case, the dandy, to uncover the harm that women's greed as much as rigid idealism can do to a world already weakened by foolish and corrupt men's sins. Chapter 6 finds in Wilde's best-loved play, The Importance of Being Earnest, also his subtlest treatment of plot and character conventions and his most productive ambiguity about conventional thinking and its exposure. All narrative patterns are turned inside out and all positions of status overturned, including the commanding detachment of the dandy, to create a carnival world. In that world women hold the power over men's fate, including that of providing empowering information, but the potential for disruption of social order is eventually lost to conformity with the comic tradition of ending the action with weddings.

The last chapter on the plays considers Salome, perhaps Wilde's most ambitious venture in its symbolist dimensions. One finds in it the reiteration of patterns of action and character from the society plays, such as the high-born lady and the seductress, but this familiarity only emphasizes the alienness of the hidden impulses behind human action, especially the dark power of femininity. This chapter studies the encounter between the familiar and the mysterious in the play as Wilde's demonstration that only through the symbolic reading of the familiar may one enter the rationally unchartable territories of human nature. The critical inferences reached in the discussion of the plays are gathered in the concluding chapter of the dissertation, which returns to the question of Wilde's uncertain location between tradition and individuality, arguing that this ambivalence explains both his enduring interest for students of British drama and his popular image as no more than a brilliant but insubstantial commentator on manners. On the contrary, the present study finds in his ambivalence a literary strategy for a sustained examination of the world. On this basis it asserts that Wilde's reading of that world is unified by a persistent anxiety over women's potential for unravelling human and social relationships to a degree far beyond the disruptive powers of the transgressive woman defined in the light of conventional and conservative thought.

Chapter 1

Introduction: British Theatre of the Nineties and Wilde Oscar Wilde's plays appeared towards the end of a century that had gained a reputation for poor quality theatre. "Melodrama!" with all its associations of simplistic morals, lack of depth and cheap effects is the usual term that blankets all drama of the century, whether warranted or not. The traditional critical attitude is that by the last decade of the nineteenth century, with the infusion of a fresh and foreign spirit in the person of the Norwegian Ibsen and his promoters, English theatre grudgingly began to inch away from the posturing of melodrama and towards the honesty of realism. But these are large terms that resist simple definitions as categories, and an easy mistake would be to draw fixed boundaries between categories or to define categories loosely. Paradoxically, it is important both to define categories clearly and to allow for crossovers between them.

Wilde's plays manage to assimilate the attributes, both formal and material, from a wide range of styles, practices and genres, from drama, fiction and lyric, into finely nuanced theatre events. They act upon viewers and readers on many more levels than the plays of his contemporaries except for the work of Bernard Shaw. However successful other major playwrights of the age might have been in their own time, they have failed to draw the attention of posterity as Wilde continues to do. But while it is a commonplace to think of Wilde as an original who stood out from his contemporaries by virtue of both style and substance, it is also necessary to think of him as a product of his age. In the course of this study his debt to the theatre he helped change will be continually noticed. It is therefore useful to keep the salient facts of British theatre history clearly in mind.

The nineteenth century began with the dramatic tradition of England barely surviving and ended with the theatre hugely popular and artistically varied. By Wilde's time drama as an occupation and the theatre as a profession had undergone enormous changes largely due to unprecedented alterations in England's social, political and economic life but also due to forces implicit in the nation's cultural and ideological past, advancing on the strength, for instance, both of the rationalist heritage of the Enlightenment and the enquiry into human emotional and spiritual identity during the Romantic revival. An important influence was England's long tradition of links with the literary world of Europe, particularly France, from which the British theatre regularly derived plot and character types. The most visible change in nineteenth century British theatre was its growth in size and status. Popular theatres such as the Adelphi and the Hippodrome were vast structures built to accommodate huge crowds while a prestigious West End theatre like the St. James's was deliberately made smaller to restrict it to select, fashionable audiences, but both kinds were run as complex commercial enterprises. Theatre management had become an art in itself. Drama as a profession had become lucrative after a long time and both playwrights and actors were on the way to gaining public eminence that would eventually lead to the twentieth century star culture. Extraordinary historical changes had taken place and were continuing, most notably Britain's political domination of the world and industrial growth. Of the complicated social consequences of the industrial and capitalist advancement of England, perhaps the most far-reaching was the spread of education, both practical and speculative, accelerated through the phenomenal growth of print culture. 1 Another vital cultural development was the establishment of culture as a discrete enterprise, particularly the evolution of entertainment as an industry fed by the increasing availability of disposable income.2 That the theatre would capture the market as the first level of popular entertainment was not surprising, nor that it would become an arena of debate on politics and morality.

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