restricted access Oscar Wilde and his First Comedy
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OSCAR WILDE AND HIS FIRST COMEDY IT IS NOT EASY, IT SEEMS, to find out how Oscar Wilde was launched on his brief career as a comic playwright. Wilde himself said that he wrote plays "to please myself."l William Rothenstein supports this view by saying that in writing plays Wilde was "making legitimate use of the artifice which was, in fact, natural to him."2 P. P. Howe also finds that "it is easy to see that a writer ... the best of whose work had always the quality of good conversation, would turn to the theater to hear, as it were, his own voice."3 G. ]. Renier asserts that Lady Windermere's Fan was brought forth by Wilde "out of the abundance of his fancy and his verbal facility."4 George Rowell holds that "Wilde wanted a medium for his epigrams, and lazily chose the model most readily to hand [the problem play] ."5 Lynton Hudson, on the other hand, maintains that Wilde "turned to the theatre because he needed money."~ Archibald Henderson also agrees with Hudson and adds that it dawned upon Wilde that Tom Robertson, H. G. Byron, Sheridan and W. S. Gilbert were living factors in the English drama. "While little scope was allowed the creator of the higher forms of dramatic art," he says, "in the field of burlesque and farcical comedy the artist was allowed very great freedom in England. It was under the pressure of such convictions that Wilde sought a hazard of new fortunes."7 Arthur Ransome, however, thinks that "the spectacular effects of the theatre ... drew Wilde to the writing of plays."8 Boris Brasol believes that "the fiasco of his dramaturgic experiments" prompted Wilde to write his social comedies.9 According to Arthur Symons, "About the year 1891 the idea came to him that the abounding wit, which he had kept till then chiefly for the entertainment of his friends, would be turned quite naturally into a new kind of play."lO Nor is it easy to agree with Hesketh Pearson who says that "we cannot help feeling grateful to the censor, whose ban on Salome bore 1 Burgess (Gilbert): "A Talk with Mr. Oscar Wilde." The. Sketch, 9 January 1895. 495· 2 Rothenstein (William): "Genius in the Nineties." Atlantic Monthly, February 1931. CXLVII, 167. 3 Howe (P. P.); Dramatic Portraits (London, 1913), p. 97. 4 Renier (G. J.): Oscar Wilde (London, 1933), p. 71. 5 Rowell (George): The Victorian Theatre (London, 1956). p. 110. 6 Hudson (Lynton): The English Stage I850-I950 (London, 1951), p. 100. 7 Henderson (Archibald): "The Dramas of Oscar Wilde." The Arena, August 1907. XXXVIII. 137. 8 Ransome (Arthur): Oscar Wilde; A Critical Study (London, 1912). p. 132. 9 Brasol (Boris): Oscar Wilde; the Man-the Artist (London, 1938), p. 259. 1Q Symons (Arthur): A Study of Oscar Wilde (London. 1930). p. 72. 394 1968 WILDE'S FIRST COMEDY 395 unexpected fruit, for it turned Wilde's attention to modern comedy."l1 Wilde did not write his first comedy to recoup himself for his failure to get Salome produced. Strange as it may seem, the two aspects of Wilde's nature, the alive and charming spirit, and the gorgeous but corrupt fantasy, found their full expression during the period when Wilde began to write Lady Windermere's Fan, namely in 1891. This view can be supported by an interview accorded by Wilde to Jacques Daurelle and published by the latter on 6 December 1891 in Echo de Paris. Daurelle concluded his article by saying that Un de ses amis a eu l'heureuse imprudence de me confier que Oscar Wilde avait ecrit pendant son sejour a Paris, une piecette en fran~ais: Salome. II publiera en outre dans quelques mois un volume de contes fantastiques: L'Auberges de Songes, et prochainement on jouera de lui, a Londres, un drame en quatre actes sur la vie moderne.12 At that date there cannot be the slightest doubt that the four-act comedy mentioned was Lady Windermere's Fan, and we can accordingly conclude that the piece was conceived and partly outlined during Wilde's stay in Paris. Furthermore, the fact that Lady Windermere's Fan was...