- Wilde’s Play as a Novel
Christopher Nassaar made a significant contribution to the revival of Wilde scholarship in the 1970s with Into the Demon Universe (1974); now he "revisits" The Importance of Being Earnest by turning Wilde's play into a novel. The project began, he tells us, when he decided someone else's attempt to do the same was unsatisfying because the result didn't contain "the rest of Wilde's wit—all those [End Page 345] hilarious, sparkling statements and observations that made Wilde so attractive but did not find their way into Earnest." "To produce a work that would attract an audience in the 21st century as strongly as the original does," he concluded, the play "had to be expanded and rewritten as well" (v). Nassaar does the expanding largely by "taking witty statements from Wilde's other works and weaving them into the fabric of the play" (vi), though as he alerts us, he also invents material himself, as well as borrowing from other Wilde-like sources, such as Humpty Dumpty.
This is a project done out of appreciation for Wilde—Nassaar offers it as a "way of saying 'Thank you!'" to Wilde for his genius (iii)—with the goal of transmitting Nassaar's pleasure in Wilde to his readers in turn. Nassaar's remark above about attracting a twenty-first-century audience suggests readers needing acquaintance with Wilde's genius, apparently a wider acquaintance than the play alone could provide. The book may well attract such readers and give them this acquaintance. I'll put this audience aside, however, since it's not the audience of this journal and ask instead how students of Wilde are likely to respond.
At first glance, these readers may take Nassaar's project as an instance of Wilde's view that criticism should be creative itself, that a critical response to a work of art should be another work of art. I don't believe, however, that the novel is finally what Gilbert in "The Critic as Artist" has in mind when he elaborates this view because of the actual experience someone familiar with Wilde will have reading the novel, one aspect of which is the sense of participating in a game. Nassaar says he has incorporated "most of Wilde's wit" (vi) into the novel's dialogue, and even if that's an overstatement, he certainly ranges widely, borrowing material not only from the obvious candidates, The Picture of Dorian Gray, the two critical dialogues, and the social comedies other than Earnest, but also from Salomé, the short stories and the fairy tales, among other works. Part of the pleasure of the novel is first noticing almost subliminally that there has been an addition and then trying to identify the source: oh, that's what Harry says in Dorian or Mabel in An Ideal Husband or Vivian in "The Decay of Lying." It's a pleasure similar to what I imagine are the challenges and satisfactions of doing an acrostic. I admit there are passages marked in my copy that I'm still puzzling over, but I did recognize Lady Bracknell quoting "The American Invasion," a piece of Wilde's journalism.
This aspect of the reader's experience (asking "Where's this from?") quickly passes into another: in Nassaar's terms, is it "woven into the [End Page 346] fabric of the play?" Does the new material really fit the speaker, fit the unfolding plot at this point, hold its own with the original wit of the play? The novel isn't a clear case of Gilbert's concept of creative criticism because these questions occupy so much of the reader's attention. One condition of creative criticism is that the critical work produced in response to the primary work of art be an artistic achievement in its own right. So Gilbert praises Pater's evocative meditation on La Gioconda while dismissing the question of whether what he sees in the painting corresponds to Leonardo's intention. Readers new to Wilde may read...