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224 WILDE AND IBSEN By Kerry Powell (Miami University) Oscar Wilde always insisted that his plays, despite their popularity, were misunderstood and miserably undervalued . He bristled when he was labeled "the English Sardou" by critics who saw his comedies mainly in terms of their likeness to Dora or Une chaîne or L'ami des femmes--and his resentment, although exaggerated, was not unjustified. Indeed when Punch caricatured Wilde leaning on a pedestal stacked high with volumes of French "well-made plays," it apparently left criticism with little to add. Although Wilde ranks among the three or four best comic dramatists in English since Shakespeare, only one book of criticism devoted exclusively to his plays has ever been published in English.1 A comedy as famous as A Woman of No Importance has never been the main subject of an article in a scholarly journal. For himself, however, Wilde certainly made claims that were larger than an "English Sardou" could live up to. With respect to contemporary dramatists, he actually felt less akin to Victorien Sardou than to Henrik Ibsen, whose iconoclastic plays became in 1889 the rage among London's avantgarde playgoers. He viewed himself as being not an imitator of Ibsen but his equal, working with the Norwegian on a level high above the swarming popular dramatists who gave London one adaptation from the French after another. Although Wilde hinted on occasion, his critics never flattered him with the epithet "the English Ibsen." In fact where Ibsen figures at all in discussions of Wilde's plays, it usually has been to provide the sharpest possible contrast to Wilde's aims and methods as a dramatist. The yoking of such an odd couple as Wilde and Ibsen seems at first to flout common sense as well as established opinion. "Wilde shows no point of contact with Ibsen as a dramatic artist," one well-known critic has observed; "indeed, they are opposite poles in the drama of the time."2 Ibsen wrote mainly tragedy; Wilde, comedy. Ibsen's plays are populated chiefly by middle-class people, Wilde's by aristocrats . Among Ibsen's humorless characters, prey to hereditary disease and madness, it is impossible to find any counterpart for Wilde's wits and dandies. The tense earnestness of Ghosts and Rosmersholm finds no echo in the flippant and funny dialogue of Wilde's productions. Upon Wilde, wrote his youthful admirer Vincent 0'Sullivan, there is "not the slightest sign" of Ibsen's influence; "his interest in foreign literature was practically confined to France."3 And the critic St. John Hankin remarked, several years after 225 Wilde's death: "In the age of Ibsen and Hauptmann, of Strindberg and Brieux, Wilde was content to construct like Sardou and think like Dumas fils."4 Certainly one cannot accept Wilde's claim that neither Sardou nor any other nineteenth-century dramatist "has ever in the smallest degree influenced me."5 E. H. Mikhail, in his study of Wilde's debt to French playwrights of the period , has shown just how fraudulent that boast was.6 Wilde's comedies follow the tradition of the pièce bien faite in providing a "seesaw of suspense and peripeteia" which is typically set in motion by various stage properties--fans, letters, jewelry. More than that, Wilde relies on French writers very frequently to suggest his characters and plot situations. The shadow of Marguerite Gautier is discernible upon such women with a past as Wilde's Mrs. Erlynne and Mrs. Cheveley. The central situation of A Wjamaji £f_ b)£ Importanee--the father confronted with a bastard son who spurns his offer of legitimacy—is anticipated in detail by Dumas's Le Fj^s- nature!. The exposure of an adventuress by means of her jewelry had occurred in Emile Augier's Le Mariage d'Olympe before it was used by Wilde in Ail Ideal Husband. And the mislaid and misdirected letters so important to the plots of Scribe and Sardou take on a similar function in Wilde's plays. Whatever Ibsenite dimension Wilde's plays may contain, it is not plausible to deny--as the author did--their important debt to French writers. In fact Ibsen himself was touched...


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