- Wilde’s Earnest Annotated
IN NICHOLAS FRANKEL’S INTRODUCTION to this annotated edition of the three-act The Importance of Being Earnest, he states that “it is difficult from our twenty-first-century perspective not to see the play as another coded expression of its author’s secret double life.” In his view, the play continues Wilde’s strategy in The Portrait of Dorian Gray, which he has also annotated (2011), of playing “a cat and mouse game of revealing and concealing his sexual identity.” We can grasp Wilde’s strategy because we now know the details of Wilde’s life in a way only a small circle of his contemporaries did. For Frankel, this new insight is not simply biographical, but clarifies Wilde’s achievement: “The greatness of The Importance of Being Earnest comes not from the play’s separateness from Wilde’s life and personality, from its perceived autonomy as a work of ‘art’ existing merely for the sake of art, but from its inseparability from these things.” This is an annotated edition with an explicit critical thesis. I will focus my attention on this thesis since I believe it is the aspect of the volume that will most interest readers of ELT and conclude with brief remarks about Frankel’s annotations.
To begin, two observations about the thesis itself. Frankel properly cites in support of his approach Wilde’s later claim in De Profundis that he took “the Drama, the most objective form known to art, and made it as personal a mode of expression as the Lyric or the Sonnet.” The question remains, however, what aspects of the personal get expressed in Wilde’s works. As Frankel’s citations from the contemporary reviews of The Importance of Being Earnest show, beginning with the earliest responses and continuing to the present day, readers and viewers have registered a strong sense of Wilde as a person, of “his imposing presence” in the phrase Frankel cites from John Cowper Powys. But audiences can register this sense of presence in Wilde’s works without detailed knowledge of Wilde’s life; Frankel’s own claim about how recently this knowledge has become widely available implies that one can do so. To borrow terms from Frankel’s thesis, then, it seems we should separate “Wilde’s life and personality,” letting “personality” refer [End Page 390] to the sense just described and “life” stand for the actual circumstances of Wilde’s life. What is distinctive about Frankel’s treatment of The Importance of Being Earnest is his claim for the critical relevance of these circumstances.
To borrow different terms from Frankel, for the formalist tradition, writers do make choices “for the sake of art”: if we cannot explain a writer’s choice as serving the ends of his or her work, but have to invoke personal grounds, that is a flaw. Again, Frankel provides ample evidence that Wilde would not regard the appearance of the personal in a work as a flaw in principle. But one could also collect statements from Wilde endorsing formalism, and he was clearly capable of revising his works in the light of his artistic intentions. However he thought the artistic and the personal are finally related in art, he never seems to have conflated the two as categories of explanation. So while Wilde may be friendly territory for an approach appealing to his personal life, the case for the critical value of that appeal still has to be made.
Frankel claims that The Importance of Being Earnest “simultaneously reveals and conceals numerous allusions to its author’s complex personal life” and that the “most potent evidence [for this claim] is all of the ‘bunburying’ that goes on in the play.” While the claim itself is plausible, his discussion of this “most potent evidence” could do more to exhibit its strength. He first considers the name “Bunbury,” and even in his own view, it is not clear how directly the name supports his claim. (That he is cautious about the value of his evidence is...