- OUP Wilde Edition
JOSEPH DONOHUE has done an excellent job in teasing out the enormous textual problems surrounding what has come to us as Oscar Wilde's play The Importance of Being Earnest. Although this play does not appear to have quite the same textual problems surrounding Wilde's De Profundis, the textual problems accompanying The Importance of Being Earnest are, nevertheless, daunting indeed. Despite the challenges, Donohue has followed the various sources of textual evidence available and produced two volumes, one dedicated primarily to the four-act version of the play that Wilde originally envisioned, the other dedicated primarily to the three-act play with which we are most familiar. Given the significant amount of editorial intrusion on the part of George Alexander, the play's first producer, in not only reducing the play from four acts to three acts but also in cutting and altering many other passages, the two versions of The Importance of Being Earnest are, as Donohue suggests, very different dramatic works, with different emphases and different effects. Accordingly, Donohue has chosen to produce a version of both incarnations of the play. This choice is a logical conclusion to the primary textual problem of this text.
Donohue's choice of copy text for the four-act version of the play, the latest surviving complete typescript, is the logical choice, and Donohue makes a clear explanation of the various editorial choices he made in producing his edition of the play. Similarly, Donohue's choice of the first book edition of the three-act version of the play as his copy text for his edition of the three-act version of the play is also logical and well-reasoned.
Together Donohue's editions of both versions of the play are significant improvements over what was previously available, particularly in the case of the four-act version of the play that has appeared in an inferior version in the single volume "complete works" volumes that have been published for decades now. The historical and editorial introductions [End Page 470] are carefully thought out and clearly written, and Donohue's genealogy of primary textual materials is helpful in understanding the history of both versions of the play. The various appendices, illustrations, textual and commentary notes, and indices are all far more extensive and useful than anything that has been available to scholars previously.
I do have some minor concerns about this edition. I understand that Wilde chose Lady Lancing as the working title for the play, but early on, as Donohue notes, Wilde made it clear that he chose that title in the interim before he wished to reveal his actual desired title, The Importance of Being Earnest. From a practical standpoint, in order to distinguish the three-act from the four-act versions, it makes sense to use Wilde's working title for the four-act version of the play, but since the title really does not represent Wilde's desired title from any point in his composition process but was only chosen in order to keep his desired title hidden until the play was in production, I wonder whether it was best for Donohue to maintain the working title in his edition of the four-act play. Also, I wish that it had been possible to have published the two volumes as a single volume. Dividing the volumes in two makes for a certain amount of awkwardness, as well as a certain amount of repetition of information among the several historical and editorial prefatory material. Some 1,050 pages would be difficult to put into a single volume, but there also would have been some advantages to having done so. One final minor quibble has to do with house style. Given the ponderous number and the length of the notes to these plays, I wonder whether employing endnotes rather than footnotes might have made for a more readable text. Footnotes are particularly useful for those doing textual scholarship, but for...