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TOPIC 51.

OSCAR WILDE AND BERNARD SHAW

1. INTRODUCTION
2. HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
3. OSCAR WILDE
3.1 EARLY LIFE
3.2 HIS PLAYS
3.3 HIS DOWNFALL
4. BERNAND SHAW
4.1 EARLY LIFE
4.2 HIS PLAYS
4.3 THE ‘NEW DRAMA’
4.4 WORLD WAR I
4.5 FINAL YEARS
5. CONCLUSION
6. BIBLIOGRAPHY

1. INTRODUCTION

This topic deals with two of the most important Anglo-Irish writers in history.
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) and Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) were born in Dublin and
both made major contributions to the English drama. They were masters of witty
paradox and regarded themselves as socialists. However, in all other respects, their
attitudes to life and art were quite different. Shaw’s public career was also very much
longer than Wilde’s due to the fact that he outlived the latter in fifty years.
Throughout these pages we will try to explain the reasons that made them be
remembered for ever.

2. HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
England continued to prosper through the 19th century and, by its end, a strong
national economy and overseas empire had been established.
Education improved and most people were at least literate. One result of literacy
was the development of the mass-circulation newspapers.
The theatre had deteriorated partly as a result of the severe restrictions imposed
by the Puritans a hundred and fifty years previously and partly as a result of the
undemanding taste of the audiences who were content with melodramatic tragedies,
sentimental romances and farcical comedies.
One conventional aspect of society which merited satire was the existence of an
aristocracy who lived in a great wealth and led extravagant ways of life. These people
became prominent in the public eye, for newspapers reported their activities in social
columns. Reading about their activities provided the same world of fantasy as that we
could find nowadays in film stars.
In the 1880’s, a small literary and artistic movement flourished. ‘The
Aesthetics’, as they were called, aimed to make amends for several decades of artistic
monotony. They devoted themselves to “art for art’s sake” rejecting the notion that art
should have a social or moral purpose. Oscar Wilde was the most famous and
outstanding figure of this movement.
Oscar Wilde as well as Bernard Shaw used their works to show that although on
the surface this was a successful society, below it there exist many problems. They grew
a social sense that can be show in their works. Their essays, journalism, plays and
poetry were used to bring social issues to a wide audience.
All in all, the Victorian age began within a general social malestar but as time
went by, the conditions improved….However, it is very important to remember that the
unfortunately arrival of the First World War (1914-1918) changed for many people their
view of the world once again.
This situation/panorama was this reflected in literature because artists felt they
had to express their ideas very differently in new forms, which were difficult for
everyone to understand….

3. OSCAR WILDE (1854-1900)


Irish dramatist, poet, essayist and novelist, Oscar Wilde was the most famous and
outstanding figure of the Aesthetic Movement and played a major role in the revival of
the British drama.

3.1 EARLY LIFE


Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin (1854) of an aristocratic family. He studied in
Dublin and later in Oxford, where he distinguished himself for his scholarship and wit
(he won the Coveted Newdigate Prize in 1878 with a long poem Ravenna). He was also
deeply impressed by the teachings of the English writers John Ruskin and Walter
Pater on the central importance of art in life and particularly by the aesthetic intensity
by which life should be lived. Pater preached the love of “art for art’s sake” (the main
aim of poetry must be to delight the reader, and didactic purposes must stay in the
background) and Wilde, going one step further, set out to idealise “beauty for beauty’s
sake”. Aestheticism was the key-note of his creed.
Once he got the degree in Oxford, he moved to London (1879) and, with a burning
desire to achieve stardom, he started to make his living by his pen. His lifestyle, his
humorous wit and true to his doctrine of beauty soon established him as the ‘apostle
(spokesman) of aestheticism’ and drew attention to himself by the eccentricities of his
dress (long hair and fancy suits of velveteen), tastes and manners. He had been taught
by his mother (Esperanza) to view life as a performance, and he made a spectacle of
everything, sometimes hailing a cab just to cross the street. His particular and genuine
outfit became almost a signature for the outrageous public figure he was so shrewdly to
construct. He would further gain attention for his wit, too.

Within two years, he had made quite a name for himself. His first published work,
Poems (1881), was well received. The next year he agreed to lecture in the United
States and Canada, experience that proved to be a brilliant success (On his arrival to
New York he announced “I have nothing to declare but my genius”). His play Vera
(1883), a rather immature one, ran for one week in New York but never reached the
boards in London. In his return to Europe, he finished another play, The Duchess of
Padua and in 1884 he married Constance Lloyd; they had two sons, for whom he
wrote The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888), which really are poems in prose more
than fairy tales for children, revealing his gift for romantic allegory and expressing his
humanitarian sentiments and sympathy with the sufferings of the poor. By the time of
his marriage, he was working as a reviewer for the Pall Mall Gazette and then became
editor of Woman’s World (1887-9), a very reputable publication.

His active literary career, though, can be said to begin in 1891 with his publication of
Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories (a collection of tales including The
Canterville Ghost, The Sphinx Without a Secret and The Model Milliorare) and a
collection of fairy tales The House Of Pomegranates. It was in this same year when
Intentions came out; this is by far the most interesting and entertaining book of essays in
the form of dialogues that Wilde wrote in which he really gain rein to his imagination
(they contain Wilde’s aesthetic philosophy). It is probably the most absorbing of all his
works (The most interesting essay of the book is The Decay Of Lying, which dominant
theme is the vast superiority of Art over Nature). And 1891 also saw the appearance of
his one and only novel: The Picture Of Dorian Gray. The book has some parallels with
Wilde’s own life. A story of horror, it depicts the corruption of a handsome Victorian
gentleman, Dorian, who sells his soul to keep his youth and beauty in a painting.
Although he himself remains young and handsome, his portrait becomes ugly and
acquires certain evil, reflecting his moral degradation. The book highlights the tension
between the polished surface of high life and the life of secret vice. In the end sin is
punished.

3.2 HIS PLAYS

His poems, short stories, essays and one novel were well received, but Wilde’s
creative genius was to find its highest expression in drama.

Wilde wrote a series of plays in the style of ‘the comedy of manners’ which had
been popular during the 18th century before the decline of the theatre. In essence, ‘the
comedy of manners’ is a type of play that pokes fun at the artificial conventions,
customs and follies of the society and times in which it is written. Wilde’s plays are a
gentle satire of the upper classes who were so content with their own life. The typical
genre style is that it gains strength from brilliant wit in the dialogue. Characterisation
and plot are artificial and incidental; they are used simply as vehicles for scintillating
speech. The comedy of manners appealed to the mind rather than the emotions. Wilde
called his plays “trivial comedies for thinking people”. Absurdity of plots, improbable
situations and the unbelievable characters poked the immediate laugh in the audience.
Epigrams are characteristic of Wilde’s wit; they are short, polished sayings with an
unusual twist of meaning. His plays are sprinkled with them and many have become
famous out of context: “I can resist everything except temptation”; “One should never
trust a woman who tells her real age. A woman who would tell one that, would tell one
everything”…

However, respectability was a terrible burden for Wilde and he submerged himself
in a disorienting sea of liquor and young men. Shortly thereafter he separated from his
wife (1893, claiming that he'd been away from home for so long that he’d forgotten the
house number) and he also cut off ties with most of his family and intellectual peers.
Ironically as it may seem, it was during this period, the last decade of his life, that
Wilde wrote nearly all his major works.

Strange as it may seem, Wilde made his reputation in theatre between the years
1892 and 1895, with a series of highly popular plays, all of them being extremely clever
and filled with witty epigrams and paradoxes:

- Salome: biblical and rather perverse, it describes the death of John the Baptist.
Lord Chamberlain banned this play to be performed because it contained biblical
characters. This fact so annoyed Wilde that he announced his intentions of renouncing
to his British nationality, although he never carried out his threat.

- Lady Windermere’s Fan: his first success in London, it deals with a woman
who is about to leave her family to run off with her lover, but she is dissuaded form
doing so. The play suggests that obeying virtuous dictates leads to unethical behaviour
which distorts the personality.

- A Woman Of No Importance: it is centred on the discovery of a secret on the


part of a male aristocrat who is revealed that he is illegitimate.

- An Ideal Husband: it deals with blackmail, political corruption and public and
private honour.

- The Importance of Being Earnest: his masterpiece, it is about two fashionable


young gentlemen and their eventually successful courtship. The play is a demonstration
that in the superficial world only the most frivolous essentials are considered important.

3.3 HIS DOWNFALL

His years of triumph ended dramatically when his personal life was open to
rumours. Later 1895, Wilde declared to have a homosexual affair with Lord Alfred
(ADD SODOMITE) Douglas (Bosie). Therefore, the Lord of Queensbury, Douglas’s
father, forced a trial and Wilde was found guilty of homosexual practices and was
sentenced to prison. Most of his sentence was served at Reading Gaol, where he wrote a
deeply moving letter addressed to Douglas, which was published posthumously in 1905
as De Profundis (a moving description of his spiritual progress to religious insight).

In 1897 Wilde was released and immediately went to France, hoping to


regenerate himself as a writer, although he was never the same. His experiences in jail
inspired his most famous poem: The Ballad Of Reading Gaol (1898), revealing his
concern for inhumane prison conditions.

The once flamboyant public figure shied away from his former audience,
choosing to live the rest of his life under the alias of Sebastian Melmoth. In 1900,
Oscar Wilde, plagued by ill health and bankruptcy, died penniless and alone in a Paris
hotel at the age of 46. He was buried without much ceremony.

Wilde wrote in all the main literary forms: poetry, fiction, drama and essays.
As he once said, he put his talent into his writings and his genius into his living and, as a
result, Wilde survives as a myth, a legend of pure style that ultimately turned to
tragedy, rather than as a conventional man of letters whose work can be assessed in the
ordinary way.

4. GEORGE BERNARD SHAW (1856-1950)


Irish dramatist, literary critic, playwright, essayist, pamphleteer, socialist spokesman,
and a leading figure in the 20th century theatre, George Bernard Shaw was a
freethinker, a supporter of women's rights, and an advocate of equality of income. He
supported abolition of private property, radical change in the voting system,
campaigned for the simplification of spelling and the reform of the English alphabet. In
1925 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature “for his work which is marked by
both idealism and humanity, its stimulating satire often being infused with a singular
poetic beauty”. Shaw accepted the honour but refused the money. (On his thoughts, the
prize would only serve to strengthen the cultural relations between Sweden and Great
Britain)

4.1 EARLY LIFE

Shaw was born in Dublin (1856) in a lower-middle class family. Enemy of


trained education, he left school at the age of 14, and after working in an estate agent’s
office for a while, he moved to London where he spent his days searching for self-
education in the British Museum reading room, attending to lectures and debates,
writing novels and reading what he had missed at school.
His attempts to enter the fiction world came with his first work, Immaturity
(1879), a semi-autobiographical book that repelled every publisher in London. His next
four novels (The Irrational Knot (1880), Love Among Artist (1881), Our Corner;
Cashel Byron’s Profession (1882), and An Unsocial Socialist (1883)) were similarly
refused. His final false start in fiction would be An Unfinished Novel (1887-88),
published posthumously.
Despite his failure as a novelist in the earlier 1880s, Shaw found himself during
this decade. He was one of the founders of the Fabian Society (1884 – a middle-class
Socialist political organisation that aimed at the transformation of Britain into a socialist
state) and became a popular spokesman on behalf of socialism, being the editor of one
of the classics of British Socialism Fabian Essays in Socialism (1889). He became very
much impressed by the work of the dramatist Henrik Ibsen, who wrote plays of social
criticism. As a result, Shaw wrote The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891), a pamphlet
based on a series of lectures about the progressive Norwegian playwright.
Meanwhile, as a journalist, Shaw worked as an art critic, then as a music critic,
and finally as theatre critic for the Saturday Review (1895-8), where he truly began to
make his mark. In that position, he used all his wit and powers in a campaign to displace
the artificialities and hypocrisies of the Victorian stage with a theatre of vital ideas. He
also began writing his own plays to illustrate his criticism of the English stage.

4.2 HIS PLAYS

When Shaw began writing for the English stage, dramatists of the period were
trying to break away with the artificial plots and conventional character types to develop
a modern realistic drama.
In 1892, Shaw wrote his first drama Widower's Houses, a play recognisably
‘Ibsenite’ in tone, in which a well-intentioned young Englishman falls in love and then
discovers that his father-in-law's fortune derive from exploitation of the poor; it is the
social evil and not the romantic predicament on which attention is concentrated, and the
action is kept well within the key of ironic comedy. The same dramatic predispositions
control Mrs. Warren's Profession (1893), which deals with the discovery by a well-
educated young woman that her mother has graduated through prostitution to become a
part-proprietor of brothels throughout Europe. Again, the economic determinants of the
situation are emphasized, and the subject is treated remorselessly. Shaw called these
first plays ‘unpleasant’ because their dramatic power was used to force the spectator to
face unpleasant facts.
They were followed by a group of ‘pleasant’ plays for the commercial theatre in
an effort to make amends with the producers and audiences to whom mordant comedies
had offended: Arms and the Man (1894) makes sometimes fun of romantic falsifications
of both love and warfare, Candida (1897) –the play represents its heroine as forced to
choose between her clerical husband -a Christian Socialist- and a young poet who has
fallen wildly in love with her. She chooses her husband because she reckons that he is
actually the weaker, The Man of Destiny (1897), among others. Both groups of plays
were revised and published in Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant (1898).
In 1898, Shaw got married and lived a period of rest regarding theatre.
However, the first year of the 20th century saw his next collection of plays, Three Plays
for Puritans (1901), and continued what became the traditional Shavian preface: an
introductory essay in an electric prose style dealing as much with the themes suggested
by the plays as the plays themselves (prefaces sometimes much longer than the plays
themselves). These plays include The Devil's Disciple, Caesar and Cleopatra (Shaw’s
first great play –it depicts a credible rather than a supernatural Caesar and a spoiled and
vicious 16-year-old Cleopatra; nothing to do with Shakespeare's Antony and
Cleopatra), and Captain Brassbound's Conversion.
4.3 THE ‘NEW DRAMA’
In the first decade of the new century, Shaw’s complete absence of respect for
any kind of convention made him seek for a ‘New Drama’ on the stage in London. He
had a native gift of eloquence and wit that enabled him to construct his dramas on rules
of his own and he knew that, whatever tricks he played, his ability to hold the
audience’s attention through sheer words would carry him through. What he wanted
with his plays was to make audiences/readers examine their consciences and overhaul
their conventional beliefs. He turned the conventional assumptions of English society
upside-down, so that woman becomes the stronger sex and man the weaker, man the
dreamer and woman the realist, woman the pursuer and man the pursued. This is an
important idea in Shaw.
In between 1904 and 1907, the Royal Court Theatre performed John Bull’s
Other Island (towards an Irish audience), Man and Superman (where Shaw expounded
one of his significant themes: the conflict between man as spiritual creator and woman
as guardian of the biological continuity of the human race), The Doctor’s Dilema (satire
upon the medical profession) or Major Barbara (backing the idea salvation is only
possible through political activity). Shaw’s radical rationalism, his utter disregard of
conventions, his keen dialectic interest and verbal wit often turn the stage into a forum
of ideas.
By this time, Shaw had already become a major playwright both on the
continent and on the States by the performance of his plays there.
In an attempt to withdraw form politics and philosophy, Shaw wrote possibly his
comedic masterpiece, and certainly his funniest and most popular play: Pygmalion
(1913). It was claimed by Shaw to be a didactic drama about phonetics, but deep down
the play is a humane comedy about love and the English class system. The play is about
the training that phonetician Higgins gives to a Cockney flower girl to enable her to
pass as a lady; and it is also about the repercussions of the experiment’s success –the
relationship between a creator and his creation. The scene in which Eliza Doolittle
appears in high society when she has acquired a correct accent but no notion of polite
conversation is one of the funniest in English drama. Pygmalion has been both filmed
(making Shaw win an Academy Award for his screenplay) and adapted into an
immensely popular musical, My Fair Lady.

4.4 WORLD WAR I


World War I was a watershed for Shaw. At first he ceased writing plays,
publishing instead a controversial pamphlet ‘Common Sense About the War’ which
blamed Great Britain and its Allies equally for the war. His anti-war speeches made him
notorious and the target of much criticism.
After the war, Shaw found his dramatic voice again and rebuilt his reputation,
first with a series of five plays Back to Methuselah (1921) –which expound his
philosophy of creative evolution, and then with Saint Joan (1923) –based on the life of
Joan of Arc, although portraying her not as a martyr but as a stubborn, sexless young
woman of great spirit, with which he was again accepted by the post-war public and
also regarded as a second Shakespeare for having revolutionised the British theatre.
This masterpiece led to the awarding of the 1925 Nobel Prize for Literature.

4.5 FINAL YEARS


For the next five years, he wrote nothing for the theatre but worked on the
encyclopaedic political tract ‘The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and
Capitalism’ (1928). Shaw’s later minor plays include Too True to Be Good (1932), On
The Rocks (1933), The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles (1935), Geneva (1938), and In
Good King Charles's Golden Days (1939). In all of them there is a tendency towards the
tragicomic and non-realistic symbolism.
Shaw lived the rest of his days as an international celebrity, travelling the world
and continually involved in local and international politics. Impudent, irreverent, and
always a showman, Shaw used his wit to keep himself in the public eye until his death
in 1950 at the age of 94 (in his will he left a large part of his estate to a project to
revamp the English alphabet).
George Bernard Shaw is considered the most significant British playwright
since the 17th century. His development of a drama of moral passion and of intellectual
conflict and debate, his revivifying the comedy of manners, his ventures into symbolic
farce and into a theatre of disbelief, helped shape the theatre of his time and after. Shaw
was also the most sarcastic pamphleteer since Swift; the most readable music critic and
the best theatre critic of his generation; a prodigious lecturer and essayist on politics,
economics, and sociological subjects; and one of the most prolific letter writers in
literature. His work will endure for its dramatic coherence, its wit, its common sense,
and a literary gift which prevented him from ever writing a dull line.

5. CONCLUSION
The life and work of both Wilde and Shaw have been interesting not only for
the literary panorama of Ireland and the world at large, but also for the film industry,
that has seen on them a good source for producing films. They can be of a great aid for
our students in order to approach them to the society and customs of the period in which
the works were written.
We can also establish a link with another subject of the curriculum, Spanish
Literature, where authors such as Mariano José de Larra or Gaspar Núñez made use
of the witty paradox in their writings.

6. BIBLIOGRAPHY

- BAUGH. Literary History of England. Volume IV


- SANDERS. The Short Oxford History of English Literature
- BECKSON, K. Oscar Wilde: The Critical Heritage
- ERVINE, J. Bernard Shaw: His Life, Work and Friends
- PETER RABY, THE CAMBRIDGE COMPANION TO OSCAR WILDE,
CAMBRIDGE
- The Columbia Electronic Encyclopaedia
- www.nobel.se/literature/index.html
- www.kirjasto.sci.fi/indeksi.htm