1. How is the Aesthetic Movement in Art reflected in Wilde’s plays?
The Aesthetic Movement in Art in England from about 1868 to 1900 was part of a larger European movement in design style in the late nineteenth century influencing literature, music, interior design, painting, and architecture. It emphasized beauty over function or morality. It was also called Symbolisme in France and the Decadence during the 1890s when Wilde was writing his drawing-room comedies. This movement in art rebelled against earlier Victorian or Romantic ideals. The arts were not for preaching but for providing beauty and sensuous pleasure. It was “art for art’s sake” and nothing more.
Wilde became involved with these notions while at Oxford, influenced by the art critic Walter Pater. In essays published in 1867 and 1868, Pater (1839–1894) announced his belief that life should be lived intensely in the pursuit of beauty. His Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873) was a key text describing the beauties of Renaissance art that needed no didactic purpose. Young men subscribed to the cult of beauty, as Oscar Wilde did, believing that life should imitate art. Wilde was a dandy like his characters, Lord Goring in “An Ideal Husband” and Algernon Moncrieff in “The Importance of Being Earnest.” The aesthete in society, like Lord Goring, insisted on dressing lavishly and pronouncing on the style of parties or art, and making fun of the morally earnest Victorian stuffed shirt. Lord Goring focuses on getting his buttonhole flower just right, for instance. Passions and intensely beautiful sense impressions were the proper stuff of life.
Wilde had pronounced in his essay, “The Decay of Lying,” that Art reveals “Nature’s lack of design.” Nature is inferior, and it is human imagination that makes something beautiful out of the raw material. Thus, Wilde feels that culture is rightly based on lies: “Lying and poetry are arts.” Unfortunately, nineteenth-century art was either too realistic or moral, showing a great lack of imagination. Imagination and lying are thus synonymous for him, making the liars like Lord Goring the beautiful people. Gertrude’s insistence on her husband telling the dull truth makes her the backward and dangerous one because she does not know how to play the social game, how to forgive and make life beautiful. The insistence on judgment makes everything hard and ugly and after all, social morality is the basis of Mrs. Cheveley being able to blackmail Sir Robert Chiltern. Wilde says “Art begins with abstract decoration, with purely imaginative and pleasurable work dealing with what is unreal and non-existent.” Life should be the same.
Famous aesthetic writers in England were Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Oscar Wilde, and Algernon Charles Swinburne. They were influenced by French Symbolists like Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, and Paul Verlaine. Visual artists included the Pre-Raphaelite painters, William Morris, James McNeill Whistler, Aubrey Beardsley, and the Impressionist painters. As with Oscar Wilde, the aesthetes often led wild and notorious lives in their rebellious pursuit of what is beautiful rather than what is socially acceptable.
2. What is the background of Victorian politics when Wilde wrote his play?
Wilde’s comedies were written at the end of Queen Victoria’s reign (1837–1901), at the height of the Victorian Empire when Britain was the world’s superpower and greatest industrial nation, ruling over a quarter of the world’s population and land mass. The British were proud of their civilization, and this is mirrored in Sir Robert’s pride in his political position. The Great Exhibition of 1851 was the first World’s Fair showcasing England’s leadership in science and technology. At home, liberal politics led to democratic reforms and voting rights through parliamentary action. In the early part of the era the House of Commons had two primary parties, the Whigs and Tories. The Whigs became the Liberals, and the Tories became the Conservative Party. Victoria reigned for sixty-three years, the longest reign of any British monarch, working successively with Liberal and Conservative Prime Ministers such as the Conservative Benjamin Disraeli and the Liberal William Gladstone. The population more than doubled during her reign.
Britain’s politics had been dominated by the landowners for centuries, but the Industrial Revolution created a huge shift of the lower classes to the cities, creating a need for political change. The year 1832 marked the passing of the First Reform Act giving the right to vote to the middle classes. Later the vote was extended to the working classes. The House of Commons gained more influence, and Parliamentary seats were redistributed to represent more people. The Cabinet of the Prime Minister was the true seat of governmental power, and this is where Sir Robert had set his career from the first.
Britain was admired for its ability to legislate democratic reform to enfranchise the lower classes instead of engaging in violent revolution as in France. This topic comes up in the play with Lady Markby speaking to Lady Chiltern about their husbands being members of the House of Commons. Sir Robert is a Liberal and part of the current Liberal Cabinet. Gertrude Chiltern attends the Women’s Liberal Association, doing what she can to support worthy causes. She mentions that she lobbies for regulation of factories and women’s rights. Lady Markby, on the other hand, does not like her husband being a member of the House of Commons that is so busy all the time helping the poor. For one thing, she is an aristocrat very conscious of class and without sympathy for the people. She is in favor of a bill for “assisted emigration” of the lower classes (Act II, p. 61).
The general economic policy of the time was laissez-faire and free trade, but there was also a pressure to take care of the poor, especially after the Irish Famine of 1848 wiped out half the population. The Victorians had a sense of progress, of improving society. Lady Chiltern is involved in factory legislation because of the dangers of factory conditions and pervasive child labor. Lady Markby is irritated at the issue of Higher Education for Women, but Lady Chiltern is proud that her husband supports it.
3. What are the characteristics of the comedy of manners?
Literature and theater flourished in the Victorian age. Many new theaters were built and theater schools opened. New democratic liberties led to open discussion of social problems on the stage. The prosperous middle class challenged the old ideas of the waning aristocratic order. Wilde makes comedy out of class warfare, generally focusing on the upper classes, who have taste and money. His comedies are set in aristocratic drawing-rooms.
The comedy of manners is a genre of play that satirizes the manners of a social class, represented by stock characters such as the fop, the rake, and the bragging soldier. Lord Goring is the fop or dandy, and Gertrude is the nagging wife. Mrs. Cheveley is the femme fatale. The plot often revolves around a scandal or secret, sometimes with hidden identities exposed. The dialogue is witty or bawdy.
The genre arose from the new comedy of the ancient Greek playwright Menander, imitated by Plautus and Terence, the popular Roman playwrights. These writers were copied in the Renaissance by such authors as Moliere (1622–1673) in “The School for Wives” (1662) and “The Misanthrope” (1666), satires on the ancien regime, the aristocracy of France before the Revolution.
In England, Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing”(1599) could be considered a comedy of manners. Ben Jonson’s comedy of humours such as “Every Man in His Humour” (1598) made fun of the obsessions of certain character types. The genre really came of age during the English Restoration Comedy (1660–1710) with such plays as William Congreve’s “The Way of the World” (1700). Eighteenth-century comedy like Oliver Goldsmith’s “She Stoops to Conquer” (1773) and Richard Sheridan’s “The School for Scandal” (1777) further laid the tradition for Oscar Wilde’s drawing-room comedies of the 1890s. He inherited from these playwrights the witty dialogue and the artificial and elaborate plot twists with secrets, and characters sneaking in and out of doors, overhearing conversations.
The comedy of manners was represented in the twentieth century by the plays of Noel Coward (“Hay Fever,” 1925) and Somerset Maugham (“The Constant Wife,” 1951).
4. What other Victorian authors were influential when Wilde was writing?
Late Victorian literature was moving away from the early Victorian emphasis on didacticism, sentimentality, and morality, as in the novels of Charles Dickens. One trend was the resurgence of fantasy and fantastic elements as in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). H. G. Wells was one of the founders of the new genre of science fiction with his The Time Machine (1895) and The War of the Worlds (1898). In the dystopian novel, Erewhon (1872) Samuel Butler criticized the restrictive morals of the time.
There was more emphasis on realism in writing as well, especially in depicting social problems and showing the complexity of human life. Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855) dealt realistically with the problems of industrialism, and George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (1876) dealt with racial questions. Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (1896) reflected a Darwinian determinism, showing humans as the playthings of forces beyond their control. He treated sex and marriage in such a realistic way that the public was shocked. Another rebellious Victorian novelist was George Gissing who in The Nether World (1889) showed the effects of poverty.
Joseph Conrad in his 1899 novelette, Heart of Darkness, and Rudyard Kipling in his 1888 short story, “The Man Who Would Be King” brought up the evils of colonialism, though from the white man’s point of view towards other cultures. These authors upheld the idea that the difficult but laudable mission of the British Empire was to civilize the savage races.
Naturalism became a literary philosophy in Europe and affected the theater. This was the idea that humans were not spiritually superior but just subject to the forces of nature like other animals. Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen launched the modern theater with his open discussion of such problems as syphilis and suicide and social ostracism. His “Enemy of the People” (1882) pitted the individual against the social conventions of the community. He influenced the range of topics available in the plays of later playwrights such as Wilde and Shaw.
While Oscar Wilde was pleasantly shocking the upper classes with his comedies of manners, another playwright, George Bernard Shaw, was shocking English audiences with his “play of ideas,” using the characters and situations on stage as a forum for public discussion. “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” (1893) explored the topic of prostitution and “Major Barbara” (1905) touched on the morality of weapons manufacturing.
5. How was the position of women changing at the end of the nineteenth century?
Women had been excluded from voting in the 1832 Reform Bill. Liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill was elected to Parliament in 1865, however, supporting women’s rights, and slowly, the enfranchisement of women became an accepted idea. Married women only gained the right to own their own property in 1882. Serious organization for women’s suffrage began in England in 1872. Not much progress was made until after World War I when married women over thirty were allowed to vote for members of Parliament in 1918.
The New Woman was a term used at the end of the century for the feminists who were attempting to live more independent lives, trying to redefine the limited roles of Victorian women who were counseled to be obedient wives and mothers, at home, and out of the public sphere. They wanted education, equal opportunity, and the right to vote. Such young women often did not marry. Some tried careers of teaching and writing and nursing. The New Woman was a subject of plays such as Ibsen’s important work on the subject, “A Doll’s House” (1879), criticizing the polarization of sexual roles. George Gissing’s novel, The Odd Women (1891) deals with a feminist, Rhoda Nunn, who chooses to remain unmarried. Many of George Bernard Shaw’s female characters, like Eliza Doolittle and Major Barbara, are types of the New Woman.
Though education for girls was compulsory, higher education, when available, was inferior and did not prepare women for careers. Geniuses like Virginia Woolf were denied entrance to Oxford and Cambridge. Women’s colleges in England began to teach more serious subjects by the end of the century, in education and medicine. Women’s political groups, such as the Women’s Liberal Association that Lady Chiltern belongs to, met to discuss and support liberal reform. Lady Chiltern’s group praises Sir Robert as a politician on their side. He is for Higher Education for Women. Lady Markby is old-fashioned and makes fun of the “modern women” who “understand everything” (Act II, p. 63). She mentions that in her time “we were taught not to understand anything” (Act II, p. 62).
Women like Lady Chiltern who were outspoken for women’s rights or political causes, advising men on issues as Gertrude tries to sway her husband, were thought to be unfeminine and out of their place. The play shows the tension of the changing role of women and the consequent war of the sexes. Mrs. Cheveley says sarcastically, “The higher education of men is what I should like to see” (Act II, p. 62). Gertrude is lectured by both Lord Goring and her husband to be more womanly and soft, accepting her husband’s faults without criticism. They define separate spheres for men and women. While Wilde’s women break the old stereotypes of passivity and often take the lead in courtship and discussion, Wilde still seems uncomfortable with a character like Gertrude Chiltern who tries to be the intellectual and moral equal of a man.