"It is very painful for me to be forced to speak the truth. It is the first time in my life that I have ever been reduced to such a painful position, and I am really quite inexperienced in doing anything of the kind."--Jack Worthing in Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895)
A female friend of mine blogged several years ago that she was in love with a gay man who had been dead for the past 100 years. That is the heady effect on some people produced by Oscar Wilde, born on this date 160 years ago in Dublin, Ireland, as Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde. In time, the future playwright would drop all but the first and fifth parts of this astonishing cognomen: Once anyone got a load of his flamboyant persona, a name in the same vein would be superfluous.
My friend, like so many others through the years, loves Wilde, I think, not merely for the way he turns the English language on its ear, but for the way he gleefully overturns convention, as in the above quote. Yet watching today his most gloriously hilariously comedy, The Importance of Being Earnest, still has moments that are, as Jack Worthing puts it, “painful.”
The most obvious example of this is the long “missing” act in the play, coming between what was known for many years as the second and third acts. The scenario (“missing” because the playwright cut it at the insistence of the director) depicts a solicitor showing up to arrest “Ernest” (i.e., Jack) for unpaid dining bills. Nobody who knows anything about what befell Wilde after the triumphant premiere of Importance—his disastrous libel suit against the Marquis of Queensberry, father of his lover Lord Alfred Douglas, followed by his own arrest and jailing on charges related to his homosexuality, then a nomadic last few years marked by declining health and poverty—can watch the unfolding action in this section (which began to be performed again with any regularity only in this century) without cringing.
And then there is this quote, all about the truth. Arguably, Wilde found himself in the great crisis of his life precisely because of the question of truth. He should have simply laughed off Queensberry’s (hilariously misspelled) accusation that he was a “Sondomite.” But the urging of the feckless Douglas--and perhaps the need to live respectably within the Victorian society he mocked--led him to take to court this outraged father of his younger lover. The result was ruin for the playwright.