Wilde, Earnest, Disaster

February 14: On this day in 1895, Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest opened in London. Wilde called his play a "Trivial Comedy for Serious People," and the opening night reviewers concurred: "There is no discordant note of seriousness. It is of nonsense all compact, and better nonsense, I think, our stage has not seen." The opening night audience expected their applause to bring the author out for a curtain call. When an actor went backstage to ask Wilde if he would oblige, he demurred: "I don't think I shall take a call tonight. You see, I took one only last month at Haymarket, and one feels so much like a German band."


But Wilde's reluctance to step on stage is linked to larger, darker events. Having heard that his eventual nemesis, the Marquess of Queensbury, planned to publicly confront him on opening night, Wilde had arranged to have Queensbury's ticket withdrawn, but he was not going to offer himself onstage, just in case. In notes to his son, Lord Alfred Douglas, Queensbury had made clear his belief that, personally and symbolically, Wilde was fair game: "…I should be quite justified in shooting him at sight. These christian English cowards and men, as they call themselves, want waking up." Denied access to the opening, and incensed that it was on Valentine's Day, Queensbury left a "phallic bouquet" of carrots and turnips for Wilde backstage. Three days later he appeared at Wilde's Albemarle Club with a witness and a calling card inscribed, "To Oscar Wilde posing Somdomite [sic]."


These public insults, the desire of Lord Douglas to spar with his father in public, and Wilde's naive understanding of the British legal system quickly led to disaster. His last, tail-spin years ended in one of the cheapest, un-Oscar hotels in Paris, somewhat as predicted in his play:

JACK: Poor Ernest! He had some many faults, but it is a sad, sad blow.

CHASUBLE: Very sad indeed. Were you with him at the end?

JACK: No. He died abroad; in Paris, in fact. I had a telegram last night from the manager of the Grand Hotel.

CHASUBLE: Was the cause of death mentioned?

JACK: A severe chill, it seems.

MISS PRISM: As a man sows, so shall he reap.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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