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The Art of the Pose

Oscar Wilde’s Performance Theory

Heather Marcovitch

This book revisits Oscar Wilde’s major writings through the field of performance studies. Wilde wrote about performance as a cultural dialectic, as a form of serious and critical play, and as the basis of a subversive poetics. In his studies at Oxford University, his famous lecture tour of the United States and Canada, his friendships with famous actresses Sarah Bernhardt and Lillie Langtry, the writing of his critical essays, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Salome, and his society comedies, and culminating in his post-prison writings De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Wilde develops a rich theory of performance that addresses aesthetics, ethics, identity and individualism. This book also traces Wilde’s often-troubled relationship with late-Victorian society in terms of its attempts to define his public performances by stereotyping him as both irrelevant and dangerous, from the early newspaper caricatures to its later description of him as a sexual monster.


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Chapter Five The Dialectic of Persona and Stereotypes in the Society Comedies 151


151 Chapter Five The Dialectic of Persona and Stereotype in the Society Comedies In 1895, critic Clement Scott, although no admirer of Wilde, grud- gingly admitted that ‘Oscar Wilde is the fashion. His catch and whimsicality of dialogue tickle the public. Just now the whole of society is engaged in inventing Oscar Wildeisms.’1 Or as Wilde’s good friend Ada Leverson put it, It is really difficult to convey now in words the strong popularity, the craze there was at this moment for the subject of my essay; ‘To meet Mr. Oscar Wilde’ was put on the most exclusive of invitation cards. And every omni- bus-conductor knew his latest jokes.2 From early 1892 until his May 1895 trials, Wilde enjoyed tremen- dous success as a playwright of the drawing-room comedy, a genre which took the conventions of the popular French melodramas and well-made plays of the day and recast them in a humorous vein.3 Wilde’s four drawing-room, or ‘society,’ comedies – Lady Winder- mere’s Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895), and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) – solidified Wilde’s celebrity persona as the model of the sophisticate. Ironically, though, each of the comedies is about the tension surrounding an 1 Illustrated London News, 12 January 1895. 2 Ada Leverson, ‘The Last First Night.’ New Criterion, January 1926. 3 The ‘well-made play’ (pièce bien-faite) was a variation of the melodrama; Eugène Scribe was its best-known practitioner. It made extensive use of the coincidence as...

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