Oscar Wilde, “Salomé” (1894) and “The Importance of Being Earnest” (1895) – Oscar Wilde! I’ve known about him forever but this is my first time reading him. I got a book of his plays at a used place when I was briefly dating a woman who liked his work. One of the Melendy Avenue Review Citizens (become a Citizen, come on, it’s cool) indicated he wanted me to read Wilde so I’d reveal details of said relationship. There’s not a lot to reveal. We had fun for about two months and then something stupid and shitty happened and we both said and did dumb shit and then it was over and we haven’t spoken for years. The end.
I’m not sure Wilde is really relevant there, except maybe in being a libertine, which I guess the lady in question also was, but not really more than most people our age. Being a libertine was riskier in Victorian days- Wilde went to jail for a couple of years for sodomy, which ruined his health and probably prematurely ended his life. He had fun encounters with censors, too, including having “Salomé” banned from the London stage because it depicted biblical characters. But he was a rich, educated, Anglo-Irish libertine, and you could say he got the last laugh as he’s still beloved to this day.
I get the idea people probably love the image of Wilde more than they do his actual written work, but the latter holds up ok too. “The Importance of Being Earnest” is an amusing farce wherein two cynical dudes get with two idealistic-but-wily ladies, both of whom really want to be with men named Ernest because of the romantical sound of the name? And so they need to both be Ernest and a little bit earnest, despite being cynical and owning each other all the time with witty ripostes and generally not taking things seriously, and despite neither having been bestowed with the handle in question. One of the characters also discovers his paternity! Normally, a cynic getting all misty-eyed about love and paternity after however long acting above it all makes me mad, but it’s hard to do with Wilde, I guess because of his writing chops and the fact it was all so long ago. I will say the tropes — contrasts between London and country behavior, dronish young men, dreamy young women, battleaxe aunts, confusion and duplicity leading to love — were done better by Wodehouse in my opinion, but would there be a Wodehouse without a Wilde? That’s for historians of British comedy to say, I guess.
After finishing “The Importance of Being Earnest” I gave “Salomé” a try as a dessert. It’s a one-act fever dream about Christianity and paganism in the key of Orientalism. I don’t mean this to make it “problematic” though I guess it is, if you care- I mean to indicate that it partakes of a tradition of immoralists like Wilde looking to a fabulous (in many senses of the word) East. Say what you want about Orientalism as a topos but it was meant to entertain, provide a sensuousness conspicuously lacking in the coal-damp European modernity that developed alongside it. Salomé is sex as a certain kind of Victorian understood it, in all of its naivete and knowingness. Chivalry destroys itself for her, venality in the form of her mother and step-father try to contain her whilst despoiling her, pedants ignore her to fight each other, above all the crude misogynist prophet John the Baptist, representative of what’s coming next (SOME motherfuckers are going to be vexed to nightmare by the rocking of a cradle, to quote the most abused poem in the English language, by Wilde’s fellow Anglo-Irish weirdo lit guy), defies her, spits on her, gets got by her (well, her slaves, but on her command), and ultimately has the last grim, tight-lipped non-laugh at her expense. It’s weird. Part of me wants to do a table read of it over Discord or something but, as they say, it is “problematic.” But short! DM me? ****