This Day In Literary History
On February 14th, 1895, The Importance of Being Earnest, the classic play the by legendary Irish writer Oscar Wilde, opened in London. Wilde had written the first draft of the play in just three weeks. It was the fastest play he ever wrote.
The Importance of Being Earnest was also Wilde's most famous play. In this satire of the foibles and hypocrisy of the British upper class, young aristocrat Jack Worthing invents a fictional younger brother named Earnest.
Jack uses his fictitious sibling as a way of getting out of trouble. Sometimes he pretends to be Earnest when it suits his duplicitous purposes. When Jack's friend and fellow aristocrat Algernon Moncrieff learns about Earnest, he also assumes Earnest's identity for his own purposes.
Jack and Algernon's plans backfire when two women fall in love with them, but each girl thinks she's in love with a man called Earnest. In a surprise twist, it turns out that Algernon, who has been impersonating Jack's fictitious sibling, is actually his long lost brother.
The Importance of Being Earnest earned rave reviews and became a hit. It's considered Oscar Wilde's best play. It would also be his last. It closed after 83 performances because of a scandal that had ensnared the playwright.
Wilde was a bisexual who, although married to a woman and the father of her children, preferred men. During his time - the Victorian era in England - homosexuality was considered both a disgrace and a crime under British law punishable by imprisonment.
The Marquess of Queensberry, father of Wilde's male lover Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas, publicly accused Wilde of being a "posing sodomite," so Wilde made a complaint of criminal libel against him. The Marquess was arrested and released on bail.
A team of detectives led his lawyers to London's gay underground and details of Wilde's associations with male prostitutes, transvestites, and gay brothels were soon uncovered and leaked to the press, which assailed him nonstop.
Queensberry's lawyers claimed that the alleged libel was done for the public good. He was acquitted and Wilde found himself arrested for "gross indecency" - a term for homosexual acts that were illegal under British law.
The jury in Wilde's first trial failed to reach a verdict. At his final trial, presided by Justice Sir Alfred Wills, Wilde was convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to the maximum of two years imprisonment - a sentence that the judge believed was too lenient for the crime of homosexuality.
Wilde served his sentence at three different prisons. By the time of his release, prison life had left him in poor health. He spent his last years abroad in self-imposed exile, living under the alias Sebastian Melmoth.
The name was based on St. Sebastian (a Christian martyr believed to have been gay) and the main character of Melmoth The Wanderer, a Gothic novel written by Wilde's great uncle, Charles Robert Maturin.
Wilde was broke, so his wife, who refused to meet with him or let him see his children, sent him money when she could. He took up with his first lover, Robert Ross, and they spent the summer of 1897 together in Northern France, where Wilde wrote his classic poem, The Battle Of Reading Gaol.
Despite the objections of their families and friends, Wilde later reunited with Bosie Douglas, and they lived together in Italy in late 1897. They soon broke up, this time for good.
Wilde settled at the Hotel d'Alsace in Paris, where, it has been said, he lived the uninhibited gay lifestyle that had been denied him in England. He died of cerebral meningitis on November 30th, 1900, at the age of 46.
Some have speculated that the meningitis was a complication of syphilis, but Wilde's grandson, Merlin Holland, said that it was a complication of a surgical procedure, most likely a mastoidectomy. Wilde's own doctors blamed the meningitis on an old suppuration of the right ear.
Quote Of The Day
"By giving us the opinions of the uneducated, journalism keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community." - Oscar Wilde
Today's video features a complete live performance of Oscar Wilde's classic play The Importance of Being Earnest. Enjoy!