by Jessa Cunningham, dramaturg
To truly understand The Importance of Being Earnest, one must meet the man behind the story.
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie was born October 16, 1854, to William Wilde and Jane Elgee in Dublin, Ireland. He had an older brother, William “Willie” Charles Kingsbury, and a younger sister, Isola Emily Francesca. His sister died when she was 10, which greatly affected Wilde throughout his life. Willie and Oscar attended Portora Royal School, where Oscar excelled in many subjects, particularly the classics.In 1871, Wilde was awarded the Royal School Scholarship in order to attend Trinity College in Dublin. After much success at Trinity College, Wilde earned a Demyship scholarship to attend Oxford University.
While at Oxford, Wilde‘s father died, which left his family in a hard place financially. He continued to work to improve his writing, and ended up winning the Newdigate prize for his poem, “Ravenna.” In 1881, he published his first collection of poetry. At the end of that year, Wilde embarked to New York to travel across the country and deliver lectures on the aesthetic movement. During this trip, Wilde seemed to have a surge in his career. His lecture series was extended from four months to a year, and he even planned to have his play, “Vera,” to be produced in New York the following year. Soon after returning from America, Wilde set off on a lecture tour in Britain and Ireland.
On May 29, 1884, he married Constance Lloyd. Lloyd was the daughter of a successful barrister, so she was very well-read and educated in multiple languages. It was a satisfactory match for Wilde, as it raised his status in society. But, that wasn’t enough for his family to do well; after the birth of his children Vyvyan and Cyril, Wilde began to work at Woman’s World magazine and stayed there from 1887 to 1889.
The next six years are when Wilde created some of his most famous works. During this time, one of Wilde’s most famous works, The Picture of Dorian Grey (1890), was published, as well as some other notable works, such as “Lady Windermere’s Fan” (1892), “An Ideal Husband” (1895), and “The Importance of Being Earnest” (1895). All of these works helped to establish Wilde as a playwright and author in the Victorian world.
At this same time, though, Wilde became entangled in some legal issues as a result of personal actions and relationships. In April 1895, Wilde was arrested and convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to two years of hard labor because of an intimate relationship he had with his male friend, Lord Alfred Douglas. His personal issues greatly influenced his work, particularly in “The Importance of Being Earnest.” As he was being ostracized by the society he had worked so hard to fit into, Wilde made a commentary of it in his famous play.
Oscar Wilde died on November 30, 1900, after years of trouble. He lost his wife while serving his sentence, and spent the last couple of years of his life basically alone, wandering around Europe. While his life may have been full of woe and struggle, there is no denying the creative genius behind Wilde’s timeless writing.