by Jessa Cunningham, dramaturg
Oscar Wilde was very much a product of his time, so it is only fitting to understand just what that time was before diving into the production itself. So what was the Victorian Era?
The Victorian Era started in 1837 with the crowning of Queen Victoria to the British throne and ended in 1901 at the end of her rule. This time period was known as a time that involved relative peace and prosperity in the country. The British Empire expanded all over the globe during this time, and Britain became the most powerful country in the world. While this prosperity happened internationally, there were significant societal, artistic and technological changes that altered life in Britain for many years.
While it was a time of peace and prosperity, it was also associated with words such as “prudish,” “hypocritical,” and “stuffy.” But that is not true for every aspect. It does apply, however, to the upper and middle classes. The middle class was expanding during this time, and in order to become nobler and rise in status, many middle class people felt like they had to live properly like the other half and follow the rules and conventions in order to do that. And the upper class was certainly not short on rules– but that is a post for another time! Among this, many middle class people, like Wilde, tried to marry up in order to get into proper society.
As changes in class occurred, many other developments did as well, in London especially. New roads were cut through slums, a sewer network was constructed, ten bridges were built over the Thames, and three tunnels were built underneath it. So many things happened in these years that changed the face of London forever.
With the continued development of the railroad, mass tourism became quite popular. Because of this, the arts saw a good change: the building of museums with the support of the Royal family. Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, loved the arts and aided in the building of Royal Albert Hall, the Royal Opera House, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Natural History Museum, and many other amenities that supported the humanities. Great writers rose to prominence during this time as well, including the likes of George Eliot, Rudyard Kipling, the Bronte sisters, and our friend Oscar Wilde. The works they produced were quite popular among the Victorian audience.
The Victorian Era was the perfect time for Oscar Wilde to write his most famous play. Without the interesting dynamics that existed at this time to play on, The Importance of Being Earnest would not be as lasting a piece that it is.