Literary daybook, Feb. 14

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Published February 14, 2003 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On Feb. 14: Cecily notes in her diary her engagement to Ernest (three months before she meets him).
-- "The Importance of Being Earnest" (1895)
By Oscar Wilde

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
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Today in literary history
On this day in 1895, Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" opened in London. Wilde called his play a "Trivial Comedy for Serious People," and the opening night reviewers concurred: "There is no discordant note of seriousness. It is of nonsense all compact, and better nonsense, I think, our stage has not seen." The opening night audience expected their applause to bring the author out for a curtain call. When an actor went backstage to ask Wilde if he would do so, he demurred: "I don't think I shall take a call tonight. You see, I took one only last month at Haymarket, and one feels so much like a German band."

Biographer Richard Ellmann writes that the play "constructs its wonderful parapet over the abyss of the author's disquietude and apprehension." Though at the height of his success, and fond of applause, Wilde's personal life made him vulnerable to attack. He had heard that his eventual nemesis, the Marquis of Queensbury, planned to publicly confront him on the opening night of "Earnest"; he had arranged to have Queensbury's ticket withdrawn and to have a policeman present, but he was not going to offer himself onstage as a target, just in case. The Marquis had made it clear in notes to his son, Lord Douglas, that his relationship with Wilde must stop -- or else: "If I thought the actual thing was true, and it became public property, I should be quite justified in shooting him at sight. These christian English cowards and men, as they call themselves, want waking up. Your disgusted so-called father ..." More recently, an elder son had committed suicide on the heels of his own homosexual relationship with a politician. The Marquis was incensed that Wilde's play was opening on Valentine's Day, and he was well past the note-writing stage.

Having been prevented from attending the opening, Queensbury left a "phallic bouquet" of carrots and turnips for Wilde backstage. Three days later he appeared at Wilde's Albemarle Club with a witness and a calling card inscribed, "To Oscar Wilde posing Sodomite." This written accusation, the desire of Lord Douglas to spar with his father in public, and Wilde's naive belief that he would merely have to deny his homosexuality in court to win, provoked him to file charges of libel. He found out too late that Queensbury would play by his rules, and be able to frighten, cajole or bribe a number of male prostitutes into testifying against him.

Not long after its triumphant debut, "The Importance of Being Earnest" was withdrawn from theaters across England and America; not long after that, Wilde was in prison. The last, tail-spin years ended in one of the cheapest, un-Oscar hotels in Paris, and with "un enterrement de 6e classe" in Bagneux cemetery:

"Jack: Poor Ernest! He had some many faults, but it is a sad, sad blow.
Chasuble: Very sad indeed. Were you with him at the end?
Jack: No. He died abroad; in Paris, in fact. I had a telegram last night from the manager of the Grand Hotel.
Chasuble: Was the cause of death mentioned?
Jack: A severe chill, it seems.
Miss Prism: As a man sows, so shall he reap.
Chasuble: Charity, dear Miss Prism, charity! None of us are perfect. I myself am peculiarly susceptible to draughts. Will the interment take place here?
Jack: He seemed to have expressed a desire to be buried in Paris.
Chasuble: In Paris! I fear that hardly points to any very serious state of mind at the last ..."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

By the Salon Books Editors

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