Oscar Wilde was a renegade homosexual in a time and place—Victorian England—when individuality and screwing were equally unseemly. It's that combination—his radiant individuality and unabashed love of manflesh—that has shaped Wilde's reputation as an iconoclastic, left-of-center social critic whose plays are wicked condemnations of middle-class morality and hypocrisy.
Too bad that view is horseshit. Wilde was indeed a social critic, but his criticism stemmed from a desperate need to be accepted by middle-class society. He wrote with great wit plays that were clever parodies of the model of cultural discourse: the well-crafted drawing-room comedy that appealed to upper-class manners and morals of the time. But any objective look at Wilde's material reveals a man largely happy with the status quo.
Take The Importance of Being Earnest, currently being produced in Fullerton by the Grove Theater Center. Visually, the show won't make you drop your teacup, but director Kevin Cochran has assembled a strong cast that captures Wilde's tongue-in-cheek sentimentality and delivers his one-liners with enunciated venom. This pared-down approach illuminates Wilde's work. Unlike other Earnests, which practically drool in their frenzy to erect a monument to Wilde's genius, Cochran's presentation suggests that Wilde was less a writer with something to say than a writer who said it very, very well.
Let's skip any semblance of synopsis (if you don't know Earnest's silly plot by now, chances are you never will), except to note that strong men with apparently well-defined senses of self surrender all in order to be married. Along the way, Wilde pokes fun at everything from marriage and sex to money and position. And though every character—male or female, young or old—has self-deprecating things to say, the play ends with all conflicts resolved, all loose ends nicely tied up, and all class/gender/sex issues neatly subsumed by good feeling.
It's constantly argued that Wilde was a maverick who got away with as much as he could in a time when very few people were getting away with anything. But that view is flat wrong. George Bernard Shaw was already beginning to write genuinely subversive satire when Wilde was penning his plays, and right across the English Channel, the French avant-garde was vigorously assaulting everything from theatrical naturalism to bourgeois manners.
There is no similar sense of revolution or even mild reform in Wilde's plays—no matter how much they make us laugh or how much we may yearn to believe that he's one of us. He isn't. He is definitely one of them.
Take Wilde's characters Jack and Algernon, young men flushed with vigor and vitality, filled with a sense of self-assurance we venerate even today. Instead of riding into battle or hunting prey, these men wage war on a more refined field, where their success is measured by the deference other men show them. Yet they turn into flan when it comes to women. What Jack and Algernon value most—the freedom that comes with assuming another identity—they surrender as soon as their women demand it.
Wilde's defenders might claim this is simply Wilde's criticism of straight society. But that's not how it reads—or how it's usually played. No, it's more likely Wilde was in fact a social conservative in almost all ways but the genital. Instead of being true to themselves, Wilde's male characters dutifully hand over their balls to their women. The fact that a gay playwright can take that position shows how deeply indoctrinated in the status quo Wilde was—and how that status quo has been buttressed over the past 100 years.
Praise Wilde for his cleverness, his wit and his style. Honor him for his ability to survive persecution and torment. But remember that he was no rebel.
Grove Theater Center at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center, 1201 Malvern Ave., Fullerton, (714) 741-9555. Thurs.-Sun., 8:15 p.m. $21.50-$25.50. A $15 dinner is available Fri.-Sat. if you make a reservation and arrive by 6:45 p.m. Through Sun.