Masking and disguise in Oscar Wilde’s plays ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ and ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’. What might these masks and disguises tell us about Victorian Society? (D.P. Baker)
Oscar Wilde is reported to have said ‘I will never outlive the century. The English people will not stand for it.’ He is now more frequently thought of as a man born into the wrong time, a heroic but ultimately doomed castaway in an unsympathetic age, set against the repressive forces of a period’ (Warwick, 2007, p.2). He led a double life, being both married and having a relationship with an aristocratic man. He led a deceptive life in the higher class society of London, but he wasn’t careful enough. His tempestuous relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas and his sexual relations with rent boys led to his eventual arrest and imprisonment. This was the society Wilde lived in. The strict moral and social rules that regulated Victorian society led to a whole section of society that lived double lives, deceiving their friends, their families and sometimes even themselves. It is within this context that both The Importance of Being Earnest and Lady Windermere’s Fan were written and ultimately performed. Both plays satirically depict Victorian aristocratic life. By giving examples from the two texts I hope to demonstrate how masking plays an important part in high society during the 1890s.
It has been said that the ‘social reality of the 90s was one of power, dominators vs. dominated, and in every passage of The Importance of Being Earnest there is continuous conflict’ (Stone, p.33). Wilde tackles these themes with his epigrams and witty puns which permit his audience to ‘vicariously participate in a sparring contest between “X” and “Y.” These points and counterpoints fluctuate until their blurred differences create an alternative ‘other’’ (Crawford, 2005). This ‘other’ is an important point to remember if we are to take Wilde’s use of language and humour and to see beyond it to the figurative masks worn by the characters. Although The Importance of Being Earnest and Lady Windermere’s Fan can both be considered comedies, the plays resonate on many different levels of understanding. In a letter to the St James Gazette (26th Feb, 1892) Wilde wrote (on Lady Windermere’s Fan) that he did not want the play to be viewed as ‘a mere question of pantomime and clowning’ but that ‘he was interested in the piece as a psychological study’ (Mason, 2007, p.390). As for the Importance of Being Earnest it has been suggested (Crawford, 2005) that the play is a satire of Wilde’s own life and that Jack’s actions quite often mimic Wilde’s personal life. ‘Jack as an infant is literally exchanged for a manuscript; Wilde exchanges himself and his sexuality for the ‘cucumber sandwiches,’ ‘smoking cases,’ and ‘Bunburyism’ of his characters’.
If we begin by looking at The Importance of Being Earnest we notice that the two principle characters Jack and Algernon are leading double lives. Jack is a land owner, dependable and respectable who has invented a fictitious brother called ‘Earnest.’ He uses this invention to escape his responsibilities and to indulge in immoral behaviour in London. Likewise, Algernon, who is a delightful but idle bachelor has invented a fictional ‘invalid’ character that he can run off ‘visiting’ to escape his commitments. Both of these alternative personas have been created to allow the characters to fulfil their needs and natural instincts in a strict and moral society. In addition to these restraints there was also the issue of class divide. At the opening of the play we are introduced to Algernon and his manservant Lane. Algernon is playing the piano and addresses his servant ‘did you hear what I was playing, Lane?’ To which Lane replies ‘I didn’t think it polite to listen, sir.’ Here we can see ‘regulative social conventions’ (Crawford, 2005) at work with the lower class ‘knowing their place.’ In the first instance it would not have been ‘polite’ for Lane to have ‘listened’ and in the second, he is not really being asked his opinion anyway. Whether Lane is telling the truth about hearing the music or not is irrelevant as it is the correct social convention to follow.
Jack and Algernon’s discussion on Algernon’s imaginary, invalid friend, Bunbury, introduces another case of masking within the play. We see in the line ‘My dear Algy, you talk exactly as if you were a dentist.’ One interpretation of this phrase could be ‘you are orally-fixated’ to which Algernon replies: ‘Well that is what dentists do… I have always suspected you of being a confirmed and secret Bunburyist; and I am quite sure of it now.’ They continue with this guarded and heavily disguised language culminating in Jack saying ‘what on earth do you mean by a Bunburyist’ and Algernon replying: ‘I’ll reveal to you the meaning of that incomparable expression as soon as you are kind enough to inform me why you are Ernest in town and Jack in the country’. This coded language is understood by both men but could be read as nonsense if not a little baffling to anybody outside of their ‘circle’.
The play if rife with homosexual and homoerotic masking. According to Demarest (2007) The Importance of Being Earnest exists like a secret code, within and between the words, sharp and teasing and seductive, for the enjoyment of gay society that had to remain so carefully concealed in the margins of society. Of course, homosexuality was illegal in Britain during this time and it was considered a custodial offense if one was found guilty of physical consummation.
A cigarette case was considered a potent symbol for homosexuality in Victorian England and this item plays an interesting part in The Importance of being Earnest. The silver cigarette which Algernon and Jack fight over in Act 1 was a gift Oscar Wilde was known to have given to several of his lovers. If we look at an extract from this scene we see a visible case of homosexual masking and deceit being played out between the two characters. Algernon begins with: ‘Yes; but this isn’t your cigarette case. This cigarette case is a present from some one of the name of Cecily, and you said you didn’t know any one of that name’. To which Jack retorts: ‘Well, if you want to know, Cecily happens to be my aunt!’ So who was Cecily? According to Demarest (2007) ‘Cecily, the name of Jack Worthing’s ward, was a contemporary term for a young male prostitute’.
There are further examples of homosexual masking in the play. For instance when ‘Jack and Algy fight over buttered muffins, apparently blissfully unaware of all the double entendres for buttocks and lubrication or the fact that food is such a very obvious symbolic substitute for sex’ (Demarest, 2007).
If we now look at the second play Lady Windermere’s Fan we notice that this play follows similar themes to that of The ‘Importance of Being Earnest’. And like The Importance of Being Earnest there is a ‘baffling combination of perfect seriousness in its internal structure with perfect frivolity in its apparent structure’ (Stone, p.31). Again we find conflict and pretence, people hiding from the truth and people with mistaken or secret identities. The lies and deception paint a vivid picture of society in Victorian England. The upper classes often had no occupation other than an endless round of social engagements and pleasure seeking activities. Their conversations reveal the boredom which existed within their class system and gives us a view into the world of appearances in which Victorian people lived.
The character of Mrs Erlynne is a major theme in the play. There are numerous opinions about this mysterious woman including her identity, her moral values and her social position. The artificial world of social protocol and etiquette and the hierarchical structure of Victorian society was a game that every member of the upper classes adhered to. It would appear that most ‘decent’ people wore their conventional figurative masks ‘publically’ to retain their place in society. We only have to examine the different attitudes to Mrs Erlynne to see this. At the end of Act 1 we see Lord Windermere agonising over whether he should reveal the identity of Mrs Erlynne to his wife to change her negative opinion, only for him to declare: ‘Margaret! Margaret! [A pause.] My God! What shall I do? I dare not tell her who this woman really is. The shame would kill her. [Sinks down into a chair and buries his face in his hands].’In Act 2 we find further evidence on how important ‘image’ was in Victorian England when Lord Augustus Lorton (brother of the Duchess) asks Lord Windermere how Mrs Erlynne can gain ‘respectability’ as he wishes to marry her!
As with The Importance of Being Earnest Wilde also uses the power of ambiguity in Lady Windermere’s Fan. Wilde often uses meta-language to hide the true intentions of the characters. Stone (p.28) explains how ‘analogically the concept of meta-language can be extended into literature by differentiating between an actual and an implied statement or word-set. Meta-activity is occurring when actual and implied word-sets and the reality they both claim to relate to are being dealt with together.’ A good example which supports this argument is Lord Darlington’s quote in Act 1 ‘Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it.’ Another good example can be found in Act 3 where Mr. Dumby consoles Lord Darlington ‘I congratulate you, my dear fellow. In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.’
Marriage is another theme explored by Wilde in Lady Windermere’s Fan. In Act 1 we have Lord Darlington announcing to the Duchess of Berwick: ‘It’s a curious thing, Duchess, about the game of marriage – a game, by the way, that is going out of fashion- the wives hold all the honours, and invariably lose the odd trick.’ And in Act 3 we have a rather interesting conversation between Dumby, Lord Windermere and Cecil Graham where Dumby announces ‘Good heavens! how marriage ruins a man! It’s as demoralising as cigarettes, and far more expensive’. Both these quotes suggest a view marriage as an ideal that men felt obliged to mock publically even if their private views were totally different.
The various disguises and masks adopted by the characters in both The Importance of Being Earnest and Lady Windermere’s Fan reveal an artificial world of protocol, reputation and petty upper class concerns which seemed to dominate their day to day existence. Perhaps this was due to a lack of occupation which invariably led to boredom and idleness. Another reason might be the fascination the aristocracy had with fashion and role playing. Whatever reasons Wilde had in mind when writing these two plays, what is certain is that he demonstrated aptly the hypocrisy prevalent in Victorian society and used witty language and dialogue to reveal the extent to which people masked their intentions, their true feelings and often their weaknesses.
CRAWFORD, J. 2005. Point, Counterpoint, Thrust: Wilde’s Pun Burying in The Importance of Being Earnest [www] http://www.crawfordsworld.com/jaimie/professional/oscar.htm (10/01/12/12)
DEMAREST, J. 2007. Directors Notes, The Importance of Being Earnest [www] http://www.rudemechanicals.com/earnest/notes.shtml (10/01/12)
MASON, S. 2007. Bibliography of Oscar Wilde. New York: Haskell House Pub Ltd, p.390
STONE, G. n.d. Serious Bunburyism: The Logic of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ [www] http://eic.oxfordjournals.org/content/XXVI/1/28.full.pdf (10/01/12)
WARWICK, A. 2007. Oscar Wilde. Writers and their Works. Devon: Northcote House Publishers, pp.1-2
WILDE, O. 1974. Oscar Wilde Plays. Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd
SULLIVAN, N. 2003. A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.