Oscar Wilde's writing is at once stunning, overwhelming, witty and a timeless work of art. His main aim was to make people think and to feel, goals that he far exceeded. His Victorian audiences, enjoying the witty banter and madcap antics, often didn't realize they were being mocked. But Wilde's plays also carried deeper messages of love that remain as eternal today as the day they were written, more than 100 years ago. Whether they concerned the love of a parent for their child (and the lengths they would go for them) or the romantic love of a young couple, Wilde's love stories are works that everyone should know.
1. Lady Windermere’s Fan, 1892
In this play, a happy family teeters on the brink of destruction when a secret from twenty years earlier threatens to come to light. Lady Windermere must juggle the sudden attention of Lord Darlington, who has professed his love to her, and her loyalty to her husband, which is being tested by rumors that he is being unfaithful with and giving money to the mysterious Mrs. Erlynne. Misconceptions reign, and Lady Windermere very nearly loses her reputation and her life with her husband and son before all the lies and deceptions are cleared away. Mrs. Erlynne sacrifices herself and her reputation out of love and a desire for Lady Windermere's happiness, and is rewarded in the end.
Memorable Quote: We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.
2. An Ideal Husband, 1895
Blackmail runs rampant in this next play. The wicked Mrs. Cheveley arrives at the home of Sir Robert Chiltern during a dinner party and extorts him into supporting a phony canal-building plan. When his wife learns that he is taking part in the scheme, she demands that he back out, and when he cannot she refuses to forgive him. Lady Chiltern's entire marriage hinges on having an “ideal husband” whom she can be sure is worthy of her adoration in every aspect of his life. The fact that her husband is human and made a mistake is too much for her to bear. Mrs. Cheveley’s reign of destruction continues as she tries to blackmail Lord Goring, a friend of the Chilterns' and her former fiancée, into marrying her, but she is overcome in the end, and the Chilterns make peace.
Memorable Quote: All sins, except a sin against itself, Love should forgive. All lives, save loveless lives, true Love should pardon.
3. The Importance of Being Earnest, 1895
One of Wilde's most famous works, The Importance of Being Earnest runs circles around other plays of its kind. The respectable Jonh "Jack" Worthing has an alter ego; when in London, he is the irresponsible rake "Ernest", his own fictitious younger brother. He is found out by his good friend Algernon, the cousin of Gwendolyn, the woman John has come to propose to. Gwendolyn's mother, upon learning that John was adopted after being left in a handbag, refuses to allow the two to marry. Gwendolyn promises John, aka Ernest, her undying love before leaving. Both men retreat (separately) to the John's country estate. Algernon sneaks in as Ernest and proceeds to fall in love with and become engaged to John's wealthy ward Cecily. Confusion ensues as the two women meet, declare themselves both engaged to "Ernest", and start demanding answers. But, love and luck prevail in the end.
Memorable Quote: To speak frankly, I am not in favour of long engagements. They give people the opportunity of finding out each other's character before marriage, which I think is never advisable.
4. A Woman of No Importance, 1893
Wilde tackles the position of women who thought with their hearts before their heads, and as a consequence are shunned for becoming unwed mothers. Instead of shaming them, Wilde challenges the fact that the men who impregnated them are let off with no repercussions, free to pursue lives of success and wealth (symbolized in the odious Lord Illingworth). Beneath it all is the love that Mrs. Arbuthnot (an unwed mother who concealed this fact from the world) has for her son Gerald, a love that gives her strength in the face of incredible hardships, and the love of the American heiress Hester for Gerald. Hester is willing to support him financially because she loves him more than her wealth.
Memorable Quote: Men marry because they are tired; women because they are curious. Both are disappointed.
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