Topic 51B – Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw

Topic 51B – Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw



2.1 Social changes


3.1 The 19th century theatrical tradition


4.1 Aestheticism: A vision of art and life





The Industrial Revolution begins in England, though the Continent will experience it some decades later. Urbanization intensifies-along with urban poverty and class dissatisfaction. In the 1830’s, Thomas Carlyle will write that “the Cash Nexus” has already replaced the feudal, hierarchical ties that once kept British society together. Writing at “ground zero” of this titanic change in human affairs, Romantic poets like Blake and Wordsworth respond sharply to England’s changing landscapes and human relationships. “Nature” is no longer simply god’s gift, as previous generations might have thought; some Romantic poets see nature-and the human sources of strength and happiness they believe it nourishes-as threatened with extinction.

Early in the Victorian Era, the merchants and manufacturers of the middle class promote laissez-faire economics, free trade, various social reforms, and individual liberty. The Reform Bill of 1832 cedes limited power to the Industrial North. The middle-class fervour for laissez-faire will subside somewhat as the Era moves into its middle and late periods.

Though middle-class liberalism is very powerful throughout the Victorian Period, it does not go uncriticized in any decade. This is the age of the Victorian sage or cultural critic-Thomas Carlyle, J.S. Mill, Matthew Arnold, John Ruskin, and Walter Pater, among others, take aim at or modify liberal assumptions about human nature, economics, and social organization. These authors were, of course, preceded by the Romantic poets, themselves not slow to criticize the effects of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the middle class.

In the 1880’s and 1890’s, the “Decadent” or “Aesthetic” movement (the Pre-Raphaelites, Aubrey Beardsley, Algernon Swinburne, Oscar Wilde, et. al) takes its own shot at bourgeois England. In particular, “dandies” like Wilde engage in witty exposure and audacious reversal/inversion of middle-class moral, class/economic, and sexual codes, thereby creating both amusement and outrage in the fin de siecle English citizen. Wilde’s downfall-his 1895 conviction for homosexual acts- effectively puts an end to the aesthetic movement’s influence. Certain members or admirers of the movement-most notably Yeats-move on to write their own masterpieces within the milieu of “Modernism.”

Oscar Wilde stands out among the fraternity of Victorian dramatists, which includes fellow-Irishman Dion Boucicault, Tom Robertson, Tom Taylor, W. S. Gilbert, Arthur Wing Pinero and George Bernard Shaw.

Wilde published several children’s books, and in 1891 the tale of a hedonistic Adonis with the tormented soul of a satyr, The Picture of Dorian Gray. In a brilliant series of domestic comedies, Wilde took the London stage by storm with his witty, epigrammatic style, insolent ease of utterance, and smooth urbanity. Wilde’s tragic downfall was precipitated by an accusation of homosexuality. After a sensational trial, Wilde was sent to prison. Bankrupt and ruined in health, he left prison in 1897 and settled in Paris until his death.

On the other hand, George Bernard Shaw was a world-famous playwright. Born in Dublin, he moved to London at age twenty and lived in England for the remainder of his life. Shaw’s first success was as a music and literary critic, but he was drawn to drama and authored more than sixty plays during his career. Typically his work is leavened by a delightful vein of comedy, but nearly all of it has serious undertones. His plays and prefaces pinpoint institutionalized defects in many aspects of Western culture and suggest reforms. Education, marriage, religion, government, health care, class privilege, etc., all of these were targets, but his prime aim was to free the working class from the abusive exploitation that pervaded the Victorian era. Humor was Shaw’s way of making his attacks on the establishment less distressing to his audiences.

Politically an ardent socialist, Shaw wrote many brochures and speeches for the Fabian Society and became an accomplished orator in furtherance of its causes. Those included gaining equal political rights for men and women, alleviating abuses of the working class, rescinding private ownership of productive land, and promoting healthful lifestyles.

Although both Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw were born in Ireland in the 1850’s and they became famous dramatists, they have more differences than similarities. Their production does not belong exclusively to the Irish literature, but rather to the Anglo-Irish tradition.

Wilde and Shaw were the renewers of the English theatre in the 1890’s, each of them in his own style. As we shall see Wilde followed the tradition of the high comedy, but he introduced a critical view of society, whereas Shaw went beyond in his transformation, following the line of realism that had been started by Ibsen.

Thus, in the first part of this topic, we will learn about the situation of the English drama at the end of the 19th century. Next, we will focus our study on the lives and works of the most outstanding figures of the English theatre at this time, that is to say, Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw.


The Industrial Revolution begins in England, though the Continent will experience it some decades later. Urbanization intensifies-along with urban poverty and class dissatisfaction. In the 1830’s, Thomas Carlyle will write that “the Cash Nexus” has already replaced the feudal, hierarchical ties that once kept British society together. Writing at “ground zero” of this titanic change in human affairs, Romantic poets like Blake and Wordsworth respond sharply to England’s changing landscapes and human relationships. “Nature” is no longer simply god’s gift, as previous generations might have thought; some Romantic poets see nature-and the human sources of strength and happiness they believe it nourishes-as threatened with extinction.

Early in the Victorian Era, the merchants and manufacturers of the middle class promote laissez-faire economics, free trade, various social reforms, and individual liberty. The Reform Bill of 1832 cedes limited power to the Industrial North. The middle-class fervour for laissez-faire will subside somewhat as the Era moves into its middle and late periods.

In the 1840’s, Chartism (a kind of early communist movement) threatens the middle class and the aristocracy with a socialist revolution, but the threat diminishes with the coming of the more prosperous, stable High Victorian Period from 1850 to around 1870. Socialism will once again come into play, at least on the intellectual level, after the 1870’s when agricultural depression, competition with Germany and America, and other woes beset the British economy.

Early utilitarians Jeremy Bentham and James Mill, writing during the Romantic Period, base their philosophical claims and legislative reform schemes upon the primacy of individual pleasure. Later, the Victorian John Stuart Mill will redefine utilitarianism to account for the quality of the pleasure that the elder Mill had set up as the goal of civilization. John Stuart Mill opposes the “tyranny of [middle-class] public opinion.”

Though middle-class liberalism is very powerful throughout the Victorian Period, it does not go uncriticized in any decade. This is the age of the Victorian sage or cultural critic-Thomas Carlyle, J.S. Mill, Matthew Arnold, John Ruskin, and Walter Pater, among others, take aim at or modify liberal assumptions about human nature, economics, and social organization. These authors were, of course, preceded by the Romantic poets, themselves not slow to criticize the effects of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the middle class.

In the 1880’s and 1890’s, the “Decadent” or “Aesthetic” movement (the Pre-Raphaelites, Aubrey Beardsley, Algernon Swinburne, Oscar Wilde, et. al) takes its own shot at bourgeois England. In particular, “dandies” like Wilde engage in witty exposure and audacious reversal/inversion of middle-class moral, class/economic, and sexual codes, thereby creating both amusement and outrage in the fin de siecle English citizen. Wilde’s downfall-his 1895 conviction for homosexual acts- effectively puts an end to the aesthetic movement’s influence. Certain members or admirers of the movement-most notably Yeats-move on to write their own masterpieces within the milieu of “Modernism.”

The original Scientific Revolution of Kepler, Bacon, Galileo, and Newton finds its completion in the Victorian Era. Science begins to dominate public discourse, and even, according to some writers, partially displaces religion as a coherent world view. A corollary of scientific dominance is the belief that when science advances, so does human society: science and progress, in other words, go hand in hand. Through most of the Victorian Era-the great age of Lyell, Wallace, and Darwin-“science” is not so specialized into isolated disciplines that the ordinary, well-educated citizen cannot follow its movements. In the last few decades of the century, however, specialization begins to set in, and “science” begins to be perceived as a closed set of procedures and terms.

Along with the dominance of the scientific world view comes anxiety over the loss of the older, religious outlook. From the time of Lyell onward, many British citizens find it hard to maintain their Christian beliefs. Putting a positive construction upon Darwinian “evolution” sometimes provides them with an alternative vision of progress, but Herbert Spencer’s ruthless evolutionary laissez-faire doctrine also interposes itself, especially in America.

Though the British Empire has been growing since the days of Queen Elizabeth I, nineteenth-century English citizens, especially during the Victorian Era, become intensely interested in their overseas possessions. This interest is most likely due in part to anxiety about competition with other countries-Bismark’s Germany, for example-and in part to the intellectual complications inherent in the experience of an expanding empire. Some oppose imperialism, but many find in it wealth and a sense of superiority and mission.

At the turn of the century, Ireland was facing a difficult period. It is a period of social, economic and also political changes. And there is a conflict because, although they form part of the British Isles, yet the Irish have never really formed part of the British Nation. Race, religion, history and the different social and economic developments have all helped keep the two peoples distinct. The majority of the Irish have remained Roman Catholics, and though many of her leading writers have come from the Protestant minority, the traditional faith is always in the background form which they spring. Class distinctions are not so socially rigid as in Britain and there is a relative absence of individualism. Instead, there is a sense of community in Ireland which does not longer exist in England. Thus, in Synge’s plays when a stranger enters, he shares naturally in the conversation, no introduction being necessary.

The only native culture Ireland possessed was the ancient Gaelic civilisation. Ireland became Christian in the 5th century, and the golden age of Gaelic culture lasted from the 7th to around the 12th century. The language declined under the British occupation, and, by the first half of the 19th century, Irish had ceased to exist as a tongue for the educated, surviving only in some dialects spoken by peasants. A movement to revive the language began at the turn of the century, and after the Irish Free State came into being in 1921, teaching of the language was made compulsory in the schools. But in the process of adopting English as the language of the people Irish became a great influence on the English spoken and written in Ireland. Although Synge wrote nothing in Irish, the English he used drew its peculiar quality from being frequently a direct translation of Gaelic idiom.

The surge of creative writing in Ireland around the opening of this century has often been spoken of as the Irish Literary Renaissance. We have figures such as Yeats, Joyce and Beckett, many minor writers and, in the field of the English-speaking theatre Ireland was the principal medium for a revolution in dramatic writing and acting technique. The Irish political leaders who gradually roused the national enthusiasm which prepared the way for home rule have a stronger claim than the regionalists in Irish fiction to be regarded as the precursors of the Irish Literary Renaissance.

From about 1830 Trinity College Dublin became a centre of political and literary activity, and in 1833 The Dublin University Magazine was founded. Among its contributors was James Clarence Mangan, who, because of his personal history has been called “a sort of Irish Poe”. He wrote several verse paraphrases of Gaelic songs from prose translations by his friends. Among these is the fervently patriotic address to Ireland “My Dark Rosaleen”. Mangan also contributed to The Nation, whose founders were Charles Gavan Duffy and Thomas O. Davis. These men and their collaborators, impatient of the cautious policy of Daniel O’Connel, formed the group known as “Young Ireland”. Part of its programme was to stimulate patriotism by rousing interest and pride in the national past, past legend, lore and literature.

Some authors born in Ireland considered themselves as British, but others were starting to struggle to create a cultural consciousness. The drama in English language in this period was written basically by Irish authors. However, we can distinguish between Irish authors writing British drama, such as Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw, and those writing Irish drama, having Synge and Yeats as main representatives.

2.1 Social changes

Social changes were taking place in the English society at that time which helped theatre to become again the centre of discussion about society. In the 1880’s there was a breakdown of many established beliefs.

For example, in religion Darwin’s theory had raised many questions against the traditional Christian belief. Disputes within the Church of England appeared, questioning the ecclesiastic authority. People became sceptic, agnostic, atheist. Socialism was considered as the new religion of humanity for those intellectuals who had lost their faith in Christianity.

On the other hand, people started to talk about the darkest England. Social explorations were made and it was found that they were a worse nation than everybody believed.

There was also a change in the role of women. In the mid-Victorian period there was a conventional view of women as virtuous, domestic, motherly, … almost perfect. They were described as the centre of the family, the angel of the house. They had been educated to please and it was not well seen that they worked. But now the new woman is independent and many of them start working as secretaries in offices. Besides, the Victorian idea of women was that they were asexual, but now women’s sexuality is exposed.


Before talking in detail about Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw it would be convenient to consider the general trends in literature that marked the end of the 19th century. This period was prolific in awarding names to its literary movements, thus lending disproportionate emphasis to the differences among them. The tendency to overlap from one art to another was accompanied by an attempt on the part of arts to develop their own peculiarities and distinctive aspects.

Leading poetic figures of the Victorian era included Alfred Tennyson, 1st Baron Tennyson, Robert Browning (and his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning), and Matthew Arnold, whilst multi-disciplinary talents such as John Ruskin and Dante Gabriel Rossetti were also famous for their poetry. The poetry of this period was heavily influenced by the Romantics, but also went off in its own directions. Particularly notable was the development of the dramatic monologue, a form used by many poets in this period, but perfected by Browning, most of his poems were in the form of dramatic monologues.

Nonsense verse, such as by Edward Lear, taken with the work of Lewis Carroll, is regarded as a precursor of surrealism.

Towards the end of the century, English poets began to take an interest in French symbolism and Victorian poetry entered a decadent fin-de-siècle phase. Two groups of poets emerged, the Yellow Book poets who adhered to the tenets of Aestheticism, including Algernon Charles Swinburne, Oscar Wilde and Arthur Symons and the Rhymer’s Club group that included Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson and William Butler Yeats.

In the 19th century, the Irish playwright Dion Boucicault was an extremely popular writer of comedies. However, it was in the last decade of the century that the Irish theatre finally came of age with the emergence of George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde. All of these writers lived mainly in England and wrote in English. Wilde and Shaw actually were two very different playwrights, whose dissimilarity was at times the only thing connecting them. Shaw was an outspoken critic of society, who vented his opinions in his work and in socialistic pamphlets and essays. Wilde, on the other hand, was an aestheticist and a member of the school of “l’art pour l’art” (a name he didn’t really favour, because it didn’t express the ethical implications of the movement). Shaw himself never criticised the aesthetes, but he never defended them either. He surely wasn’t a fan of Walter Pater, the father of aestheticist philosophy, and leaned more towards John Ruskin, whom he deemed the most important Victorian critic. Choosing Ruskin over Pater at the same time implied a choice for writers such as Blake, Shelley and Ibsen, as opposed to Keats and Swinburne, authors Wilde championed. The latter firmly believed in an apolitical kind of art, because art couldn’t be political if it didn’t want to loose its indepence. Shaw, on  the other hand, thought the political was essential to art. Simply put, according to Shaw, political art should help make the world a better place. In the and, however, it would be Wilde’s poetics that would dominate the twentieth century. Auschwitz sharply questioned the possibility of an ethically viable political or ideological art.

Still, Shaw managed to have an important impact on one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century, namely Bertolt Brecht. Brecht frimly believed, just as Shaw did, in the social responsibilities of art. His so-called theatre of “alienation” or “Verfremdung”, in which actors don’t act anymore, but rather present their story to the public, showed some striking resemblances with Shaw’s “Saint Joan” (1924), of which the Cambridge scholar Jean Chotia says: “a precursor of Brecht’s alienation effects, if ever there was one” .

On the other hand, symbolism and impressionism were the two main trends to be followed by the new generation of artists. The overall importance is unquestioned, what they leave is a continuing controversy about priorities. Those who valued in Modernism the pursuit of raw experience and primitivism see Impressionism as the common denominator of the movements current round the turn of the century and as the last universally valid European style. Those who saw Modernist literature as a liberation of the text of the word regard Symbolism as the source of the self-substituent work that lives among the multiple privacies of its languages and see the foundations of Modernist literature in the development of Symbolism and its fusion or conflict with naturalism.

3.1 The 19th century theatrical tradition

As regards drama in the 19th century, theatre was a popular entertainment, more interested in pleasing the audience than in artistic innovations or intellectual concerns. The best known dramatists of the time were T.W. Robertson and Sir Arthur Pinero, whose contribution was very important for the formation of a Victorian theatre.

Robertson was responsible for the revival of drama as a quality genre in the 1860’s, but his realism was tainted by the superficiality and sentimentality of the plots.

Pinero was the leading playwright at the turn of the century. He was famous both for his farces and for his sentimental dramas but he could not break away from the artificial plots and the conventional character types expected by the Victorian theatre audience.

Apart from those dramatists who followed the conventionalities of the Victorian theatre with little innovation on the stage, there were also those ones, like Bernard Shaw, who tried to innovate the theatrical manifestations and the main influenced came from the Norwegian author Henrik Ibsen. His works analyzed and criticized the hypocrisy, corruption and prejudices of the middle-class society and the frustration derived from them. Ibsen´s works offered a kind of drama which broke away from the dramatic pattern of the time based on witty plots, conventional dialogues and usual topics.

Thus the theatre at this time can be divided into: society drama and social drama.

Society drama, which is the direct successor of the Victorian melodrama or well-made play whose main concern is to portray the way of living of the upper-classes whose best exponent is Oscar Wilde.

On the other hand, social drama includes in its topics the concern for all social classes and the lack of values.


Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin to unconventional parents. His mother, Lady Jane Francesca Wilde (1820-96), was a poet and journalist. Her pen name was Sperenza. According to a story she warded off creditors by reciting Aeschylus. Wilde’s father was Sir William Wilde, an Irish antiquarian, gifted writer, and specialist in diseases of the eye and ear, who founded a hospital in Dublin a year before Oscar was born. His work gained for him the honorary appointment of Surgeon Oculist in Ordinary to the Queen. Lady Wilde, who was active in the women’s rights movement, was reputed to ignore her husbands amorous adventures.

Wilde studied at Portora Royal School, in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh (1864-71), Trinity College, Dublin (1871-74) and Magdalen College, Oxford (1874-78), where he was taught by Walter Pater and John Ruskin. Already at the age of 13, Wilde’s tastes in clothes were dandy’s.

In Oxford Wilde shocked the pious dons with his irreverent attitude towards religion and was jeered at his eccentric clothes. He collected blue china and peacock’s feathers, and later his velvet knee-breeches drew much attention. In 1878 Wilde moved to London. His lifestyle and humorous wit made him soon spokesman for Aestheticism, the late 19th century movement in England that advocated art for art’s sake. He worked as art reviewer (1881), lectured in the United States and Canada (1882), and lived in Paris (1883). Between the years 1883 and 1884 he lectured in Britain. From the mid-1880s he was regular contributor for Pall Mall Gazette and Dramatic View.

He began his literary career as a poet. It was said that he was a plagiarist because he imitated models of the previous generations of poets like the Romantic and the Pre-Raphaelites, but it was almost impossible not to reproduce a kind of poetry that he loved so much, although despite this imitation, there is a touch of vitality and charm that reflects the unique personality of Wilde, especially the first compositions which share a taste for Hellenism and Latin poetry, evoked in the very titles Hélas!, Panthea, The Garden Of Eros, Humanitas, etc… all of them joined in a collection titled Poems which went through five editions within a year. Oscard Wilde’s first collection of poems (published in 1880) got, like most literary works, mixed reviews. Despite the fact that Wilde had drawn attention to himself after winning the yearly poetry price at Oxford University with the poem „Ravenna“, his collection didn’t bring him any real fame yet. That only came about after his lecturing tour in the United States in 1881. Wilde was being sponsored at that time by D’Oyly Carte, a theatre manager from London. The poet was meant to promote the opera „Patience“, which satirically aimed at the aesthetical movement (one of the characters supposedly even was a caricature of Wilde, which meant the poet wasn’t entirely unknown to the British public). Thanks to his enormous language virtuosity Wilde managed to astound and amuse the crowd and get them interested in aestheticism. After his return to England he was generally known as a cult figure.

Reviews on his next publications (his first plays and fairy tale collections), however, remained scarce and sceptical and there was more talk of his life than of his work. That changed with the publication of „The Picture of Dorian Gray“ in “Lippincott’s Magazine” in 1890. Critics were scandalized and used adjectives such as “unmanly, sickening, vicious“ to describe the book. Because of this hostile reception Wilde decided to add 6 chapters to the final publication of the book, which indirectly pointed at the dangers of boundless hedonism. In his preface to the novel, however, Wilde (paradoxically) refused to accept the mixing of ethics and aesthetics.

In 1884 Wilde married Constance Lloyd (died 1898) and to support his family Wilde edited in 1887-89 Woman’s World magazine. He published some short stories, really poems in prose. Some of the most famous are The Happy Prince, The Canterville Ghost , The Sphinx without a Secret, Pen and Pencil ,etc.

The Picture of Dorian Gray followed in 1890 and next year he brought out more fairy tales Lord Arthur Savile´s Crime and other stories, The House of the Pomegranates, etc.

The marriage ended in 1893. Wilde had met a few years earlier Lord Alfred Douglas (“Bosie”), an athlete and a poet, who became both the love of the author’s life and his downfall.

The Picture of Dorian Gray has some parallels with Wilde’s own life. At Oxford he became a close friend of Frank Miles, a painter, and the homosexual aesthete Lord Ronald Gower, and it seems that they both are represented in Dorian Gray. In the story Dorian, a Victorian gentleman, sells his soul to keep his youth and beauty. The tempter is Lord Henry Wotton, who lives selfishly for amoral pleasure. Dorian starts his wicked acts, ruins lives, causes a young woman’s suicide and murders Basil Hallward, his portrait painter, his conscience. However, although Dorian retains his youth, his painting ages and catalogues every evil deed, showing his monstrous image, a sign of his moral leprosy. The book highlights the tension between the polished surface of high life and the life of secret vice. In the end sin is punished. When Dorian destroys the painting, his face turns into a human replica of the portrait and he dies. “Ugliness is the only reality,'” summarizes Wilde. The plot follows the trace of the gothic tradition and it is the secular version of the pact with the devil whose early manifestation was the “Doctor Faustus” by Marlowe. The most powerful symbol in the novel is the portrait that represents the narcissism of the main character and , according to E. Kris in “The legend of the artist”, the soul of the man, so the destruction of the portrait reflects the destruction of the moral values of Dorian. This novel, influenced by the supernatural events of the Gothic novels and the French decadent fiction, raised much criticism. Its decadentism resulted disturbing for the critics, who found it immoral in spite of the apparently moral ending with Dorian’s self-destruction.

Aestheticism is a strong theme in The Picture of Dorian Gray, and is tied in with the concept of the double life. Although Dorian is hedonistic, when Basil accuses him of making Lord Henry’s sister’s name a “by-word”, Dorian replies “Take care, Basil. You go too far”suggesting that Dorian still cares about his outward image and standing within Victorian society. Wilde highlights Dorian’s pleasure of living a double life, describing how Dorian returns home sometimes to look at his portrait, and, when looking at the disfigurement of the portrait, “[grows] more and more enamoured of his own beauty, more and more interested in the corruption of his own soul.” Not only does Dorian enjoy this sensation in private, but he also feels “keenly the terrible pleasure of a double life” when attending a society gathering just 24 hours after committing a murder.

This duplicity and indulgence is most evident in Dorian’s visits to the opium dens of London. Wilde conflates the images of the upper class and lower class by having the supposedly upright Dorian visit the impoverished districts of London. Lord Henry asserts that “crime belongs exclusively to the lower orders…I should fancy that crime was to them what art is to us, simply a method of procuring extraordinary sensations”, which suggests that Dorian is both the criminal and the aesthete combined in one man. This is perhaps linked to Robert Louis Stevenson‘s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which Wilde admired. The division that was witnessed in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, although extreme, is evident in Dorian Gray, who attempts to contain the two divergent parts of his personality, this is a recurring theme in many of the gothic novels of which The Picture Of Dorian Gray is one of the last.


The name “Dorian” has connotations of the Dorians, an ancient Hellenic tribe. Robert Mighall suggests that this could be Wilde hinting at a connection to “Greek love”, a euphemism for the homoeroticism that was accepted as everyday in ancient Greece. Indeed, Dorian is described using the semantic field of the Greek Gods, being likened to Adonis, a person who looks as if “he were made of ivory and rose-leaves.” However, Wilde does not mention any homosexual acts explicitly, and descriptions of Dorian’s “sins” are often vague, although there does appear to be an element of homoeroticism in the competition between Lord Henry and Basil, both of whom compete for Dorian’s attention. Both of them make comments about Dorian in praise of his good looks and youthful demeanour, Basil going as far to say that “as long as I live, the personality of Dorian Gray will dominate me.” However, whilst Basil is shunned, Dorian wishes to emulate Lord Henry, which in turn rouses Lord Henry from his “characteristic languor to a desire to influence Dorian, a process that is itself a sublimated expression of homosexuality.”

The later corruption of Dorian seems to make what was once a boyish charm become a destructive influence. Basil asks why Dorian’s “friendship is so fatal to young men”, commenting upon the “shame and sorrow” that the father of one of the disgraced boys displays. Dorian only destroys these men when he becomes “intimate” with them, suggesting that the friendships between Dorian and the men in question become more than simply platonic. The shame associated with these relationships is bipartite: the families of the boys are upset that their sons may have indulged in a homosexual relationship with Dorian Gray, and also feel shame that they have now lost their place in society, their names having been sullied; their loss of status is encapsulated in Basil’s questioning of Dorian: speaking of the Duke of Perth, a disgraced friend of Dorian’s, he asks “what gentleman would associate with him?” The novel is considered groundbreaking in the context that, in literature, “Dorian Gray was one of the first in a long list of hedonistic fellows whose homosexual tendencies secured a terrible fate.”

Before the theatrical success Wilde produced several essays, many of these anonymously. His two major literary-theoretical works were the dialogues The Decay of Lying’(1889) and The Critic as Artist (1890). In the latter Wilde lets his character state, that criticism is the superior part of creation, and that the critic must not be fair, rational, and sincere, but possessed of “a temperament exquisitely susceptible to beauty”. In a more traditional essay The Soul of a Man Under Socialism (1891) Wilde takes an optimistic view of the road to socialist future. He rejects the Christian ideal of self-sacrifice in favour of joy. He also wrote a collection of essays under the title of Intentions and a document of social propaganda.

Wilde made his reputation in theatre world between the years 1892 and 1895 with a series of highly popular plays. He created a form of high comedy new to the English theatre following some patterns from the French comedy of social intrigues. His greatest achievement in the comedies was the use of his wit to create humorous dialogues, with the famous sarcastic epigrams that expose the artificiality of society in an apparently trivial way. The characters belong to the upper class and the central design consists normally in the exposure of a secret sin, the consequent disgrace and the happy resolution of the conflict. The plays may go from the pathetic to humour and satire and they present a world mainly concerned with external appearances.

He had been trying to write a successful play for years and he conceived Vera and The Duchess of Padua that were performed at Broadway´s theatres in New York, but his first notorious play was Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892). It is a blend of comedy and drama depicting high society which deals with fidelity. It deals with a blackmailing divorcée driven to self-sacrifice by maternal love. Lady Windermere’s Fan: A Play About a Good Woman is a four act comedy by Oscar Wilde, first produced 22 February 1892 at the St. James Theatre in London. The play was first published in 1893. Like many of Wilde’s comedies, it is a biting satire on the morals of Victorian society, particularly marriage.

The story concerns Lady Windermere who discovers that her husband may be having an affair with another woman. She confronts her husband but he instead invites the other woman, Mrs. Erlynne, to her birthday ball. Angered by her husband’s unfaithfulness, Lady Windermere leaves her husband for another lover. After discovering what has transpired, Mrs. Erlynne follows Lady Windermere and attempts to persuade her to return to her husband and in the course of this, Mrs. Erlynne is discovered in a compromising position. She sacrifices herself and her reputation in order to save Lady Windermere’s marriage. Numerous characters in the play draw their names from places in the north of England: Lady Windermere from the lake Windermere, the Duchess of Berwick from Berwick-upon-Tweed, Lord Darlington from Darlington. The play’s Broadway premiere on February 5, 1893 at Palmer’s Theatre was also the first Broadway performance for stage and screen actress Julia Arthur, who played Lady Windermere.

In A Woman of No Importance (1893) an illegitimate son is torn between his father and mother. The scene is set in an English country house – Hunstanton (Lady Hunstanton’s property). The curtains open to the terrace where we are introduced to Lady Caroline who is engaging in conversation with Lady Huntstanton’s American Puritan guest Hester Worsley. Other characters are introduced, including the flirtatious Mrs Allonby, the meek Lady Stutfield and Lady Caroline’s submissive husband Sir John. They discuss frivolous matters and are later joined by the powerful, charming and charismatic gentleman, Lord Illingworth who has offered the post of secretary to the fortunate Gerald Arbuthnot. Gerald’s mother is invited to join the party, and when she arrives she realises that Lord Illingworth is Gerald’s father. She had an affair with him twenty years ago, became pregnant and he refused to marry her, making her a “fallen woman.” She is reluctant to let Gerald become Illingworth’s secretary, but doesn’t tell Gerald her reasons behind her reluctance. Gerald finds out about his mother’s past in a spectacularly Wildean moment of melodrama – after trying to kill Lord Illingworth for kissing Hester Worsley – a woman with whom he is very much in love.

The play concludes with Gerald, Hester and Mrs. Arbuthnot leaving England for America to live in a society where she will not be judged so harshly by others.

An Ideal Husband (1895) dealt with blackmail, political corruption and public and private honour. An Ideal Husband is an 1895 comedic stage play by Oscar Wilde which revolves around blackmail and political corruption, and touches on the themes of public and private honour. The action is set in London, in “the present”, and takes place over the course of three days. “Sooner or later,” Wilde notes, “we shall all have to pay for what we do.” But he adds that, “No one should be entirely judged by their past.” In the summer of 1893, Oscar Wilde began writing An Ideal Husband, and he completed it later that winter. At this point in his career he was accustomed to success, and in writing An Ideal Husband he wanted to ensure himself public fame. His work began at Goring-on-Thames, after which he named the character Lord Goring, and concluded at St. James Place. He initially sent the completed play to the Garrick theater, where the manager rejected it, but it was soon accepted the Haymarket Theatre, where Lewis Waller had temporarily taken control. Waller was an excellent actor and cast himself as Sir Robert Chiltern. The play gave the Haymarket the success it desperately needed. After opening on January 3, 1895, it continued for 124 performances. In April of that year, Wilde was arrested for ‘gross indecency’ and his name was publicly taken off the play. On April 6, soon after Wilde’s arrest, the play moved to the Criterion Theatre where it ran from April 13-27. The play was published in 1899, although Wilde was not listed as the author. This published version differs slightly from the performed play, for Wilde added many passages and cut others. Prominent additions included written stage directions and character descriptions. Wilde was a leader in the effort to make plays accessible to the reading public.

The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) was a comedy of manners. John Worthing (who prefers to call himself Jack) and Algernon Moncrieff (Algy) are two fashionable young gentlemen. John tells that he has a brother called Ernest, but in town John himself is known as Ernest and Algernon also pretends to be the profligate brother Ernest. Gwendolen Fairfax and Cecily Cardew are two ladies whom the two snobbish characters court. Gwendolen declares that she never travels without her diary because “one should always have something sensational to read in the train”. Wilde’s plays had reached a pinnacle of success, and anything new from the playwright was eagerly awaited. The press were always hungry for details and would pursue stories about new plots and characters with a vengeance. To combat this Wilde gave the play a working title, Lady Lancing. The use of seaside town names for leading characters, or the locations of their inception, can be recognised in all four of Wilde’s society plays (Jack’s surname, Worthing, is itself taken from the town where Wilde was staying when he wrote the play). The Marquess of Queensberry, father of Wilde’s male lover Lord Alfred Douglas, attempted to enter the theatre on the play’s opening night to publicly expose Oscar Wilde’s homosexuality, but Wilde was tipped in advance and Queensberry was refused a ticket. Due to Wilde’s personal troubles, however, the play was closed after only 83 performances, despite its success.

Tom Stoppard‘s 1974 comedy play Travesties, set in Zurich during the First World War, takes as the starting point for its fictional embellishments a troubled production of The Importance of Being Earnest, that was historically undertaken by an amateur company whose business manager was the writer James Joyce.

He also wrote a tragedy, Salome, based on the Biblical character and dealing with her deadly passion for John the Baptist. The play had been originally written in French and it was influenced by French decadentism. Although the censorship did not allow it to be performed because of a ban on plays with biblical characters, it was published.

Although married and the father of two children, Wilde’s personal life was open to rumours. His years of triumph ended dramatically, when his intimate association with Alfred Douglas led to his trial on charges of homosexuality (then illegal in Britain). He was sentenced two years hard labour for the crime of sodomy.

Wilde was first in Wandsworth prison, London, and then Reading Gaol. When he was at last allowed pen and paper after more than 19 months of deprivation, Wilde had became inclined to take opposite views on the potential of humankind toward perfection. During this time he wrote De Profundis (1905), a dramatic monologue and autobiography, which was addressed to Alfred Douglas.

After his release in 1897 Wilde lived under the name Sebastian Melmoth in Berneval, near Dieppe, then in Paris. He wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol, revealing his concern for inhumane prison conditions. It is said, that on his death bed Wilde became a Roman Catholic. He died of cerebral meningitis on November 30, 1900, penniless, in a cheap Paris hotel at the age of 46. He was buried in the same cemetery as the poet Charles Baudelaire whose Fleurs du Mal has deeply affected his attitudes towards art and life. James Joyce, another exile from Ireland had mixed feeling about Wilde´s literary achievements, but in the final phase of Wilde´s life, Joyce saw in him something of the figure of the martyred artist.

4.1 Aestheticism: A vision of art and life

The Aesthetic Movement is a loosely defined movement in literature, fine art, the decorative arts, and interior design in later nineteenth-century Britain. Generally speaking, it represents the same tendencies that Symbolism or Decadence stood for in France, or Decadentismo stood for in Italy, and may be considered the British branch of the same movement. It belongs to the anti-Victorian reaction and had post-Romantic roots, and in so, anticipates Modernism. It took place in the late Victorian period from around 1868 to 1901, and is generally considered to have ended with the trial of Oscar Wilde.

The British decadent writers were deeply influenced by the Oxford don Walter Pater and his essays published in 186768, in which he stated that life had to be lived intensely, following an ideal of beauty. His Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873) became a sacred text for art-centric young men of the Victorian era.

The artists and writers of the Aesthetic movement tended to hold that the Arts should provide refined sensuous pleasure, rather than convey moral or sentimental messages. As a consequence, they did not accept John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold‘s utilitarian conception of art as something moral or useful. Instead, they believed that Art did not have any didactic purpose; it need only be beautiful. The Aesthetes developed the cult of beauty, which they considered the basic factor in art. Life should copy Art, they asserted. They considered nature as crude and lacking in design when compared to art. The main characteristics of the movement were: suggestion rather than statement, sensuality, massive use of symbols, and synaesthetic effects—that is, correspondence between words, colours and music.

Aestheticism had its forerunners in John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and among the Pre-Raphaelites.

In 1878 – the year of his graduation- although he has already written a few publications in periodicals, his personality is already attracting attention. This year he settles himself in London and he is considered as the spokesman for the “School of Art for Art´s Shake”. Decadent writers used the slogan “Art for Art’s Sake” (L’art pour l’art), coined by the philosopher Victor Cousin and promoted by Théophile Gautier in France.

He visits America for a lengthy and successful lecture-tour devoted to the aesthetic movement where he sets the main features of this artistic movement: art is not linked to reality; it does not have any moral implication; art is beauty and the artistic contemplation of life is the contemplation of beauty itself; the one who considers himself as an artist must be devoted entirely to art, and hedonism is the way to reach this attitude.


Irish dramatist, literary critic, a socialist spokesman, and a leading figure in the 20th century theatre. Shaw was a freethinker, defender of women’s rights, and advocate of equality of income. In 1925 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Shaw accepted the honour but refused the money.

George Bernard Shaw was born in Dublin, where he grew up in something close to genteel poverty. His father, George Carr Shaw, was in the wholesale grain trade. Lucinda Elisabeth (Gurly) Shaw, his mother, was the daughter of an impoverished landowner. She was 16-years younger than her husband. George Carr was a drunkard – his example prompted his son to become a teetotaller. When he died in 1885, his children and wife did not attend his funeral. Young Shaw and his two sisters were brought up mostly by servants. Shaw’s mother eventually left the family home to teach music, singing, in London.

In 1866 the family moved to a better neighbourhood. Shaw went to the Wesleyan Connexional School, then moved to a private school near Dalkey, and from there to Dublin’s Central Model School. Shaw finished his formal education at the Dublin English Scientific and Commercial Day School. At the age of 15, he started to work as a junior clerk. In 1876 he went to London, joining his sister and mother. Shaw did not return to Ireland for nearly thirty years.

Most of the next two years Shaw educated himself at the British Museum. He began his literary career by writing music and drama criticism, and novels, including the semi-autobiographical Immaturity, without much success. A vegetarian, who eschewed alcohol and tobacco, Shaw joined in 1884 the Fabian Society, served on its executive committee from 1885 to 1911. The middle-class socialist group attracted also H.G. Wells – the both writers send each other copies of their new books as they appeared.

A man of many causes, Shaw supported abolition of private property, radical change in the voting system, campaigned for the simplification of spelling, and the reform of the English alphabet. As a public speaker, Shaw gained the status of one of the most sought-after orators in England.

In 1895 Shaw became a drama critic for the Saturday Review. Articles written for the paper were later collected in Our Theatres in the Nineties (1932). Music, art, and drama criticism Shaw wrote for Dramatic Review (1885-86), Our Corner (1885-86), The Pall Mall Gazette (1885-88), The World (1886-94), and The Star (1888-90) as ‘Corno bi Basetto’. His music criticism were collected in Shaw´s Music (1981).

After lacing a shoe too tightly, an operation was performed on his foot for necrosis; Shaw was unable to put his foot on the ground for eighteen months. During this period he wrote Caesar and Cleopatra (1901) and The Perfect Wagnerite (1898).

In 1898 Shaw married the wealthy Charlotte Payne-Townshend. They settled in 1906 in the Hertfordshire village of Ayot St. Lawrence. Shaw remained with Charlotte until her death, although he was occasionally linked with other women. He carried on a passionate correspondence over the years with Mrs. Patrick Campbell, a widow and actress, who got the starring role in Pygmalion .

The Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen had a great influence on Shaw’s thinking. For a summer meeting of the Fabian Society in 1890, he wrote The Quintessence of Ibsinism (1891), in which he considered Ibsen a pioneer.

His plays from the 1890’s were called Pleasant and Unpleasant Plays. He called some o them unpleasant because of the unpleasant facts they presented to the audience. Shaw’s early plays, Widower´s Houses (1892), which criticized slum landlords, as well as several subsequent ones, were not well received. His ‘unpleasant plays’, ideological attacks on the evils of capitalism and explorations of moral and social problems, were followed with more entertaining but as principled productions.

In Mrs. Warren’s Profession (1893) the subject was prostitution. Instead of treating the prostitute as the “fallen woman” he presented the economic situation that lead her to prostitution. The censorship considered this play offensive and it could not be performed until a few years later. In the pleasant plays he was still mordant, but more light-hearted in order to recover the producers and audiences that his previous comedies had offended.

Often his plays succeeded in America and Germany before they did in London. Although major London productions of many of his earlier pieces were delayed for years, they are still being performed there. Arms and the Man (1894) and Candida (1984), which was a comedy about the wife of a clergyman, and what happens when a weak, young poet wants to rescue her from her dull family life.

However, his first significant financial success as a playwright came from Richard Mansfield’s American production of The Devil’s Disciple (1897). He went on to write 63 plays, most of them full-length.

The second big success was the drama Caesar and Cleopatra (1989), praised for the credibility of the representation of Caesar, more a soldier and a philosopher than a superhuman hero.

But it was not until John Bull´s Other Island (1904) that Shaw gained in England a wider popularity with his own plays. In the Unites States and Germany Shaw’s name was already well-known. Between 1904 and 1907 The Royal Court Theatre staged several of his plays, including Candida.

From the same epoch are Man and Superman (1903), Major Barbara (1905) and The Doctor’s Dilemma (1906).

Pygmalion was originally written for the actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell. Later the play became the basis for two films and a musical. (Shaw’s correspondence with the actresses Ellen Terry and Stella Campbell are available in book form.) Shaw’s popularity declined after his essay ‘Common Sense About the War’ (1914), which was considered unpatriotic.

The World War I was a watershed for Shaw´s works and this event puts an end to his former stage of satire and humour. His faith in the superman was strengthened but he lost faith in the humankind, in man as a political and social individual.

Heartbreak House (1919) presents the spiritual degradation of the generation responsible for the war.

Shaw had previously supported gradual democratic change toward socialism, but now he saw more hope in government by benign strong men. This sometimes made him oblivious to the dangers of dictatorships. Near his life’s end that hope failed him too.

Back to Methuselah and The Apple Cart share similar characteristics

With Saint Joan (1924), his masterpiece, Shaw was again accepted by the post-war public. Now he was regarded as ‘a second Shakespeare’, who had revolutionized the British theatre. Shaw did not portrait Joan of Arc, his protagonist, as a heroine or martyr, but as a stubborn young woman. And as in classic tragedies, her flaw is fatal and brings about her downfall. Uncommonly Shaw showed some sympathy to her judges. The play was written four years after Joan was declared a saint. The play presents Joan of Arc as a superior being and the personification of the tragic heroine. He showed her death as the expression of a paradox, that men fear their heroes and their saints because of their higher moral qualities.

In his plays Shaw combined contemporary moral problems with ironic tone and paradoxes, “Shavian” wit, which have produced such phrases as “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches”, “England and America are two countries divided by a common language”, “Christianity might be a good thing if anyone ever tried it”, and “I never resist temptation because I have found that things are bad for me do not tempt me.” Discussion and intellectual acrobatics are the basis of his drama, and before the emergence of the sound film, his plays were nearly impossible to adapt into screen.

5.1 Shaw´s concept of drama

During his long career, Shaw wrote over 50 plays. He continued to write them even in his 90s. George Bernard Shaw died at Ayot St. Lawrence, Hertfordshire, on November 2, 1950. He was cremated and it was his wish that his ashes be mixed with those of his wife, Charlotte – she had died seven years before.

He used the dramatic conventions of his time in order to force the audience to take into account concepts such as good or evil, and blamed the political, economic and social system for the problems of man in society.

To clarify the message of his works, Shaw wrote very long prefaces preceding the plays; in these ones he showed his wit, his skilful diction and his admirable sense of theatre, much more worried about the content than about the form.

He exposed his ideas on society in The Intelligent Woman´s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism and through it he tried to force the public to reconsider its moral. His satire ranged over the religion, the law, medicine, science and some other different aspects of life.

It is curious the concept of love that he proposes as the biological mechanism for the propagation of the race.

Shaw called this type of drama in which the exposition of the ideas is more important than plots or characters “debated drama” where the main concern is the discussion of mental and spiritual states of the characters involved in the action of the play.

In the last plays there is a tendency towards the symbolic, there are no real villains, or rather say, the real villain is society itself. Shaw asserted “until society is reformed, no man can reform himself except in the most insignificant small details”.

Thus he viewed writing as a way to further his humanitarian and political agendas. His works were very popular because of their comedic content, but the public tended to disregard his messages and enjoy his work as pure entertainment. He was acutely aware of that.

Shaw writes in conscious reaction and protest against the theatre of his time, which he calls romantic and ‘idealistic’ and which he rejects because, in his eyes, it is false, hypocritical and escapist in character. In his opinion, it contributes little to social change but confirms the unjust social conditions as they present themselves towards the end of the 19th century. Instead of a theatre of containment, Shaw prefers a theatre which is critical towards society, tackles social problems and is ‘realistic’ in so far as it discovers another kind of reality behind the treacherous surface and mask of social conventions and norms. Shaw’s plays are influenced by the socialist Fabian Society, which was founded in 1883 and which counted Shaw among its most popular members. In contrast to Karl Marx, the Fabians rejected the idea of social revolution which plays such a decisive role in Marxist thought. Instead, they postulated a gradual reformation of society. Also, the Marxist assumption of a paradisiacal final state of society did not find their approval. Their socialism is pragmatic in character and focuses on the solution of contemporary social problems. For example, the Fabians demanded an equal income for all members of society, for, in their eyes, one of the greatest evils of contemporary society was an unjust distribution of wealth.

When Shaw in Mrs Warren’s Profession (which may be understood as a radicalized sort of problem play) concentrates on the theme of prostitution, he takes up a literary tradition of the Victorian age. A woman with a past may be found, for example, in Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan, or in Arthur Wing Pinero’s The Second Mrs Tanqueray, a play to which Shaw refers explicitly. But while Pinero is sharply condemning the immorality of his female protagonist, Shaw does away with traditional moral interpretations and concentrates on the social implications of prostitution. To the convinced socialist Shaw, prostitution is no longer a sign of moral corruption but a social evil which is caused by poverty and material need. This means that prostitution for him is a symptom of the exploitation of people in a capitalist society, and not the individual but society itself is to be held guilty. To quote Mrs Warren: “If people arrange the world that way for women, there is no good pretending it’s arranged the other way. No: I never was a bit ashamed really. I consider I had a right to be proud of how we managed everything so respectably, and never had a word against us, and how the girls were so well taken care of. Some of them did very well: one of them married an ambassador.” Her attitude, therefore, is clearly differing from the hypocritical pseudo-morality which, according to Shaw, characterizes the theatre of his time.

For Shaw, socialism is important because it is a necessary precondition for the formation of what he calls ‘the superman’. This is where the more speculative and not so easily understandable part of Shaw’s ‘Weltanschauung’ begins. At the centre of it is the concept of life force which, according to Shaw, is the driving principle, the propelling force behind what we call reality. Schopenhauer’s concept of the ‘will’, Nietzsche’s ‘will for power’ and Bergson’s élan vital have contributed to Shaw’s ‘life force’. It forms the corner stone of an evolutionary form of reasoning which is more and more determining Shaw’s world picture and is replacing the initially dominating socialist ideas. Whereas for Charles Darwin evolution consists in the fact that all life on earth is continually adapting to its material living conditions, Shaw opines that evolution is an achievement of the living principle itself. The crown and apex of the history of evolution is Man who, in Shaw’s eyes, is predominantly a spiritual being. According to Shaw, the noblest task of mankind is to serve this life force and contribute actively to evolution. This means that evolution has not yet reached its final goal. Mankind has to purify and perfect himself/herself continually, has to overcome his/her shortcomings and boundaries in order to become what Shaw calls superman, a concept based on Nietzsche’s Übermensch.

In St Joan, one of Shaw’s most popular and successful plays, the concept of ‘life force’ may be recognized in the female protagonist. Together with characters such as Alfred Higgins from Pygmalion and Andrew Undershaft from Major Barbara, St Joan, who is far ahead of her time and is therefore able to actively further the process of creative evolution, may be considered to be a personification of Shaw’s idea of the superman, or in this case, superwoman. The conflict between Joan, whose superhuman position implies an abdication of traditional female identity, of love and of marriage, and her environment seems unavoidable. Loneliness and isolation are the price which she has to pay for her superiority. Joan’s last words: “O God that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to receive Thy saints? How long, O Lord, how long?” illustrate Shaw’s artistic intentions. Shaw does not attempt to draw an individual historical character or an individual historical event; Shaw’s supermen, superwomen or saints represent exceptional individuals who, because of their superhuman qualities, are far ahead of their time and get necessarily into conflict with the established conservative forces of society which condemn everything new and try to preserve the status quo. These conflicts in Shaw’s plays may be understood as representations of the dramatist Shaw himself in his fight against the aesthetic and moral norms of his own time. St Joan, then, implicitly tells us something about the function of art with regard to society: it has to take a critical stance, has to fight obsolete thought patterns, petrified value systems and hypocritical moral norms and conventions, and has to further new modes of thinking which in the present already anticipate the future, thus advancing both individual and society at one and the same time.

In spite of his socialist convictions, Shaw’s philosophy of life is characterized by a certain elitism. For Shaw, the life force principle is represented predominantly by prophets, artists and ingenious individuals. What they have in common is the fact that, because of their intuition and their superior mental qualities, they give expression to this life force in various ways. Shaw’s definition of ‘genius’ emphasizes this point: “A genius is a person who seeing farther and probing deeper than other people has a different set of ethical values from theirs and has energy enough to give effect to this extra vision and evaluation in whatever manner best suits his or her specific talents”. It goes without saying that this definition of ‘genius’ creates its own kind of problems, for it destroys a balanced subject/object relationship, separates the subject from the object and deprives one of the opportunity to measure the subjective claims of the genius against an objective reality.  


Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw together with the poet Yeats, were the most important writers of the English literature at the end of the nineteenth century.

All of them shared a country of origin, Ireland, although they spent most of their lives and literary careers in England.

They also shared a sort of sympathy for socialism which exerted some influence on their writing, perhaps more obvious in Shaw´s.

Although from different perspectives, they made a revision of the dramatic panorama at their time:

on one hand, Wilde more concerned about the form and the potentialities of language itself

on the other hand, Shaw concerned about the content as a vehicle of ideas.

Let’s now deal with Oscar Wilde. He was born in Dublin in the boson of a wealthy family in 1854. Both his parents were involved in the cultural life of the time. After attending classes at Port Royal School, he went on successive scholarships to the Trinity College , the Magdalene Collage and Oxford, where he received the influence of Walter Pater and his essays on Italian Renaissance and the interest for medieval art by the hands of Ruskin and Slade. Finally He settled in London, where he began to be known for his unconventional way of dressing, and soon he became socially accepted for the wit of his conversation.

His only novel was The Picture of Dorian Grey.

Irish poet and dramatist whose reputation rests on his comic masterpieces Lady Windermere’s Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest. Among Wilde’s other best-known works are his only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, which deals very similar theme as Robert Luis Stevenson‘s Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde. Wilde’s fairy tales are very popular – the motifs have been compared to those of Hans Christian Andersen.

It was followed by two other plays in which he joined comedy and drama, A Woman of no Importance and An Ideal Husband, which deals with political corruption.

His last comedy, The importance of Being Earnest, was produced in 1895, and it had less of a drama and more of a farce.

In the 1890’s he finally started a successful career in theatre with his society comedies.

However, at the peak of success, his tragic decline started. He was accused of homosexual practices by the Marquess of Queensbury, and he was sentenced to two years at hard labour.

Before his release in 1897 he had already written De Profundis, an expression of self-pity and wounded pride. When he got out of prison he left England and went to France, but he only published the poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol, about his prison experiences, before dying in 1900 of a brain disease.

Let’s now turn to the other great dramatist in this theme, George Bernard Shaw. He was born in 1856 in Dublin. His family came from the Anglo-Irish gentry, but they were poor. After his parents separated he went to live in London with his mother. He had wide knowledge of music, art and literature as a result of the influence of his mother, who was a music teacher, but he did not get much formal education. He completed his instruction through self-education, reading extensively and attending lectures and debates. He was very interested in the social sciences and under the influence of Marx he became a socialist. He was member of the socialist Fabian Society and of the Labour Party.

Working in journalism he specialised as a drama critic. From that position he tried to displace the artificiality and hypocrisy of the Victorian theatre. He ended up doing that through his own plays, influenced by the realistic and socially conscious theatre of Ibsen. Shaw used theatre as a platform to present his ideas. As a comic dramatist he fought mordantly the conventions of society, but some of his greatest works have at the same time a high seriousness. As a public figure he was very influential also very critical of his own country, especially during World War I. He remained productive as a public figure and as a playwright until the end of his long life. He is considered the best dramatist of his time and the most significant dramatist since Shakespeare.

His first plays introduced a drama of ideas but respected the form of the high comedy. He is also the direct responsible for the revolution of the English drama. Highly influenced by Ibsen, he publishes “The Quintaessence of Ibsinism”, a passionate defence of Ibsen and a profound critic against the well-made play so popular at his time. Shaw takes from Ibsen the social criticism but not the symbolism neither the poetic style, maybe because he was not much interested in art but in the ideas; as a matter of fact he used his plays as a vehicle for his social thinking.

His first play, Widower´s Houses, denounced the exploitation of the poor forced to pay high rents to live in the slums. He went against the romantic conventions of the theatre concentrating not in the relationship between the protagonist couple but in the social issue.

In Man and Superman he went further than before in the expression of his ideas, presenting his philosophy about humanity. Jack Tanner rejects Ann Whitefield because he is looking for spiritual development, but he finally submits to marriage. Behind the debate about the relationship of the sexes, the play presents Shaw’s belief in the improvement of humanity and the idea that it lies in its continuation through the reproductive capacity of women.

Those plays gave him some fame, but it was not until the success of the play about Ireland John Bull’s Other Island in 1904 that his reputation was finally established in England.

Then came his most famous plays. Major Barbara explores religious consciousness. This play had more dramatic vitality than earlier ones. He shows the striking contradiction between the hypocrisy that the protagonist experiences in the Salvation Army and the authentic religious principles of her father, an ammunitions manufacturer.

His most popular play was Pygmalion, regarded as the masterpiece of his comedies although it is not as much a play of ideas as his other plays. This is a satire of the English class system in which a professor of phonetics trains a florist to pass as a lady.

As well as plays and prefaces, Shaw wrote long political treatises, such as Fabian Essays in Socialism (1889), and The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (1912), a 495-page book detailing all aspects of socialistic theory as Shaw interpreted it. Excerpts of the latter were republished in 1928 as Socialism and Liberty. Late in his life he wrote another guide to political issues, Everybody’s Political What’s What (1944).


Oscar Wilde: A Biography by H. Montgomery Hyde (1975) ;

Oscar Wilde: Art and Egotism by Rodney Shewan (1977);

Oscar Wilde by Richard Ellman (1987);

Oscar Wilde: The Works of a Conformist Rebel by Norbert Kohl (1989);

Bernard Shaw: Man and Writer by A. Williamson (1963)

A Guide to the Plays of Bernard Shaw by C.B. Purdom (1963);

Bermard Shaw by E.R. Bentley (1967);

Concordance to the Plays and Prefaces of Bernard Shaw by E.D. Bevan (1971, 10 vols.);

Bernard Shaw: Art and Socialism by E. Strauss (1978);

The Genius of Shaw, ed. M. Holroyd (1979);

Bernard Shaw: The Darker Side by A. Silver (1982)