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Entering America for the first time, Oscar Wilde reportedly told a customs agent,
“I have nothing to declare but my genius.”
“We should treat all the trivial things of life very seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.”
“He atones for being occasionally somewhat over-dressed, by being always absolutely over-educated.”
The best of Wilde’s epigrams play directly with trite, entrenched ideas or phrases. Wilde had an encyclopedic knowledge of literary history: he studied all the great English writers and poets, was devoted to French literature, and won awards at Oxford and Trinity College, Dublin for his studies in Greek and Latin. He constantly references his artistic heritage for humor and context. For Shakespeare, “All the world’s a stage…” but for Wilde,
“The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast.”
As an expatriate Irishman, Wilde was intensely suspicious of preaching rhetoric. Supposed sincerity and moralistic banalities also served for Wilde’s target practice:
“Work is the curse of the drinking classes.”
With allusion and contradiction, he upset the tired conventions of language, just as in life he destabilized the rules of society. George Bernard Shaw admired Wilde’s ability to jangle the nerves of an audience. In his review of An Ideal Husband, Shaw mused, “They laugh angrily at his epigrams, like a child who is coaxed into being amused in the very act of setting up a yell of rage and agony.” Shaw would have aimed to use that anger for social change; Wilde just enjoyed their irritation.
Though rhetorical contradiction gives much of Wilde’s work its distinct flavor, The Importance of Being Earnest is where Wilde reaches the pinnacle of paradox. Form finally marries content; the symmetry of phrase matches the harmony of structure. The plot of Earnest is Wilde’s finest epigram. Jack, Algernon, Gwendolen and Cecily all mirror each other; their schemes, desires, and even their dialogue run parallel. Jack’s supposed lie about having a brother named Ernest is turned on its head, and his imaginary alter-ego proves to exist in reality. Contradictory lies are simultaneously confirmed true, and truth dissolves. This is the essence of an epigram.
The precision and universality of Wilde’s phrases endure, as does the magnetism of The Importance of Being Earnest. Perhaps, then, it is fitting to let Wilde summarize his own achievement: “I treated Art as the supreme reality, and life as a mere mode of fiction: I awoke the imagination of my century so that it created myth and legend around me: I summed up all systems in a phrase, and all existence in an epigram.”
Laura Henry Buda is STC’s Community Engagement Manager and served as Artistic Fellow in the 2011-2012 Season. She holds an MFA in Dramaturgy from the A.R.T./M.X.A.T. Institute at Harvard University.