February 14, 1895: Oscar Wilde’s last play, The Importance of Being Earnest, opens at the St. James’s Theatre in London. Wilde’s fame was at its peak as his classic comedy of manners is brought to life on the stage. The Importance of Being Earnest is considered by critics and scholars to be the wittiest play written in English. The play is replete with witting bon mots and satirizes many of the Victorian foibles and pretenses. Two of the lead characters become embroiled in a web of lies as they each go by two different names.
Wilde was born into a wealthy Irish family and was an outstanding student at Trinity College in Dublin. He won the Berkeley Gold Medal, the highest award given to students studying the classics. He fell in love with Florence Balcome who eventually married Bram Stoker. Wilde was so upset that he left Ireland.
While studying at Magdalen College, Oxford, Wilde became involved in the aesthetic and decadent movements. The followers of these movements were anti-Victorian and thought that art would best serve if it were to provide sensuous pleasure rather than present a moral tale.
Wilde married Constance Lloyd and had two sons. However, he was involved in several homosexual affairs and met with male prostitutes. He fell in love with Lord Alfred Douglass, son of the 9th Marquess of Queensberry. Wilde brought suit against the Marquess for libel but ended up having to defend himself against the illegal act of sodomy. He was sentenced to two years at hard labor. Prison life proved harmful to his health. After his release, Wilde exiled himself from artistic circles and lived in poverty until his death in 1900.
“Ordinary riches can be stolen, real riches cannot. In your soul are infinitely precious things that cannot be taken from you.”
“The world was my oyster but I used the wrong fork.”
“A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally.”
“Society exists only as a mental concept; in the real world there are only individuals.”
“Only the shallow know themselves.” – all from Oscar Wilde
Also on this day, in 270 St. Valentine was executed.