Oscar Wilde’s Plays in Australia
In the late 19th century, Australians were proud of their connections to England and the United States. The Australian theatre was greatly influenced by these two cultures.. However, in many ways the Australian theatrical tradition was unique. One example of its independence of spirit was in the treatment of Oscar Wilde’s plays.
In April 1895, English and Australian newspapers avidly reported the scandal of Oscar Wilde. Wilde had accused the Marquis of Queensbury of libel. The Marquis had left a note at Wilde’s club suggesting the author was immoral. The note read, "Oscar Wilde posing somdomite", and Oscar decided to sue.
The libel trial began on April 3 1895. Queensbury’s defence was justification and his counsel argued that he had acted in the public interest. Oscar was summoned to the stand to testify with that testimony he effectively destroyed his case. Wilde admitted that he had spent some time and money on several young men, including paying blackmail of 21 pounds to retrieve his love letters to Alfred Douglas, (the Marquis’ son) Oscar called these letters prose poems and defended them on artistic grounds. Finally and it seemed most shockingly to The Sydney Mail, Oscar had ‘admitted to having been on terms of intimacy with two lads not his social equals" and in addition he had ignored " the social inferiority of his guests if they were amusing.".
By April 5th, Wilde’s case had collapsed. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty, on the same day Oscar was arrested for gross indecency.
In the London theatres, where both An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest were playing, Wilde’s name was removed from advertising and playbills. By April 9th, libraries in the United States were destroying his published works.
On April 13th, The Sydney Mail breathlessly summarised these events for its readers. That same night, the Brough and Boucicault ( B and B) Theatre Company was presenting the Australian debut of Wilde’s play, An Ideal Husband.
The prestigious Brough and Boucicault company was well known for its superb acting and presentation of modern plays. The company was regarded as one of the most skilled, professional and respectable theatre companies in the country. The choice of An Ideal Husband at such a time was either an opportunistic act or a great risk. However, the association of the premier acting company in Australia with the play, lent it an air of respectability that may have dimmed the scandalous aspects.
The company followed the London example and the name Oscar Wilde was omitted from all advertising. The April 13th advertisements called An Ideal Husband ‘ A new and original play of modern life’.
That night a large crowd gathered at Sydney’s Lyceum theatre. According to The Sydney Morning Herald, ‘the house was crowded’ and there was ‘ready laughter’throughout the performance.’ The Referee newspaper agreed that the audience was ‘immense and cordial’.
The original review of the play in the London Times had been warm, but it suggested that the plot of the play was conventional. However, the Times added that the ‘primitive story’ was not the prime interest of the play. It was the ability of the author ’to adorn the commonplace by force of epigram’ and his verbal ingenuity which carried the play. The Times review implied that the verbal witticisms compensated for a trite plot.
The Times review was written two months before Wilde’s disgrace. The Sydney Morning Herald had its first view of the play after Wilde’s arrest. The tone of The Herald’s review seemed influenced by the scandal.
The paper refused to name the playwright. The reviewer pointed out that the plot of An Ideal Husband was weak and that ‘more than once a situation was sacrificed for the sake of a witticism’. The Herald reviewer was not impressed with the dialogue either.
"the use of paradox has been pushed to the edge of tedium….the fact is that if perpetrated too often, the paradox reveals itself as a cheap thing only too easily made."
Nonetheless the reviewer admitted that " An Ideal Husband abounds in brilliant epigram which really hits the mark" It is highly probable that the Herald’s critical analysis of Wilde’s dialogue was influenced by the authors situation.
The review in general concentrated on the presentation of the play and cast’s acting ability. Mr Titheradge was praised for his portrayal of Sir Robert Chiltern, although it was described as a ‘not very convincing role.’
The other cast members were also commended. However the Herald reserved its highest accolades for Dion Boucicault.
Mr Boucicault as the Earl of Caversham KG furnished one of the finished sketches of extreme old age, in which refinement and distinction of manner are combined with fretful ill humour to which he has happily accustomed us.
The costumes were one of the main selling points of the play.. They were advertised as being made by ‘Madame Clarice and Madame Brown of London’. Perhaps the London sanctioned clothes compensated for the scandalous author
The Referee’s review was different to the Herald’s. The Referee specialised in sport and theatre and this was reflected in a more liberal approach to the Wilde situation. The difference between the two papers was evident immediately.
The Referee’s review began with appropriate crediting of the author by name. An Ideal Husband was clearly labelled ‘Oscar Wilde’s play" It was a brave break with the conventions established by the Herald and the London newspapers. The Referee praised the dialogue whilst admitting that the plot was weak. The paper stated that they play was
"Not absorbingly interesting as far as plot is concerned"
"compels attention throughout whilst its dialogue sparkles with witticisms."
In general this review echoed the sentiments of the original London Times review.
Much of The Referee’s review concentrated on the fine presentation of the play by the famous B and B Company.
"the mounting and dressing are alike superb. Mr Phil Goatcher’s interiors are admirable illustrations of this clever scenic artist’s best handiwork and the acting is, taking it all round, very fine.
It also commended the fine acting by the cast, in particular, the famous actor/manager Dion Boucicault who ‘gave a really capital sketch of the old Earl’.
It was as if by concentrating on the acting, scenic design and costumes that the stigma of Wilde’s association with the work could be forgotten. Both reviews, in short, trod delicately around the issue of Wilde’s disgrace. An Ideal Husband played only for a week in Sydney that year. Oscar’s increasingly desperate situation probably convinced the B and B company to avoid a long run.
By May 1895, Oscar had suffered through two trials for indecency. On May 25TH he was sentenced to two years hard labour for sodomy.
A year later the Brough and Boucicault company returned to Sydney with another Wilde play. This time it was his masterpiece "The Importance of Being Earnest.’ Attitudes towards Wilde in Sydney had liberalised. The author was still imprisoned but his name was no longer taboo in Australian theatrical circles.
Earnest had debuted in London on February 14th 1895. It had taken over a year for the play to be performed in Sydney. An Ideal Husband on the other hand was produced within three months of its London stage debut. The delay with Earnest was no doubt due to the author’s infamous reputation.
On 4th April 1896, The Sydney Morning Herald carried advertisements for The Importance of Being Earnest"- A comedy in Three Acts by Oscar Wilde". Oscar’s name had been restored to its rightful place. Unlike the previous year when An Ideal Husband had been uncredited.
On April 11th, almost exactly a year to the day that An Ideal Husband had been introduced to Sydney, Earnest had its debut.
"The Criterion was crowded to the doors by an amused and interested audience."
The Referee said that
"Everyone from those in the stalls up to those in the gallery appeared to greatly enjoy the skit."
The Sydney Morning Herald critic refused to name Wilde in the review, stating that the play was written by ‘the same author who wrote Lady Windemere’s Fan." Yet the review’s tone was far warmer than its review of An Ideal Husband.
The paper enjoyed the dialogue saying that
‘The spectators are pelted with witticisms as with comfits at a Roman Carnival"
It added that
"the brilliancy of the display of verbal pyrotechnics is amazing.’
The reviewer had an unusually kind word for the imprisoned author stating thatThe whole play may be viewed as the tour de force of an author who has done brilliant things.’
Despite this, the reviewer refused to name the brilliant author.
The Referee’s review called the author ‘Mr Wilde’, an open statement of respect. It called the play ‘an exceptionally brilliant production.’ Most of the review concerned the actors. Cecil Ward played Earnest and was described as being ‘entertaining and in every way admirable’. Yet it was Dion Bocicault who stole the show as Algernon.
"Mr Boucicault carried off the chief honours of the evening"
Boucicault was very highly regarded in Sydney and his association with the Wilde plays helped make them acceptable to Sydney audiences
By this time it seemed that the Sydney theatrical establishment was recognising Oscar’s brilliance as an artist despite his disgrace.
In January 1897, with Wilde still in gaol, the B and B company presented A Woman of No Importance.at the Criterion. The Referee bluntly referred to Oscar in its review saying that in this play
Oscar Wilde seems to have collected together all the brilliant things that he had to crowd out of his other pieces.’
Meanwhile, in England, Oscar continued to be a pariah. After being released from prison in May 1897 he spent the last years of his life in France. Oscar was a broken spirit, his most notable work in his final years being The Ballad of Reading Gaol.
The first London production of Earnest after its original run in 1895 was in 1902. Two years after his death, the billboards refused to carry Oscar’s name. This was not remedied until 1909. It was a stark contrast to the Australian productions of his works which were well received and beautifully produced by B and B. In addition Oscar was credited with the authorship of these plays and prominently mentioned in Australian reviews of the productions. In the matter of Oscar Wilde, the Australian press, public and theatrical establishment showed a unique identity independent of the great cultural powers of the US and England.