Ideas

Wilde Women in a Man's World

Irish-born Oscar Wilde was Britain's most famous playwright in the late 19th century. He was also famous, or infamous, for being gay. But the people who arguably had the most important influence on him and his work were women. From the Stratford Festival, a discussion featuring a writer, a literary scholar and theatre director.

Oscar Wilde’s work was deeply influenced by the women in his life

Oscar Wilde’s work was deeply influenced by the women in his life. Production still from the Stratford Festival's "An Ideal Husband". From left: Bahareh Yaraghi as Mrs. Laura Cheveley, Marion Adler as Lady Markby and Sophia Walker as Lady Gertrude Chiltern. ( Emily Cooper/Stratford Festival)
Listen to the full episode53:59

** This episode originially aired October 16, 2018.

Irish-born Oscar Wilde was Britain's most famous playwright in the late 19th century. He was also famous, or infamous, for being gay. But the people who arguably had the most important influence on him and his work were women. He was surrounded his entire life by brilliant, glittering women. They were accomplished, independent and talented — and very much themselves in what was then very much a man's world.

And Wilde's plays, especially his comedies, are also biting satires of that male-dominated world, a world not too distant from our own. 

Men marry because they are tired; women, because they are curious. Both are disappointed. (The Picture of Dorian Gray)

Oscar Wilde lived in an age of entrenched class privilege, colonial expansion and repressive gender roles — an age which has resonance with our own. We're now living in an age where satire only has to mirror reality to land the joke.

Reality is ridiculous enough that further exaggeration is barely necessary. The downside is that contemporary satire has become an echo chamber and has consequently lost some of its subversive power. It can now make its audiences comfortable and assured that they are reasonable, rational, decent people.

Oscar Wilde in 1882. Photograph by Napoleon Sarony. (Wikipedia CC)

Matt Damon's portrayal of Brett Kavanaugh on Saturday Night Live mocked his aggressive and angry Senate testimony surrounding the sexual assault allegations against the judge. While the portrayal was comical and a much-needed laugh in dark times, Kavanaugh was ultimately confirmed as a Supreme Court justice before the next episode aired. The parodies of today are doing very little to challenge social and political life. Perhaps they simply can't.

In Wilde's day, challenging the establishment had its own problematic dynamic. He got his English audiences to laugh at themselves by creating discomfort in them. He poked fun at the rigidity of late Victorian society and its strict moral codes, particularly for women.

All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his. (The Importance of Being Earnest)

Wilde's plays, especially his comedies, are biting satires of the male-dominated world in which he lived. He wanted to change the social place of women and give them the same opportunities as men. But not everyone was laughing. Was he, as James Joyce feared he was, a court jester to the powerful? Were his social satires able to go further than simply holding up a mirror to society?

From the Stratford Festival, this episode features a discussion with writer and director Peter Hinton, literary scholar Carol Tattersall and theatre director Lezlie Wade.

Peter Hinton is a playwright and theatre director. 1:45

Guests in this episode:

  • Lezlie Wade is the director of the 2018 Stratford Festival's production of An Ideal Husband.  
  • Peter Hinton is an accomplished playwright and theatre director. 
  • Carol Tattersall is an Oscar Wilde scholar and a retired English professor from Western University. 

Further reading:

  • Oscar Wilde by Richard Ellmann, published by Penguin Random House, 1988.
  • Wilde's Women by Eleanor Fitzsimons, published by Overlook Press, 2016.
  • The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde by Neil McKenna, published by Penguin UK, 2004.
  • The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde by Merlin Holland, published by Harper Collins, 2004.
  • The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, edited by Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis, published by Harper Collins, 2000.
  • Oscar's Books: A Journey Around the Library of Oscar Wilde by Thomas Wright, published by Penguin Vintage Digital, 2013. 


**This episode was produced by Philip Coulter and Maggie Reid.