William Archer, contending that Wilde's dramatic work "stands alone… on the very highest plane of modern English drama", praised the play but lamented that Wilde's "pyrotechnic wit" was one of the defects of his qualities. He added that he looked forward to the day when Wilde would "take himself seriously as a dramatic artist" - which for Archer would presumably mean that Wilde should become a disciple of Ibsen. Archer's praise of Wilde brought such adverse criticism from various quarters that he had compelled to defend himself in a review of Pinero's "The Second Mrs. Tanqueray", in which he reaffirmed his contention that Wilde was a writer of the first rank4.
Walkley's review praises Wilde's "true dramatic instinct", but he confesses that witty paradoxes begin to tire him by their sheer number. But the majority of critics were disappointed by it. Despite the minority opinion, the play was widely regarded as a success.
The purpose of Wilde's idea is to show the decomposition of English society. It can be really seen in the words of Hester, an American young lady:
"You rich people in England, you do not know how you are living. You shut out from your society the gentle and the good. You laugh at the simple and the pure. With all your pomp and wealth and art you do not know how to live - you don't even know that. You love the beauty that you can see and touch and handle, the beauty that you can destroy and do destroy, but of the unseen beauty of life, of the unseen beauty of a higher life, you know nothing. You have lost life's secret. Oh, your English Society seems to me shallow, selfish and foolish. It has blinded its eyes and stopped its ears. It lies like a leper in purple. It sits like a dead thing smeared with gold. It is all wrong, all wrong"5.
The American production of "A Woman of No Importance" opened in New-York on 11 December 1893 to audiences that appeared to be amused, but to drama critics who seemed even more grudging in their reactions than before in their response to "Lady Windermere's Fan". The play's audacity - particularly its sympathy for the unmarried mother - seemed particularly repugnant to some. The "New-York Times", for example, referred to Wilde as one whose mind seemed to be as "impure as the river Thames by London Bridge".
"A Woman of No Importance" is very interesting and has a great power of Oscar Wilde's brilliant witticism.
In June 1894 Wilde published his lengthy poem "The Sphinx", portions of which he had written as early as 1897, while a student at Oxford. Despite Wilde's reputation as a dramatist it was not widely reviewed. The reviews included in this volume are characteristic of the lack of enthusiasm for the poem. "The Sphinx" did little to advance Wilde's reputation. Coming after the success of "A Woman of No Importance", it was perhaps an error of judgement on Wilde's part to commit to print, at a high point in his career as a dramatist, a poem conceived and partly written in his youth.
B. Shaw defended Wilde; he said that Wilde's wit and his fine literary workmanship are points of great value. In the year of his trial and imprisonment, Wilde saw his last two plays produced on the London stage.
"An Ideal Husband", which opened January 3, 1895 at the Theatre Royal, did not draw praise from H.G.Wells and Clement Scott, who were never able to see much value in Wilde as a playwright. But Archer, Shaw, Walkley and William Dean Howells all agreed that it was a work the high order, despite some obvious weaknesses in its characterisation or the lessened output of Wilde's "epigram-factory", as Archer called it. But the majority of critics agreed that this play had an unmistakable success.
"An Ideal Husband" had a run of three performances, closing on April 6 (the day following Wilde's arrest, though announcements had been made beforehand that the play would soon close to permit production of another play). It was reopened at the Criterion Theatre on April 13 and was withdrawn on April 27.
In New-York "An Ideal Husband", which opened at the Lyceum Theatre on March 12, 1895, was judged by most of the critics as Wilde's best play to date. A notable feature of the reviewers is that they contain fewer personal attacks than in the past. What particularly irritated the critics, however, was that the audiences seemed to enjoy the play.
With the production February 14, 1895 of "The Importance of Being Earnest", Wilde achieved his greatest theatrical triumph. "The Importance of Being Earnest" is a drama. As we know, drama is an art form that tells a story through the speech and actions of the characters in the play. In most cases drama is performed by actors who impersonate the characters before an audience in a theatre. Although drama is a form of literature, it differs from other literary forms in the way it is presented. The drama achieves its greatest effect when it is performed. Some critics believe that a written script is not really a play until it has been acted in front of audience. Drama probably gets most of its effectiveness from its ability to give order and clarity to human experience. The basic elements of drama - feelings, desires, conflicts, reconciliation - other major ingredients of human experience.
"The Importance ofBeing Earnest" is widely recognised as one of the finest comedies of the English stage. But like all true comedies, the play reveals a variety of people, talks and events in a short period of time. This comedy also has a title "A Trivial Comedy for Serious People". In this play Wilde departed from his standard formula of building up the high comedy farce. The characters do not take the life seriously and the result of it is a satire of the author on the English society shallowness. The play is very witty and with many epigrams and paradoxes.
The audience at the St. James's theatre on opening night was deeply admired at this wonderful comedy. Most of critics were equally impressed. Wells, who had been disappointed with "An Ideal Husband", found Wilde's new play thoroughly delightful. Archer, intrigued by its curiously elusive wit, declared the play as "an absolutely wilful expression of an irrepressibly witty personality". The newspaper "Truth", observing that Wilde dominates the play, saw it as highly amusing precisely because he does. Indeed, in perceiving that Wilde makes no attempt at individual characterisation, the reviewer seems to grasp the nature of Wilde's dandical world. Walkley, one of Wilde's staunchest defenders says in his review that Wilde at last has found himself as an artist in "sheer nonsense… and better nonsense".
But some critics dissented from this widespread praise. Bernard Shaw, who had delighted in "An Ideal Husband", found "The Importance of Being Earnest" amusing but insisted that "the general effect is that of a farcical comedy dating from the seventies". Moreover, added Shaw, the play lacked humanity - a quality, presumably, which Shaw would associate with his own drama of social and political reform. But, curiously, Shaw seems to have overlooked the obvious and significant point that Wilde, like Shaw himself, had taken conventional dramatic form and infused it with the new vitality.
Wilde was imprisoned for homosexual acts in 1895 and went bankrupt before he left the prison. Wilde died in 1900 but his name is still synonymous with the bohemian lifestyle, wit and comic theatre.