Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Classics Challenge: April with Oscar Wilde

The Plays of Oscar Wilde

This is the fourth month of The Classics Challenge, hosted by Katherine at November's Autumn, who posts questions each month around a central theme.  The focus this month is the cover of the book.  Here is mine:

This is a Vintage edition, published in 1988.  Unfortunately the colors on this image aren't right.  My copy is a warm yellow rather than peach, and the border designs are in olive green and purple. The picture of Oscar Wilde is also crisper.

Our questions for this month:
What are your first impressions as you look at the cover?    What I notice first is the image of Wilde.  I think it dominates the cover, though John Lahr's name is almost as prominent as The Plays of Oscar Wilde.

Does the book cover have an aspect that reflects the character, setting, or plot of the novel?    I don't think so, in this case.  I think it is more about the author than the plays.

If you could have designed the book cover what would you have chosen?    With all due respect to John Lahr, whose reviews in The New Yorker I always enjoy, his name would be much less prominent.  I would like to have something from the plays themselves.  Not from any of the film versions, to avoid the look of a movie tie-in (as tempting as it would be to have Colin Firth and Rupert Everett from The Importance of Being Earnest, or Jeremy Northam from An Ideal Husband).  But perhaps something like this, from the very first production of The Importance of Being Earnest, in February of 1895:

Source: Wikipedia

I have seen film versions of An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest, which made me want to read the original plays.  But the first one I read from this volume was Salomé, because a production of this play is central to the plot of my favorite Robert Altman film, Cookie's Fortune.  The film takes place over the Easter weekend, so I usually watch it around this time.  I quickly discovered that the actual play is very different than the one presented in the film, and much stranger.  Salomé is a one-act play about the execution of John the Baptist.  As recounted in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, Herod Antipas (the Tetrarch) had John arrested after he denounced Herod's marriage to his brother's wife Herodias.  At a banquet, Herodias's daughter (who is never named) performed a dance that delighted Herod so much that he promised her anything she wanted as a reward.  Her mother suggested the head of John the Baptist on a platter, and Herod was forced to keep his word.  In the play, John (called Jokanaan) is present but invisible, imprisoned in a cistern from which he booms denunciations and prophecies.  Salomé becomes enthralled with him (as Herod is with her, to her mother's disgust), but John rejects her as evil and loathsome.  After Herod repeatedly begs Salomé to dance, leering at her all the while, she agrees, and then claims her prize, to his dismay. (Spoiler alert) The play ends with Herod's soldiers executing Salomé in turn, crushing her with their shields.

Even with its serious subject, I was surprised at the complete lack of humor in this play, which is played for laughs in Cookie's Fortune.  I can't imagine anyone producing this seriously, with its "historic" dialogue, portentous foreshadowing, and over-the-top descriptions.  In the first lines, the moon is compared to "a woman rising from the tomb. She is like a dead woman. One might fancy she was looking for dead things," and then as a princess "who has little white doves for feet. One might fancy she was dancing."  Salomé is "the shadow of a white rose in a mirror of silver."  She tells John, "I am amorous of thy body, Jokanaan! Thy body is white like the lilies of the field that the mower hath never mowed."  It's tempting to go on quoting the lines from this play, because they just get worse and worse.

What a relief to turn from this to The Importance of Being Earnest, which just gets better and better as the action moves from Algy's flat in London to Jack's house in Hertfordshire.  It's one of the funniest plays I have ever read, and I hope someday to see a really good stage production.  Here again I am tempted to extensive quotation, but I will restrain myself to just one, the inimitable Lady Bracknell's inspection of Cecily, who has just become engaged to Algy:
"Yes, quite as I expected. There are distinct social possibilities in your profile. The two weak points in our age are its want of principle and its want of profile. The chin a little higher, dear. Style largely depends on the way the chin is worn. They are worn very high, just at present."
I understand from the Introduction that the other plays can't match this one, but I'm still looking forward to reading them.


  1. I like your ideas for a different book cover. I just read my first Oscar Wilde work recently and am eager to read more of his work.

  2. Anne, thanks for stopping by. This was my first time to read Oscar Wilde as well, and I too am looking forward to reading more.

  3. I like the cover of your book, as it is a collection of plays by Wilde, but you're right, it doesn't address the theatrical aspect of the work at all. Funny comment about Lahr's name being so prominent.

    I love Importance of Being Earnest, but haven't read anything else by Wilde except Dorian Gray, which I found disappointing, actually.

  4. The Importance of Being Earnest was my first read for this challenge in January. Even though I'd seen the film, I thoroughly enjoyed reading the play.

  5. Jane, I've been trying to remember if I've read Dorian Gray already. I have a vague memory of it - but it clearly didn't make much of an impression. I do like this cover, I think it's very attractive and certainly focuses on Wilde.

    Debbie, after seeing the Firth/Everett film, I really wanted to read the play itself. Though I enjoyed it, I found some of the added film bits a bit over the top, like Cecily's journal daydreams. I'll have to look for your post - I must have missed it.

  6. Hadn't heard of Wilde's Salome but I hope to read his Ideal Husband in the near future.

    Thank you for participating, Lisa May! :)

  7. I think that might be my next Wilde as well. Don't feel like you have to rush to read Salome :)


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!