Wilde consciously wrote literature that he wished to be regarded as the culmination of nineteenth-century literary history, but in many ways, it actually seems to reflect the beginnings of a twentieth-century impulse. Throughout the nineteenth century, the English theatre was in a state of decline but, in the 1890s, a ‘new drama’ appeared, reviving the English theatre, and being championed mainly by Wilde and George Bernard Shaw.

In the nineteenth century, melodrama had come to dominate the English stage. These were intended to appeal to lower-class people, without much education, who worked long hours and lived in crowded accommodation. When they did go out, they were not in the mood for intellectual entertainment, but for something funny, emotional and exciting. The melodramatic formula consisted of simple, easy dialogue, that wasn’t always realistic, short scenes, and frequent scene changes, to provide visual variety, heavy use of music and sound effects, cut-out characters, who usually personified one characteristic, like courage or drunkenness, and accidental and unconvincing coincidences, sacrificing probability to thrills.

However, the 1860s saw a departure from this kind of melodrama, with the plays of TW Robertson, Henry Arthur Jones and Pinero, which paved the way for Shaw and Wilde. At the same time, the upper and middle classes had begun to frequent the theatres, demanding a more sophisticated type of drama. The plays of Shaw and Wilde, though they owe much to the conventions of melodrama, present us with more complex and convincing characters, as well as having a good deal of intellectual content – they are dramas of ideas. The Importance of Being Earnest, despite its intellectual content, however, cannot genuinely be considered a drama of ideas. But in its almost complete break with melodrama, and its almost total originality, it stands as one of the great nineteenth-century turning points in English drama.

First produced on the London stage in 1895, The Importance of Being Earnest was not published until 1899, largely because of high public feeling during Wilde’s trial and subsequent imprisonment. Leonard Smithers published the three-act version which Wilde though to be superior to his earlier four-act play.

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