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Book chapter digs up bomb hidden in Oscar Wilde comedy

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LAWRENCE – Oscar Wilde is best known today for two writings – the novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and the comedy “The Importance of Being Earnest” – and for being jailed (1895-1897) for homosexual activity.

Although he was born in Ireland and lived in London at a time when political relations between Ireland and England were extraordinarily strained, Wilde largely kept his politics to himself. But he gave his audience some clues.

Kathryn Conrad, English teacher at KUNow, with the passage of time stripping “Earnest” of its political context, an English professor at the University of Kansas has written an article reminding modern readers that certain lines in the play clearly allude to a separatist terrorist attack. Irishwoman and that Wilde seems to show sympathy for the so-called Fenian’s dynamite campaign.

“Rage’s Brother: The Bomb at the Center of Wilde’s Trivial Comedy” is a chapter of the new book “The Edinburgh Companion of Irish Modernism” (Edinburgh University Press). It is a continuation of Kathryn Conrad’s emphasis on the subject. In 2019, the chair of the Department of English at KU co-edited and co-wrote “Irish Science, Technology and Modernism” (Syracuse University Press), and she is writing another contract book tentatively titled “The Technology and Forms of Irish Modernism”.

While literary modernism is frequently associated with a period (from the late 1800s to WWII), the editors of the Edinburgh collection focus on Irish modernism’s resistance to religious, socio-political and aesthetic orthodoxies.

“This is about Wilde as a proto-modernist,” Conrad said. “He reflects on how technologies, aesthetic forms and other types of mediating influences affect the way we know and operate in the world. The stereotype of Irish writers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is that they are anti-science or hostile to science, primarily interested in folklore and so on. It emerges, in part, from William Butler Yeats’ commentary that “the man of science is too often a person who has traded his soul for a formula.”

“But one of the things that the last book I co-edited and contributed supported was that Irish writers were much more interested in questions of science and technology than this kind of superficial understanding of Yeats and the Irish Literary Renaissance wouldn’t have us believe it. on the landscape, society and politics of Ireland.

In the new chapter of his book, Conrad noted that when “Earnest” was created in 1895, Alfred Nobel’s invention of dynamite was still recent (1867), and that his innovation quickly turned, in the case of the Fenians and others, terrorism and war.

Wilde was associated with the aesthetic movement of his time, which can be summed up as privileging “art for the sake of art” and not to religious or socio-political activism. As a result, Conrad said, “People often viewed him as kind of frivolous and apolitical. But it’s not really fair to him. I see him making a deliberate choice to embrace art as a productive response to the political and social challenges of the time. And he opposed that to some more violent political movements with which he nonetheless sympathized. I think a lot of people would be surprised to know that he supported the anarchist movement, or that he supported the Fenian movement.

Conrad pointed out that, as playwright George Bernard Shaw noted, “He was the only man of letters in London to sign a petition in support of the anarchists of the Chicago Haymarket Riots in 1886.

He wrote an 1891 essay, “The soul of man under socialism“Conrad said,” so he identified himself as a socialist, and maybe a bit like an anarchist. A lot of people might think he meant this just in a literary way. And this is also true. But he was really thinking about how … art was the way to respond to injustice and systems of oppression. It was more subtle and less violent than the bombs he refers to. “

In “Rage’s Brother”, Conrad argues that the many references to Jack Worthing’s character as a foundling in a sack in central London Victoria Station could only have been inspired by the Fenians’ dynamite attack. February 26, 1884. Wilde quotes the same type of bag the bombers used in their improvised explosive device and places it in the same location – the locker room – as the Fenians.

These short passages are overlooked these days, Conrad said, but they came to him in a recent reading.

“Imagine a four-year bombing campaign in New York City,” Conrad said. “People would know and New Yorkers would recognize the reference, especially if it had happened a few blocks from where the play was being performed, which is the case here.”

In the second act of the play, Jack Worthing also jokes that his friend Algernon’s fake friend, Bunbury, is “pretty blown up”, a phrase Algernon repeats in the third act and to which his aunt, Lady Bracknell , responds “Exploded! Was he the victim of revolutionary outrage? I did not know that Mr Bunbury was interested in social legislation. If so, he is well punished for his morbidity.

“Obviously,” said Conrad, “there is some comedy to these allusions to the bombing campaigns, so what is Wilde trying to say? The article suggests that, in a very layered way , he shows a kind of sympathy for the things the Fenians were trying to do – to literally blow up the power structure and systems that Wilde considered oppressive. He tries to suggest that the best way to do it is through satire, by art That it is healthier and, indeed, ultimately more effective.

Picture: “The Disastrous Explosion at Victoria Station” from The Graphic, an illustrated weekly newspaper, March 1, 1884. Credit: Courtesy of Kathryn Conrad


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