Arthur Henry Jones (1851–1929) was a British playwright working for the London stage around the same time as Oscar Wilde.
What is this book?
In the 1880s, Jones had campaigned to get copyright legislation changed so the process of publishing play scripts as books could be opened up. It became an increasing tendency in the 1890s, and in the essays collected together in this book, he argues that the process was
[a] safeguard against the success of all kinds of bunkum and clap-trap on the English stage […] We may not as yet have written plays with a distinct literary ‘note’, but the knowledge that we shall be ‘read’ as well as ‘seen’ must tend towards the cultivation of a literary form.
Playwrights such as Jones wanted their work to be considered not just as entertainment, but as part of the literary canon alongside authors such as Shakespeare, Tennyson, Swinburne and Browning. This would lead, in his view, to what the title calls a Renascence of the English Drama; but it would only happen if drama dealt with ‘serious’ and ‘important’ topics:
We will put aside farcical burlesque, comic opera, and deal only with plays of serious intention... plays that implicitly assert the value and dignity of human life, that it has great passions and great aims, and is full of meanings and importance.
How is it relevant to Wilde’s work?
As the scholar Nicholas Frankel points out, the latter is subtitled A Trivial Comedy for Serious People. Combined with the fact that Wilde used Jones’s favourite actor-manager to produce the play, a farcical society satire, Wilde seems to be poking fun at Jones’s arguments, and especially the po-faced way in which he had made them. In the letter Wilde sent to George Alexander – the actor who would stage the play and act in the title role – he sarcastically wrote
who is Jones? Perhaps the name reported in the London papers was a misprint for something else. I have never heard of Jones. Have you?
Not only had Alexander heard of Jones; he had worked with him earlier that year. Wilde must have been struck with the difference between the rather boring-sounding ‘Renascence’ Jones suggested, and period of creative, aesthetic brilliance noted in Walter Pater’s The Renaissance (1873), and to which Wilde aspired. Though Wilde’s work is full of ‘serious’ points, it arrives at them through playful satirical wit and linguistic sleights of hand, in contrast to Jones’s more workmanlike methods.
Who was Arthur Henry Jones?
Having left school at 12, Jones was largely self-educated and, after a career as a draper’s assistant, worked hard at studying what was popular and successful in contemporary drama. His own successes include two collaborations with Henry Herman (1832–1894): The Silver King (1882) and Breaking a Butterfly, the first English version of the Norwegian realist playwright Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House (1884).
- Article by:
- John Stokes
- Fin de siècle, Popular culture
The Importance of Being Earnest draws on elements of farce and melodrama in its depiction of a particular social world. Professor John Stokes considers how Oscar Wilde combined disparate influences into a brilliant satire which contained hidden, progressive sentiments.
- Article by:
- Carolyn Burdett
- Fin de siècle
‘Art for art’s sake’? Aestheticism and decadence shocked the Victorian establishment by challenging traditional values, foregrounding sensuality and promoting artistic, sexual and political experimentation. Dr Carolyn Burdett explores the key features of this unconventional artistic period.