The Manuscripts of Oscar Wilde
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The original manuscripts of Oscar Wilde today reside in many collections, including the British Library. The largest and most comprehensive is to be found at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, UCLA.
This collection includes typescripts and copies of many letters and associated documents from Wilde's circle. Scholarly accounts of the manuscripts and Wilde's methods of working can be found among the many graduate and post graduate works. The library's collection of materials features early purchases from Wilde's son Vyvyan Holland, the bibliographer Christopher Millard, and literary executor Robert Ross. This group of autograph letters and drafts by Wilde, supported by a nearly complete collection of printed editions of his works make useful research material for modern biographers. Original photographs, caricatures, theatre programs, and news cuttings are available.
In looking over the material it can be seen that the image of the indolent Wilde, carefree and idle for much of the time, is misleading, although in some sense it is a myth that was perpetuated by the author himself. Wilde had two plays running in London's West End before the scandal erupted. Rehearsals for The Importance of Being Earnest even took place on Christmas Day, much to the annoyance of the actors.
Various copy books contain pages where either the dialogue is a free-flowing early draft — or a combination of both typed copy and annotations by hand. Various pastings occur and clear marginal notes are directed to the typist from Mrs Marshall's Typewriting School. Wilde often corrected his manuscripts using large balloons drawn in purple pencil. Some of the pastings may be post Wilde, or, more probably, are early constructions for rehearsal and prompt copies.
In construction, the plays undergo a similar process of working-up. A fairly tight first draft generally includes all the acts, with minimal crossings out. This is followed by a much altered and revised second draft, especially in the case of Lady Windermere's Fan. Here, Wilde works particularly hard in order to make the greatest impact. He is fully concerned with plot and the development of the characters. He writes to George Alexander on the point: "I cannot seem to get my people real. I worked at it when I was not fully in the mood."
The first comedy of manners seemed to take its toll, with many further changes occurring even after the first night. Character names often run in confusion, as if it does not matter who is speaking. The talk itself flows seamlessly and is very original. In many scenes, there is a run of counter arguments that build upon each utterance, darting about a central theme. Flashes of genius mix with awkward ripostes. On occasion, an outburst of extraordinary tongue-in-cheek statements leap from the page, few of which reached curtain up.
The following was removed from the manuscript:
- Lady Windermere — "Sugar, Lord Darlington?"
- He takes three lumps.
- Lord Darlington — "I find three lumps almost bigamous."
- Notebook — 'I have never sown wild oats, but I have planted a few Orchids.'
Many lines are cancelled in later drafts as plot points alter the sense or make the exchange redundant. Yet epigrams generally survive to be inserted elsewhere, even from other stories — e.g., several lines from Dorian Gray appear again in L.W.F. Modifications to the work through stage rehearsal are sometimes incorporated on scraps of paper.
The secrecy surrounding the plots of An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest is clearly shown in the strict instructions to the typist, being forbidden to show or excerpt lines. Typescripts were delivered by hand under plain cover to 'Oscar Wilde 10/11 St. James's Place'. They were never posted.
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