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Drama Club: The Ups and Downs of Context

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Well, we all knew it was coming, but my foray into Chekhov has officially come to a close. It was an illuminating experience for this Chekhov newbie, and I hope for you readers as well.

Oscar Wilde

What I’d like to discuss today at Drama Club is something I touched on in my Chekhov posts: whether it’s vital to read a playwright’s personal life with their works. Context can paint an entirely new picture for readers, but it can also lead them to draw arguably absurd links between plays and their authors. So just how much should we read into playwright biographies?

Oscar Wilde is a great case study for this discussion. It’s extremely easy to read the man’s witty plays as fluff that requires no analysis. Many would merely laugh at his acidic one-liners and move on.  Yet once Wilde’s homosexuality is brought to the table, plays like The Importance of Being Earnest arguably get a lot more complicated. Wilde was famously flamboyant, but, despite his trial and subsequent jail time for sodomy, he was essentially leading a double life. He even had a wife, Constance Lloyd, but kept various male lovers throughout their marriage. Jack’s different identities in the country and city take on a new meaning in The Importance of Being Earnest with this information. Even more telling is his best friend Algy’s use of a fictitious sick friend named Bunbury to evade boring obligations. The term “Bunburying,” as the pair calls it, is nearly impossible to read without certain implications, given Wilde’s sexuality.

Arthur Miller

It’s equally difficult to ignore Arthur Miller’s experience with the Great Depression. Until the stock market crash of 1929, Miller’s family was so well-off that they had a chauffeur.  Once the economy tanked, however, Miller and his family lost their high-class status. They were forced into a considerably cheaper home, and teenage Miller had to pick up menial jobs to support his siblings and parents. Knowing this, we naturally link Miller’s experience to his sharp critique of the American Dream, in plays such as The Price and Death of a Salesman. He couldn’t have just dreamt up Willy Loman – his issues with American idealism obviously came from somewhere very personal.

Broad, yet important, moments from playwrights’ lives – Miller’s family losing its fortune, Wilde’s grappling with his sexuality – are important to consider, but contextualization tends to go too far when readers get more specific and nit-picky. Yes, plenty of playwrights had sisters, but that doesn’t mean that every sister in their plays is an exact replica of the real one. Similarly, not every monologue is a manifestation of the playwright’s inner thoughts. It’s easy to go too far with contextualization, and easy to argue its exaggerated importance even in cases like the ones described. Yet, just as it is with novels, it is a critical tool that cannot be ignored.

Kristin Hunt is an undergraduate journalism major at Syracuse University.  She dreams of the day she owns a personal library the size of Belle’s from ‘Beauty and the Beast.’  Her column, ‘Drama Club,’ appears every Tuesday.

Photo of Wilde: Delany Dean
Photo of Miller: Broadway World


Written by whitney teal

April 20, 2010 at 9:23 am

Posted in Drama Club

Tagged with , ,

One Response

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  1. Wilde’s works always get me for their incredible concentration of wit. It seems that unless a sentence’s purpose is to move the plot along, its another one of the wittier things I could ever read.

    But on a more related note, bringing up the “Bunburying” certainly does offer some small new insight.


    April 21, 2010 at 3:41 pm

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