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Pleasing and Teasing the Audience
Oscar Wilde: An All-Time Favourite of Viennese Stages in the Twentieth Century

Sandra Mayer

In view of Oscar Wilde's unchallenged status as periodically revived all-time favourite of Viennese stages – highlighted most recently by Ernst ist das Leben, Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek's interpretation of Wilde's 1895 box-office success The Importance of Being Earnest, at the Akademietheater – this sub-project investigates the specific parameters and conditions, the unique characteristics and idiosyncrasies of Wilde's lasting imprint on the Vienna theatrical landscape. Since the Anglo-Irish author and playwright was first introduced to the Viennese audience at the Deutsches Volkstheater on 12 December 1903 with his notoriously risqué Symbolist one-act-tragedy Salome, to be followed in rapid succession by his four society comedies and the fragmentary one-acter Eine florentinische Tragödie (A Florentine Tragedy) during the first decade of the twentieth century, Wilde's plays never seem to have gone out of fashion and have remained favourites with Viennese theatre audiences ever since.

However, despite their apparent popularity with the audience as they were gradually becoming a fixture on Viennese stages, Oscar Wilde's plays generally provoked an essentially mixed and diverse, far from unanimously enthusiastic critical reception. In addition, it is to be observed that early critical opinions on Wilde's dramatic output in the Austrian press appear to be not immune against the mechanisms of ephemeral public curiosity, lurid sensationalism and ideological instrumentalisation by medico-legal, psychopathological or utopian-socialist discourse. Thus, the early reception of Oscar Wilde's plays on the Vienna stages was characterised not only by multiform examples of discursive plurality, but also by a dominant sense of inseparable interdependence of the author's life and work. Strikingly, this fact frequently lent itself as a welcome platform to the proffering of personal viewpoints and stances on various ideological bones of contention, such as homosexuality, art and morality, and must therefore be taken into account as one of this project’s main parameters of analysis.

Apart from the comparative aspect, which aims at tracing the most conspicuous similarities and differences marking the various developmental stages in the public evaluation of Oscar Wilde's dramas on the London and Vienna stages, their periodical presence within the repertory of Viennese theatres throughout the twentieth century shall be reviewed against the interdisciplinary backgrounds of socio-cultural and historical contextualisation. Notably, particular reference shall be made to aspects of censorship, processes of play selection and the historical role of individual theatres and outstanding figures of the Vienna literary and theatre scene, such as Franz Blei, as cultural 'mediators'. Essentially, this sub-project will be centrally placed within the interdisciplinary theoretical and methodological framework of reception theory and history, theory of drama translation, and cultural transfer, while additional emphasis will be set on the role of national cultural identity and stereotypical conceptions informing the processes of public reception, translation or adaptation.



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