All Wilde on the Western Front: Alan Bennett, Tom Stoppard, and the Theatre of War

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This article explores pastiches of The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) in comic British plays about World War I. Beginning with the example of Alan Bennett's Forty Years On (1968) and then dealing more substantially with Tom Stoppard's Travesties (1974), it examines the ideological implications of these intertextual allusions in relation to the historiography of the 1960s. Bennett and Stoppard gesture towards the revisionist positions of Alan Clark, A.J.P. Taylor, and others who condemn the generals, and towards the society to which they belonged, while celebrating the courage of the ordinary combatant. And yet, although the grafting of Wildean characteristics onto portrayals of the Edwardian soldier forms part of a satirical critique, the article argues that both playwrights are sympathetic to the objects of their parody. Bennett's nostalgia for the spirit of the fin de siècle and its Edwardian legacy is more powerful than his condemnation of them and, in Travesties, rather than being stigmatized as an image of aristocratic irresponsibility, Earnest functions as a cipher for a whole series of liberal ideals identified with British culture. In the context of German militarism and Soviet Bolshevism, Wilde's comedy comes to stand for self-determination, for anti-authoritarianism, and for the rights of the individual in a world inimical to his/her freedom.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)455-478
Number of pages24
JournalModern Drama
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2011


  • Alan Bennett
  • Forty Years On
  • George Bernard Shaw
  • Heartbreak House
  • Oscar Wilde
  • The Importance of Being Earnest
  • Tom Stoppard
  • Travesties
  • fin de siècle
  • theatre of war

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Literature and Literary Theory


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