Primary Source Paper: 19th Century Ideology – The Importance of Being Earnest and Also Sprach Zarathustra
December 9, 2015 | | Leave a Comment
With the fall of Napoleon’s conquest and the rise of industrialization, Europe in the 1800s underwent a massive change that challenged the norms and traditions that had persisted for generations. Europe’s rapid modernization brought along revolutionary thoughts and actions that shaped the world as it is today. Oscar Wilde’s comedy The Importance of Being Earnest is one example, which underlines the flaws in England’s late Victorian Era. Another example is Richard Strauss’ composition of Also Sprach Zarathustra, an orchestral piece based of the work of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. The Importance of Being Earnest and Also Sprach Zarathustra are important works in the 19th century because they paved the way for future controversial thought.
Well before the Napoleonic Wars, late 1700’s England had already begun fulfilling the requirements to be industrialized. Far ahead of other nations, England was the first to set the standard of modern power, influence, and culture. As the British Empire dominated the world, it also went through a “second English Renaissance,” in which a complex society developed and became known as the Victorian era. The Victorian era lasted almost 70 years under the reign of Queen Victoria and symbolizes power, wealth, and peace. One of the works that came from this culture is The Importance of Being Earnest, a comedy written by Oscar Wilde, a well-known playwright during the late 1800’s.
The Importance of Being Earnest is considered Wilde’s masterpiece and is widely known to this day. Earnest was an immediate success when it opened, but quickly began suffering from Wilde’s arrest and imprisonment for homosexuality, and was soon discontinued. The play was eventually brought back several years later where it regained popularity, and was performed frequently around the western world. With the invention of film, the play has also been adapted to movies, all of which have been successful. Despite its popularity, the only version of Earnest I could find in Simpson Library was in an entire collection of Wilde’s work; I could not find the individual play.
The Importance of Being Earnest is a satirical play that looks at the complex and paradoxical aspects in Victorian society. The most important of these aspects is the concept of marriage. Jack, the protagonist, wishes to marry his beloved Gwendolen, but must reach all of the requirements to do so. Although Jack has the right money, education, and social status to marry, he was a ward of a now deceased man who found infant Jack in a handbag at the train station. Without any respectable form of heritage or inheritance, Jack is turned down at the prospect. The theme of the play shows how important heritage meant to Victorian society. Without heritage, one cannot obtain respect because they cannot claim the importance or history of the deeds their family had accomplished for the good of society. The wealth and power an individual obtains does not match the name of a well-respected family. Those without noticeable heritage were locked into their positions, and were limited on what they could accomplish. Another important theme of Earnest is the display of intelligence and power; or as Wilde presents it, the lack thereof. Rather than science or history, Wilde suggests that wit and cleverness is essential for high-class Victorians to master. Characters frequently make statements that contradict rational thought for the purpose of furthering their own motives, and formal education is almost completely disregarded. Cecily, Jack’s own ward, is praised several times for ignoring her studies to pursue her own idealistic fantasies, and is even applauded by Jack! At the same time, wealth is also best displayed by showing none of it. The character Algernon, the “exemplarily” Victorian man, shows his power through his constant hunger and unmatched wit. Algernon’s only power is his heritage, which allows him to lead his life of luxury. Even his Aunt Augusta acknowledges his position: “He has nothing, but he looks everything. What more can one desire?” The only wealth that mattered to Victorian society was the wealth that a name carried.
As the world sped up from industrialization, new beliefs and ideologies had to develop as well. By the 1840’s, every Western European nation was taking the benefits of technology to the extreme at the cost of the workers. Tension built up between the working and upper classes, and began resolving in 1848, after the publication of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, popularizing socialism and communism. Only 11 years later, Charles Darwin stunned the world with On the Origin of Species. It was the first piece of scientific literature that gave an explanation on why humans exist. Finally, in 1883, Friedrich Nietzsche published Also Sprach Zarathustra, in which he proclaimed that God is dead and the dawn of the übermensch (superman) is upon humanity. Nietzsche argued that with the modernization of the world and improvement in science, the reason for God’s existence no longer serves to explain the unknown to humanity, and those who will be the first to lead mankind after this realization will be the übermensch. Nietzsche was influential enough to have his ideology adapted to various forms of art, with one musical piece being particularly noteworthy.
In 1895, German musician Richard Strauss composed a tone poem inspired by Nietzsche’s work. He titled it after the same name, Also Sprach Zarathustra, and has been considered a classical piece since its first performance. While mostly unknown to many, Also Sprach Zarathustra reached its height upon the release of the popular science-fantasy film 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the introduction of the song was played during the first few minutes.
Strauss strived to match the same tones and emotions as Nietzsche has with his book. The plot of Also Sprach Zarathustra is that an enlightened man called Zarathustra descends from the mountains to human kind of God’s death. The novel has nine major parts, and the song has nine sections. The introduction features lots of brass instruments and heavy drums, signaling a triumphant return. It symbolizes Zarathustra’s descent, and that the world is about to learn the ultimate truth. The rest of the song never again reaches the splendor of the beginning, rises and falls with rebirth, freedom, and grief. It conveys the rejection that people take towards such radical beliefs, but also the fear of isolation. There are times of anger, but it never reaches a point of total chaos. The tone poem ends similarly to a lullaby, with the final note being repeated multiple times. It helps to convey the end of a long night under the illusion of God, and that tomorrow brings a better future. These are the impressions I felt from the piece, but I think there must have been lots of people who felt the same when Strauss first performed it. With so many explanations and the rapid pace of industrialized society, many people simply didn’t have the time for God. They were scared and unsure what the death of God meant, but it was time to move on.
Along with the struggle of industrialization, new beliefs and societies were born in Europe. In England, an entirely new society was created under a single monarch. Though the Victorian era was more polite and complex than he portrayed it, Oscar Wilde revealed some of the strange and paradoxical aspects of the society. In the rest of Europe, as humanity realized their freedom and isolation from a god, Richard Strauss’ music helped convey the fear and hope of these people. While these two sources are unrelated to each other, both The Importance of Being Earnest and Also Sprach Zarathustra were important works of art that helped lead the way to an era of free, progressive thought.
 George P. Landow, “Victorian and Victorianism,” The Victorian Web, last modified August 2, 2009, accessed November 22, 2015. http://www.victorianweb.org/vn/victor4.html
 “The Importance of Being Earnest,” Wikipedia, accessed November 22, 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Importance_of_Being_Earnest#Film
 Wilde, Oscar. Collins Complete Works of Oscar Wilde: (Glasgow: Harper Collins, 1999), pages 356 – 419.
 Wilde, Oscar. Collins Complete Works of Oscar Wilde: (Glasgow: Harper Collins, 1999), page 410.