I would like to begin by commenting on two recent full-length critical works on Wilde's plays to help define the parameters of my subsequent argument. In 1990 Kerry Powell, in Oscar Wilde and the Theatre of the 1890s, examined the extent to which the dramatist must be seen to be a man of his times and moulded to some degree by those times. He showed how aware Wilde was of both popular and less conventional drama in performance on the London stages: current developments in melodrama and comedy were potent influences (Gilbert, Jones, Pinero and Sardou), but so too, crucially, was Ibsen. The opening chapter of Powell's study is significantly entitled: 'Rewriting the Past' and his subsequent thesis in analysing the sources of the major plays extensively documents Wilde's borrowings, 'quotings' and manipulations of situations, dramatic climaxes, visual effects that he could rely on his audience quickly recognising. (Another chapter is pointedly entitled 'Algernon's Other Brothers'.) Wilde was sufficiently ardent and perceptive a theatregoer, as Powell shows, to be capable of devising roles to suit the performance-style of particular actors: Beerbohm Tree, George Alexander, Sarah Bernhardt. This view sees Wilde as both innovatory and Victorian, but the emphasis is chiefly on the second epithet.
An earlier publication by Katharine Worth makes rather different claims. Her study was issued within Macmillan's series, Modern Dramatists, and appropriately her concern is to establish Wilde's modernity. What steadily emerges here is an image of Wilde as a transitional figure whose interest, for example, in Wagner and the symbolists shaped in Salome a play that anticipated developments in poetic drama to be made by playwrights such as W. B. Yeats. In part Worth is seeking to account for the enduring popularity of Wilde's social comedies in the twentieth-century theatre and consequently she continually stresses their potential for actor, designer, director. She does not ignore the nineteenth-century material that played so creative a part in Wilde's inspiration, but she places it differently.