Oscar Wilde? G. K. Chesterton? H. L. Mencken? Sebastian Melmoth?
Dear Quote Investigator: The following cryptic paradox has been attributed to the famous wit Oscar Wilde:
Life is too important to be taken seriously.
Yet, I have not found this statement in Wilde’s plays or essays. Would you please examine its provenance?
Quote Investigator: Oscar Wilde did not write or say the precise quip listed above; however, he did write something that was similar. In 1883 Wilde’s first play titled “Vera; or, The Nihilists” was staged in New York; it was unsuccessful, and the production closed quickly.
In 1902 the text of the play was printed in a private limited edition. The work included a line that partially matched the jest, but it used the phrase “talk seriously” which shifted the semantics. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
COUNT R.: There seems to be nothing in life about which you would not jest.
PRINCE PAUL: Ah! my dear Count, life is much too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it.
Wilde apparently enjoyed this joke because he reused it in his successful comedy “Lady Windermere’s Fan” which was staged in 1892 and published in 1893: 2
LADY WINDERMERE: Why do you talk so trivially about life, then?
LORD DARLINGTON: Because I think that life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it.
DUCHESS OF BERWICK: What does he mean? Do, as a concession to my poor wits, Lord Darlington, just explain to me what you really mean.
LORD DARLINGTON: I think I had better not, Duchess. Now-a-days to be intelligible is to be found out. Good-bye!
The phrasing used by Wilde was remembered incorrectly by some playgoers. For example, in 1902 the influential writer and critic G. K. Chesterton penned a book which included a reference to Wilde’s comedy, but Chesterton simplified the humorous line by removing the reference to “talk”. Chesterton’s altered version was close to the popular modern expression: 3
Thus the brilliant author of “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” in the electric glare of modernity, finds that life is much too important to be taken seriously.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1902, Vera; or, The Nihilists by Oscar Wilde, Act II, Quote Page 34, (Note in text: This Play was written in 1881, and is now published from the author’s own copy, showing his corrections of and additions to the original text), Privately Printed; Number 64 of 200 Copies. (Internet Archive) link ↩
- 1893, Lady Windermere’s Fan: A Play About a Good Woman by Oscar Wilde, Quote Page 14 and 15, Published by Elkin Mathews and John Lane at the Sign of the Bodley Head in Vigo Street, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link link ↩
- 1902, Robert Louis Stevenson by G. K. Chesterton and W. Robertson Nicoll, Part II: The Characteristics of Robert Louis Stevenson, Start Page 9, Quote Page 20 and 21, Published by Hodder and Stoughton, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩