The Plays of Oscar Wilde
'The Importance of Being Earnest' and 'Lady Windermere's Fan' are the two most popular of a quartet ...
‘For wit and absurd invention these clever and cynical pages are not to be matched by anything that our disillusioned post-war gentlemen have been able to give us. He was an unflagging and unsparing wit, and an extraordinarily deft craftsman’.
J. B. Priestley
It is often claimed that the environment and regimes a writer experiences in his childhood inform his fiction. This certainly would seem to be the case with Hector Hugh Munro who took on the pseudonym of Saki for all his writings. He was born in 1870 in
However Saki’s championing of children against tyrannical adults does not preclude his ill treatment of them in several stories, although he leavens the violence with humour that is dark and often satiric as in ‘The Story Teller’, which tells of a girl who is revoltingly good. She is devoured by a wolf who discovers her hiding place because he hears the chinking sound made by the girl’s medals which she has won for being so good.
In ‘Esme’ it is a hyena that does the devouring. Saki seems to take great pleasure in assuring the reader that ‘[Esme] was firmly and I expect painfully held in his jaws.’
Munro was a fellow of strange contradictions. On the one hand he had strict views on how the human race should conduct itself and often appeared tight-lipped and humourless. He has been described as a misogynist, an anti-Semite and a reactionary. He was also a repressed homosexual and he did not take himself too seriously. It was as though the world and the people in it infuriated him but at the same time he was aware of the farcical and often preposterous nature of our existence. As a result his stories are bursting with wit and slightly crazy humour. He is able to conjure tales that can be both hilarious and frightening. He focuses on society to expose its hypocrisies, its petty arrogances and its self-deceptions with a perceptive and biting satire. Saki has been compared to Oscar Wilde, P.G. Wodehouse and Noel Coward.
Munro considered that his stories were ‘true enough to be interesting and not true enough to be tiresome.’ He wished to expose foolishness and arrogance through a series of farcical situations. ‘The Interlopers’ is a fine example of Saki’s ideas on the pettiness of society and, as in many stories, he wreaks a harsh and fiercely ironic revenge on the two main characters. The families of George Znaeyem and Ulrich von Gradwitz have fought over a forest in the
Rather like Rudyard Kipling, with whom he is sometimes compared because their narratives are rather like dark parables, Saki often featured animals in his tales. This may be because both men spent a lot of time in India where animals were given great respect and in some instances worshipped.
One of Saki’s favourite literary experiments was to introduce a wild animal into the stuffy and so-called civilised surrounding of an elegant English home. He is in essence contrasting the artificial conventions and hypocrisies of Edwardian England with the straightforward, ruthless and unfettered struggles of nature. To identify just a few – we have a leopard occupying a spare room in ‘The Guests’; a wolf is released into the parlour of a country house in ‘The She-Wolf’; we have a werewolf in the guise of a naked teenage boy in a primly ordered household in ‘Gabriel Ernest’; ‘a small long-tailed monkey’ who wreaks a remarkable personality change on a quiet scholar in ‘The Remoulding of Groby Lington’.
Saki’s stories are brief, written as though he doesn’t want to outstay his welcome. It would be wrong to say his plots are simple for they are often surprising, shocking even, but they are certainly not convoluted or complicated. They contain one glittering idea which is presented with clarity and a biting wit.
At the outbreak of World War One, despite being forty-three he volunteered to fight in France. He refused to take the commission that was offered to him and he served as a Sergeant in the Royal Fusiliers. He was shot in the head while in a shallow trench in 1916. It is strangely typical that his last words, according to several sources, were, ‘Put that damned cigarette out.’