In England during the 1880s and 1890s there were repeated calls among the generation of playwrights that included Pinero, Jones, Shaw and Wilde, and theatre critics such as William Archer and Max Beerbohm, for new theatre writing to be ‘literary’. They wanted a British avant garde to match the exciting experiments on the Continent, where the Naturalism practised by Zola, Ibsen and Strindberg was challenging audiences with socially and scientifically based issue plays, as well as innovative stage craft. There was no State subsidy for theatre in Britain at that time, and commercial interests dominated the stage. Spectacular melodrama, music hall, long-running revivals of Shakespeare plays, and adaptations of French well-made-plays filled the theatres with popular successes but apparently failed to use the stage as an instrument of literary expression or political change. During the 1860s the actor turned playwright, T. W. Robertson, had begun to write ‘problem plays’, to confront social issues, but their success was short lived and little work was done in this area for the next 20 years. In this context the plays Wilde wrote during the 1890s appeared extraordinary. On the first production of A Woman of No Importance in 1893, William Archer hailed Wilde as unique:

the one essential fact about Mr Oscar Wilde’s dramatic work is that it must be taken on the very highest plane of modern English drama, and furthermore, that it stands alone on that plane. In intellectual calibre, artistic competence – ay, and in dramatic instinct to boot – Mr Wilde has no rival among his fellow-workers for the stage. He is a thinker and a writer; they are more or less able, thoughtful, original playwrights.

(Critical Heritage, 144)