By Charles Taylor
Published April 30, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

"We live in an age when men treat art as if it were meant to be a form of autobiography." -- Oscar Wilde

When I was in junior high school, my class went on a field trip to see a play called "The Importance of Being Earnest." It was a fancy play, in which actors wore frilly gowns and satin pants and said things they couldn't possibly really mean in voices that sounded like they came out of the top of their heads. The adults around us tittered tastefully in the dark. I could see the humor in two people pretending to be Earnest, and I knew being earnest was a laughable concept in itself, but still I didn't get what all the fuss was about. I concluded it was one of those plays kept alive for the purposes of junior high school field trips. After all, it wasn't a Shakespearean tragedy with rivers of long speeches and spilt blood, or an Edward Albee play with cursing and tongue kissing. In 1973, it seemed a very proper play with proper little plays on words.

In high school we studied "Earnest" again, and this time learned that it was written by a man who was put in jail for something indecent. I can't remember if the word "homosexual" was actually invoked, but coming from a rather genteel small town, we were used to our teachers' cheerful constriction of the truth. Instead, they concentrated on Wilde's "irony," as illustrated by lines like "The amount of women in London who flirt with their husbands is perfectly scandalous ... It is simply washing one's clean linen in public." Then we took home an assignment to compose 10 ironic maxims or epigrams of our own. Wilde still remained a rather tame tupperware for exercises in language arts.

In college, Professor David A. Miller -- his tight T-shirt, wickedly sculpted torso and precision-cut mustache flashing his identity like a mirror ball -- taught me that Wilde's homosexuality was "encoded into the text." "Bunbury," the imaginary out-of-town invalid who makes demands on Algernon's time, was a secret play on the action of "burying in the buns." The real farce, in Miller's reading, was the fact that audiences -- then and now -- were missing the subversive gay subtext. We spent a gleeful week unearthing hidden innuendoes: "Nothing will induce me to part with Bunbury," Miller read aloud, his eyes glittering. "If you ever get married, which seems to me extremely problematic, you will be very glad to know Bunbury. A man who marries without knowing Bunbury has a very tedious time of it."

Miller's unseemly delight worked like a pedagogical charm; I became a Wilde fan. Reading "Salome," "Lady Windermere's Fan," "An Ideal Husband," "The Picture of Dorian Grey," as well as some of his socialist writings and fairy tales for children, I fell in love with the perverse agility of Wilde's mind. Wilde's oeuvre stands not just as a testament to his intelligence but to an obscene sense of pleasure in the world. His irrepressible impulse to mischief, to perfectly measured excess, to ethical insincerity, makes him one of the most entertaining figures in Western culture. Yet he was not a simplistic, joking clown but a voracious idealist. "A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at," he once wrote. But his passion and vision never turned into banal pedantry. The truth of a statement, for Wilde, was less important than the beauty of its delivery. And Wilde's life largely lived up to this vision: He brought his aesthetics and wit with him everywhere he went. When he arrived in America, he reputedly told the custom's officer: "I have nothing to declare except my genius." From the lavish Old Testament poetry of "Salome" to the airy banter of "An Ideal Husband" to the brooding philosophy of "De Profundis," Wilde flaunts the soul of a dedicated chameleon; he may be many things, but he is never, ever boring.

And that is what is so disappointing about the current Wilde fever: It's boring.

In the last few years, there has been a veritable Wilde explosion. It's not so much a revival of his work -- that never really died -- as a resurrection of the man himself. In a culture that has become wary of hero worship, it's fascinating to watch an apotheosis in process. In addition to a host of new pop academic paeans to his sexuality such as Gary Schmidgall's "The Stranger Wilde: Interpreting Oscar," there are hundreds of Oscarphiliac Web sites, including a debate on the International Worker's Bulletin, a Wilde astrology chart and a NAMBLA endorsement. Several regional theatrical productions, like Ken Ruta's long-running solo show in San Francisco, have dipped into the details of his life. Now there are two highly touted plays running, the off-Broadway hit "Gross Indecency," enjoying an extended run in San Francisco, and David Hare's "The Judas Kiss," which stars Liam Neeson and opened last week on Broadway after a run in London. And on top of it all, "Wilde," the major motion picture directed by Brian Gilbert and starring Stephen Fry, opens across the country today.

Why are we so fascinated with Wilde? There are several reasons. First, there was Richard Ellman's massive "Oscar Wilde" (1988), which took the great biographer 20 years to research and write and which treated Wilde's homosexual love affairs with the same tender detail as his intellectual evolution. Then there are artistic successes like Tony Kushner's sprawling epic "Angels in America" and pop-culture events like the outing of Ellen DeGeneres' alter ego, which made it natural for gays to search out the founding fathers and mothers of gay identity. But Oscar Wilde's life offers more than a glimpse of a gay life a century ago. As the victim of a sex-fueled court case, Wilde satiates the best and worst of our contemporary obsessions. When Lord Alfred Douglas, the young man he had fallen in love with, asked him to defend their honor to his father, the erratic and brutish Marquess of Queensberry, who had left a misspelled card at Wilde's club accusing him of being a "posing somdomite," Wilde agreed and sued the father for libel despite the warnings of his other friends. When Queensberry brought in "rent boys" (the 19th century equivalent of today's street hustlers) to testify in open court about Wilde's sexual escapades, not only did Wilde lose his case but the British government decided to try him for "gross indecency."

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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