"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."
Wilde's life invites the same prurient rubbernecking and moral
browbeating as Clinton's current sex scandal. Both provide arenas in
which people can debate the conventional (but widely ignored)
morality of the day, seek out truth through sexual biography and
gape at the probing drama of a politicized court case. Moreover,
Wilde's life story has so many complexities and is so well documented
that it can be tailored to practically any narrative form. Those
yearning to create a Greek tragedy can cast him as a modern-day
Oedipus, a noble man destroyed by a fatal flaw. The melodramatists
can paint a portrait of nobility in the face of a vengeful father, a
manipulative lover and a tyrannical state. Those in search of
postmodern ambiguities will find them in abundance -- his adamant
denial, at his trial, that he engaged in homosexual behavior while
simultaneously singing the praises of Greek man-boy love still has
scholars scratching their heads. "He was never quite sure himself
where and when he was serious," remarked his first lover and friend
Wilde's famous wit, proto-gay identity, hunger for
self-reinvention and tragic embodiment of celebrity echo so many of
our own fin-de-siècle concerns that it was inevitable that at
some point we would turn to his life as a mirror of our culture.
What's confounding, however, is how utterly un-Wildean most of these
tributes are. As compelling, tragic and downright juicy as the
details of Wilde's life were, their dramatic counterparts have a
universally undramatic and dutiful sheen to them. They set about
capturing the "true Wilde," and avoiding the stereotype of a flaming
dandy, with such earnest diligence that they cease to evoke his
merry, wicked, unsentimental spirit. As Wilde wrote: "A little
sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely
fatal." Considering they are about a man who once planned to create a
society opposed to virtue, such highly moral tributes -- despite
their historical accuracy -- feel strangely clueless.
Brian Gilbert's "Wilde," which is based on Ellman's biography,
tries hard to be true to the many ambiguities of Wilde's life, but it
finally bites off more Oscar than anyone can chew in 116 minutes. The
movie begins in Colorado, with Wilde on an American lecture tour,
delivering a talk on "The English Renaissance" in the bowels of a
silver mine. It then skips forward (with no explanation or sense of
why Wilde was lecturing to miners in the wild West) to his meeting
with and courtship of Constance Lloyd in London, at the beginning of
his rising career as a playwright, novelist and critic. In this
spotty fashion, it traces a full 17 years of Wilde's life, from the
homosexual love affair of Wilde and Bosie to the trials, and all the
way through his two years of hard labor. The form is meant to be
epic: Sweeping views of nature, a swelling orchestral score,
beautiful sets and costumes collide with naked bodies in that
New-World-sexiness-brought-to-Old-World-stories way. Perhaps because
it's based on a biography, the play moves forward at a peculiar
synoptic pace: a scene here, a scene a year later, a transition and
another scene three years later. Despite the male love scenes, it has
a chaste PBS aesthetic, with our hero always embodying the very
height of reason and good intentions.
Fry brings an intelligent and empathetic quality to his
Wilde, but too often he must play out scenes in which he is the
noble, wide-eyed and long-suffering audience to Bosie's tantrums.
This not only makes Wilde appear passive, but the relationship
between him and Bosie never seems credible. In one scene in which
Wilde, sick in bed, asks Bosie for a drink of water, Bosie throws a
fit, breaks some crockery and calls him an old man. "I only asked for
a drink of water," Wilde responds pathetically. The play
de-emphasizes Wilde's intellectual development, concentrating on the
triangle between his wife, depicted as a sweet-natured and submissive
creature, and his lover Bosie, the temperamental Adonis of his
dreams. The closest thing the movie has to a point of view is a
tendentious and mystifying voice-over, in which Fry reads excerpts
from Wilde's fairy tale about a selfish giant who banishes his
children from his garden. Perhaps this leitmotif is supposed to show
the harm Wilde is doing to his children (who are often shown playing
alone wistfully), but this only frosts the piety with a layer of
moralism. It may have been true that Wilde put up with Bosie's
antics, and that his children did miss his long absences, but as
Oscar Wilde well knew, just because it's true doesn't make it
interesting. As Dwight Garner argues in his review, David Hare's "The Judas Kiss" suffers from a similar deadening
monumentality by presenting a Wilde who is finally too deliberate to
be very entertaining.
Not all of Wilde's reincarnations do damage to the dead man's
infamous image. In "Gross Indecency" Michael Emerson, who is neither
tall nor lumbering, nevertheless carves a fascinating, eccentric and
imaginative character from his role. Wilde once wrote that "art
should never try to be popular. The public should try to make itself
artistic," and playwright Moises Kaufman appears to have taken this
to heart. The play is not a smooth narrative and, at times, it
suffers from the maudlin hindsight of a century that knows better.
But of all the Wildes currently on tap, his offers the most nuanced
and complex rendition. Cobbled together almost entirely from
transcripts, autobiographies, letters and primary sources about the
three trials, it demands that the audience wake up and judge Wilde --
as a man, a lover and finally a gay icon -- for itself. The play
is successful in part because it narrows the scope of Oscar's life.
Actors engage in no dialogue but simply read from the sources,
holding up the quoted book or manuscript in their hands. Between the
first and second documentary act, there is an entr'acte in which a
journalist interviews a gay scholar on the place of Oscar Wilde in
history. The scene is worthy of Wilde: an acid yet ambiguous satire
of academia that questions whether a man who always angrily denied
his physical and romantic love for other men should be made into a
The domestication of Oscar epitomizes the dangers of our current
make-nice culture. Embracing perversity can also draw the delicious,
vital poison from it. In his time, Wilde was first known as a
celebrity, a man of paradoxical, passionate views and velvet knee
breaches. Anyone this flamboyant must have been at times a royal pain
in the ass. Walt Whitman called him a "fine handsome youngster," and
Henry James described him as "an unclean beast." Later he was praised
for his devastating wit and literary genius, but few rhapsodized
about his saintliness. Wilde did come to a tragic end, but the spirit
of his life was one of unsuppressed vitality. As he gazes down -- or
up -- at these well-meaning, irreproachably sincere portraits
of himself, Wilde must be tossing in his grave.