Through Two Peepers in Tune with the Times

Oscar Wilde

MORE than a century ago, an eccentrically dressed young Irishman on a lecture tour cast his image across that vast reflective surface known as the United States. And the United States, being an obliging young nation in such matters, threw his image back to him in a form even larger and more colorful than the original.

Newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic made note, made fun and lionized, chronicling every change of attire and every quotable quote, whether he actually said it or not. And so was born the international legend known as Oscar Wilde, hitherto merely a London poetaster of some social notoriety.

Wilde's actual accomplishments, disregarding a brilliant undergraduate career at Oxford, were scant at that point. "What has he done, this young man, that one meets him everywhere?" the Polish actress Helen Modjeska had asked in London in 1880. "Oh yes, he talks well, but what has he done?"

In fairness, by 1882, the year Wilde made his American tour, he had published a volume of highly perfumed poems and completed a rather embarrassing (and unproduced) melodrama titled "Vera, or the Nihilists." But the reason he had been contracted to lecture had little to do with anything he had written.

It was that he was a Personality, enough of one to have already been parodied by Gilbert and Sullivan in the person of the lily-clutching Bunthorne in "Patience." Indeed, it was Richard D'Oyly Carte, then producing the American tour of "Patience," who engaged Wilde, thinking it might give box office a boost. Besides, as an English journalist observed at the time, "The Americans are far more curious than we are to gaze at all those whose names, from one cause or another, have become household words."

Long before Americans like Andy Warhol and Madonna were experimenting with the uses of fame and its autonomous images, Oscar Wilde - who died 100 years ago this month, an anniversary being commemorated by the New York Public Library - was expertly practicing the modern and dangerous art of making celebrity the first step in a career rather than its culmination. This is, after all, a man who observed in his 20's that "success is a science."

While still a student at Oxford, he made a remark that was picked up and repeated not just on campus but also in the pages of Punch and other publications: "I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china." The ornate effigy that became his public identity so early in his life was, in a sense, like that blue china: ridiculously rarefied, exquisite, perfectly self-contained. The miracle is that he did indeed live up to it.

Looking back on the press coverage of Wilde's American tour, it is astonishing to see how completely the facade with which he is now identified was in place. Before "The Picture of Dorian Gray" and "The Importance of Being Earnest," before his disastrous romance with Lord Alfred Douglas and the ensuing scandal of his trials and incarceration: before, in short, what really guaranteed his place in literature and history, the figure that comes to mind when one hears "Oscar Wilde" already existed. That includes the face that - along with that of the young, swan-necked Virginia Woolf - is most likely to show up on the T-shirts and coffee mugs sold in upmarket bookstores. You can probably summon it exactly from memory: the long, pallid countenance that a contemporary likened to "a rich yet ungainly fruit," with its fleshy lips and vast target of a forehead.

Also firmly established during the tour was the idea of Wilde as Aesthete, the champion of art for art's sake. This wasn't, by the way, precisely his creed, but in those days the philosophy was amorphous. The subject of his American lectures was basically the pursuit of beauty and its powers to ennoble. But he was still inventing his theories more or less as he went along.

What mattered at that time was less what he said than how he said it, which was of course in epigrams, rendered with both rococo flourish and Emersonian simplicity. Then there were the costumes: the knee breeches, the cavalier capes, the lace cuffs and the much commented-upon legwear. ("Strange that a pair of silk stockings should so upset a nation," Wilde said.) The overall impression was - and is - arch, amusing, divinely decadent.

A single, certain and fixed image: thus does Oscar Wilde abide in the popular imagination. All the more amazing, then, that from that image have since come such a wide and extremely varied host of interpretations.

The crudest versions, like Wilde as Saint and/or Sinner, have much to do with changes in society. For the first few decades of the 20th century, he was largely seen as an unsavory emblem of corruption and self-destruction, the one called a "sewer" by the reactionary Uncle Matthew in Nancy Mitford's "Pursuit of Love." The Wilde of the century's last decades is, in contrast, a gay martyr, rather in the mold of one his favorite religious figures, St. Sebastian.

Much more intriguing are the other Oscars who keep showing up in everything from mainstream movies to academic treatises. Who else could inspire recent books with such significantly different titles as "Art and Christhood: The Aesthetics of Oscar Wilde" and "The House Beautiful: Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetic Interior"? Or fictional incarnations as radically different as those created by two of England's most formidable living playwrights, David Hare (who gave us Oscar the Good in "The Judas Kiss") and Tom Stoppard (who conjured Oscar the Flashy in "The Invention of Love")?

In film, you have, on the one hand, the lotus-eating gourmand of Ken Russell's feverish "Salome's Last Dance" (1988) and, on the other, the gentle giant of Gandhiesque patience and passivity of the 1998 biopic "Wilde." It is dizzying to consider the spectrum of stars who have portrayed Wilde onstage and screen, from Robert Morley to Liam Neeson, from Peter Finch to Stephen Fry.

The Importance of Attitude

Wilde himself might argue that none of these actors were miscast, that the foundations for any of their interpretations could be gleaned from the assortment of attitudes he wore. "Is insincerity such a terrible thing?" asks the narrator of "Dorian Gray." "I think not. It is merely a method by which we can multiply our personalities."

How fitting that the collected works of Wilde offer a trove of corroborations for all sorts of intellectual viewpoints. Care to find an attractive little phrase to spice up a speech promoting socialism? Or, if your prefer, elitism? How about a defense of the idea that art shapes history or, for that matter, that history shapes art, or even that each exists entirely independent of the other?

Some of these seeming contradictions are the natural reversals of opinion brought about by a dramatically eventful life. In "De Profundis," the cri de coeur of a letter Wilde wrote to Lord Alfred from prison, he looked back grimly on the days when he exalted the superficial. "The supreme vice is shallowness," he wrote. Yet the letter itself, which admittedly was written piecemeal under harrowing conditions, keeps changing its colors and credos as it moves along.

One thinks of what he had written earlier in the conclusion of "The Truth of Masks": "Not that I agree with everything I have said in this essay. There is much with which I entirely disagree. The essay simply represents an artistic standpoint, and in aesthetic criticism, attitude is everything." The title character of "Dorian Gray," accordingly, is praised for never falling "into the error of arresting his intellectual development by any formal acceptance of creed or system."

This multisided sensibility was, more than anything, what made Wilde seem so dangerous in the twilight of the Victorian era, an age that had been built on sturdy certainties. Paradox, Wilde insisted, is the very root of all existence; truth, he wrote, is simply "one's last mood." All one can really do in life is to exalt and cater to the organ of these shifting impressions: the Individual, a word always to be written with a capital I.

The legacy of this attitude is as varied as its proponent, ranging from the seriously cerebral to the silly. Certainly Wilde can be perceived as a mighty forerunner of modern criticism, with his belief that equal weight must be given to the subject and its interpreter. "It is only by intensifying his personality that the critic can interpret the work of others," he wrote in "The Critic as Artist."

An Arbiter of Style

Yet while his nobility under legal persecution and imprisonment has made him a hero of gay liberation, his studied frivolity and worship of things beautiful equally set the standard for a type of gay man who would become, and remain, a staple of wealthy society. That is the witty, flamboyant connoisseur - who showed up in 1920's Mayfair as Cecil Beaton and in the Reagan White House as the socialite Jerome Zipkin - who is an arbiter of style and a dispenser of deliciously naughty bons mots.

Such a figure shows up throughout Wilde's work, presented with fascinating ambivalence. In the early, imitative plays, when Wilde was still searching for his dramatic voice, this man of many epigrams is an unqualified villain: the tyrannical Prince Paul of "Vera, or the Nihilists"; the sadistic Duke of "The Duchess of Padua." He is merely a troublemaker in "Lady Windermere's Fan," Wilde's first theatrical success, but he is a vicious cad in "A Woman of No Importance." By the time of "An Ideal Husband," Wilde's penultimate comedy, this silver- and double-tongued fellow (in the person of Lord Goring) has become a refreshing and even kindly truth-teller, a benign stand-in for the author.

There is also, most notoriously, Lord Henry Wotton, the sensation-seeking epicure who shapes the soul of Dorian Gray. When the mood suited him, Wilde said he was Wotton, though he also said his truer soul mate was the novel's unfortunate painter, Basil Hallward. But it is Wotton who suggests the conversationalist supreme that Wilde is conceded to have been, even by his enemies - the ultimate verbal seducer. Here are the thoughts of Dorian Gray listening to Lord Henry: "Words! Mere words! How terrible they were! How clear and vivid and cruel! . . . Was there anything so real as words?"

Words would always be Wilde's most potent defense, and no other writer in the English language has used them with the same aphoristic elegance. Like La Rochefoucauld, he made an art form of the single sentence and the perfectly poised, contradictory phrase. For that very reason, too much of Wilde at once can cloy, like a diet of liqueur-filled chocolates.

You also start to realize that he recycles some of his better mots from work to work, like a conversationalist at a party repeating himself after too many drinks. And there is a sense - from "Vera" all the way through, to lesser degrees, to "Dorian Gray" and "An Ideal Husband" - that these clever lines are often planted like jewels upon the text rather than woven into it.

No such objections can be made to "Salome," that strange gilded dagger of a play. But that was created under the heady influence of the French Symbolist poets. There is, however, one work of art in which the singular Wildean style becomes its own end, without one inappropriate detail to mar its surface perfection.

That, of course, is "The Importance of Being Earnest," which created a sparkling, sealed world in which everyone speaks the same shapely language of paradox and practices the same religious worship of things trivial. There is no vestige of the melodramatic devices of Sardou and Pinero that inform the other comedies, and none of the dark moral retribution that ultimately makes sermons of even "Salome" and "Dorian Gray."

A Perfect Comedy

Wilde once said to André Gide that one should avoid the "I" in art, and in "Earnest" he produced his one major work in which he is invisible, though no one else could have written it. "Earnest" is the apotheosis of Wilde, turning style into substance and vice versa. Unlike most satires, it never steps outside itself to point a finger. It may indeed be the most perfect comedy ever written.

"Earnest" opened in 1895, the same year Wilde was tried and sentenced for gross indecency. The remaining five years of his life, of imprisonment and exile, have inspired a retrospectively dark reading of his glittering career. One looks back and finds the proleptic strain of fatality in his writing, of examples of shadowy nemesis and people killing the things they love. It is Wilde the tragic figure who has been most popular of late. And both Mr. Hare's "Judas Kiss" and the film "Wilde" have a hagiographic tone that can only be described as earnest.

Personally, I prefer Mr. Stoppard's portrait in "The Invention of Love," in which Wilde shows up as the bright antithesis of that play's gray hero, the repressed and donnish A. E. Housman, and exclaims, "Better a fallen rocket than never a burst of light."

Wilde may have repented of his adoration of sparkling surfaces in "De Profundis." But it is worth noting that the man who became famous at university for not being able to live up to his blue china had this to say, only weeks before he died, about the room in which he would breathe his last: "My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us will have to go."

Love,

Michael


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