Many years ago when the author Truman Capote appeared on a talk show, the host asked him what deceased person he would most like to spend an evening with, and he responded, “Oscar Wilde.” I have asked this same question of numerous people over the years and have received such varying answers as Jesus Christ, Cleopatra, and Napoleon. Who would you choose? I must admit, though, I think Capote got it right; I would choose Oscar myself. He was a brilliant conversationalist, an interesting character, and he wrote a number of interesting literary works. He believed in art and that it should permeate every aspect of society–and one’s life. He tried to live as an art form. He was brilliant from a very young age and won a poetry contest while a student at Oxford. Even then he was known for his irreverent witticisms such as “I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china.”
After graduation he moved to London which he would later take by storm. He published some poetry and then made a tour of the United States delivering lectures on art. In typical form, when he landed in our country he grandly announced “I have nothing to declare but my genius.” This was before he had produced any of his greatest works. The tour was a success and he began to expand the Wilde legend when he returned to England.
Likely a latent homosexual to this point (I’ve read fifteen biographies of him and this is my best conclusion), he married well and had two sons, but entered into his first homosexual relationship during his wife’s second pregnancy. He wrote regularly while maintaining a flamboyant lifestyle and continued to develop his craft. People loved his outrageous dress and glorious wit and jockeyed to be around him. (“Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go.”).
Wilde wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray, destined to become his most famous work (at least in this country), and eventually to be made into a movie. Riding high on his success, he moved to France and wrote, in French, the spectacular but exceedingly decadent play, Salome (see drawing below). Unfortunately, the play was considered so flagrantly immoral for its time that it was published, both in French and English, but not produced, and remained unseen on stage by the public until 1896, in Paris.
Wilde’s life began to spiral downward after this–while his fame escalated–as he indulged more and more in licentious behavior, eventually causing a famous trial which resulted his being incarcerated for two years in three penitentiaries, the last being Reading Prison where he wrote De Profundis. The prison broke his health and ultimately caused his demise. After being released, he lived in Paris, went broke, became corpulent, but finished his most famous poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol. He died of cerebral meningitis in 1900.
Someone once asked Wilde how he was doing on a piece he was heavily engaged in writing and he said, “Very well. This morning I put in a comma; this afternoon I took it out.” Wilde himself considered himself to be lazy, but the fact is he was quite diligent at turning out work, and at the height of his career had a number of plays performing on the London theater at once. To this day I think The Picture of Dorian Gray is a fascinating story and The Ballad of Reading Gaol an enjoyable read, if heart wrenching. De Profundis is much more profound than one might expect from someone of Wilde’s character, but he learned some sobering lessons in prison, and admirably put those thoughts into a lasting message.
During his lifetime, and now, his play, The Importance of Being Earnest, was considered his best. However, I have believed, and continued to believe, that it is outdated, and that his haunting creation, Salome, is not only his true masterpiece, but a creation that will outlive all his other works–Dorian Gray being the possible exception. The first time I ever saw the play was on television and I was so stunned by its power that I went to the local library to read it. Later I saw a mesmerizing version of it in Charleston, S.C. during Spoleto, by the Gate Theatre of Dublin, Ireland (Wilde’s birthplace), and was convinced again of its brilliance. Wilde uses words in a melodic fashion–sometimes repeating phrases three times–while slowly allowing his plot to develop–decadent, surreal–bringing forth a final, devastating conclusion.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is as good as it gets.
Wilde is buried in Paris and it is a bit disquieting to realize that he has been gone for over a hundred years now. His plays continue to be performed, his movies watched, and his fiction and nonfiction read. I never knew the guy personally but I sure do miss him.
The epitaph on it is a verse from The Ballad of Reading Gaol:
And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.
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