Oscar Wilde - Centenary Of His Death
Jeffrey Museum - National Theatre - Barbican - British Library
To celebrate Oscar Fingal O’Flaherty Wills Wilde, London has dedicated three exhibitions. The first was at Geffrye Museum - The House Beautiful: Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetic Interior, which finished 21 January 2000. He was the most conspicuous member of the Aesthetic Movement; the aesthete sees art as a supreme good in itself, since his student days at Oxford with his elaborately furnished rooms, clothes and comments: “ I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china”. (After that I decided to buy some blue china as well). The furniture, wallpaper and textiles covered with Japanese motifs, peacock feathers and sunflowers and lilies could all be seen here, with cartoons and caricatures of Wilde and the hilarious little piece of Worcester porcelain showing the “fearful consequence…of living up to one’s teapot”. The exhibition was Victorian clutter reduce showing Wilde’s passion for greens, mauves and subtle, indeterminate shades. His collaborator in his Tite Street home, the architect E. W. Godwin, is highlighted in this exhibition, pieces of furniture simplied. Like me, Oscar was a poseur and plagiarist!
The Barbican Centre dedicated a huge celebration to his life with events, films, talks, readings and the second exhibition: The Wilde Years: Oscar Wilde and the Art of his Time, finishing on 14 January 2001. This exhibition shows him as a central figure in the art world of fin-de-siecle in London and Paris, as an art critic leader of the Aesthetic Movement, the personification of the cult “art for art’s sake”.
In the Barbican Gallery there was a display of more then a couple of hundred paintings, drawings, photos and sculptures by Wilde’s friends artists who showed at the Grosvenor Gallery, the rallying point of the Aesthetic Movement. Contemporaries and followers like Aubrey Beardelsy, Gustave Moreau’s pictures of Wilde’s poetic drama Salome. Moreau produced numerous paintings and drawings of Salome, a Christian subject and William Frith’s huge canvas of Wilde with London’s social elite at the Royal Academy private view. Also featured were Holman Hunt, Burne-Jones and Watts. Wilde’s public image through parody and panegyric was recorded in amusing detail. The nineties saw Wilde’s flowering as a writer and the examples of the inspiration he provided for artist and illustrators in caricatures by Due Maurier, a vivid evocation of society life in London and Paris at the time.
There were also caricatures associated with Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera Patience (originally called Bunthorne’s Bride) and Wilde in America, Wilde the Apostle of Aestheticism and Whistler versus Wilde, Wilde and Socialism, showing Wilde’s sharing with Ruskin, Morris and Crane a relationship between socialism and good art. You could see Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth by John Singer Sargent, Sarah Bernhardt as Theodora by Clairin, a magnificent bust by Berthoud as Jeanne d’Arc, Lilly Langtry by Poynter and Watts. Langtry was the mistress of the Prince of Wales and a connection for Wilde’s entry into London High Society. Wilde loved having theatrical people as his friends; he welcomed Sarah Bernhardt with an armful of lilies when she visited London in 1879, he was hoping for her to play Salome. Dandies and Decadence features Wilde’s friends who share the same aesthetic philosophy, the cult of ‘exquisite refinement’ in art, fashion and lifestyle. They gathered around Wilde in the 1890s. Oscar manipulated his reputation and message.
There was also a room in the exhibition dedicated to Paris. He loved Paris and first visited in the summer of 1874 with his mother, Lady Wilde. After his triumphant American tour he spent four months in Paris in 1883 and the following year he spent his honeymoon with Constance in Paris. He was fluent in French and French literature of Balzac, Baudelaire, Glaubert and Gautier. He even wrote the play Salome in French to see whether he could make anything beautiful out of his French. You could see the portrait of Toulouse-Lautrec by Rothernstein, posters by Cheret and Toulouse-Lautrec, and streets, theatres and dance hall scenes by Beraud and Truchet. In Room 7 display charts showed the Wilde Trials with illustrations from contemporary newspapers, Changing Sexuality and the Art of the Turn of the Century. You could see Simeon Solomon, Frederic Leighton, photographs by Von Gloeden. This section looked at Wilde’s view of homosexuality during his trial in his defence speech and was famously associated with “the love that dare not speak its name”
The Last Years highlighted Rodin whom Wilde greatly admired. At the Exposition Universally of 1900 Wilde was shown around Rodin’s exhibition by the sculptor himself. The final section of the exhibition featured Wilde in the 20th Century. It features Jacob Epstein’s tomb of Oscar Wilde and a sound installation at the end of the room. Epstein’s sculpture was banned as ‘indecent’ by French authorities when it was transported to the Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris in 1912 following the reburial of Wilde’s remains. The commentary was a collection of interviews between Merlin Holland, Wilde’s grandson (Holland was the surname Constance took after leaving London) and Steven Berkoff, Simon Callow, Maggie Hambling, Barry Humphries and Yinka Shonibare.
The Barbican Cinema also featured a programme entitled “Oscar Wilde and the Cinema“. The main film was Salome 1923 described as a “hot orchid of decadent passion“ directed by Charles Bryant and starring the great Russian theatre actress, the legendary Alla Nazimova. Herod was played by a female opera singer, the most impressive recording of the play, and a silent movie of 38 minutes. This Salome is a disturbingly beautiful parable on the theme of obsession. Salome doesn’t wish for the Baptist’s head merely to please her mother, with whom she has a more Freudian bond, but to pay him back for rejecting her advances. Secondly she wants to prove to John that she will kiss him even if she has to decapitate him in order to get this kiss. It is a study in sexual obsession and deviation and reveals in Wilde his genius for unlocking the albeit unconscious door to the abyss; the gay playwright had to hide his sexuality in the body of a woman. The white body of the Baptist, flawless, beautiful and desirable, is almost a phallic image that at the same time will unconsciously bring death to the person who wishes to possess it. The set designs are based on the sumptuous Aubrey Beardsley illustrations that had adorned the original English edition of the Oscar Wilde play. Costumes and set designs were by Natasha Rambov who later married Rudolph Valentino and dressed the cast in scanty leotards and loincloths. Salome alluringly dances before Herod in a revealing split-sided tunic. Salome was screened with live music on 07.10.2000. (You can obtain the video from http://www.east.productions.demon.co.uk).
Salome 1908 directed by J. Stuart Blackton is merely an extract from a Vitagraph. Other films were Spendthrift of Genius 1986 directed by Sean O’Mordha, The Importance of Being Oscar 1964, The Importance of Being Earnest 1952, director Anthony Asquith, An Ideal Husband 1948, director Alexander Korda, The Trials of Oscar Wilde 1960 director Ken Hughes, Lord Arthur Saville’s Crime 1943, Julien Duvivier, The Ballad of Reading Gaol 1988 director Richard Kwientniowski, Oscar and Me Simon Callow discusses Oscar Wilde for BBC 1995, Oscar Wilde 1960 director Gregory Ratoff, The Picture of Dorian Gray 1945 director Albert Lewin, An Ideal Husband 1998 director Oliver Parker, A Man of No Importance 1995 Director Suri Krishnamma, Wilde 1997 director Brian Gilbert, Lady Winder’s Fan 1916 Director Fred Paul.
In the Barbican Theatre the Abbey Theatre - Dublin performed The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde, a moving play giving the untold story of Constance. Constance was married to Wilde and they had two children. Constance was played by Jane Brennan portraying the bitter truth “When I conceived with Cyril I will never, never forget that look of revulsion on your face “. Oscar was played by Robert O’Mahoney: “The problem with my marriage is that my wife understands me”, one of Wilde’s bitter witticisms. In his way he did love Constance and dedicated the following lines to her: “When rain and winter harden all the loveless land, it will whisper of the garden. You will understand”.
On 29.09.2000 there was a pre-show talk with Patric Mason, director, and Thomas Kilroy, the author of the play and on 07.10.2000 Merlin Holland, the grandson of Oscar, was in conversation with playwright David Hare exploring the true identity of Constance Wilde. Her son Vyvyan never forgave his father, because he thought Constance died early because of Oscar’s behaviour. She is buried in a cemetery in Genoa; for Vyvyan his father’s digrace destroyed his childhood.
The third Wilde exhibition was at the British Library the biggest exhibition dedicated to the writer, dramatist, poet and aesthete mounted by the British Library’s curator Sally Brown and Wilde’s grandson Merlin Holland. It covers Wilde’s life from his earliest days in Ireland to his marriage, fame and success in London and the final exile in France. The exhibition was so emotional that people who really love Wilde’s work, it brought tears to their eyes. There were 300 letters, manuscripts, photographs, playbills and rare first editions, many on special loan. It was a small hoard of heartbreaking mementoes from family and private collections; tiles form his prison cell, love letters from his wife, theatre posters, programmes, rare sound recordings, many memorabilia, manuscripts, first editions, photos of Wilde on his deathbed and the letter-case Bosie gave to him. Most poignant is the ink-smudged manuscript of De Profundis, the letter Wilde wrote to Bosie from prison with his verdict on himself: “I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease - I became the spendthrift of my genius“. (Oh my God, I saw it with my own eyes; I was in complete disbelief, to see his hand making corrections to the letter).
The exhibition took me all the way to his visit to America. On his return he had his hair curled in homage to Nero and declared that “the Oscar of the first period is dead“. I quote from a newspaper “while his colourful life is forever being viewed through tearful haze of sentiment, there is a sense in which he has been done to death twice: the first time through cruelty, the second through compassion “. At the height of his fame Wilde had premiered another two brilliant plays An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest where he pressed the self-destruct button. He spent his life with the most difficult problem: of being Oscar, one of the most grotesque by-products of the effervescent 1890s. And a very dramatic fall – a victim of Victorian hypocrisy.
Celebrating Wilde was Arthur Humphreys, an editor, gathered a best-of collection and published a book called Oscariana filled with sayings chosen by Wilde’s long-suffering wife Constance, his famous euphemisms…”The man who neglects his domestic duties becomes painfully effeminate “or “No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proven “, or about this book “The book, as it stands, is so bad, so disappointing that I am writing a new set euphemisms“. Oscar also said: “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about” in The Picture of Dorian Gray “and that is NOT being talked about”. When he went to the USA he said, “I have nothing to declare but my genius. ”I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train”. “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That is his”. Only 50 copies of Oscariana were printed and it now sells for £2,500!!!
As the most impersonated writer, the National Theatre - South Bank dedicated a week to him. Simon Callow readings celebrated The Importance of Being Oscar, also a silent movie Salome full of Aubrey Beardsley décor. (When I arrived in London in the ‘60s I discovered Beardsley so I started to send his postcards to everybody. I was completely fascinated. I remember that Altan; an Italian satirical designer loved Beardsley’s work).
The National Theatre also produced a play about a visit Oscar did to a fortune-teller In Extremis/De Profundis; he would have loved every minute!!!
In Extremis is an absorbing 50-minutes play by Neil Bartlett. The other play is a monologue from De Profundis by Merlin Holland; both starred Corin Redgrave. In Extremis, a psychological puzzle why did Wilde remain in England when he knew he was losing his libel case against the Marquis of Queensberry? Bartlett, the author of the play, suggested the intriguing little know fact that one-week before the trial started Wilde visited a palm reader called Mrs Robinson who told him that she foresaw “a very great triumph“. So maybe this prediction made him decide to stay? The play lets us think in the affirmative but it is imaginative fiction and the author attributes a good deal of scepticism about palmistry. (I must do like Wilde and go to a fortune teller to know if the “eyebrow man“, my platonic lover, will marry me, but the fortune teller has to be a good one because if they are like Mrs Robinson I will be by myself forever, for Heaven’s sake!). The play shows that Oscar Wilde needed a shoulder to cry on and Mrs Robinson, a cynical soul, gave Wilde just what he wanted to hear. (Oh, my God! No hope for me, then!!!).
Mrs Robinson played by Sheila Hancock was magnificent. Redgrave played Wilde with an Irish accent; for all his sophistication Wilde craved crude prophecies. He privately muses about Bosie, pleasure, power and the differences between shame and blame. And for Francesca and myself who have been to the Delphi oracle in Greece I can see that maybe this ancient oracle had a parallel in that Marylebone court in 1895. Now, 100 years after Wilde’s death it is ironic that “the very great triumph“ predicted by Mrs Robinson has come about because he is so much celebrated and loved even by the new generation of the world: so true in death even if denied during his lifetime.
De Profundis play is Wilde weeping and delivering his letters to Bosie. De Profundis is a letter Oscar Wilde wrote to Bosie from prison. It is one of the longest and greatest letters in English (after mine, that is!!!). It is as magnificent as any more conventional work of literary art. So Redgrave is seen on stage in prison garb, accusing a man he still loves of ingratitude, pettiness, greed and the destruction of his family. You can acknowledge the confusion, the disingenuousness of Oscar’s mea culpa. You sense the pain and bitterness, which erupts to a terrific effect. De Profundis was directed by Trevor Nunn and is staged in the squalor of Reading Gaol. Wilde is in desperate need of hope and reassurance. He wants to believe that his beloved Bosie still cares for him, even if Bosie never got in touch. (Considering that Wilde hated pornography, scurrility and licentiousness and did not go to the extremes of Genet, Diaghilev or even Cocteau you can imagine how unfair and tough it was for him, this two years of hard labour. The terrible life in jail and the exile in France and Italy destroyed him.)
During this time he noticed how his friends deserved him and he was considered the corrupt monster. In Dieppe, a small town on the Normandy cost, some friends ignored him. Blanche and Sickert and Beardsley were in the same hotel and snubbed Wilde’s dinner invitation. After prison Wilde lived in Paris and Italy under the pseudonym ‘Sebastian Melmoth’ after Sebastian the Martyr (he had seen Guido Reni’s St. Sebastian painting in Genoa in 1877 which probably accounts for his name). He certainly had a great sense of humour. Melmoth comes from a novel “Melmoth the Wanderer “ a novel written by his great-uncle Charles Maturin.
Oscar Wilde’s grandson Merlin has discovered 300 long–lost letters of Wilde’s period from his childhood in 1860s Ireland until his disgrace, bankruptcy and imprisonment in Reading Gaol. The letters give an intimate portrait of the happy family life led by Wilde before he embarked on a destructive series of homosexual adventures. The collection includes the first picture of Wilde with his family. He clearly loved Constance Lloyd and wanted children, addressing her as “Dear and beloved“. You can feel his very jolly life as a young man. His homosexual adventures began shortly after Constance bore him a second child. Vyvyan was born in November 1886 and was eight years old when his father was imprisoned and died three months after the repeal of the law under which his father was convicted. He admitted he hadn’t read any biographies of his father and had no desire to do so. (Vyvyan Holland’s Son of Oscar Wilde 1954). Merlin says that his father had a great problem in being Oscar’s son and seldom spoke at home in his presence. Vyvyan found the whole subject too painful.
So Oscar Wilde’s letters were first published in 1962, in a country where homosexuality was still a crime. The first letters were published by Rupert Hart-Davies (1,260 letters) then Merlin found another 300 letters which Merlin had been reading again and again until he began to understand his grandfather. With his “ability to smile at one’s own misfortune he became endearingly human and accessible, full of warmth and generosity, the man of contradictory impulses, the married homosexual, the writer who hated writing, the humility and the arrogance, the barbed and the kind “. So the fact that Oscar was a convict, a homosexual and bankrupt still carried the same stigma in the early 1960s as it had in 1895.
Merlin, Oscar’s only closest living relative has been an adviser and co-curator to the celebration of Oscar and he received an award from the John Andreen Foundation in recognition of his work. He has become the de factor keeper of Oscar’s flame. The only work concerning Oscar on which Merlin is really happy is David Hare’s play The Judas Kiss which centres on just two days in Wilde’s life. He has another book about Oscar coming out in publication in 2002 After Wilde, which examines Wilde’s posthumous reputation. The book contains letters from Mallarme, the Princess of Monaco, William Morris, Arthur Conan Doyle, Bernard Shwaw, Aubrey Beardsley, and W.B. and Yeats. That gives a portrait of cultural life in 1880 and 1890 and also in Wilde’s words “If the boys don’t get me, the booze will“. He did write: I am told that dampness is good for agriculture “.
This latest book is called The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde edited by Merlin Holland and Sir Rupert Hart-Davis. This book of letters is the real autobiography of Oscar because it is written by the man himself: His splendid, pompous, ludicrously self-regarding character. He says that he puts his genius into his life and only talent into work. You read these letters and get the sense of someone writing his own life. The most important thing about this book is being able to read again those letters, which were out-of-print for a long time.
To mark this Centenary of Oscar other books related to Wilde were re-printed: Bosie: a Biography of Lord Alfred Douglas by Douglas Murray; Robbie Ross: Oscar Wilde’s True Love by Jonathan Fryer; Truly Wilde: The Unsettling Story of Dolly Wilde, Oscar’s Unusual Niece by Joan Shenkar; Oscar Wilde: A Life in Quotes compiled by Barry Day; the British Library’s exhibition book was Oscar Wilde: A Life in Six Acts; Oscar Wilde: A Certain Genius by Barbar Belford; The Table Talk of Oscar Wilde (Orion Audio ) and also The Trians of Oscar Wilde by Martin Jaris ( an audio book ).
Simon Gallow wrote in a newspaper The Importance of Remembering Oscar is “the assertion of the primacy of personality, and it is as a personality that he triumphantly survives the erosion of time“. And Simon Callow acted in the radio version of David Hare’s superb play The Judas Kiss. On Radio 4 Simon read, each day, an excerpt from Wilde’s life, dealing with different aspects. Three years ago – to celebrate the centenary of the release from prison – Simon with a group of friends went to Reading Gaol to read Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol. The authorities denied admission to the prison so he read the poem in the ruins of a church in the shadow of the prison. The friends toasted Oscar with champagne bought at the station, very touching!
As Simon also said, on 30 November 2000 at seven in the morning Merlin Holland and friends gathered together at Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, by the Epstein Mausoleum and toasted Oscar with real French champagne. Simon was also very pleased that when he interviewed Merlin Holland for the BBC’s Knowledge Channel, Merlin showed him Oscar’s wallet containing a lock of his dead sister’s hair in an envelope, and another envelope with Oscar’s hair that was cut on his deathbed by Bobbie Ross, his lover and literary executor. Merlin let Simon feel the hair – very fine without any trace of grey and Simon said, “I can now say that I have run my fingers through Oscar Wilde’s hair “. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!! (In your dreams, darling!!!)
Another book is Unacknowledged Legislation by Christopher Hitchens. The first section opens with two pieces on the divine Oscar who he quite rightly paints as a serious man, then his theory that regards “Earnest“ as a code for homosexual. Oscar used to call everyone “Dear Boy“ (it sounds very gay to me!) Barbara Belford pointed out that Earnest was full of gay allusions that the more sophisticated layers of its audience would have had little trouble in decoding.
Even the Vatican has rehabilitated Oscar on the eve of the centenary of his death: “praising the return to spiritual values and understanding of God’s love “. In a Vatican journal founded in 1850 Father Antonio Spadaro said: “Wilde who made a deathbed conversion to Catholicism had seen into the depths of his own soul after a lifetime of degradation, vanity and frivolity“ with his last works De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Gaol being an implicit journey of faith. Father Spadaro also noted a parallel between Wilde and Christ when the former was publicly mocked at Clapham Junction while being transferred to Reading (i.e. Oscar’s own plight and that of Christ). In prison the painful experience of exchanging a drawing room for a cell led Wilde to reflect on his moral errors and appreciate the ‘shared fate of humanity ‘.
The Irish Post Office is celebrating Wilde with a beautiful stamp featuring Oscar Wilde, the same photograph as used for the British Library exhibition where his hand is holding his face. The Irish Heritage in London held a cultural event at the Mayfair Theatre Oscar, Oh, Oscar. Fat boy Slim’s new album Halfway between the Gutter and the Stars is base on Wildeism. Anna Carteret put together a series of reading called Wilde Wilde Women with a selection of speeches about women and speeches by women. In A Woman of No Importance he creates Hester Worsley, a young American woman in Britain who is invited to a country house party and is shocked by the attitude of the establishment to so-called fallen women and to the inequality that existed between men and women. Even the Westminster Abbey celebrated Oscar Wilde’s centenary.
In the British Library season the events included a discussion on The Irishness of Oscar Wilde . On TV the celebration featured Michael Gambon and Peter Egan. There is also an attractive Irish tourist advertisement featuring Oscar Wilde and two other famous Irish writers on green plaques in the style of the famous English blue plaques.
One hundred years after his birthday in 1954 a plaque was erected on Wilde’s former house in Chelsea, in Tite Street: the next day it was defaced. The year before John Gielgud was arrested for a homosexual offence in a public lavatory. Gielgud has produced many Wilde plays and starred in The Importance of Being Earnest. He was tried by a magistrate and fined £30 and told to see a doctor, but at the theatre that night he was given a standing ovation. Also in 1954 the police continued a vigorous campaign against homosexuals and Lord Montague of Beaulieu was imprisoned. With so many homosexuals in prison the Home Secretary was forced to reform the homosexuality laws. Elton John took The Sun to court for claiming that he had sex with rent boys and was then knighted. In the UK today there are gays openly in the Government’s Cabinet. As Oscar himself concluded: “As one read history…one is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishment that the good have inflicted “.
Stephen Fry, played Oscar Wilde in a film called Wilde 1997 directed by Brian Gilbert, adapted from Richard Ellmann’s biography. It featured the latter part of Wilde’s turbulent life, the relationships with both his wife Constance and Bosie, his lover. This was really a part he was born to play – Fry’s life is very Wilde. Oscar couldn’t have a better real interpretation and reincarnation of his life. He is openly gay in public life, works on TV comedy and films. He is better known for sexual abstinence, for 16 years, because of his lack of confidence. He said, “I am the last person I would fancy at a party“. But in 1996 he got a boyfriend. At 17 he tried his first suicide attempt by swallowing pills. In his claustrophobic memoir of his early life “Moab is my Washpot “Fry says he was filled with self-loathing and world-loathing. All this because the boy he was in love with at the boarding school he would never possess, “the most beautiful thing I had ever seen in my life“ as he says in his book. Then came the stolen credit card - he was arrested jailed and released on probation. Like Oscar, he is not completely English his mother is Austrian. He says that Peter Mendelssohn thinking he could hide his homosexuality from the public is “dangerously naïve“. You can buy Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant and The Nightingale & The Rose narrated by Stephen Fry and Vanessa Redgrave, music by Debbie Wiseman, at £14.99.
Now to The Importance of Being Earnest the play I saw starring Patricia Routledge. I don’t think you could have a better or more sublime Lady Bracknell. Now I love Patricia Routledge. I started to love her when I first saw her on the TV programme Keeping Up Appearances. She plays this woman called Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced Bouquet) as she says on the programme. I am a huge fan of the programme. I think we all know someone that looks like Hyacinth that, as the title says, wants to keep up appearances. It is hilariously funny and as Hyacinth Patricia has received many awards along the way. I was once on a flight from Rome to London, a charter, and I saw this man that looked familiar. I could only guess who it was but during the flight they showed an episode from the TV series and I then realised the man was Hyacinth’s screen husband. They say the play The Importance of Being Earnest has a hidden meaning to do with homosexuality – Earnest was Victorian slang for homosexual.
There is a new film being shot at Ealing Studios, the world’s oldest working studio dating from 1902, The Importance of Being Earnest with Dame Judi Dench, Rupert Everett and Colin Firth. It appears that Oscar Wilde, saw in the Worthing Gazette something about “a baby in a hamper”, an article about an incident and a baby being found in the Great Northern Railway Station at King’s Cross. This gave him the idea for the famous handbag scene in The Importance of Being Earnest
In London there are many landmarks that remind us of Oscar. At the Cadogan Hotel in Sloane Street, Room 53 today was formerly 118 where Oscar waited to be arrested. Oscar lived in Ivy Bridge Lane off the Strand from 1879-81 when he came from Oxford. But the most important landmark is the Adelphi Theatre Strand where in 1881 his first production was premiered after the Russian Tsar Alexander II was assassinated. It is based on an aristocratic Russian named VERA like my self. (My father chose my name. My mother had chosen Neusa???) And the play is completely in my honour (at least in my dreams)-Vera!!! Then Oscar moved to Chelsea from 1881-84 to 44 Tite Street, then moved to number 34 with Constance and there wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray 1891, the plays Lady Windermere’s Fan 1892, A Woman of No Importance 1893, An Ideal Husband 1895, The Importance of Being Earnest 1895. (One of the houses has a blue plaque).
He used to lunch at the Café Royal 68 Regent Street at exactly 1pm, each day with the Aesthetic Movement members such as Aubrey Beardsley and Bosie. It was at the Savoy Hotel in the Strand that the affair with Bosie was conducted. The hotel was built by Richard D’Oyley Carte and the profits enabled him to build the adjoining Savoy Theatre – the first theatre to have electric lighting – where the Gilbert and Sullivan operas were produced, hence their name D’Oyley Carte Operas. Oscar took his rent boys to 29 Romilly Street, to the rooms above the restaurant founded by Napoleon III’s chef Auguste Kettner 1867. It is famously known as Kettner’s. It was at the former Albemarle Club, 13 Albemarle Street, Mayfair that the Marquess of Queensberry left the note at the club for Oscar “To Oscar Wilde posing as a somdomite”. He was charged with “gross indecency, instead of sodomy or indeed somdomy “.
At Great Marlborough Street Magistrates’ Court, Soho, the trial began on 9 March 1895. He went first to Pentonville Prison, Caledonian Road, Holloway, then to Reading Gaol where he wrote his famous “ Ballad of Reading Gaol “. There is a statue to Oscar Wilde at Adelaide Street, Charing Cross, near Charing Cross Station and it is inscribed with one of his quips: “ We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars “, (from the Ballad of Reading Gaol). There is also a controversial plaque erected by the English Heritage to mark Henry Labouchere’s old home in Twickenham, the Victorian MP responsible for criminalising homosexuality. His first homosexual affair was with Robbie Ross, a Cambridge student. Then he lost his head over Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, but Bosie’s father, the Marques of Queensberry, sent a not to Oscar’s club accusing him of “posing as a Somdomite“ (the superfluous middle “m” was the marquess’s misspelling). The trial in 1895-6 concerned the conviction of a man in his forties having sex with boys under 18, so Oscar was charged with indecency offences, which in those days carried a limited sentence. Today the rent boys who have evidence against him would cause him to be put on the Sex Offenders Register where he would remain for 10 years. If his sentence was longer than 2.1/2 years then he would be on the Register for life: he would be considered a paedophile and probably he would have to go into exile just like in 1987 on his release from jail.
Like today, in the artistic world, the filmmaker Roman Polanski who fled America after having sex with a minor and continued to work in France. He is unable to return to America. It is thanks to Wilde’s legacy that the public has a more lenient approach to homosexuality. In 1895 homosexuality was not regarded as orientation but as an aberration. When Oscar wrote from prison a petition to mitigate his sentence, he said his offences were a form of sexual madness and that he had been “suffering from the most horrible form of erotomania“ and “a monstrous sexual perversion, which clings like a malaria to soul and body“. His close friends - Lord Alfred Douglas, Robbie Ross, Christopher Millard and Walter Ledger, all gays, kept the memory of the most famous gay in the world, even after his death, alive.
Douglas was the only one that married and had a son. Douglas said that his love for Wilde had not been physical in the way that it was interpreted in 1895 but in 1913 when he was saying this he was surrounded by a more liberal society with such people as Noel Coward, Terrence Rattigan, Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden. Homosexuality was more acceptable and Freud had stated that homosexuality was nothing more then an interesting normality rather then a thing of abomination. Shortly after Douglas’ death in 1945 the full version of De Profundus was published.
When Queensberry claimed all Wilde’s household goods to cover £600 in legal costs. Oscar had to declare his bankruptcy the entire household, along with manuscripts and his children’s toys were auctioned off with great public enthusiasm on 25 April 1895. A copy of the catalogue was sold in 1981 at Christie’s for £2,500. In 2000 a copy sold at the June London Book Fair for £15,000, a mark of Wilde’s increasing popularity. A letter signed in Wilde’s hand is worth £1,000 minimum rising to £10,000 or even £20,000. A copy of the play VERA with extensive hand-written notes by the author was sold £50,000 at the London Book Fair. Wilde wrote an additional line for the play “Every man has his price-but he was really expensive“. I really liked this quotation especially as it is in the book of my name, VERA, darlings, just like me, very expensive, oh dear; maybe this is why I am alone. I should cut the price?!!! I also love this quotation, the one he said on his deathbed when dying in Paris hotel room. He said to a friend: ”My wall-paper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us must go…it seems the wall-paper won “.
The personage of Dolly Wilde, a niece of Oscar’s, also fascinates me. There is a book about her: Truly Wilde: the Unsettle Story of Dolly Wilde, Oscar’s Unusual Niece, by Joan Schenkar. Dorothy Irene Wilde, her father Willie Wilde (Oscar’s elder brother) was a penniless alcoholic. She inherited from Oscar a fluid and multiple personality and intense love of her own but found it harder to live up to her illustrious uncle. She looked “more like Oscar than he was himself “. She looked like him, she talked like him, and she dressed up as her uncle, called herself Oscaria and spent her days reliving all the splendours of what she referred to as her “long and lovely suicide “.
She had her uncle’s gifts; father’s indolence and the terrifying recklessness and capacity for self-destruction marked them both. In Paris, Dolly met Eva Palmer (of the Huntley and Palmer biscuit family), the Princess de Polignac (of the Singer Sewing Machines family), Jo Carstairs (Standard Oil), Toupie Lowther (daughter of the 6th Earl of Lonsdale), Romanie Brooksping), plus Gertrude Stein, Colette, Radclyfee Hall and Una Troubridge. Dolly had plenty of choice. But it was Natalie Barney, a fabulously wealthy American, whose Friday entertained salons at 20 rue Jacob that became Dolly’s lover. Natalie was never faithful but she supplied Dolly with money and a bed whenever Dolly asked. But Dolly was past, not future, unable to shake off her unhappy heritage. She died alone at 46 like her uncle; the autopsy disclosed metastasised cancer and a body full of heroin.
I would like to close with Oscar’s poignant words “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all. “OSCAR, OH OSCAR!!!“