The importance of being Oscar

In the midst of a Wilde revival, are we any closer to knowing the artist and the man?

America is in the midst of a full-blown Oscar Wilde revival, with the release of a new feature film based on his life, two biographical plays currently running on Broadway (Gross Indecencies, based upon trial transcripts, has just opened at the Intiman [see review, p. 41], and David Hare's The Judas Kiss, starring Liam Neeson as Wilde, is still playing to packed houses), and such stagings as the Rep's recent An Ideal Husband, directed by Stephen Wadsworth.

Wilde

Egyptian Theater, opens June 19

But the term "revival" is misleading; Oscar's never really been away. Dozens of Wilde biographies have been published since his death in 1900, there are several Wilde films, and his plays are almost constantly performed. Considering that his significant artistic achievement includes only one masterpiece (The Importance of Being Earnest), a strange and beautiful poetic drama (Salome),several uneven melodramas, one pretty good (if overlong) poem in The Ballad of Reading Gaol, a slim but effective novel (The Portrait of Dorian Gray), a handful of fairy tales, and various letters, essays, and witty epigrams, the endurance of our interest in him is remarkable.

Stephen Fry, who plays Wilde in Wilde, thinks that the movie, in capturing the author's casual charm, gets at the essence of our fascination with him. "We were very keen to show that he was an exceptionally natural man," he said in a recent interview. Certainly a natural and unforced charm is the quality that Fry brings most strongly to the role.

Indeed, Wilde is a straightforward attempt to show us a fuller Oscar than we're used to seeing. The script tackles a considerable chronological span, starting with Wilde's trip to an American mining camp when he was 27 and ending 16 years later just before his death. We see his marriage to the aptly named Constance, his deep affection for his two sons, the formidable but loving presence of his mother (played by the equally formidable Vanessa Redgrave), the lionization of his literary genius, and a frank chronicling of his byzantine sex life—from his first homosexual encounter (a seduction by his friend Robbie Ross), to his idealized love for Lord Alfred Douglas, to trysts with lower-class rent boys, and to his decline into passive, middle-aged voyeurism. Fry's performance highlights Wilde's confusion, guilt, and pain over his sexuality and infidelity—all of which was masterfully concealed by the writer's pose in public life as a defiant dandy.

Occasionally the film falls into a groan-worthy literalism, as a scene in which Wilde views a portrait of a young woman with one of his new strapping bucks at his side. They look at the portrait, then at the frail old lady who once sat for it. Wilde's eyes light up, and—presto—in the next scene we have the publication of The Portrait of Dorian Gray. But in the main the film sticks to the events of Wilde's life as opposed to trying to play connect-the-dots between events and inspiration.

If there's a fundamental problem to Wilde, it's that as in almost any biographical screen treatment of an artist, the processes of inspiration and genius are invisible to the camera's eye. Despite Wilde's pose, the quality of his thought was truly inspired, and there was more to his writing than a modicum of wit and a stylish inversion of cliché. G.B. Shaw, in answering criticism about Wilde's love of paradoxes and epigrams, once remarked that he seemed to be the only man in London who did not claim he could sit down and write an Oscar Wilde play. "He plays with everything: with wit, with philosophy, with drama, with actors and audience, with the whole theater."

Wilde suggests, correctly, that Wilde's continued presence on the cultural landscape is as much a function of his carefully crafted public image as of his art. Yet the question remains: Why are we still fascinated by Wilde when we've forgotten so many of his contemporaries? "He was serious and humorous in the right ways, unlike so many of the writers of his time," says Fry. "Shaw, for example, seemed to be much the more 'serious' of an artist, but that's the reason he's so little performed today compared with Wilde. He took himself too seriously." In addition, Fry says, "The history of the 20th century has largely been one of war, disaster, and holocaust. Artists have become the most treasured heroes of the modern age, over politicians, scientists, or any other of the figures who have traditionally monopolized the history books." As someone who argued for the primacy of art, beauty, and mischief over economics, politics, and conventional morality, Wilde continues to provide inspiration—and, for that matter, one-liners—to people who distrust and oppose the status quo.

 
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