To the Rosenbach for a talk about Wilde, Whitman, and Mickle Street
One of the presenters was the author of the play Michael Whistler, who explained how it had been necessary for him to invent conversations and situations to portray events that had not been fully recorded. All well and good: reimagining is a legitimate technique in storytelling. But it naturally raises the question of realism vs. artistic license.
So as the talk continued I was assessing the boundaries to a responsible author’s imagination, when he added with evident forethought:
“I am not a scholar; I am not a historian—I am a playwright.”
This bold assertion halted my thought process as it appeared to transcend any idea of boundaries: there was an air of mutual exclusivity about it. Granted we were in a library, but I sensed a virtual divide had suddenly been placed between fact and fiction. As if facts ought to be the sphere of the scholar and fiction the preserve of the playwright.
I wondered was the speaker still in the realm of explanation or was this now justification? And then I realized: it was both! An author defending himself simply by defining himself. Quite deft, I thought.
However, as I am not a playwright myself but rather something of a scholar, I soon realized this construction placed me on the other side of the argument. So the question: how much of the debt to history is owed the critic and how much by the artist?
Mention of these concepts in a Wildean context, of course, brings to mind the title of his essay The Critic As Artist (1891) in which he said: “the one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.” I mention this only to dispel it. It would be disingenuous to invoke that oft misused remark, as Wilde was not referring to the disregard we should have for facts—unGradgrindian as he was. Wilde’s meaning was that dreamers and thinkers will be the rightful custodians of history, not the men of action.
Nevertheless, the question of veracity in biographical depiction remained.
My musing on the counterpoint was, however, rudely arrested by one important consideration: I had not yet seen the play! Fortunately, I found a kindred spokesperson almost immediately: a review of the play by Naomi Orwin. In her review there is the subheading “Does Reality Matter,” under which is questioned the play’s portrayal of Wilde and Whitman:
When so many facts are disregarded, what are we left with? Does it matter that place and people are adjusted to meet the playwright’s vision? Was the event not interesting enough to make real drama — did it need to be enhanced?
Thus I am provoked to general analysis, and my view is that artistic license in drama (and this applies all the more so in docudrama) is legitimate provided no harm is done. By this I mean no harm to the true course of historical events, personal reputations, and critical moments.
Sometimes in recreating historical moments the facts are lacking, but history can be served if the moment is believable. Indeed, our understanding can be enhanced by the vision and insight of a realistic conception of what might have happened or what might have been said.
Take the question and timing of Wilde’s burgeoning homosexuality. At one end of this scale is Louis Edwards’ novel Oscar Wilde Discovers America (1993), which demonstrates a commendable literary reserve in the way it insinuates a provocative intimacy for Wilde during his American tour. At the other end is the film Wilde (1997), in which it seems timely in a modern movie with a gay focus, to overtly conceptualize the seduction of Oscar by Robert Ross, despite the fact that it is only historically speculated.
Even when the facts are known it is still possible for authors to stray by careless embellishment. But not if the fiction is benign. For example, again in Wilde (1997), it is more cinematic to have Bosie deliver an insult to his father in person, although in reality he sent it by postcard. While in the TV mini-series Lillie (1978), it matters little that Oscar and Lillie are shown witnessing the fire that destroyed the Park Theatre (on the eve of Langtry’s debut there) while they are in the same room, when in fact they did so from separate (albeit adjacent) hotels.
It is wrong, however, that in the movie Oscar Wilde (1960)—in which, incidentally, Bosie is not only taller than Wilde, he looks about 20 years too old—Oscar’s wife and son are with him in a touching farewell when the police remove him from the Cadogan Hotel. This is not just a travesty of an important moment, it is a serious misreading of Wilde’s habits and lifestyle at the time of his arrest.
Worse, but more comical perhaps, is the The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960) when Bosie threatens Oscar by pulling a knife on him in his sick room in Brighton; and later in the film, Constance meets Oscar outside the prison gates on his release from gaol. Not only do we know these things did not happen, it gives a false dynamic to the Wilde story to show that they did.
A good way to safeguarded history is to have the viewer or reader complicit in any fantasy, either by being pre-informed or, by rendering the conceit amiable and manifest, such as in Gyles Brandreth’s novels of Wilde as a quasi-Sherlock Holmes, or when Oscar is kidnapped and held to ransom by a gang of outlaws in an episode of Have Gun, Will Travel (1958). However, whimsy is no panacea for some people who, to coin a phrase, will believe anything provided that it is quite incredible.
A good blend of both author believability and reader complicity is The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (1983), Peter Ackroyd’s epistolary ghost writing of Wilde’s final years in exile. The complicity is divulged on the cover of the book which tells us it is not just a novel, but an imagined “diary that Wilde could have kept,”—and yet the whole thing reads like a sympathetic and insightful document written in real time.
Ms. Orwin asks whether the meeting of Wilde and Whitman was not interesting enough in itself to make real drama. The answer is yes; but the problem is that, apart from some details in a newspaper report and a few comments by Wilde, not enough is known about it to fill a two-hour drama. So what is the storyteller to do with a momentous occasion rich with possibilities other than interpret it?
The success of invention lies invisibly between critic and artist.
The informed critic knows what is true; and the informative artist can let us know what is not. But all too often biographical fiction is received in the vast arena where the ignorance of the reader collides with the carelessness of the author.
On the whole, however, Wilde has been carefully treated by his fictional biographers—probably more so than many of his factual biographers. So let us enjoy Wilde in all his manifestations—and follow it up with our own research.
There are far more egregious examples to be found in other storylines, and I am not only referring to deliberate distortions and borderline lies such in as Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991). Perhaps the least necessary augmenting of history is James Cameron’s film Titanic (1997) which belittles real stories of heroism and sacrifice by having Kate Winslet leap back on board the sinking vessel from a lifeboat wielding an axe in order to rescue a recent acquaintance who is handcuffed to the pipework presumably so that they can continue their spitting contest over the side of the ship. But I digress.
[originally posted in February 2015]