A rediscovered letter by Oscar Wilde informs his relationship with anonymity
Wilde’s college exploits, his aesthetic entry into London society, the self-publicity of his American tour, and his rise to fame have all been well documented; and the story often distills to the crucial moment of his fall from grace, a short period in 1895 when fame turned to infamy.
But there is a more enduring, more subtle, and underlying theme that began with Wilde’s desire to be known: it was a journey through his art and life towards an imperative for anonymity.
Wilde’s courtship of fame came with the price that the public had made up its collective mind about him. After the early missteps of derivative poetry and a failed play, the public equated his supposed talent with his evident eccentricity.
Even through the 1880s as Wilde grew and developed, he realized that public opinion could be a stubborn beast, especially when harnessed by the press. He found that appreciation of him was, like a much later story with a homoerotic subtext, a case of the singer not the song.
So the idea grew in Wilde that for his work to be taken seriously he might have to absent himself.
The Truth of Masks
Anonymity was schooled in Wilde by a journalistic career whose traditions were so constructed. According to Stokes and Turner, “between 1824 and 1900 close to 75 per cent of the articles and stories published in monthlies and quarterlies were anonymous or pseudonymous,”  and Wilde’s journalistic output (over 170 examples) was no exception.
Wilde discovered, as did other contributors, that anonymity “encouraged honesty, since it left the writer free to criticize or, indeed, to praise without accusations of vested interest”. 
As a journalist in the 1880s, not only did Wilde practice this freedom of speech he also advocated it. In a review of a book about Rossetti for the Pall Mall Gazette in 1887 Wilde wrote:
We sincerely hope that there will soon be an end to all biographies of this kind. They rob life of much of its dignity and its wonder, add to death itself a new terror, and make one wish that all art were anonymous.
Behind The Scenes
It was with this hope for objectivity that in 1891 Wilde revived his play The Duchess of Padua, which had lain somewhat dormant since being turned down by Mary Anderson in 1883. He wanted the work reappraised by an untainted audience.
So he collaborated with Lawrence Barrett to have the Duchess staged for the first time at the Broadway Theatre in New York City—but this time with a difference: that the author would be anonymous. Part of the subterfuge was, naturally, to change the play’s title; thus it was produced under the name of its leading male character Guido Ferranti.
Predictably, however, Wilde did not remain in the wings very long, and the advertisements for the 1891 production soon reflected this: below are two examples: one with, and one without, Wilde’s name attached.
The reason for Wilde’s identity being discovered so soon after production may have been, as Wilde once wrote to E.T. Cook, that “my style is recognizable,”  although possibly it was in fact the content that was recognizable: a journalist on the Tribune claiming to have read the manuscript the first time around.
No Great Shakes
Wilde’s play, which is now known by its original title The Duchess of Padua, is not his best, probably because it is in a style to which he is not best suited. Written mainly in blank verse, it is a tragedy set in sixteenth century Italy, and echoes Wilde’s kinship with Shelley, Hugo, and most particularly Shakespeare.
Of all such homages to the bard, Wilde’s is not, one might say, the best Will in the world. But it does contain some effective passages characteristically infused with his prevailing autobiography, as this example shows:
So be not honest; eccentricity
Is not a thing should ever be encouraged,
Although, in this dull stupid age of ours,
The most eccentric thing a man can do
Is to have brains, then the mob mocks at him;
And for the mob, despise it as I do,
I hold its bubble praise and windy favours
In such account, that popularity
Is the one insult I have never suffered.
The Duchess of Padua, Act I
Popularity was to come later for Wilde.
At the time, Wilde still sought success on the stage, and in a letter to Henry Irving shortly afterwards he (unsuccessfully) sought Irving’s interest in the play. Wilde was at pains to point out that he had acknowledged his authorship of Guido Ferranti at Barrett’s request in response to the play’s anonymous success. Wilde clearly thought it would help the claim of authenticity for his work if it were viewed arbitrarily.
As it turned out, he need not have been too concerned with any lack of objectivity or popularity, for the piece was well received by both the public and, in the main, by the press. The run was ended after three successful weeks owing only to Barrett’s other commitments. Sadly, Barrett was not able to fulfill those commitments, nor return to Wilde’s play, as, already seriously ill, he died less than a month later.
A New Letter
Another letter, also written at this time by Wilde about the production of Guido Ferranti, has recently come to my attention. It appears not to have been previously published, and is of interest in this connection because it reinforces Wilde’s view of anonymity—as well as, perhaps, betraying a little of Wilde’s delicate ego.
It is a letter written to a newspaper in response to a generally positive review of his play that had appeared in The New York Herald (European Edition—Paris)  on February 12, 1891. The review, by the New York theatre critic, begins:
It appears that Wilde took exception to the review’s passing allusion that it was Barrett who had made the play anonymous when it noted—”Barrett…put on an anonymous tragedy”—Wilde’s concern being that the idea of anonymity was anything other than his own experimental idea, i.e. that it was not a personal slight by a third party to exclude his name.
Wilde responded to the Paris Herald in a letter the newspaper published a day or so later on February 15, 1891. Wilde’s letter reads:
I have read the letter of your New York correspondent on the subject of my play, “Guido Ferranti.” Like all journalism, it is interesting and inaccurate. Allow me to correct it.
It was I who did not wish my name to be affixed to my play. Mr. Lawrence Barrett kindly acceded to my wishes, being himself a fine artist and a man of sure artistic instinct. The reason I did not wish it was entirely on account of the public and the journalists. As far as I am concerned, as the public wish my neckties to be chronicled, I see no reason why they should not have my tragedies chronicled also; but it is bad for the public and journalists to know who is the author of a work of art.
In their interest all art should be anonymous. An anonymous work of art is a work that the public and the journalists can contemplate and understand and enjoy. When a work is anonymous, the public and the journalists can to a certain degree develop that temperament of receptivity to which alone are artistic effects revealed.
When the author’s name is affixed they are distracted by a desire to praise or to censure, according as they have principles or prejudices. This is bad for them. They should listen and be happy, and fake pleasure, and forget themselves. Why should they say anything about the artist? It does not interest him.
I have never read a criticism of my work that has given me any pleasure or any pain or any emotion at all. My play, again, was not written to please or suit any actor or actress. I cannot conceive an artist writing a play with any other purpose than that of pleasing and suiting himself.
The letter tells us two things: it restates in full an earlier plea by Wilde for dispassionate anonymity in reviewing art; but more significantly, and taken with his letter to Irving, it also demonstrates his desire to be accepted by the world of the theatre.
[See below for a clipping of Wilde’s letter as it appeared in the The New York Herald (European Edition—Paris).]
His Final Stage
The theatrical phase of Wilde’s career was to contain, in literary terms, the denouement and catastrophe of his story. By this time Wilde was not only aware of the truth that could be expressed in writing anonymously, he knew of the truth that could be experienced in living it too. As he said in his essay Pen, Pencil and Poison, (1891) “a mask tells us more than a face,” and the covert life he was living in the 1890s not only found artistic outlet in his work, notably in Dorian Gray and Earnest, he was destined to learn the bitter truth of a covert life himself under the pseudonym of Sebastian Melmoth, and Oscar Wilde became someone no one knew.
Happily, Oscar Wilde is well beyond being recognized, and I am taken by the irony that dubious quotations are now credited to Oscar Wilde more often than they are to their traditional attribution: Anonymous.
Top Illustration: From The Complete Writings of Oscar Wilde [Vol I]: The Duchess of Padua – The Ideal Husband (sic), The Nottingham Society, New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. 1907. (Uncredited). Restoration by Adam Cuerden (Deviant-art)
 The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde: Volume VI: Journalism I (Complete Works Oscar Wilde) by John Stokes (Editor), Mark Turner (Editor), 2013, xxv.
 Ibid, xxvi.
 Ibid, xxv.
 The European edition of The New York Herald has an intricate past. Launched in 1887, it was acquired by its smaller rival the New York Tribune in 1924 to form the New York Herald Tribune. In 1959, the European edition were sold to John Hay Whitney, then the U.S. ambassador to Britain. However, in 1966 the New York paper ceased publication, so The Washington Post and the New York Times acquired joint control of the European edition, renaming it the International Herald Tribune. In 2013 the New York Times gained sole control and renamed the paper the International New York Times.
I am greatly indebted to Joseph Donohue (Editor), The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde: Volume V: Plays I: The Duchess of Padua, Salomé: Drame en un Acte, Salome: Tragedy in One Act (Complete Works Oscar Wilde), 2013, for his definitive and extensive work on The Duchess of Padua; and to Bernadette Murphy (Head of Information Services), International New York Times, Paris, for kindly providing newspaper clippings used in this article.
Letter by Oscar Wilde to The New York Herald (European Edition—Paris) published on February 15, 1891, 1.