Young Fry

Stephen Fry as a Younger Oscar Wilde (in America)

Stephen Fry is known for playing Oscar Wilde in the 1997 movie Wilde.

The opening to that film shows Oscar arriving in town on horseback for his lecture in Leadville, Colorado, but the scene gives a false impression. Not because he actually arrived in Leadville by train; no, nothing so pedantic.

The point is that the 1997 film is not even about Wilde’s time in America. Its arc is the period of Oscar’s relationship with Alfred Douglas in Europe ten years later. So why do they show Leadville? The producer once told me that the real-life incident in Leadville, when the encaged Wilde descends into a mineshaft, was included by the screenwriter to symbolize Wilde’s descent in life. One may consider this as another aspect of the film that doesn’t quite fit, but that’s another story.

Instead, let us move forward to the past; because if it is Stephen Fry playing the youthful Wilde in America you want, did you know he had already done just that before he made the film Wilde?

You can discover—and watch—his earlier embodiment of Wilde below.

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Anatomy of a Cartoon


The Story of Oscar Wilde’s Infamous Curtain Call

Take a close look at the details of the above cartoon.

It is one of the Fancy Portrait series from the long established satirical journal Punch and it appeared in response to the opening night of Wilde’s play Lady Windermere’s Fan at the St. James’s Theatre on February 19, 1892.

It was an event worth memorializing, not least for the occasion of Oscar’s famous curtain call, two aspects of which have become the stuff of legend. 

First, that Wilde took to the stage still smoking a cigarette—which some thought disrespectful. Second, that he gave an amusing speech of playful immodesty—which others thought condescending. Or, at least they did in those stuffy Victorian days. One irate newspaper correspondent referring to Wilde’s “vulgar impertinence”. [1] These were, of course, the Victorians who could neither grasp irony nor face the change in attitudes that Wilde anticipated.

Conversely, others saw no ill-manners in Wilde’s appearance. Indeed, the audience on the night was thoroughly amused, and one report found his demeanor “very touching”. [2]

Whichever view one took, everyone agreed on one thing: that Wilde was different. And being different is a sure way in any era of achieving the second worst thing the world: i.e. being talked about. So the story of Wilde’s curtain call  was seized upon by the press at the time and has been well-documented by authors over the years. 

But it all begins with this cartoon. In it Wilde’s curtain call is immediately recognizable: the smoking, the speech, and Lady Windermere’s fan. 

So as we have had journalism and biography, let us now revisit the circumstances through the prism of caricature.

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Homophones

“May Morning on Magdalen College, Oxford, Ancient Annual Ceremony.” William Holman Hunt, 1888/1893. [Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, 1907P132]

It’s debatable whether the name Ernest, used punningly by Wilde in his most famous play The Importance of Being Earnest, was chosen as a late Victorian code word for “gay”.

For instance, the Wildean academic, John Stokes, suggests here this may be true “since the word ‘Earnest’ bears a euphonious relation to the [gender-variant] term Uranian”—presumably in the sound of its continental equivalents. [1]

On the other hand, the actor, Sir Donald Sinden, who both knew and consulted Lord Alfred Douglas and Sir John Gielgud on the point, once wrote to The Times to dispute the suggestion. [2]

However, whether the words Ernest and Earnest are homosexual or merely homophonic, one thing is clear.

The choice of names, and particularly the name Ernest, formed part of a gay literary subtext close to Wilde in the 1890s.

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