I don’t suppose many people in America have given a talk about Oscar Wilde in a place where Oscar Wilde also gave a talk.
It is a feat more easily achieved in the UK where old theaters survive. But in America, so many of the opera houses and music halls where Wilde lectured have now been lost, many destroyed by fire, long ago.
So the possibility of emulating Oscar seemed elusive. Until, that is, I reached Newport, Rhode Island, while documenting Wilde’s lecture tour. It was then I realized that not only was such a repeat performance possible, it could be done in a place that was eminently worth visiting.
Much remains of the Newport that Oscar knew, and of the maritime resort built by the Vanderbilts, Astors, and Wideners, when a marble mansion out of town was the exclusive status symbol.
And Newport not only offered the chance to visit pleasant Wildean locations, there also happened to be a Wilde exhibition at the Preservation Society, and a chance to join the Victorian Society in America’s annual Summer School.
So I decided upon a six-day retreat to Newport —just as Oscar had done on his Summer break in 1882.
Newport, RI, is a good five or six hours drive, so to break the journey I stayed over in New York City.
In the evening I gave my regards to Broadway, and in particular to Tom Stoppard’s referentially Earnest play Travesties, an intractably bookish romp set in a public library. I think I understood it. But when I didn’t, I chose, like one of the characters, to admire Gwendolen from afar: in his case all the way from Economics to Foreign Languages; in my case, all the way from the front row of the balcony.
I was still reflecting upon the intracacies of the stage play by the time I reached the White Horse Tavern in Newport for dinner the next day.
It is the oldest inn in America and the sign said it had been a “regular haunt for Colonists, British soldiers, Hessian mercenaries, pirates, sailors, and founding fathers” so I felt sure to belong there in some capacity, particularly as my reading companions were Lenin, Joyce, Tzara, and old Henry Carr—for those who know the play.
Celebrating Wilde, and Howe
First stop was the Preservation Society of Newport County, which was staging its Bohemian Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement and Oscar Wilde’s Newport at the impressive galleries of Rosecliff —an appropriate place to celebrate “the ideas embodied by the artists, poets and thinkers popular during the Aesthetic Movement (1870-1890)”.
Curator, Ashley Householder, kindly gave me a private tour of the many stylishly laid out exhibits.
Favorite among the items on display were two presentation copies honoring the mater familias of Wilde’s transatlantic presence.
First a copy of Wilde’s Poems (1881) inscribed to Julia Ward Howe, who, in loco parentis, had entertained the young Oscar at her homes in both Newport and Boston (along with her brother Sam Ward); and then one of Howe’s own books, which, in a pleasingly circular way, was dedicated to Oscar’s mother, Lady Wilde.
It was also interesting to see showcased the original of a familiar image: Rothenstein’s chalk and pastel rendering of Alfred Douglas from 1893.
The exhibition closes on November 4.
Court and Society
As you can see from the announcement above (also on display at the exhibition) Oscar Wilde lectured in Newport, Rhode Island, on July 15, 1882 at the Casino.
The Newport Casino is not a ‘casino’ in the modern sense—indeed, it has never been used as a public gambling establishment.
The Italian loan word ‘caseina’ with its sense of a farmstead or ‘little house’ was used to describe a small villa built for leisure. In its Gilded Age heyday the Newport Casino offered a wide array of social diversions for the summer colony including archery, billiards, bowling, concerts, dancing, dining, horse shows, lawn bowling, reading, tea parties, and theatricals.
This is more evidence that Oscar was a bit more sporting than we give him credit for—we know he played golf, once played cricket on the deck of a passenger ship, and while in Newport he also attended the polo fields in his white slouch hat.
While Oscar was at the Casino he probably discovered, as I did, that lunch wasn’t the only thing that was served there. The grounds and club were the center for American lawn tennis, and from 1881–1914 hosted the National Championships (later the U.S. Open).
Today, it is still an active grass-court tennis and croquet club, and home to the International Tennis Hall of Fame and museum.
Within the old world confines of the club still stands the Casino theatre where Oscar lectured, a fine example of the Victorian Shingle Style designed by the famous New York architect, Stanford White.
During his lecture, in 1882, Wilde reached his oft-repeated explanation of how the application of beauty applied to common life. Perhaps suddenly aware that his audience was now too-too society not one-horse town, he added, “I am now speaking to those, not millionaires.” As chance would have it, this remark coincided with the entrance of Mrs Vanderbilt, the irony of which created some polite amusement across the intimate venue. After a short pause, Oscar added with his usual charm, “if any such be present.”
A tour of the grounds with the Summer School culminated with a visit to see the theatre today. The seats are new, but the hall, and the stage—the very boards themselves—have not changed since a certain pair of size 12s trod them 136 years earlier, almost to the day.
It was a strange feeling after researching so many of Wilde’s appearances in America, to finally stand and look out at the hall, as he had done.
In my turn, I gave a little talk to my companions from the Summer School about Oscar and how he is still relevant today. For some reason a single light stood upon the stage in his place, and, as the room echoed to the sound of his name, the poetic among us might have sensed a legacy being kept alive.
—The theatre was tastefully restored in 2009—see DBVW Architects web site for a slideshow of the finished work.
—For more on Wilde in Newport, and the Casino then and now visit my web site page for the Newport lecture.
New Balls PLEASE
I was trying to keep up with Oscar’s activities listed in this clipping.
As you can see, Oscar not only spoke at the Casino, he also attended the Casino ball there—which, FYI, was held in the same hall, once they had shifted aside the moveable seats designed for that purpose. Trouble was that the seats were now bolted down, so no dancing was possible.
Further, the entertainments offered by that patriotic duo the USS Minnesota and Julia Ward Howe were no longer available either—old Civil War battleships and battle-axes having been buried long since.
So with no old frigates in town and no new balls at the Casino, there was only one alternative remaining from Wilde’s itinerary: breakfast with the Colonel and I do not mean fried chicken.
I refer to Colonel George E. Waring, a New York engineer, with whom Oscar breakfasted on Monday July 17, 1882. Fortunately for us, the Colonel wasn’t in, but the house still remains. Except this time it would not be breakfast with our man Waring, but drinks with the present owners.
No appointment was necessary, because, harmoniously, the Summer School had already scheduled a reception at the property, a regular stop on their itinerary.
The house is a historic and ornamental mixture of styles which was once owned by the noted architect Richard Morris Hunt: it is called Hypotenuse owing to its angular orientation on the street corner.
As we mingled and imbibed, and imbibed and mingled, I learned how Waring, like many of his contemporaries, had kept a home in Newport as a vacation “cottage”.
The stars began to align for the week when I discovered that back in 1871, Waring had founded the ‘Town and Country Club’ with Julia Ward Howe, and together they hosted many of Newport’s intellectuals and artists at the house. A table book of Historic Newport Houses lay open at the page for Hypotenuse, and the notes opposite its picture duly affirmed Wilde’s visit.
He Hath Loosed The Fateful Lightning
As I pottered around the reception rooms testing the mantle with an elbow, or tasting the Merlot on the porch, perhaps as Oscar had done, I could have been forgiven for wondering whether he was still with us in spirit.
I did not need to wonder too much, nor wander too far. For there in a frame on the wall was Julia Ward Howe’s Battle Hymn of the Republic, her opening couplet suggesting a wry reply to my thoughts of the afterworld Oscar:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.
But, of course, the deity of the verse was not our Apostle of Aestheticism. However, it did seem that Howe’s lines amusingly evoked Reggie Turner’s prediction that the heavenly Hoskie would be the life and soul of the party.
This made me think and I thought: I’ll drink to that.
This was inadvisable. A more sober judgement would have dismissed the harboring of any further suggestion. But my mind in a mission of walking tours and plays, of seminars and exhibitions, was now in the reverie of wine and Wildean footprints. Such a moment begets a mantra and I read on sensing that this poem would provide it as the culmination to a week of Oscar celebration. And there it was like the bourdon note of a distant organ when I reached the hymn’s famous hallelujah — his truth is marching on.
© John Cooper, 2018