MAKING OSCAR WILDE by Michèle Mendelssohn Oxford University Press (2018)
REVIEWED BY: John Cooper
One of the most noteworthy contributions to the recent surge in Wildean material has been Michèle Mendelssohn’s treatise Making Oscar Wilde (2018).
As the title suggests, it is an attempt to establish a premise for the shaping of Wilde’s persona—the latest in a history of such perspectives which has included disquisitions via his Irish roots, his American experience, his men, his women, his friends, his enemies, his wit, his letters, his published works, his unpublished works, his recorded life, his unrecorded life, and, for good measure, his afterlife.
Now Making Oscar Wilde takes a potentially useful and probably unique view through the prism of Wilde’s racial profile. On surface reading the work has much to commend it—but to discover whether it works as a construction we will have to disassemble it.
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.
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. 
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. 
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.
The 2018 Sundance Film Festival gets underway today, January 18th, and making its world premiere is The Happy Prince written and directed byRupert Everett.
It is the story of the last days of Oscar Wilde—and the ghosts haunting them brought to vivid life. His body ailing, Wilde lives in exile, surviving on the flamboyant irony and brilliant wit that defined him as the transience of lust is laid bare and the true riches of love are revealed. Or so it says here.
The film features Rupert Everett as Wilde and Emily Watson as Constance, along with Colin Firth, Colin Morgan, and Edwin Thomas.
John Cooper expands on comments he made as a member of a panel discussion at the Oscar Wilde Festival in Galway, Ireland, in 2014, in which he appraised Wilde’s legacy and his personal response to it.
(I) RISE AND FALL
Finding Oscar Wilde during his lecture tour of America in 1882 presented few difficulties. Throughout the year he made hundreds of appearances in public and thousands in the press. But his transatlantic sojourn was not merely prolific, it was a surprisingly formative time that saw Wildean firsts in all aspects of his career. Professionally, he nurtured the art of public speaking, began lecturing, and conducted his first press interviews. In his personal life he entered a new sphere of poets, writers, and statesmen; and he embarked upon a lifelong pattern of occasionally earning, but of always spending, large sums of money. Creatively, he became increasingly familiar with formulating his thought into thesis, while socially he was gathering material and honing epigrams for use in his early essays, short stories, and dramatic dialogues. Perhaps most surprisingly, it was in America that he staged the first ever production of a Wilde play.1 And lastingly, it was in New York City that the predominant image we have of him was formed with a series of photographs taken by Napoleon Sarony. After America, one might say, Oscar had become famous for more than just being famous.
Not surprisingly, given this degree of exposure and experience, contemporary opinion was that America had made a greater impression on Wilde than vice-versa. Supporting this view is the fact that his audiences, although they had attended his lectures, came to see rather than to hear him; and even though he was often personally liked, he was more often publicly ridiculed. Wilde’s maligned persona was so widespread that the ability to locate him in the abstract sense, even for those who had not seen him, also presented few difficulties. In sum: the breadth of his presence made Wilde familiar in person, and the stereotype of his character provided the measure of him as a personality.
We now see that Wilde cannot be so easily pigeon-holed.