If Oscar Wilde really did live in terror of not being misunderstood—as he wrote inThe Critic as Artist in1891, he need not have worried. At least not so far as his plays are concerned, because there are parts of the texts now so arcane that they are almost bound to be misunderstood—if they are understood at all.
Take Wilde’s most famous play The Importance of Being Earnest.
As many appreciate, Earnest still resonates today in everything from the fact that sugar is no longer fashionable to the facade of human shallowness.
But we should not allow the play’s continuing relevance to distract us from its many dated, regional or topical allusions, many of which had an esoteric meaning when Wilde wrote them, but which are now elusive—especially for young or non-British audiences.
I recall learning the word polyonymous from this Word-a-Day web site—it means having many names. It resonates because I always suspected Oscar of being a confirmed and secret polyonymist, freely dispensing with at least three of his five birth names which he considered too much ballast for the heights he soared, and then changing his name altogether when he came back down to earth.
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.
Today is the birthday of a famous Irishman and, lest I insult your knowledge, I should quickly add that I do not refer to our boy above. Wildeans, of course, need no reminding that Oscar celebrates his birthday on October 16th.
Consider instead a curiosity about the date in Irish lore.
PHILADELPHIA LIBRARY ACQUIRES RARE TYPESCRIPT OF UNPUBLISHED PORTIONS OF WILDE’S “DE PROFUNDIS”
On a balmy Sunday lunchtime last Spring I found myself in the refreshment area of the prestigious New York Antiquarian Book Fair. The ambience and the food were very pleasant, perhaps suspiciously so, which I should have seen as a portent for what I was about to discover had I not been obliviously fitting My café table had an inlaid chessboard and the kindly stranger opposite made the first move. “Are you a dealer or a collector?” he asked, with an air of inevitability that suggested a third alternative had not previously existed. As I was that third alternative I countered with the vague department store defense: “I’m just browsing.” It was a gambit designed to replace the probability of being neither with the possibility of being either.
However, it soon became apparent to me, if not to my new friend, that even the rank of ‘browser‘ had wildly overstated my standing.
Richard Le Gallienne is the subject of an exhibition in his home town of Liverpool to mark the 150th anniversary of his birth. The event is being curated by two stalwart supporters of late-Victorian authors and artists, Mark Samuels Lasner and Margaret D. Stetz—authors and artists themselves.
In conjunction with the exhibition, Liverpool Central Library will bring together these and other scholars and collectors from the UK and the US for a one-day symposium about the city as a literary and cultural centre at the end of the 19th century.