Philadelphia Freedom


The Digital Collection of Oscar Wilde Documents at The Philadelphia Free Library

Readers will recall my visit to the New York Antiquarian Book Fair a couple of years ago where I was offered a very rare Oscar Wilde document.

It was a typescript of the (originally) unpublished portions of Wilde’s passive-aggressive prison masterpiece De Profundis.

It was prepared by Wilde’s literary executor, Robert Ross, for use in the 1913 trial when Lord Alfred Douglas (Oscar’s lover Bosie) sued a young Arthur Ransome for having the temerity to imply that a person he didn’t name just might have had a hand in Wilde’s downfall.

Not My Type

I politely declined to purchase the typescript, thinking it belonged much more appropriately within the hands (and budgetary means) of a public institution where visitors could see it.

Now, thanks to the power of the digital medium, everybody can see it.

Continue reading Philadelphia Freedom

The Wilde West

My recent article about Stephen Fry as the young Oscar featured a video of Oscar Wilde as a character in a short-lived TV Western series.

Surprisingly, it was not the first time this had happened.

Back in the 1950s in the series Have Gun, Will Travel (1957–1963) Oscar again fell foul of local baddies in an episode entitled The Ballad of Oscar Wilde.

Continue reading The Wilde West

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.

Continue reading Young Fry

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.

Continue reading Anatomy of a Cartoon

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.

Continue reading Homophones

Quixote of the Queer

don-quixote

Textual Analysis for Students

A verse parody appeared just three weeks after Oscar Wilde arrived in America. It was one many such newspaper items in 1882 that poked fun at Wilde and the aesthetic movement.

It was notable for its affected and satirical overuse of alliteration. Although Wilde was known for his occasional penchant for this verbal prose style (something that Whistler later parodied), it was probably not recognized by the author of this verse when it was written in January 1882.

It is more likely that its use was prompted by expressions such as “too-too” and “utterly utter” that were connected to the also alliterative Apostle of the Aesthetes.

As such, the text is instructional in understanding allusions to Wilde and the aesthetic movement. Let us examine the terminology:

Continue reading Quixote of the Queer

Oscar Wilde’s Birthday Dinner

maxresdefault.jpg

A Review of the Oscar Wilde Birthday Dinner, 2017

This Article First Appeared in Intentions,
(New Series No. 105, Feb. 2018)

Published by the Oscar Wilde Society

http://oscarwildesociety.co.uk

The twenty-sixth Oscar Wilde Society annual birthday dinner was held on October 13, 2017 at the National Liberal Club in Whitehall — a now familiar home for the Society and its regulars. However, for one delinquent expatriate member it was a first visit to this ‘new’ venue, a fact which prompted the surprised realisation that my previous birthday dinner was almost twenty years ago.

On that distant occasion the dinner was held at the Cadogan Hotel, an experience now so far removed from The National Liberal Club that it might have happened to an invented younger brother. This Wildean idea seemed apt because, if we condense the intervening two decades into the perspective of successive events, the two places emerge as opposite sides of the same coin of the Oscar realm.

Let me explain.

Continue reading Oscar Wilde’s Birthday Dinner