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.

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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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The Canterville Ghost

The Canterville Ghost is a short story by Oscar Wilde which made its first appearance in America in The New-York Tribune on Sunday, March 27, 1887. [1]

Unfortunately, I was too young to read the original.

However, and to my shame, neither did I catch the 1944 film starring Charles Laughton, the 1962 BBC television drama featuring Bernard Cribbins, the 1966 ABC television musical with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Michael Redgrave, the 1970 Soviet cartoon, the 1974 CBS radio drama, the 1975 made-for-TV film with David Niven, the 1985 film starring no one you’ve ever heard of, the 1986 film with John Gielgud, the 1988 animated television special, the 1992 BBC radio 4 adaptation, the 1996 film with Patrick Stewart, the 1997 TV film starring Ian Richardson, the 2001 Australian film, the 2007 BBC Radio 7 reading by Alistair McGowan, the 2008 Bollywood adaptation, the 2010 graphic novel, the 2011 audiobook narrated by Rupert Degas, the 2016 French-Belgian film, and nor, indeed, the 2017 animated feature film with the voices of Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, for which I can be forgiven as it hasn’t been released yet.

That’s a lot of versions, and, before you wonder why has it not been made into an opera, I can tell you it has, and it will debut in New York at the Center For Contemporary Opera as one of a Scare Pair on October 19.

And no, I won’t be able to see that either.

So I determined I should make the effort to experience the darned thing somewhere if I could, even if this meant a community theatre production two-and-a-half hours drive away.

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The Oscar Wilde Bar

Aesthetic period door plaque. Oscar Wilde Bar, New York City.

There have been Oscar Wilde bars before now: in Berlin, San Diego, Chicago, and, I seem to recall, one previously in New York City. There is a Wilde Café in Minneapolis, and a bar called Oscar Wilde 9 located, both surprisingly and unsurprisingly, at #9 Oscar Wilde St. in Mexico City.

Most of these pretenders, however, merely give a nod to the old boy by borrowing his name. One or two, such as Wilde’s Restaurant in The Lodge at Ashford Castle, in Cong, Ireland, and the Oscar Wilde room at the Café Royal in Piccadilly, London, try a little harder to embody Oscar’s maxim that moderation is a fatal thing, and nothing succeeds like excess.

Raising The Bar

But believe me, none of them, past or present, comes remotely close to the lavishness to be found at the new Oscar Wilde Bar in New York City.

As one artistic passerby was heard to exclaim when poking his head through the door, “Minimalism is dead!” And that was when the place was only half finished during the renovations.

Now that it is finished it was time to attend the press reception.

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The State of the Sunflowers

strike-me-sunflowerOscar Wilde’s Reception in Kansas and the Sunflower Soirée.

I recently gave a talk on the subject of Oscar Wilde and the sunflower to the good people of the Maryland Agriculture Resource Council at their Sunflower Soirée, a yearly festival devoted to the Helianthus annuus. Literally, an annual event.

Between you and me, it was a wonderful occasion; but as there was a gloomy weather forecast I choose to focus on the portent to a poignant moment.

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The New Jersey Turnpike

we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream

Bruce Springsteen, Born To Run.

Casual readers might not realize it but behind this blog there lies a project: namely to chronicle Oscar Wilde’s tour of America in a page-by-page detailed verification of more than 140 lecture dates—and in that pursuit, it was time to investigate another such event.

On this occasion I was able to retrace Oscar steps literally, as the venue was Freehold, in my home state of New Jersey—in preparation for which I sought some local inspiration at nearby POI.

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