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his American experience, his men, his women, his friends, his enemies, his wit, his letters, his published works, his unpublished works, his recorded life, his unrecorded life, and, for good measure, his afterlife.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.
After traveling across the vast expanses of the American south for more than a month, lecturing in 18 cities, Wilde returned to New York for some rest and relaxation with friends at the exclusive Summer resorts of the north-east.
On July 15, 1882. Oscar gave a courtesy lecture at the Casino during a week’s stay with Julia Ward Howe and friends at Newport, RI, (revisited here) and he did not lecture again for two and a half weeks.
During that time he:
— visited Long Beach with Sam Ward where he was to be found creating interest on the beach;
—cruised around Long Island for three days with Robert Roosevelt aboard his yacht, occasionally swimming, fishing and calling in at popular hotels;
—visited the actress Clara Morris at her retreat in Riverdale, NY;
—stayed with statesman John Bigelow at his summer home at Highland Falls, near West Point;
—vacationed at Long Branch spending a night as guest of former President of the United States, General Ulysses S. Grant, which must have provided a interesting counterpoint to his recent stay with Jefferson Davis, the former president of the Confederate States of America, at his home at Beauvoir;
—traveled to Peekskill to stay with clergyman and social reformer Henry Ward Beecher with whom he attended a church service and a military band concert.
After all that urbane socializing it was time to head for the hills for more urbane socializing—and a return to lecturing.
The social lion was about to become a mountain lion in The Catskills.
In verifying Oscar Wilde’s 1882 lecture tour of North America, it was prudent to begin with the four published itineraries by Mikhail, Ellmann, Page, and Beckson. 
Unfortunately, none of these chronologies agrees with any other, and each is either incomplete or wrong in various respects—so it has been necessary to make numerous additions and corrections to dates, locations and lecture titles. 
It is a pleasing break to the routine when one discovers something new, such as a previously unrecorded event. Or, rarer still, a previously unknown lecture, as was the case with the redefining of Wilde’s final stop of the tour in New York on November 27, 1882.
Now another new lecture has emerged: it is an appearance by Wilde at Narragansett Pier.
You could be forgiven for thinking that a blog about Oscar Wilde might not provide the most objective forum for a film about Oscar Wilde—perhaps being too close to its subject to see it as one would ordinarily.
However, the opposite turns out to be true about The Happy Prince because it is no ordinary film. It warrants a specialist view being itself the work of an Oscar Wilde specialist.
Rupert Everett has played Wilde’s fictional characters both on stage and in film; he has already appeared as the real Oscar Wilde in David Hare’s The Judas Kiss on both sides of the Atlantic; and, after spending an age poring over Wilde’s works in homage to his patron saint, Everett has also spent the last ten years of his life taking on a tide of personal and industry challenges in order to craft this film.
It is an effort that lays bare a more compelling reason why the film should not be regarded as just another movie. And it is a reason Everett shares with the artist Basil Hallward (in Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray) who accepted that his portrait of Dorian was not just another painting. He confessed: “I have put too much of myself into it.”
Wilde explained this characteristically philosophical view of art when he said:
“Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.”
So it is with Everett, whose devotion during a decade of writing, directing, and now acting in a lifetime passion, might also be regarded as his art. Certainly, The Happy Prince is a highly personalized vision: a dark introspection with the protagonist in almost every scene.
So the inference is that we should not approach the film routinely from the outside in, but rather the other way around. Taken on those terms, there is much to admire, not only for the specialist but for the generalist viewer.
Let us look at it, as Everett did, through that lens.
It was time for the press screening of The Happy Prince, Rupert Everett’s new bio-pic of Oscar Wilde’s post-parting prison depression, to be shown at the headquarters of Sony Pictures in New York ahead of its general release in the U.S. later this month.
I was becoming excited, and as I would be coming a long way, I decided to prepare in a manner becoming the movie.
Here are Oscar and Bosie in May 1893 at the studio of photographers Gillman & Co. of Oxford, whose establishment was at 107 St Aldate’s Street. That location today, to set a tone of bathos, is a Ladbrokes Off Track Betting Shop.
This well known picture captures the boys relaxed and smoking, distant even—apparently between arguments. But upon inspection you’ll see that, in keeping with their lives, all was not as it seems.
It has long been assumed that all of the 1882 photographs of Oscar Wilde by Napoleon Sarony were taken during the same visit to his studio. Indeed, in all of Wilde studies there does not appear to be any record of an assertion to the contrary.
However, there is a convincing case to be made that the LAST FOUR photographs were taken at a later date.
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.