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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King’s Ransome

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PHILADELPHIA LIBRARY ACQUIRES RARE TYPESCRIPT OF UNPUBLISHED PORTIONS OF WILDE’S “DE PROFUNDIS”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.

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Guido Ferranti by ?

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A rediscovered letter by Oscar Wilde informs his relationship with anonymity

Wilde’s college exploits, his aesthetic entry into London society, the self-publicity of his American tour, and his rise to fame have all been well documented; and the story often distills to the crucial moment of his fall from grace, a short period in 1895 when fame turned to infamy.

But there is a more enduring, more subtle, and underlying theme that began with Wilde’s desire to be known: it was a journey through his art and life towards an imperative for anonymity.

Continue reading Guido Ferranti by ?