Oscar Wilde is one of my very favourite writers. He is one of select number of writers to who I have (somewhat obsessively) attempted to read everything they wrote, including stories, novels, plays, poetry, essays, articles, letters, journals and diaries – the others being Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, William Shakespeare, Ernest Hemingway, E.M. Forster, Dorothy Parker, George S. Kaufman, Alexander Woollcott, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, T. S. Eliot and Tennessee Williams. This group is complemented by other obsessions in the world of the performing arts, such as watching the entire work of master film makers like Charles Chaplin and Alfred Hitchcock. or with a particular genre, as with my the current obsession – ‘courtroom drama’. This series of obsessions also includes artist and musicians, poets, designers, and other passionate interests in history, travel, food, and gardening. All this, of course, can be taken as an reflection of myself, complementing Wilde’s observation in ‘The Critic and The Artist’ than any critique of a work of art reveals more of the critic than the art itself. I leave others to make up their minds in regard to this relatively small collection of great writers as to what it says about me.
What follows is more a personal reflection of my continuing love affair with the life and works of Oscar Wilde. Of the select group of ‘Tony’s favs’, all of whom have their uniqueness and have played their respective influence, nonetheless, Wilde is perhaps not only my ‘first love’ but also is probably, next to Shakespeare, the only other writer whose entire work is regularly in print throughout the entire world, and in a wide and diverse range of publications, many with illustrations stimulated by the imaginative worlds of Oscar Wilde. Wilde’s canon includes fairy stories, plays, poems, essays, reviews, letters – and then there is his life. Wilde’s canon also includes his two trials, where is wit and wisdom failed and he was sentenced to two years hard labour under the harsh Victorian laws for ‘gross indecency’. From this tragic experience that essentially broke him, nonetheless, come his last two masterworks – The Ballad Reading Gaol and the extraordinary De Profundis.
De Profundis, along with The Picture of Dorian Grey and The Importance of Being Ernest, have all been very present in my life over the past year. In a way they are reflective of one of Wilde’s most known quotes – ‘Life imitates art far more than art imitate life’. First, there was a brilliant and revelatory production of The Importance of Being Ernest by the professional Singapore theatre company, Wild Rice. This was followed, due to personal reasons, re-reading De Profundis and then The Picture of Dorian Grey. Somewhat bizarre trio, nonetheless, these works have played their role and influence in my life, for which I am very glad – thank you Oscar! Bizarre also that Wilde’s final masterwork should been at play this time of the 161st anniversary of his birth. However, re-reading De Profundis I was struck by something that I really didn’t notice or appreciate when I first read De Profundis – somewhere back there in the late twentieth century. De Profundis is Wilde’s deeply personal reflection on his life and tragic fall, written with Wilde’s captivating eloquence and ‘grace’ that never quite hides the enormous depth of his hurt, anger and sense of betrayal – it is also a profound and deeply moving lesson on ‘humility’; an appropriate ‘elegy’ to Wilde himself. This has subsequently led me to read other works, including letters and articles, as well as his plays and fairy stories.
Most artists are not remembered beyond there lifetime; and there are many great writers whose work, once popular, are now never read. Wilde is unique in that like Shakespeare he seems to be transcending the state of cultural amnesia that wipes out the memory of great works. As mentioned, his entire body of work is still regularly in print throughout the entire world, as well as numerous ‘Quotes of Oscar Wilde’ books (see below). Furthermore, due to his spectacular rise and fall, and the reasons behind his fall being his being a homosexual man with a passion for young men, his subsequent trial and brutal incarceration, exile and death, has made him not only a ‘gay’ icon but also a ‘Saint’. It would seem that Oscar Wilde, his life and his work, is still, for whatever reason, very much of relevance, importance and influence – quite extraordinary for someone who was born 161 years ago.
Reflecting on this the anniversary of Wilde’s birth I would like to suggest that one reason why Wilde’s works have achieved its unique and universal appeal is that in a nutshell, all of Wilde’s works are essentially about ‘self-sacrifice’. This is complements as well as contrast with his equally important personal life, which involves the ‘sacrifice of self’. There is a moment in Wilde’s personal life that for me encapsulates these two binary forces. On the night he was to be arrested and taken to prison loyal friends, such as Robbie Ross (pictured), begged Wilde to flee to France. Wilde refused. His reason? He couldn’t face his mother’s shaming eye. Family honour? Possibly – but there are also elements of ‘sacrifice’ and ‘self-sacrifice’, which are so much part of his works, that may assist in explaining why Wilde did not flee when he had the opportunity.
Oscar Wilde has been part of my life from childhood to now; beginning with The Happy Prince to the name of this blog site ‘allthepleasuresofthegarden’, which is derived from a quote by Wilde. My life-long obsession with Oscar Wilde also included one wet, cold and drizzly day in Paris, dragging friends, Jennifer Hagan, Aaron Jeffrey and Olivia Pigeot, to the Pere Lachaise Cemetery, so I could make my mini-Mecca visit and lay a single rose at Oscar Wilde’s grave; identifying with the epitaph taken from The Ballad of reading Gaol – ‘For his mourners will be outcast men / And outcasts always mourn’. I was lucky, as this was well before the plate of glass was put up surrounding the statue and grave-site, to stop people kissing and leaving lipstick on the grave.
My first experience of Oscar Wilde was listening to an old 78′ record recording of The Happy Prince, which my parents had bought for me and my three sisters to assist in our reading skills when we were children. It was accompanied by a large book which had Wilde’s story as well as beautiful colourful illustrations. I well remember my sisters and I listening and reading the story with the record, that every now and then would go, “Turn the page”, which we would do so. There was also a similar recording for one for Wilde’s The Selfish Giant. These subsequently led to Wilde’s other Fairy Stories. My personal favourite being The Nightingale and the Rose; it is still my favourite.
‘Self-Sacrifice’ and/or ‘Sacrifice of “Self”‘is very much a part of The Happy Prince, The Selfish Giant and The Nightingale and the Rose, as are most of Wilde’s Fairy Stories. The Little Swallow and the Nightingale sacrifice themselves for love, whilst the Selfish Giant is more like a example of a ‘sacrifice of “self”‘. These two binary elements and forces are also very much a part of Wilde’s plays, including The Importance of Being Ernest,An Ideal Husband and Salome. In contrast to the Fairy Stories, however, there is a slight shift in the balance towards issues of ‘Sacrifice of “Self”‘. This centres on the notion of individual worth, character and identity. The Importance of Being Ernest deals with this in a comic way, exemplified by Jack and Algy both wishing to sacrifice their ‘self’ by getting re-baptised as Ernest, and with the final line being the character Jack leaning ‘the importance of being Ernest’ – in other words – be true to oneself.
An Ideal Husband is my favourite of Wilde’s dramatic comedies. It is certainly proving to be a play that continues to find resonance with modern audiences. This is primarily due to the play dealing political corruption verses personal integrity; Wilde’s 1895 play being a ‘mirror’ up to the world of late Victorian politics still finding resonance with the modern world. The play has now often been done in ‘modern’ dress; such as Richard Wherret’s wonderful production for the Sydney Theatre Company with Linda Cropper and Richard Roxburgh. The sacrifice of ‘self’, the sacrifice of a pervious identity, and in certain cases the rebirth and beginnings of new identity is very much a part of the journey for the major characters of Sir Robert Chiltern, Lady Chiltern, and Lord Goring.
The Picture of Dorian Grey was Wilde’s first major adult ‘hit’. It is an incredibly unsettling story that is completely about the sacrifice of ‘Self’. In this truly incredible, audacious and genuinely creepy novel, Dorian Grey sacrifices his real self for evil intent, and pays for it with a final ending in which there is no redemption and no re-birth. The imaginative and emotional power in Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey is today as confronting, provocative and memorable as it was when it was first published. True that it has as one of it’s influence the story of Dr Faust, selling his soul to the Devil for essentially knowledge, power, and carnal desire. However, unlike the more ‘romantic’ version by Goethe, which does involve redemption, Wilde’s version is closer to Christopher Marlowe’s play, Doctor Faustus (c. 1589), in regard to the complete destruction of ‘self’. Wilde’s ‘gothic’ horror story has never been out of print since it was first published. Even during Wilde’s imprisonment, disgrace and exile, The Picture of Dorian Grey was along with a few others still readily available. Subsequently, it has been made into films, operas, ballets as well as featured in and inspired other arts and artists.
Whilst The Importance of Being Ernest may well be Wilde’s most popular and enduring work; possibly one of the greatest comic plays ever written, it is Wilde’s tragic pieces are also still very popular. This includes The Happy Prince, The Selfish Giant and The Nightingale and the Rose, The Picture of Dorian Grey, Salome (his last major play), and The Ballad of Reading Gaol (his last major poem) – ‘And each man kills the things he loves, yet no man can say why’. That object of love can be another, and it can also be one’s ‘Self’.
What would you sacrifice your ‘Self’ for? Knowledge, sex and power, like Faust and Dorian Grey? For the children, like The Selfish Giant? For love, as could be argued for The Rose and The Happy Prince in their respective stories. Love is very much a subject for Oscar Wilde. It also informs virtually all his work, and there are numerous quotations from his works that are either ironic and audacious statements, or sincere and succinct aphorisms. However, it would seem that love in Wilde’s imaginative and personal worlds also involved ‘sacrifice’ and ‘self-sacrifice’, as well as as being at times something ‘that cannot say its name’. Whilst there is some spiritual redemption in the fairy stories, as well as De Profundis, and the comic plays all end happily, nonetheless, that love is connected to ‘sacrifice’ and ‘self-sacrifice’ also has deeply tragic implications and consequences, as evident in The Happy Prince, The Nightingale and the Rose, as well as The Picture of Dorian Grey, Salome, and The Ballad of Reading Gaol.
Tragedy and Comedy – Wilde excelled at both.
Everyone will have their own individual like, love or loath story, play, or poem by Oscar Wilde, Some will see him as genius, some will see him as a freak, and some an abomination. I see him as a genius. I have never seen a production of The Importance of Being Ernest, or indeed any of his plays, that I have not thoroughly enjoyed, despite sometimes dubious production. I have just dealt with those mentioned above because they have been a part of my life over the past year. In another year’s time it will be completely different – although I suspect that if I see a local production of Ernest on I probably would go, and I will admit that I do sometimes play a DVD copy of the 1952 version by Anthony Asquith, featuring Michael Redgrave, Edith Evans, Joan Greenwood, Dorothy Tutin and Margaret Rutherford. Edith Evans is not the definitive
Lady Bracknell – but she is the standard expected in power and humour; personally the way Edith Evans does ‘A haaaaand-bag!!!?, seeming to go up through her entire vocal range, finishing with a high pitched ‘g’, I find hilarious; as does the moment when she confront Miss Prism with the command, ‘Prism?! Where is that baby?’.
Thank you Oscar Wilde for being such a great inspirational and influential part of my life. Happy Birthday.