Oscar Wilde

Why the 1890s insurgent has made a 1990s comeback.

Even Oscar Wilde, perhaps the greatest of all self-promoters, couldn’t fault the hype job being done for him these days. The biopic Wilde opened in New York last week. Two weeks ago, The Judas Kiss, a play about Wilde’s doomed love affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, debuted on Broadway, starring Liam Neeson as Wilde.

This is the Wildean moment. In the last year, bookstores have been glutted with mass-market issue: Oscar Wilde’s Guide to Modern Living; Wilde the Irishman; The Oscar Wilde Reader; Andre and Oscar; Oscar Wilde (by his son Vyvyan Holland); and The Wilde Album (by his grandson Merlin Holland). Besides The Judas Kiss, Wilde’s life is the subject of three other major new plays, several one-man shows, and an opera. As for Wilde’s own work, there is the usual spate of theatrical productions, as well as at least four planned films of his plays and novel.

Normally this kind of wretched historical excess (e.g., Wretched Titanic Excess) should be deplored and stifled. But in Oscar Wilde, the celebrity culture has finally found a subject worthy of this superfluity, someone complicated and challenging enough to endure the excess and more. Wilde once wrote, “I was a man who stood in symbolic relation to the art and culture of my age.” He is now a man who stands in symbolic relation to the art and culture of our age.

For most of this century, Wilde was simply a cartoon figure, a bon-moting smart aleck. “I can resist everything except temptation.” Ha ha ha! “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” How droll, Oscar, how very droll! Wilde said that he “summed up … all existence in an epigram.” And that is exactly how he has been perceived–as the cool, cruel master of aphorism. His plays were produced and his quips were plagiarized, but he himself remained a one-dimensional figure in the popular culture.

That has changed during the last decade and especially the last few years. The revival ignores the art for the sake of the man, recognizing that Wilde himself is at least as interesting as his one-liners. Requisite quote: “I put my genius into my life. I have put only my talent into my works.”

So why is the man suddenly so popular? One reason is that this is an age of memoirs: Wilde, who self-consciously made his own life a work of art, is an evocative symbol for self-involved literature. Literary nostalgia also explains the obsession with him. Between 1895 and 1900, he endured three trials, was jailed for two years, published his most famous poem, and died: The 100th anniversary of each event has been (or will be) much commemorated. Wilde’s combination of stylishness and tragedy lends itself perfectly to overcostumed, overwrought Merchant-Ivory-style drama.

But there are two more important reasons why this is a Wilde time: homosexuality and celebrity. The rise of gay studies and increasing acceptance of gay themes in popular culture have made a Wilde resurgence inevitable. (This decade, not his, is the gay ‘90s.) Wilde’s homosexuality was ignored for decades, then glossed over. When he was first claimed as a gay icon a generation ago, he was explained too simply as a martyr: A vicious British society destroyed him because it was too intolerant to accept homosexuality.

The 1990s Wilde provokes because he is not simple at all. In an era obsessed by identity, sexuality, and ambiguity, Wilde is one of the most puzzling cases. His life raises very modern questions about what homosexuality is and how much sexuality should define identity. Wilde is the “ur-homosexual,” as scholars put it, yet he never saw himself as homosexual. In fact, it is only after his trials–and partly because of his trials–that people began to be classified as “homosexual” and “heterosexual.” (For more on Wilde’s enduring role in shaping gay identity, click.) Wilde was not only not explicitly gay, he was happily married and the father of two children. He had sex with men infrequently, and only late in life. To appreciate the complexity of his sexuality, consider the current crop of Wilde plays: The Judas Kiss focuses on his love affair with a man, Gross Indecency focuses on his denials of his love affairs with men, and The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde focuses on his love affair with a woman.

O ften called the first person famous for being famous, Wilde foreshadowed our modern celebrity obsession. At a time when realism and authenticity were in vogue, his life was a stylized performance designed to grab attention. In the early 1880s, before he had written anything worth mentioning, he made his name as London’s great young aesthete. He mooned around the city carrying flowers, and threw himself at the feet of actresses. Gilbert and Sullivan parodied him in Patience. He then got himself sent on an American lecture tour to drum up publicity for Patience’s U.S. production. He wore outrageous clothes and quipped his way across the States. (On arrival in New York: “I have nothing to declare except my genius.”) His lectures about interior decorating were mobbed. He also milked his fame brilliantly after he’d achieved commercial success. He is undoubtedly the only canonical writer to endorse “Madame Fontaine’s Bosom Beautifier,” a breast-enlarging cream.

Just as his rise prefigured modern ideas about celebrity, so also did his fall. Wilde was the first mass-media celebrity criminal. The English gutter press, which was just developing a wide audience, whipped up public hatred toward him over his sex crimes and made him a pariah. Wilde scholars note his sex scandal is curiously evocative of Clinton’s: A spectacular public figure denies sexual indiscretion (in the face of overwhelming evidence) rather than risk challenging conventional morality.

One thing is missing from the revival: subversiveness. Wilde himself was endlessly transgressive, always finding a new way to jab Victorian complacency. He made vicious fun of the English bourgeoisie in plays such as The Importance of Being Earnest. The same bourgeoisie packed London houses and made him a fortune without realizing the joke was on them. It’s impossible today to realize how shocking The Picture of Dorian Gray was to 1890s readers. And even Wilde’s decision to endure prison rather than flee was a rebuke to England’s inhumanity.

But there is very little wildness in today’s Wilde. The books, plays, and movie are extremely couth, extremely respectable. Even a decade ago, a movie about Wilde and his gay affair would have been considered remarkable: Today, it’s a cliché. At the end of the 19th century, “gross indecency” could not even be described in court. Today, you can throw it on the screen and no one even notices. The challenge for Wilde lovers at the end of the 20th century is this: Find a way to appall.