One hundred years after his spectacular fall from the heights of British society to the depths of prison and exile, Oscar Wilde is news again. Widely acknowledged as one of the 19th century’s greatest contributions to literature, he has never fallen into total obscurity. His epigrams are endlessly quoted. His paradoxical parables remain in print and taught in schools, most notably The Picture of Dorian Gray. And his plays provide a lasting monument to his immortality, especially The Importance of Being Ernest, which many consider the most perfect comedy in the English language since the Restoration.

Still, Wilde’s work has been overshadowed by the story of his downfall. In a saga worthy of Greek mythology, the celebrated author, a married father of two, fell madly in love with young Lord Alfred Douglas, whom he called Bosie. When his paramour’s belligerent father publicly called him a “posing somdomite,” Wilde sued for libel. The suit backfired and left him convicted, imprisoned, broke, and branded with the fate of being the first famous homosexual in history, which wasn’t half as much fun as it sounds.

Now the life of Oscar Wilde is the subject of three high-profile works of art. Wilde, a British film directed by Brian Gilbert and starring Stephen Fry, opened in London last October and has been playing all over Europe since then. It receives its American premiere May 1 in New York. British playwright David Hare’s new play The Judas Kiss, starring Liam Neeson as Oscar Wilde, had a month-long run in London’s West End prior to opening on Broadway April 29. Meanwhile, Moises Kaufman’s docudrama Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde has been an Off-Broadway hit for more than a year. The New York production has spun off successful companies in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Seattle, St. Louis, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. And in what may be the ultimate measure of media currency, Wilde is all over the World Wide Web. The producers of both Gross Indecency and Wilde have created elaborate websites featuring photographs, sound bites, and links to dozens of other Wilde-related Internet resources. You can even find his astrological chart online.

Clearly, Oscar Wilde stirs up intense fascination among artists and audiences, both gay and straight, at the end of the 20th century. Nevertheless, what his story has to say, -- what meaning we extract from it -- varies widely, depending on who’s speaking and who’s listening. As Wilde himself said in his introduction to The Picture of Dorian Gray, “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.”

“Wilde exhibits one of the hallmarks of a great writer,” says David Hare, “in that each generation feels the need to re-assess him in the light of its own standards and sometimes also to re-invent him for its own purposes.” Certainly, each generation of gay culture remakes Wilde according to its own interests, aspirations, and self-definitions. Whether we consider ourselves ordinary citizens unjustly denied civil rights, or a specially gifted population who exist to bring beauty and creativity and humor to the masses, or a walking talking rebuke to the status quo, Wilde a designated martyr and gay icon provides a handy mirror for our shifting conceptions of who we are as a tribe.

Before the gay liberation movement arose, works about Wilde sought pity and tolerance not only for him but for his beleaguered gay brothers and sisters. “If you’re gay in Britain, Wilde is the shadow that has fallen over the last 100 years,” says Julian Mitchell, the gay playwright (Another Country) who wrote the screenplay for Wilde. “One of the effects of the Wilde trial was to make the subject undiscussable for a long time. I’m in my sixties, and when I was young, people still regarded homosexuality with extreme hatred and disgust and wanted all gays to go to jail.”

After Stonewall, Wilde was embraced more as a radical figure who gave value to standing in opposition to society. British novelist and theatermaker Neil Bartlett grew up ranking Wilde with other literary “bad boys” Joe Orton and Jean Genet. Bartlett, whose dazzling 1988 biography Who Was That Man? remains the smartest examination of Wilde through contemporary gay male eyes, says he was influenced by seeing Wilde’s plays staged at the Glasgow Citizens’ Theater by Phillip Prowse in the mid-1980s. “They were not done from the English-costume-drama perspective but as these vicious anti-establishment charades that spit on the grave of society,” Bartlett recalls. “They were dark, glamorous, and very queer. I can remember sitting in that theater thinking, ‘This is fantastic!’ Rather than seeing Oscar Wilde in rather nice Victorian costumes being noble, I grew up seeing him as a deranged pervert. I set about becoming one as soon as I could.”

Nowadays the tide has turned. The most prominent gay voices call for inclusion, and to defy society is to make yourself a loser. So Wilde becomes a symbol, first and foremost, of a legal injustice to be corrected. He represents somebody who wants and deserves mainstream acceptance. Novelist Edmund White points out that Wilde “is a very good symbol of gay martyrdom. But the attitude about martyrdom is changing from pity and asking for sympathy to real anger about how great gays of the past were treated. That represents a shift in the attitude toward Wilde -- and toward ourselves. My boyfriend lives in Yemen, where if you’re discovered to be gay, they push you off a cliff. That’s going on all over the world. The battle’s far from won.”

It’s no coincidence that Gross Indecency should be a box-office smash at a time where the American public is absolutely fixated on celebrity trials, by far the most popular theater form of the 1990s. These non-fiction soap operas provide a respectable excuse for dishing dirt, and -- with all due respect to O.J. Simpson -- Wilde’s was the original celebrity trial. To dispute his claim that the Marquess of Queensberry libeled him by suggesting he was queer, Wilde’s prosecutors literally aired his dirty linen. A turning point in his first trial was the testimony of a housekeeper at the Savoy Hotel that she had found fecal stains on Wilde’s bedsheets. Any Englishman with memories of boarding-school buggery knew what that meant. The public paid no less attention to such details then than we did to recent rumors of Monica Lewinsky’s semen-stained dress.

Like all works about Wilde, Gross Indecency has its own agenda. The play paints Wilde as scapegoat, victim, martyr. It captures the outrageousness of the author of The Importance of Being Earnest being given the maximum sentence of two years in prison doing hard labor as punishment for loving men. At the same time, the play very effectively allows straight people in the audience to flatter themselves by identifying with Wilde rather than the crowds who cheered when he was brought down.

Similarly, the movie Wilde bends over backwards to give the audience a cuddly version of its hero. Nominally based on Richard Ellmann’s impressively comprehensive 1987 biography, Wilde creates its own fiction out of the facts of Wilde’s life by focusing sentimentally on family values. The movie opens with his courtship and marriage to Constance Lloyd. It conveniently skips over the days at Oxford when the budding aesthete went around saying, “Every day I find it harder and harder to live up to my blue china.” Provocatively, it suggests that Wilde (superbly played by Stephen Fry, who looks the part) forges ahead with the trials out of a kind-hearted attempt to supply Bosie with the love he didn’t get from his insane, abusive father. And it pointedly lingers on scenes of Oscar’s neglected children while Fry’s melancholy voiceover reads a story called “The Selfish Giant.”

Marc Samuelson, who produced Wilde with his brother Peter (both are heterosexual, as is director Brian Gilbert), is proud that their film takes a different view of Oscar Wilde. “Politically, we’ve come past the time when the entire story would have been about his definition as a gay man. Now we’re able to create a more rounded portrait of the man,” Samuelson says. “What I’m really interested in is the side of him not as well known as his wit. The caricatures portray him as this rather distant, queeny, epithet-quoting brainbox. This was a man who actually had an inherent kindness, an understanding of life and character which was fascinating and compelling and makes the tragedy of what was done to him more appalling and moving.”

In an article about The Judas Kiss, David Hare writes, “Nothing is more deadly than those works about Wilde in which the playwright prances around spouting the epigrams which are already known to the audience.” His own play purposely steers clear of well-worn phrases. In addition to convincing screen hunk Liam Neeson to impersonate the dowdy poet, Hare winning strategy is to zero in on two small but significant scenes that represent the mysterious ambiguity at the heart of Wilde’s character. The first act focuses on Wilde’s refusal to do what everyone wanted him to do, flee the country to avoid prosecution; the second act shows him doing the one thing everyone wanted him not to do, which is reunite with Bosie after getting out of prison.

Hare feels that Wilde’s persecution exposed the hypocrisy of society, and that’s what makes him a contemporary subject today. “The modern media are full of people rushing to personal judgments about other people’s behavior in a way that appalls and disgusts me,” he says. However, what interested Hare about Wilde emotionally was that “he was a man who knew that his love was unequal, that he was not loved in the way that he loved but nonetheless he knowingly persisted in that love.”

Hare has no investment in protecting Wilde’s status as hero or gay icon. “In my play,” he says, “the ultimate tragedy is that Wilde is destroyed as an artist.” Like many of Hare’s plays, The Judas Kiss portrays a stubborn independent thinker made vulnerable to unsavory political choices. Himself a political artist who’s had to question whether theater constitutes direct action or contemplative passivity, Hare grants Wilde a complexity that’s both admirable and infuriating. Without judging him, the playwright suggests that for writers, no less than AIDS activists, silence equals death.

 While the recent rash of plays and films has thrust Wilde into the limelight again, not every aficionado is overjoyed about it. Fran Lebowitz, who holds few things sacred but reveres Oscar Wilde, expresses contempt for prevailing attitudes toward Wilde. “Most people don’t know his work. They only know his life. It’s easier to be interested in the life, which they try to force into a contemporary shape. All they know is that he went to jail for being a fag and he died,” says Lebowitz. “It’s this ersatz democracy we live with. People think, ‘He was arrested, I could be arrested, therefore I’m like Oscar Wilde.’ Wrong! He’s a genius, they’re not.”

Neil Bartlett’s objection is that recent works about Wilde present an “extraordinarily sanitized” image of the man. “I hear him described as this archetypal humanist hero, one of the great individuals of history, but just the same as all other individuals. I go, ‘Really?’ This was one monstrously talented loudmouth vicious queen who cut through London society from pretty close to the top to pretty close to the bottom. People make of him the hero they’re looking for. I can’t bear that.”

This multitude of interpretations only reinforces the fact that Oscar Wilde is an endlessly fascinating puzzle that will never be definitively solved. As Bartlett acknowledges, “It’s a measure of Wilde’s importance that he doesn’t mean one thing or even a small group of things. He strikes a different chord in different people for different reasons.”

The Advocate, April 28, 1998

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