Read an Excerpt
From Angus Fletcher’s Introduction to The Collected Oscar Wilde
For Wilde, the quest of his own critique, finding find beauty amidst dross, finding truth amidst lies, yields a drama that may conveniently be divided into five acts.
Act I is the story of a rich, classical schooling in Dublin and Oxford, where Wilde wins the notable Newdigate Prize for his poem “Ravenna” (1878). Already he has visited Italy and Greece, traveling with his Dublin tutor, the Rev. Dr. John P. Mahaffy. From his father Wilde learned habits of hard intellectual work. From his mother he acquired higher, more dangerous gifts. Lady Jane Francesca Wilde—she called herself “Speranza”(or Hope) when she published—enjoyed star billing in Dublin cultural circles. Her weekly salon was attended by the most distinguished intellectual and artistic company, and given that her husband was writing important scientific treatises besides endowing a clinic for medical research, we are not surprised that they had sent their younger son, Oscar, to the well-established Portora Royal School, where his linguistic skill was matched by his prize-winning work in art and drawing. Between 1871 and 1874 he attended Trinity College in Dublin, winning highest honors for Greek and a scholarship to Oxford. The consequence of this increasing literary recognition was an effective advancement, since later in 1874 he matriculated at Magdalen College, Oxford, where his knowledge of ancient literature could flower in full. Soon he joined forces with other young collegians whose creed was fashionable Aestheticism, a philosophy of life judged by the standards of harmony, beauty, and sensitive artistic taste developed to the highest degree. Aestheticism could lead in different directions, but for a poet it meant that literary achievement was to be valued for its formal skill, chiefly by undermining the usual preachments of Polonius—that is, by resisting standard middle-class values, which young men could interpret as repressive, middle-aged Puritanism.
The slogan “Art for Art’s Sake” opposes aesthetic values—the esteem of artistic creations, for example—to all kinds of political correctness. Primarily Wilde and his fellow aesthetes aspired to an ethical philosophy based on sensitive perceptions. At Oxford, rhetorical prowess was also prized, verbal virtuosity appearing a magical gift. The tall, powerfully built, elegantly attired, six foot three Oscar Wilde was by all accounts his college’s most dazzling student of classical Latin and Greek, from which all later Western thought and literature derive. In the first act of his drama Wilde was getting ready to launch forth into all the favored literary forms of his day: novel, short story, lyric poetry, critical journalism, cultural essay, and play—especially the comedy of manners. Graduating with highest honors, Wilde was poised to move very fast into the limelight.
Act II traces the fortunes of a rapidly rising literary and cultural presence, including the publication of Wilde’s Poems (1881), a notorious lecture tour in America and Canada, and the composition of two plays, one of which, Vera; or, The Nihilists (1882), while unsuccessful on the American stage, indicates Wilde’s not always overt political concerns. Later he will be the author of a long essay, “The Soul of Man under Socialism” (1891).
Act III begins in 1884 with the poet’s marriage to Constance Lloyd, their settling into a house in London—on Tite Street in Chelsea—followed soon by the birth of two boys, Cyril and Vyvyan. During the next five years Wilde divides his time between journalism, writing on cultural happenings, and writing short fiction; he publishes as The Happy Prince and Other Tales in 1888. Journalism pays the bills for the family and prepares Wilde for his remarkable next five years of literary production.
Act IV begins with a unique set of essays in critical theory, written as dialogues, including “The Decay of Lying” (1889), “The Critic as Artist” (1890), and “The Truth of Masks” (1891). In 1891 The Duchess of Padua is produced on the New York stage under the title Guido Ferranti; two books of short stories appear: Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories and A House of Pomegranates; he publishes a revised and expanded version of the scandalous Picture of Dorian Gray, first published a year earlier in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine; and he begins work on his drama of morbid aestheticism, Salomé, initially writing its script in French. Also in 1891 another very different event occurs, one that will shape the whole of the poet’s remaining life: He meets a fatal friend, the superficially refined, primping, poetizing doll Lord Alfred Douglas. By 1895 he has created and produced four new plays, works of such ironic perfection and verve that they remain in the repertory to this day.
Act V comprises the last five years of his life. In 1895 he scores simultaneous hits on the London stage with An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest (this intellectual farce was chosen to replace Henry James’s memorable fiasco Guy Domville). But in April 1895 Wilde makes a tragic error. He sues the Marquess of Queensberry—the insanely belligerent father of Lord Alfred Douglas—for libelous allegations that he is a sodomite. Queensberry had left a calling card at Wilde’s club, scribbled on it the words “To Oscar Wilde posing Somdomite” (his Lordship was a poor speller). But, although few could see it, perhaps not even the poet himself, what enrages and maddens Queensberry is the thought that Wilde could succeed in life by “posing”—pose and posing are the crux. For Wilde has already shown that by attacking the pose, like a scoundrel finally adopting the shield of patriotism, Queensberry is confessing himself the worst sort of poseur, the hypocritical proponent of the plain truth. Wilde grasps the social importance of a principle later enunciated by a famed Hollywood producer—that sincerity is the main trick for the actor: “Once you learn how to fake sincerity, you’ve got it made!” The real poser’s game is to attack a man who has deliberately, even humorously, adopted the art of the aesthetic stance. Of course, that is a game full of hazard. Wilde wants to expose his enemy’s perverse, shallow vulgarity, but foolishly he also fails to heed the counsel of his closest friends: do not get tangled up in a law case against Douglas’s father. Rhetorical power, unfortunately, is not always its own best judge. Rhetorically perhaps, Wilde “wins” a first trial, accusing Queensberry of slanderous libel, but after a second and third trial, society takes its revenge, and he is convicted of “gross indecency” and sentenced to two years of hard labor in prison. He is declared bankrupt by the end of the year, and his belongings are sold off and dispersed. In the following year Wilde’s mother dies.