Behind the wit, who was Oscar Wilde?
Tuesday is the 164th anniversary of the birth of the Irish playwright, poet and bon vivant, writes Stephen Costello
‘WHAT’S in a name?” Shakespeare asked in Romeo and Juliet. A name like Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde? His mother Lady Jane, who nearly got incarcerated herself for defamatory prose, was a poet and passionate republican, while Wilde’s father, Sir William, was a leading eye surgeon and philanderer. The name of Wilde dominated the salons, drawing-rooms, and theatres of fin de siecle Victorian England before it became a byword for something altogether less salubrious.
‘Oscar’: doesn’t his very name conjure up images of epicurean indulgence conjoined with class indifference? We hear it pronounced in an upper-class British cadence by Jude Law who played Lord Alfred Douglas (‘Bosie’) to Stephen Fry’s Oscar in the 1997 movie Wilde.
The man who said, “The world’s a stage, but the play is badly cast”, himself was cast in two main roles in this Greek tragedy, which we may call alternatively the Play of Pleasure and the Play of Pain. In the first part, Wilde was lionised by literary London as a famous poet, playwright, novelist (The Picture of Dorian Gray), and brilliant conversationalist. This would be followed by the downfall and disgrace of his later years — Wilde as sacrificial victim and scapegoat — after which his wife Constance changed their name from Wilde to Holland to protect her family’s identity. The British public, who once flocked in their droves to see Wilde’s plays, now bayed for blood. As Wilde quipped: “The public is wonderfully tolerant. It forgives everything except genius.”
Oscar was obdurate. He strutted about like a proud peacock, a modern Icarus scaling the heights of fame, as he journeyed from hubris to humility but without ever losing his legendary humour. Bosie, for his part, acted out the part of petulant puer aeternus — the eternal youth who would never grow up. At the end of his life he looked forward to being a boy again in Paradise, “where you can be any age you like”, he remarked to a friend. Lord Douglas’s lavish playpen was all of London. His social class made him a snob and gave him a sense of entitlement. Wilde might have needed Bosie as his muse but Bosie the narcissist needed only himself. Wilde was co-opted as scandalous trophy for public show.
Wilde was a wit who happened also to be wise. He rivals the greatest humorists for his barbed but brilliant one-liners such as this one: “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go.” Once when stopped on the street, a gentleman said to Wilde: “Mr Wilde I know you from London”, to which Wilde retorted, “Well perhaps in London I’ll know you again”. In his play The Importance of Being Earnest he gives this line to Lady Bracknell who thinks that a certain Lady Harbury whose wealthy husband had just died is living entirely for pleasure: “I hear her hair has turned quite gold from grief.”
He left wits like Gore Vidal and Groucho Marx who came after him in the ha’penny place. Perhaps only GK Chesterton, who was far more serious, was his equal in paradox though Chesterton disapproved of Wilde’s “desolate philosophy”.
Wilde was a thoroughly modern disciple of Freud avant la lettre. Witness this Wildean, profoundly psychological insight, which many have mistakenly attributed to Sigmund Freud: “Everything in the world is about sex except sex.”
As a father himself what pained Wilde most in the short time he had to live after Pentonville Prison and Reading Gaol (he died aged 46) was Constance’s decision to never let him see his two sons — Vyvyan and Cyril — again. “Children begin by loving their parents. As they grow older they judge them. Sometimes they forgive them.” His fairytales, written originally for his own children, can frighten adults with their acumen and moral depth. The story of The Selfish Giant is both tender and terrible. Religious themes suffuse all his works. Oscar had a heightened spiritual sensibility. After his two-years’ hard labour he asked the Jesuits on Farm Street could he do a retreat with them. On his death bed, he became a Catholic (years later Douglas would convert too) but realised early on that “I couldn’t possibly live as one.”
He wrote and suffered more than most. In Reading Gaol he spent the first few months walking on a treadmill (and not the kind you find in gyms) for six hours daily and experiencing the three permanent punishments of hunger, insomnia, and disease. A model prisoner, on his release he would work for reform of the penal system.
He once witnessed an execution of a 30-year-old Trooper of the Royal House Guards who was hanged for slitting the neck of his wife three times in a fit of jealousy and rage. And so, Wilde penned this oft-quoted line, observing forlornly: “For each man kills the thing he loves”.
His real jail was the prison of his passion, however. To a large extent, he was responsible for his own downfall. Bosie beat him into easy submission; his lethal looks ensnared Wilde, who was a willing capture. There was such desire in those Irish eyes. But the tragedy is we never see others from the place from which they see us. And Wilde was so enthralled to the specular image. His refined athletic aestheticism made him prize youth and beauty above all else. He was not made for old age. The gods had decided his fate from the cradle.
Wilde was an artist by desire and design who held up a mirror to reality for us to receive back its distorted truth. He was unashamedly brilliant, but he was also singular in his passions and pursuit of sensual pleasure. As we say on this island, “he lost the run of himself ”.
He was a hedonist who became a Stoic. In prison he faced his fate without flinching: “Behind my prison’s blinded bars I do possess what none can take away.” What this was, was the attitude inside his own mind, described by philosopher-psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, himself a prisoner of the Nazis, as “the last of the human freedoms”. That secret recess, that inner sanctuary and citadel of the self, no man can take away. There resides ultimate freedom.
Heart-wrenchingly, Wilde’s mother, to whom he was so close, died while he was in prison. “Where there is suffering there is holy ground,” he wrote in the posthumously published De Profundis. And: “Nothing in the whole world is meaningless, suffering least of all.” It was while in prison that Wilde grew in moral and spiritual stature.
He realised in his resignation that “every pleasure in the end must be paid for”. He would never write again but The Ballad of Reading Gaol, penned from inside his prison cell, has enlarged the heart of all humanity: “We were as men who through a fen, of filthy darkness grope; We did not dare to breathe a prayer, Or to give our anguish scope: Something was dead in each of us, And what was dead was Hope.”
Wilde had a distinguished name, intellect and high social standing. He stirred the imagination of his century. He summed up existence in an epigram. But, as he said himself, “Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in the search for new sensation.” He drank the cup of life to its very dregs, as he dined out with lords and lads. All of England was spellbound by his words in public and scandalised by his life in private.
And the endgame? Perhaps it is always true that, in the end, the wise bow down before the fair. We think of clever Socrates and ruthless Alcibiades who bears a resemblance to Lord Alfred Douglas.
Impossible, indomitable Oscar Wilde is with us Irish in some hard to express manner. He is part and parcel of our Irish-English identity in all its ambiguity and attraction. Above all else Wilde was an individualist. “Be yourself,” he counselled, “everyone else is already taken.” He achieved an artist’s authenticity. He lived his own dictum of whatever is realised is right.
Wilde’s life ended in silence and loss of love, in bankruptcy, isolation and humiliation. There would be no more words forthcoming from this man who once gushed them. But Wilde’s silence was the silence not of resignation but of reverence. He lies at peace now in Pere Lachaise cemetery in his beloved Paris.
In the last analysis, the true significance of this genteel genius resides not in his words or his plays but in his life and actions. Like every man’s, his ultimate worth is not demonstrated on a page but displayed in a personality. Dr Stephen J Costello, PhD, is founder of the Viktor Frankl Institute of Ireland
‘Wilde is part and parcel of our IrishEnglish identity in all its ambiguity and attraction’
GENTEEL GENIUS: Oscar Wilde woke the imagination of his century. Photo W&D Downey/Getty