Time: The Present

I live in terror of not being misunderstood

If Oscar Wilde really did live in terror of not being misunderstood—as he wrote in The Critic as Artist in 1891—then he need not have worried, at least not so far as his plays are concerned. That is because parts of the original texts are now so arcane that they are almost bound to be misunderstood, if they are understood at all.

Take Wilde’s most famous play The Importance of Being Earnest, which many say, quite rightly, is still relevant. Of course, it is, in everything from human shallowness to the fact that sugar is no longer fashionable.

But we should not allow the richness of the text to conceal the many dated references and topical allusions in it, which had a contemporary, often esoteric, relevance at the time Wilde wrote them, but which are now elusive—especially for young or non-British audiences.

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The Pictures of Dorian Gray

In the East Village of New York City there is a bar called Dorian Gray and this week I made my inaugural visit. It styles itself as Simple, Cheery, and Charming—which it is, and that will have to suffice as a review as I was only there long enough for one beer. And therein lies a tale.

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Earnest in Town

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest at the Walnut Street Theatre, Philadelphia

With its marble columns and lobby posters of productions past, the Walnut Street Theatre is a venerable venue; and what other theatre can claim that Jefferson and Lafayette attending its opening night performance? [1]

Moreover, within the Walnut’s neo-classic Federal shell there is often the kernel of fine scenic design, tasteful costumes, and knowledgeable subscribers. One wonders, then, why a sledgehammer is usually employed to crack it?

Such had been the case on my recent visits to witness the repertory’s assaults on Agatha Christie and Noel Coward. So it was more with a sense of duty and dread, than enthusiasm, that my band of Philadelphia Wildeans revisited the scene of those crimes to see The Importance of Being Earnest. Would the Wilde play be similarly executed?

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Moral Equivalence

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If I am to find Wildean relevance in topical US culture, there is a latter-day Nellie the Elephant in the room. And before proceeding, I should explain that twisted metaphor for the uninitiated.

I refer to the UK children’s novelty song of that name, and in particular to the eponymous pachyderm who was celebrated in the oft-repeated chorus for going off with a trumpety-trump, trump, trump, TRUMP! Apparently, it’s a sound elephants make.

And like any other annoying refrain stuck in one’s head, it’s a word currently hard to ignore. So reluctantly I must  face it—the capitalized version that is—before we send in the clowns and say goodbye to the circus that is becoming politics in America.

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Vyvyan Holland

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Declaring nothing apropos (except astonishment) I send from America footage I recently discovered of Oscar Wilde’s son Vyvyan Holland.

It is in the form of a TV interview alongside Brian Reade, curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, during a segment on the CBS TV arts program Camera Three about a V&A Aubrey Beardsley exhibition which had transferred to New York’s (then-named) Gallery of Modern Art.

The rare TV showing was a opportunity for Vyvyan to rival his more media savvy wife, Dorothy, who had made her latest appearance on American TV earlier in the month discussing fashion on the ABC show Girl Talk.

It provides a chance to see Vyvyan’s unassuming manner as he reveals personal experiences such as shooting moose and witnessing a bedridden bearded Beardsley.

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Wilde and Douglas (Kirk)

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When we think of the name Douglas we usually have in mind Oscar’s golden lover-Boysie of that ilk—we do not necessarily conjure up visions of the rugged American screen legend, Kirk Douglas.

But today there are two reasons why we should.

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Finding Oscar

'Oscar Wilde`s Homeland' by Lysenko Igor

John Cooper expands on comments he made as a member of a panel discussion at the Oscar Wilde Festival in Galway, Ireland, in 2014, in which he appraised Wilde’s legacy and his personal response to it.

(I) RISE AND FALL

Finding Oscar Wilde during his lecture tour of America in 1882 presented few difficulties. Throughout the year he made hundreds of appearances in public and thousands in the press. But his transatlantic sojourn was not merely prolific, it was a surprisingly formative time that saw Wildean firsts in all aspects of his career. Professionally, he nurtured the art of public speaking, began lecturing, and conducted his first press interviews. In his personal life he entered a new sphere of poets, writers, and statesmen; and he embarked upon a lifelong pattern of occasionally earning, but of always spending, large sums of money. Creatively, he became increasingly familiar with formulating his thought into thesis, while socially he was gathering material and honing epigrams for use in his early essays, short stories, and dramatic dialogues. Perhaps most surprisingly, it was in America that he staged the first ever production of a Wilde play.1 And lastingly, it was in New York City that the predominant image we have of him was formed with a series of photographs taken by Napoleon Sarony. After America, one might say, Oscar had become famous for more than just being famous.

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Not surprisingly, given this degree of exposure and experience, contemporary opinion was that America had made a greater impression on Wilde than vice-versa. Supporting this view is the fact that his audiences, although they had attended his lectures, came to see rather than to hear him; and even though he was often personally liked, he was more often publicly ridiculed. Wilde’s maligned persona was so widespread that the ability to locate him in the abstract sense, even for those who had not seen him, also presented few difficulties. In sum: the breadth of his presence made Wilde familiar in person, and the stereotype of his character provided the measure of him as a personality.

We now see that Wilde cannot be so easily pigeon-holed.

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