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article imageOp-Ed: The importance of being Oscar

By Andrew John     Jan 7, 2013 in Lifestyle
It’s not surprising that some gay people see the 19th-century poet and playwright Oscar Wilde as a kind of messiah figure.
The gay actor Rupert Everett is just one of them, as he told The Andrew Marr Show on BBC television.
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was publicly shamed for his homosexuality at his trials in 1895. First, he sued the Marquess of Queensberry – father of his lover Bosie Douglas – for libel. Queensberry – author of the Queensberry Rules in boxing – had delivered a card to Wilde’s club on which he had written that Wilde was “posing as a Somdomite” (sic). (How he was able to make such a spelling error will remain a mystery.)
Queensberry was acquitted, and it was not long afterwards that Wilde – author of, among others, The Importance of Being Ernest, An Ideal Husband and Lady Windermere’s Fan – was himself arrested.
The charges against him were those of gross indecency. As we know, these days such behaviour would hardly raise an eyebrow (except among readers of the Daily Mail and similar reactionary right-wing rags), but in Wilde’s day it was punishable by up to two years’ hard labour.
And it was this punishment that was meted out to Wilde, the judge telling him that it was “totally inadequate for a case such as this”, and that it was “the worst case I have ever tried”.
Everett is playing Wilde in the David Hare play The Judas Kiss. He clearly has an admiration for the flamboyant writer, wit and bon vivant, and believes he effectively began the gay-rights movement.
Many would argue that he did. Before Wilde caused homosexuality to become such a public affair, homosexuals were referred to by such clinical-sounding epithets as “inverts”. Even the word “homosexuality” did not appear in print till 1869, 31 years before Wilde’s death, when it was used in a German pamphlet by the Austrian-born novelist Karl-Maria Kertbeny.
Complete works
I can vouch personally for the Oscar-as-messiah-figure phenomenon. As a young gay man in the seventies, I was one of many who worshipped him, seeing him as a martyr. I soon had his complete works as well as his plays, published in a volume of their own.
I devoured the plays and some of his poems, and was never happier than when watching such films as 1960’s The Trials of Oscar Wilde (a.k.a. The Man with the Green Carnation), which had Peter Finch in the eponymous role, with Lionel Jeffreys as the pugilist Queensberry.
Then there was the other 1960 film starring Robert Morley and called, simply, Oscar Wilde.
I would also come to possess (and read twice) Desmond Hall’s 1971 biographical novel I Give You Oscar Wilde and a recording by the Irish actor Micheál Mac Liammóir of his excellent one-man show The Importance of Being Oscar, with which he toured the world. (With my voiceover artist’s hat on four or five years ago, I also made a recording of the famous – and rather long – “Ballad of Reading Gaol” as a birthday gift for a friend.)
I’m not as enthusiastic now. I think that, like so many obsessions, it faded, but when I find myself reminded of the man and his manners – perhaps reading a news story or seeing one of his plays on TV – I can’t help but feel both admiration for the brave stand he took, and annoyance that the man did not just hop on a ferry for France while he had the time.
This he could have so easily done, and, indeed, was encouraged to do by his friends Robert Ross and Reginald Turner, although his mother, Jane Francesca, Lady Wilde – who wrote poetry under the pseudonym of Speranza – urged him to remain in England and fight like a man. And so he drank hock and seltzer in the Cadogan Hotel in Knightsbridge till the police came for him, and he faced two trials as the prisoner in the dock.
He ensured that his trials – including the first one, that in which he was the prosecutor of John Sholto Douglas, the Marquess of Queensberry – were something of a performance, as was to be expected of a man who made life itself an art form.
This was illustrated when he spoke of a poem called “Two Loves”, written by his lover Bosie, in which appeared the phrase “the love that dare not speak its name”. After being asked by the prosecuting counsel what that meant, Wilde – after a moment’s hesitation – launched into one of the most memorable and eloquent speeches in British legal history:
“The love that dare not speak its name” in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare.
It is that deep spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art, like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine [cited at the trial], such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as “the love that dare not speak its name”, and on that account of it I am placed where I am now.
It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an older and a younger man, when the older man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so, the world does not understand. The world mocks at it, and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.
Rupert Everett – who’s been speaking of how his Catholicism (a faith he now no longer espouses) turned him into a slut – believes Wilde excites in some the same degree of passion as Jesus of Nazareth does in some Christians.
Fortunately, Wilde is now – and has been for decades – lauded as the great writer he was without any need for knowing looks at the mention of his name.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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