On Oscar Wilde - one century later

October 19, 1997|By John Muncie | John Muncie,SUN STAFF

"The Exquisite Life of Oscar Wilde," by Stephen Calloway and

David Colvin. Welcome Rain. 112 page., $19.95.

There's something to be said for hagiography, though not in polite company.

In 1895, poet, essayist, playwright Oscar Wilde was convicted in an English court of practicing homosexuality, "the love that dare not speak its name." He spent two years in prison and died three years after his release, exiled in France and disgraced in the Victorian world.

He and his literary reputation have long since been rehabilitated. Wilde's name is honored in Westminister Abby and his simple grave is now a fancy tomb adorned with godawful neo-Aztec totem figures.

But Calloway and Colvin ride the pendulum pretty far. This slick coffee-table book - amply illustrated with contemporary photos and paintings - tries to put Wilde on some fin-de-siecle pedestal. The pedestal's too high.

It's true that Wilde's life resonates with the 1990s. We're vastly more tolerant of his sexual choices and thus more moved by his persecution. And if this sketchy biography has a point, it's that Wilde helped create the modern aesthetic of personality and flash.

But Wilde's real link to our age may be less rarified. He was one of the first to assume that now-familiar public role: the celebrity famous for being famous.

Leaving Oxford college in 1878, Wilde pushed his way into London society and became notorious as a dandy, a wit and an effete aesthete. Quentin Crisp by way of Howard Stern. He was satirized in the 1881 Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, "Patience." Punch, the English humor magazine, chomped onto him like a bulldog and never let go.

In 1882, he made a lecture tour of America. "I have nothing to declare ... except my genius," he told New York customs agents (and the tabloid press). Photos show him wearing knee-breeches and black hose. His hair is long and parted in the middle, dramatically framing his large eyes and full lips.

All this was years before he wrote his important literary works: the novel, "The Picture of Dorian Gray"; the drawing-room plays, "The Importance of Being Earnest," "Lady Windermere's Fan," "An Ideal Husband"; the essay, "De Profundis."

Wilde married Constance Lloyd in 1884 and had two sons. She stuck by him through much of the scandal, but he did not stick by her. His love was Lord Alfred Douglas, the son of the Marquess of Queensberry.

It was this relationship with "Bosie," and other young men in London's homosexual underground, that led to three trials and public humiliation (episodes that frame the long-running off-Broadway hit, "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde").

Even though it's been a century since the trials, "Exquisite Life" reads like a quickie, post-sensation paperback. Analysis of Wilde's work or social significance is still wandering alone in a college classroom somewhere.

However, the witticisms are fun to read. One well-known retort came at the expense of Wilde, notorious for making other's lines his own. Overhearing a clever remark by painter James Whistler, Wilde said, "I wish I had said that!" To which Whistler replied, "You will, Oscar, you will."

John Muncie is arts and entertainment editor of The Sun. From 1987-1995 he oversaw arts, books and theater coverage as Assistant Managing Editor for features at the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Pub Date: 10/19/97

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