A Wilde ride from condemnation to celebration

June 30, 1998|By George F. Custen

HIS FALL from grace and prominence was perhaps the most rapid and dramatic ever observed for a public figure who was not a politician. Yet, nearly 100 years after he died in Paris, disgraced and impoverished, improbably, Oscar Wilde is back among us. Proof of the current Wilde "boom" is everywhere. In New York, simultaneous theatrical versions of Wilde's life -- David Hare's play "The Judas Kiss," starring Liam Neeson as Wilde, and the much-praised "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde" -- compete for theatergoers' attention. On film, we have "Wilde" (not, fortunately "Wilde!"). Americans have gone wild over Oscar.

One wonders, "Why Wilde? Why now?" Other gay figures -- Jean Cocteau, for example -- would make better copy.

A gay martyr

It is because Wilde was known to Americans not for the quicksilver profusion of his aphorisms, but for homosexual revelations at his infamous 1895 libel trial. More than 100 years after this great dramatic spectacle closed out Victoria's century, he is still perhaps the most famous gay martyr for what he eloquently called "the love that dare not speak its name." Yet, judging by the way today's audiences have taken to Wilde, a once marginalized figure has become famous -- again.

What is Wilde's hook for Americans in 1998? Is it because a tabloid-fueled familiarity with "controversial" topics has engendered both ennui and tolerance and, therefore, Americans find Wilde, the man, and his ironic Victorian works suddenly acceptable -- even post-modern -- in an age finally ready for his brand of wisdom? No. Audiences are enthralled by something other figures can't match: a spectacular, even squalid, end.

Wilde's life satisfies the vengeful, even mean, foundation, on which all contemporary definitions of celebrity worship are based: to level the famous. In today's universe -- Victorian England's Grubb Street writ large within the modern web of U.S. media -- only the salacious is real. America's Wilde fans are practicing a popular ritual, a form of stay-at-home voodoo, in which audiences and celebrities seem locked together. In bringing down those we have elevated -- perhaps, as Wilde noted, so they can see the stars better from the gutter -- celebrities and audiences ineluctably share what Wilde saw as his own fate: destroying the thing we love.

Today's audiences think a gay Wilde is acceptable, even a heroic figure, precisely because he is framed as a victim. As a number of studies of both fiction and news media suggest, gay and straight figures are not presented -- or presumably seen -- by audiences in the same way. It is important to see that Wilde's scandal -- indeed, the conflation of this one awful episode with the meaning of his entire life -- means that most audiences see "gay" as good only if "gay" is punished and contained by the force of community condemnation. The gay celebrity is not as much an outcast as that more attractive thing: a de facto outlaw.

A spin doctor

Given that Wilde put much effort into courting his middle-class audience's approval, this is ironic, and his reputation as some sort of sexual or social revolutionary is an image projected from the present onto a past that cannot reply. The important business of being Oscar, his shrewd take on the artist's connection to this public, made him, in an era before public relations or the cinema, one of the first geniuses of the spin.

Like the unpredictable controversies spawned by the Internet, Wilde's rise was also abetted by a new technology, lithography, that made it possible to reproduce and circulate images. Wilde knew that, for the public, a memorable picture was worth more than the words they would neither read nor long remember. Posing for the camera in eye-catching outfits, and performing for the media with splendid verbiage, Wilde's heavily reported 1882 U.S. tour was a virtual handbook of how to conduct relations in public, a triumph of the image over the text.

At his trial 13 years later, it is not frivolous to observe that Wilde's greatest mistake was that he ruptured the very pose -- the man who lived only for the contemplation of the beautiful -- he had spent so much energy securing. It was this connection of art with sex that both sealed his fate and broke the bond with his contemporary audience. Yet, it is precisely this tabloid "outlaw" pose, this fusion of sex and art, that makes Wilde seem so appealingly modern.

Wilde offers one other rare, even genuine thing amid a landscape of media simulacras: star persona. With his shoulder-length hair, knee britches and shocking green coat, like Dennis Rodman, Wilde presented a self whose front was both instantly identifiable and visually arresting. He possessed the most singular quality needed for stardom: He was memorable, an icon who can compete with Madonna and who taps into today's powerful urge to put all a thing means, to explain some complicated person, into a single consumable image.

Many Wildes

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