Monday, December 30, 2013

Oscar Wilde

Last month Wendy lent me The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde and I've been gobbling it up all through the holidays.

I forgot how much fun plays are to read. The dialogue on the page is everything, and you become director, set decorator, and casting agent.

Wilde's quotable quotes are memorable and I spotted them quickly in his society comedies.  These are some of my favourites:
  • 'Every woman becomes their mother. That's their tragedy. And no man becomes his. That's his tragedy.' (The Importance of Being Earnest)
  • "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."  (Lady Windemete's Fan)
  • "In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it. The last is much the worst." (Lady Windemete's Fan)
Here is a man who was born to privilege, who was at the absolute height of his success and much admired by fashionable society. The Importance of Being Ernest had just been performed February 14, 1895 at the St. James Theatre. The Marquesse of Queensbury (his lover Lord Alfred Douglas' father), publicly accused him of sodomy on February 28. Fifteen weeks later Wilde was in prison.

Wilde retaliated on Queensbury by suing him for libel, and then the father turned the suit against Wilde, proving in court the accusations were true and further making the case that the older man had debauched innocent boys. (An interesting aside, Queensbury is the one and the same who established the boxing rules.) Wilde's reputation was ruined, and he was bankrupted. Wilde's lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, only wrote once or twice when he was in prison, and never visited. 

The first half of De Profundis is a long diatribe to his lover, accounting in detail how Alfred was his Ruin, and was written near the end of his two year prison term. Upon release, the two lovers reunited for a short time in Rouen, France. I can't help but wonder if Wilde picked the location just for the name.

De Profundis accounts their dysfunctional relationship and Alfred's deplorable shallowness of character, but after detailing all his lover's sins, Oscar acknowledges Alfred loved him and then offers him total forgiveness. In the second half, Wilde  talks about his spiritual journey in prison. "I want to get to the point when I shall be able to say, quite simply and without affectation, that the two great turning points of my life were when my father sent me to Oxford, and when society sent me to prison. I will not say that it is the best thing that could have happened to me... I would sooner say... I turned the good things of my life to evil, and the evil things in my life to good." 

"...for the first year of my imprisonment I did nothing else, and can remember doing nothing else, but wring my hands in impotent despair and say, 'what an ending! What an appalling ending!' now I try to say to myself, and sometimes when I am not torturing myself do really and sincerely say, 'what a beginning! what a wonderful beginiing!'" Wilde envisioned then, and hoped, that his best literary works were before him. He was, unfortunately, wrong. Upon release he'd rarely find the inspiration.

However, the Complete Works also included two letters he wrote to the Daily Chronicle detailing the need for prison reform, a subject he knew intimately firsthand. Wilde's accounts of how children and lunatics were treated are shocking, and his pleas on their behalf are urgent and touching. Progress has been made in the past 114 years... we no longer "lock everyone up" together, and provide better food, conditions and medical care. His was an early and needed voice on the subject.

Sadly, Wilde died just three years after his release from prison. He was only 46. His reported final words? "My wallpaper and I are fighting to the death. One or the other of us has to go."

additional sources
Wikipedia Lord Alfred Douglas
Wikipedia Oscar Wilde

No comments: