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Monday, March 23, 2009

Why Wilde Matters

Flatwater Shakespeare, in collaboration with the Haymarket Theatre, will present Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, opening Thursday April 16 and running through Saturday May 2.

Over the next few weeks, we'll have more to say about this amazingly funny and subversive show. But first, here are some thoughts about the playwright from Stephen Fry, himself a playwright, novelist, and essayist. Fry, of course, is best known as an actor; he portrayed Oscar in the 1997 film Wilde.

In 2008, Fry was touring the United States, making a BBC documentary series about this country. When he reached Colorado, knowing that Wilde had also visited the state, Fry did a podcast about why Wilde, who cultivated such an air of triviality, should be taken seriously (even earnestly).

The podcast can be found at http://www.stephenfry.com/media/audio/3/episode-3--wallpaper/. What follows is an edited version of a transcript.

He was an extraordinary man, Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, as I’m sure many of you are aware. But not necessarily extraordinary for the reasons many people think he was extraordinary. I don’t want to say that he was misunderstood; he obviously was in his lifetime to some extent misunderstood. At least, perhaps, it would be fairer to say that he was understood. And the threat he represented to the established order of thinking, the threat he represented to codes of morality, to religion, was real. Inasmuch as if you take him seriously, by which I don’t mean earnestly. A good Wildean word. I just mean, if you like, at face value. If you regard his paradoxes as the truth, then you do see that he turned upside down just about everything that Victorians, and even we today, think.

When he was sent from Dublin by his great teacher John Pentland Mahaffy to Oxford as the best classicist that Trinity College had ever sent to England for further study, he arrived with a great reputation and this he rapidly built on. He became a famous undergraduate. Internationally famous. It’s an extraordinary idea, isn’t it? Even in the days of Web 2.0 and Youtube and Myspace and Sitonmyfacebook and all these social networking organisms, I don’t think there are any famous students in the world today. There are those who’ve done weird things up their noses or on musical instruments and created Youtube films . . . . But I don’t think famous. I don’t think there’ve been cartoons of undergraduates or skits or lampooning essays in humor magazines like Punch as there were of Wilde. He enraged a lot of people by saying that his ambition at Oxford was to live up to his collection of blue and white china. And that kind of thing was like a red rag to a very Victorian slavering bull.

When he arrived at Oxford actually, he had to do pretty soon one of his exams which was a viva voce, a live voice exam, rather than a written one. So you’d appear in front of a panel of dons and you’d have to impress them with your knowledge. And in his case, he had to prove not only his knowledge of classical Attic Greek, but of the Greek of the New Testament in the Bible. And so he was handed a Greek New Testament and opened it, it was opened more or less at random, and he had to translate. And it was the Passion, the crucifixion of Christ, so he started to translate as fluently as anyone could, because his Greek really was excellent. And they were very impressed and said, "Thank you, Mr. Wilde." But he carried on translating. And they said, "Mr. Wilde, you can stop there." But still he went on. "Mr. Wilde, stop!" And he replied, "Oh, please let me go on, I’m dying to know how it all turns out."

Now that sort of attitude didn’t endear him to many of the people who ran Oxford. And they found him pretentious. And that’s an English response to people like Wilde that continues to this day. If we don’t understand or we feel threatened or we feel our values of athleticism and healthiness in particular, our sporting values, our traditional values, are undermined by smart, clever people in dazzling raiment then we will naturally call them pretentious because it’s a lot easier than believing them. And maybe some of them are pretentious. Anyway, the point is this: Wilde was well known even before he’d written anything of value. He wrote some poems which won him prizes, but generally speaking, it was the way he spoke, the way he dressed in velvet and silk, the things he admired, the things he believed in. It was a breath of extraordinary fresh air in the black, morally certain world of the Victorian England.

Of course, as I say, not every Englishman liked it. And those healthy, traditional, bourgeois Englishmen Gilbert and Sullivan, the official satirists of the suburban classes, they wrote on opera called Patience, which was largely an attack, or at least a friendly attack on the nature of this aesthetic movement led by Wilde. And there was a character called Bunthorne who was quite clearly based on Oscar Wilde, and it was a great success. Again that shows I think some of Wilde’s extraordinary achievements as a famous young man, that he should have an operetta written about him. And everyone was very pleased, particularly Richard D’Oyly Carte of course who ran the Savoy Opera group which put on the works of Gilbert and Sullivan. However, it was traditional for them to take the work and put it on in Broadway on Broadway in New York, and in New York and in America no one had heard of Oscar Wilde. They didn’t have the faintest idea who he was. So Richard D’Oyly Carte conceived the notion that he should pay Oscar Wilde a fabulous sum of money to go around America lecturing and being aesthetic, being all, you know, silk-bloused and velvet-trousered so that people would know who he was and then go see things like Patience and Richard D’Oyly Carte would make money in New York.

It seemed a very good scheme, and Wilde was delighted with it, he loved the idea of going to visit America. America was a remarkable new country. It had got through its Civil War and was beginning apace to be quite staggering prosperous. No coincidence that the Civil War and its providential outcome allowed such prosperity. So he was thrilled to go. Dickens had gone before him and it was generally considered a marvelous tour for a sophisticated European to go to America, to impress the Americans and be impressed by America, and he intended both to happen. He arrived on the S.S. Arizona in I think it was January 1881, sometime around then, and stepped off onto the dock, famously remarking that he had nothing to declare to customs except his genius. He professed himself disappointed with the Atlantic. He thought it was going to be wetter. And then of course there were newspaper reports about him. He was asked his opinion of everything. He was asked his opinion of New York before he’d even stepped into the streets of Manhattan. And he was generally something of a success. There were many newspapers that attacked him in editorials. Americans didn’t want to be thought of as a soft touch, and some of them were very virulent in their enmity towards him. Thought he was an imbecile and pretentious and all the rest of it. And they drew nastier cartoons.

He arrived eventually in Colorado. He was in the town of Leadville, which was a silver mine despite its name. And one of Oscar Wilde’s lectures was on Benvenuto Cellini, the renaissance goldsmith and silversmith. Metal worker, if you like. Painter and sculptor and everything. An adventurer. And he gave a great lecture on that subject. His other topic was the House Beautiful, which was probably the first time anyone had really talked authoritatively about interior decoration as a subject in its own right, given its own weight and value. And indeed Wilde was a real expert, a very early expert on interior decoration.

So, around this time, Oscar was asked a question. A very intelligent question actually. He was asked why he thought America was so violent. Seems an odd question at first blush, but it was an America that had just emerged from the most attritional, the bloodiest Civil War in the history of Western humanity so far as we know. It was a struggle for the heart and soul of America, for the future of America, and I think they were still dazed by the violence that had erupted in their own country. Such a noble experiment. Founded with such hope and such high ideals, yet it descended into this terrible bloodbath. Not only that, but the west which was being developed - ha, developed - that had caused violence, too. Violence of course to the indigenous population, the Native Americans, the Indian tribes. But violence of all other kids. The gunslingers were becoming very famous. Gang warfare was erupting in Chicago and New York. This was all very puzzling to people of intelligence, people of intellectual curiosity. Why should a country that was established on principles of peace and tolerance, wisdom. All the glories of the Enlightenment have descended into internecine strife.

"Why, Mr. Wilde, do you think America is such a violent country?"

"I can tell you why," he said. "It’s susceptible readily of an explanation. America is such a violent country because your wallpaper is so ugly."

Now that seems, you might snort with laughter at first and say, "Well, how amusing." Part of you may say, "Well this is just a typical peacocking primped camp remark from a shallow and trivial man who thinks it’s amusing to say things like that."

But actually, to understand what the Aesthetic Movement is all about, one has to take that quite seriously. Instead of judging things as being good or bad, things are judged by whether they are beautiful or ugly. And we may say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but actually it’s a lot easier to judge when things are beautiful than it is when things are bad or good. We spend our time puzzling dreadfully over whether we can interpret something as being wicked or whether it’s virtuous. However, beauty, beauty, beauty acts on us in a very real way, and what Wilde was partly saying was, if we look out of the window into our world, we see things that are universally and entirely beautiful from nature. Whether they be palm trees swaying in an island, whether they be the arctic wastes, whether they be deserts, tundra steps. It doesn’t matter where you look in the world, we see nothing but beauty. Unconditional, remarkable beauty. Except where man has intervened.

And what Wilde is saying is, imagine belonging to a species where all you believe that all you can do to the world is to uglify it. To make it worse. To despoil it. Which is what we do. He could see that we were harmful to our planet in terms of its aesthetics. That we were making the earth uglier. Uglier with bad architecture, uglier with badly designed factories, uglier with badly stamped out tin trays and cheap ornaments, ugly with appalling wallpaper. And if you’re someone who grows up in such an environment, who is surrounded by badly made ugly things, then you think ugly thoughts of yourself and world. You think ugly thoughts of your whole species. There is nothing for you to do but to crap in your own nest. It’s what we do when we don’t believe in ourselves. And so although it seems a cheap response to a question about violence, the aesthetic point of view is actually I think a very valuable one, a very profound one, a very extraordinary one.