Like other aesthetes of his generation, Wilde had tried to execute his life as a work of art - he had spoken of wanting to 'live up' to his collection of blue and white china - but seems not to have foreseen that the particular form of art in which it would issue would be neither decorative nor high-farcical but tragic. Its plot has entered into folklore. Queensbury's visit to Tite Street was (to use the word in its old, dramatic sense) the catastrophe of Wilde's life - the point where the blindingly brilliant meteor of his career suddenly exploded and fell to earth in messy fragments.
Though his courage and his generosity in the following six years were exemplary, and though his wit still rallied from time to time (the wan, much- quoted mot about 'dying beyond my means' is not apocryphal), the period of his trial, imprisonment and exile now looks like a kind of posthumous existence. It ended like a bad horror film, Wilde's bloated corpse exploding with vile juices from every orifice. The date was 30 November 1900: he had died with the Victorian century.
One of his rediscovered legacies is the maxim that 'It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.' This is a lesson which has been taken up by some of the world's most gifted critics (passionate attenders to the surfaces and minute details of art); and yet it is a limited lesson. As the 20th century began, the appearance of Wilde's reputation was that of a pathetic and marginal figure, not merely despised but nearly forgotten. As the same century ebbs towards its close, Wilde appears very different.
Consider the range and variety of notable Oscariana in our own fin de siecle. David Hare is writing the screenplay for a Mike Nichols film about Wilde's life (Liam Neeson as Oscar, Hugh Grant as Bosie). The Buddha of Suburbia team of Hanif Kureishi and Roger Michel are at work on a script for The Picture of Dorian Gray. Professor Terry Eagleton has written Saint Oscar, a play for the Field Day company emphasising Wilde's ambiguous place within the early socialist movement. Peter Ackroyd's ventriloqual novel The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde was a bestseller, as was the late Richard Ellmann's magisterial biography Oscar Wilde. And Morrissey put so many Smiths fans on the trail of Oscar that the Epstein memorial in Pere Lachaise became as graffiti-ridden as the tomb of Jim Morrison.
It amounts to a strange and luxurious efflorescence, particularly since, to the spiritual descendants of the angry Englishmen who did for him, Wilde now holds a place among the cosiest of middlebrow classics. You can always rely on the local rep's production of The Importance of Being Earnest for a jolly evening out with Auntie Edna; you might safely read her Sir John Betjeman's poem about his arrest at the Cadogan Hotel, or even show her videos about the trial starring that nice Peter Finch or that amusing Robert Morley.
But only shallow people are troubled by such paradoxes. Neil Bartlett, the writer / director / actor (who is staging his own adaptation of Dorian Gray at the Lyric Hammersmith in September, together with other works written or inspired by Wilde), points out that Wilde's 'big trick, the secret of his immense success' is that he can 'offer things to everybody. When Lady Bracknell talks about 'the worst excesses of the French Revolution', it can either be reassuringly funny, or so funny that it's alarming. Eric Bentley (the critic) once said that the thing which most Wilde productions miss is the note of unmitigated contempt.'
And almost anyone can tell you the private source of that contempt. At the rally in Westminster when the House debated the lowering of the age of homosexual consent, Bartlett announced that he was going to read from a letter written by a man who was sent to prison for his homosexuality, did so, 'and then I said, 'By the way, that letter was written in the last century by Mr Oscar Wilde'. ' Wild (or Wilde) applause. Oscar's symbolic importance to the gay movement of the last 25 years can scarcely be overstated: 'Everyone needs a patron saint,' says Bartlett, 'everyone needs some one to talk to when no one else will listen.'
As if in double defiance of nature's principle that a gay man has no children, Oscar sired both biological offspring and new generations of sons and nephews and grandsons, some of whom sport his picture on T-shirts and badges. In Who Was That Man? (1988), a uniquely spirited 'present' for Oscar (compounded of textual scholarship, reverie, autobiography and gags), Bartlett notes 'the new orthodoxy of Wilde as a gay pioneer and martyr', an orthodoxy so strong that it will not brook awkward questions about Wilde's social exploitativeness, or whether gay men might be 'wrong to believe that a hidden meaning (in Wilde's many-edged work) would necessarily be a subversive one, one that would help us to identify or liberate ourselves'.
Yet to snipe and niggle at Wilde in this way, Bartlett goes on to say, is to be corrupt without being charming. For Wilde can help and liberate, not just gay men but anyone who is willing to read him seriously enough and lightly enough. As Susan Sontag (a notable latter-day Wildean) once said of Roland Barthes (a sort of latter-day Wilde), he is the kind of writer who gives being an aesthete a good name. Wilde's best epitaph, and the most fittingly magnanimous verdict on his renewed pertinence, was written by Richard Ellmann at the end of his biography:
'We inherit (Wilde's) struggle to achieve supreme fictions in art, to associate art with social change, to bring together individual and social impulse, to save what is eccentric and singular from being sanitized and standardised, to replace a morality of severity by one of sympathy. He belongs to our world more than to Victoria's. Now, beyond the reach of scandal, his best writings validated by time, he comes before us still, a towering figure, laughing and weeping, with parables and paradoxes, so generous, so amusing, and so right.'
Next month: Van Gogh
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