Stephen Fry as the latest celluloid Oscar Wilde? In one way it's ironic casting: the man who could not be persuaded to flee to the Continent played by the man who could not restrain himself from doing precisely that. Two years' hard labour in Reading Gaol for the one; permanent parole from Cell Mates for the other.
The arts seem to be running Wilde this month (or should that be the other way round?). In addition to the Julian Mitchell-scripted movie, which opens on 17 October, there are three Wilde-related premieres. At the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, Thomas Kilroy's The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde gives the usually silent, suffering wife an unexpectedly complex voice. At the Arts Theatre in London, The Picture of Dorian Gray - a cryptic confession of the author's double life - is currently getting the musical treatment from Australian composer, David Reeves. Most intriguingly of all, Wilde crops up as an alternative approach to loving and living in The Invention of Love, Tom Stoppard's new play (opening tonight) about a rather different kind of homosexual, the fastidious classical scholar and poet, AE Housman.
Resolutely the reverse of a glamourpuss, Housman is not gay icon material. It is doubtful that, even under the most expert hypnosis, he could have been induced to walk down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily in his "medieval" hand. Dubbing Wilde the "Irish Roland Barthes", the critic-playwright Terry Eagleton sees a foreshadowing of contemporary cultural theory in his impish exposure of the arbitrariness of what we take to be natural. Such poststructuralism and deconstruction would have seemed the starkest insanity to Housman. Not for him the "Death of the Author", but a lifetime of patiently endeavouring to recover what the Latin authors actually wrote from the intricate inanities of textural corruption.
Despite their dissimilarities and the fact that they never met, the two writers are however linked. For a year, their Oxford careers overlapped. In 1895, the year of Wilde's trial, Housman had a non-coincidental flush of poetic creativity. His A Shropshire Lad was published while Wilde was incarcerated and Wilde's friend Robert Ross would, during prison visits, recite to him some of the poems from memory. When he was released, Housman sent him a copy. It looks a case of reciprocal inspiration: Wilde's uncharacteristic Ballad of Reading Gaol would have been far less thinkable without the Housman example.
Some men aren't cut out to be tragic figures. That is their tragedy. Some men are. That is theirs.
One key difference between the dandiacal Wilde and the donnish Housman is that the love of Housman's life was not the death of him. Moses Jackson, a decent, totally heterosexual scientist and keen amateur athlete, would have run a three-minute mile from the likes of that manipulative tart, Lord Alfred Douglas, aka "Bosie".
As Stephen Fry's Wilde, rushing back to the arms of Jude Law after a suffocatingly sweet family Christmas, declares in the new film: "Oh, Bosie, you're my catastrophe. My doom. Everyone says so, even me." A fatal weakness which it must have required a certain strength of character to persist with to the end, Douglas allowed Wilde to realise his nature. A man of character who politely distanced himself from the adoring Housman and predeceased him, Jackson permitted Housman to repress his.
Hence, the opposite directions in which their art looks. Those riskily close-to-home comedies and stories by Wilde are flamboyantly flirty dress rehearsals for disaster. For Housman, in a sense, the disaster had already (and less showily) happened. Pessimism, nostalgia, the indecorum of romantic impulse played off against the decorum of classical precedent - these haunting, lad-filled poems truly grasp "the nettle on the graves of lovers / that hanged themselves for love".
The Invention of Love is, we hear, a dream-memory play - the disordered thoughts of the dying septuagenarian scholar who, at long last, gets to meet his Oscar. So, if the Wilde who visits Stoppard's hero in his dreams turns out to be insouciant, quipping "Aesthetic Self-Realisation" to Housman's "Scrupled Repression", it will illustrate how we all tend to simplify and refashion this endlessly contradictory figure to suit the psychological or ideological needs of the moment.
For, in truth, the nervous strain of being Oscar Wilde must have been, at times, appalling. On the cover of Alan Snifield's The Wilde Century - a learned look at the cultural construction of ideas of "feminism" and its opposites - the photograph of Oscar is re-apparelled in a "QUEER AS FUCK" sweatshirt and it sits on him about as comfortably as would a Manchester United football strip. Just how liberated was he? Do we have a right to expect him to have been?
There's a scene in the movie where his friend Robert Ross quizzes Wilde about his attraction to young boys: "What would you say if someone wanted to go to bed with your son?" To the reply that Cyril is only eight, Ross says, "Yes, but what would you say if he were 18?" Wilde ponders. "Nothing. He must do as his nature dictates. As I only wish I had done."
A noble sentiment, though one suspects that the historical Wilde would have been given longer pause by the question, just as you suspect that Ross here cites the current age of consent for gay men in England (and not, say, 15) because of the resurfacing bigotries that identify homosexuality with paedophilia. In The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde, Douglas even has to defend himself against the suspicion that he has been interfering with Mrs Wilde's sons.
Works of art about Wilde need to steer a tricky course. On the one hand, it's wrong to patronise the past by planing down its differences from the present. On the other, Wilde's story locks into so many contemporary preoccupations that it inevitably puts the present on trial too, and must be seen to do so. Julian Mitchell, who wrote the screenplay for Brian Gilbert's movie, is right to argue that the sexes led more separate lives in that male, clubland society and also right to show in a very sustained, if clunking manner that his wife and children are as much victims of this tragedy as Wilde himself.
In the past, a Wilde biopic would have permitted itself one scene where the hero was seen giving his children rare (in both senses) "quality time" and then sloping off sharpish to "feast with panthers". It may well have had him regaling them with a bit of The Selfish Giant, that parable of the giant excluder who excludes himself from happiness. But fatherhood and its responsibilities constitute a big, painful topic nowadays, so the staggered reading-out of this very story becomes the linking thread of Wilde.
As in The Secret Fall, where Oscar, Constance and Bosie are shown to be drawn together because each is the victim of a variously abusive father, there's the sense of Douglas as rival son and lover. Kilroy's Bosie pettishly, self-servingly - but not perhaps impertinently - declares that the dotting Wilde, forever pressing money into his hands, is just as bad as the mad Marquis of Queensbury: neither of them is prepared to look on him as a human being. It must say something about our times that Wilde the bisexual, devoted and neglectful father can find himself as much the focus of our attentions as Wilde the subversive aesthete.
The consideration with which all of these works treat Douglas and his compulsion to use Wilde in a vendetta against Queensbury must have involved a steadfast refusal to be swayed by the even more unedifying spectacle of his later life. As Philip Hoare's recent book Wilde's Last Stand richly documents, 23 years after the fatal trial, Wilde was effectively put in the dock all over again during the trial for libel of Pemberton Billing, a deranged Tory MP who claimed that Germany was winning the War by the novel method of blackmailing the 40,000 high-ranking English homosexuals it had on its list. Bosie took to the witness stand and loyally declared his ex-lover the greatest force for evil in the past 350 years.
He ended his days, amazingly enough, in a relationship with the famous and famously difficult family planning expert, Dr Marie Stopes - "an arrangement," as Muriel Spark has drily put it, "which I imagine would satisfy any woman's craving for birth control". A play that looked back at Wilde and Nineties values from the perspective of this bizarre 1940s menage would be a fascinating addition to this Wildely proliferating sub-genre. Over to you, Alan Bennett?
`The Invention of Love' opens tonight at the Cottesloe, RNT, London SE1 (0171-928 2252). `Dorian' is at the Arts Theatre, Great Newport St, London WC2 (0171-836 2132)Reuse content