Britain goes wild for Wilde as new film makes a winner out of Oscar

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The Independent Online
Oscar Wilde, the celebrated wit and playwright who ended his days in disgrace and ruin, is finally being remembered in the way he wanted. As he put it: "Something more than a man with a tragic vice in his life. There is so much more in me, and I always was a good father to both my children."

A century after his release, Britain is going wild for Wilde. His comedies, such as The Importance of Being Earnest, (which he described as "exquisitely trivial") and Lady Windermere's Fan have enjoyed a consistent popularity in repertory theatres around the country, and in the next few months his personality and cultural impact will be explored in a West End play, two screen versions and a new biography.

The film Wilde, due out in the autumn and starring actor and author Stephen Fry, intends to balance his homosexuality, for which he was imprisoned, with his love for his wife, Constance, and two sons.

The producers, brothers Marc and Peter Samuelson, said they felt that the Victorian writer's scandalous affair with Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas, which led to his downfall, painted an "incomplete" picture of the man.

Directed by Brian Gilbert, the film focuses on 15 years of Wilde's life, when most of his great works, including The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband, were written. The script is adapted from Richard Ellmann's definitive biography, and Vanessa Redgrave plays Wilde's mother.

Only now, says Fry, is his subject receiving the universal respect that is his due. "He stands for all people who refused to freeze themselves into a moral code," he said on BBC Radio yesterday.

Because of today's more liberal attitudes, the film is likely to be more sexually explicit than previous studies, which could not focus enough on homosexuality, and instead merely alluded to sexual practices which Wilde himself called "feasting with panthers".

The actor Simon Callow has been winning rave reviews for The Importance of Being Oscar, a one-man show at the Savoy Theatre which opened last week, in which he attempts to humanise, rather than eulogise the playwright.

"Wilde constructed a personality for himself, believing that on it depended his value as an artist," Callow has said. "By personality he didn't mean in the corrupted sense ... but the inner life transformed into the outer self."

Wilde's grandson, Merlin Holland, has given the show his enthusiastic backing. He himself is working on a new book about his ancestor's life, and he said yesterday: "The British public are happy enough to read his children's stories to their children, or clap at revivals of The Importance of Being Earnest, but his private life you just didn't ask about.

"To find now that it's all been brought back together and the whole man is there is delightful. I'm very happy about that."

Also in progress is a film version of Wilde's play The Ideal Husband, which is about a cabinet minister revered by all women as being the ideal man, yet who hides his corruption behind a facade.

Wilde himself had already won a kind of establishment acceptance. In 1995, he was finally be given the stamp of approval with an inscription on a new stained-glass window at Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey. Even the present Marquess of Queensberry, descendant of the man who put Wilde behind bars for sodomy, was reported to have joined the Oscar Wilde Society.

But Professor Alan Sinfield, author of The Wilde Century, says that the image of Wilde, as a consequence of the trials, set up the notion of the queer man of the 20th century.

"I thought at the time there's always been two Oscar Wildes - one that's a synonym for queerness and the one that's at the Haymarket with all sorts of knights and ladies." Until recently, he said, it was quite difficult to marry the two together.

The fact that the newest productions were doing so could signify an increasingly enlightened attitude towards homosexuality - or "a technique for putting homosexuality back into a box, by saying we recognise that, enough of it, now we'll get to the full man", Professor Sinfield said.

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