Hard labor and banishment from public life were bad enough.
But perhaps the greatest punishment inflicted on Oscar Wilde was the erasure of his memory from his family.
"I got very little sense of him," says Merlin Holland, Wilde's only grandson. "You have to remember that my father had last seen him at the age of eight, and my mother had never met him. There were no anecdotes, no common memories. My father's only knowledge of his father was what he read in books, and he read as little as he could."
Yet, though Wilde's family did everything possible to sever any connection with its infamous patriarch, his memory lingered on, if only as a curse. The love that dare not speak its name haunted Wilde's descendants through the generations. "It affected me and it will affect my son," Holland says. He recalls being pushed by his father to pursue a career in industry and to avoid studying the classics. At 13, he caught a glimpse of a letter from his public school, in response to an inquiry from his father whose nature he could only deduce. "There are no signs of the problem you mention in your son," the headmaster had written.
"It's like filling half a glass of wine with water, drinking it, and filling it again," Holland explains. "It's never quite transparent—there's always the element there."
That "element" is not homosexuality but its stigma, which taints those it touches even indirectly with a soiled identity. It was this contagious aspect of Wilde's infamy that drove his wife to change her name. But the rising status of gay culture—at least in liberal society—has created a new opportunity to recover Wilde's legacy. Like his father before him, but with a much less harrowing agenda, Holland has written a book about his now illustrious ancestor. The Wilde Album is part of a growing genre of memorabilia about the man who invented modern morality.
Wilde's disgrace emptied him of personality, making it easy to transform him into a symbol. At first, he was the epitome of indecency, but now that his vice has become an identity, Wilde is a gay icon even straights can admire. Two glitzy works about his ordeal—a Broadway play and a feature film—are opening this week, joining the Web site that spits up a Wildean epigram if you click on a subject. But this effusion of entertainments has less to do with Oscar than with his changing image.
Forty-four years ago, Norman Mailer broke the rules by signing his real name to a piece for the gay journal One. Mailer's essay, "The Homosexual Villain," gave a brave if rudimentary account of cultural homophobia. If Mailer were to revisit this subject today, he would draw very different conclusions. There is still a homo villain, but he's being challenged by an archetype the editors of One could not have imagined. Eternally bright-eyed and ennobled by his suffering, the homosexual hero is brave, bold, and butch. There's no more suitable candidate for this role than the Oscar Wilde of David Hare's new play, The Judas Kiss.
Never mind that Wilde embodied the affectations now associated with the pansy way of knowledge (though he never intended them to make a sexual statement). In The Judas Kiss, Liam Neeson plays him with a stolid mien and a sonorous voice, part Jeremiah, part Jesus. This is a very different figure from the Wilde who tears your heart out in Moises Kaufman's Gross Indecency—but then, the purpose of an icon is to inspire, not unsettle.
As Richard Ellmann's landmark biography demonstrates, Wilde met his destiny with a combination of bravura and compulsion, in keeping with his paradoxical nature. Without a sense of these contradictions—his clashing need for candor and the closet, his resistance and submission to male power, his conflicting impulses toward socialism and social snobbery, and his colliding Irish and British identities—it's impossible to grasp the power of Wilde's art. But then, art is not the point of the Oscar boom. Our need for a homosexual hero requires that Wilde be recast as the Sidney Poitier character in a latter-day version of The Defiant Ones.
Though nearly everyone else in The Judas Kiss bounces around in the buff (after all, this is a gay-friendly show), the hero is a kisser, not a bugger. No one need be discomfited by the evidence of Wilde's adventures in the skin trade. That would only fight the image of the defiant one, chained to his higher-caste companion by links of love and loyalty. Nor do we really want to probe the possibility that Wilde loved his wife and children as much as his Bosie and his rent boys. That might threaten the still-fragile category of Gay. What the world needs now is an emblem of the martyred outsider to certify the progress we've made.
The Oscar icon does that and more: It makes gay people feel like they belong to a distinguished tribe. As Fran Lebowitz noted recently, "People think, 'He was arrested; I could be arrested. Therefore, I'm like Oscar Wilde.' Wrong! He's a genius, you're not."
By stripping Wilde's genius of his art, it's possible to pretend that only his life made him great. This is the premise of Brian Gilbert's new film, titled simply Wilde (in preparation, perhaps, for an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical). This Oscar is as different from Robert Morley's 1959 portrayal as Disney's Quasimodo is from Charles Laughton's. And the new biopic is less like a profile in courage than a coming-out story with curtain calls. There's the traditional moment of self-discovery ("I feel like a city that's been under siege for 20 years.") followed by the inevitable downfall, inscribed on Wilde's face in alabaster makeup. Through it all, he remains resolutely unfey. You would never know that this man chose as his signature the archly dyed green carnation, or that he ever wrote anything more transgressive than a song by Elton John.
But the absence of Wilde's art is only part of what makes the Oscar boom so banal. There's also a brazen lack of context to these versions of his life. In Gilbert's film, Wilde's persecution is laid upon the primate fury of Bosie's father, the Marquess of Queensberry. In Hare's play, the villain is England, or more generally society. But both works avoid examining the climate that prevailed during Wilde's 1895 trials. This was essentially an antigay pogrom, during which hundreds, perhaps thousands, of men fled England for the continent.
Every work about Wilde ought to remind us that the antigay pogrom is a living possibility. But the Oscar icon reeks of a comforting historicity. The only play that situates him in both his time and our own is Kaufman's Gross Indecency, and it's no coincidence that this is also the only drama about Wilde with any sense of his complexity.
This is a man who cannot see the limits of art, a fragile personality in a brilliantly embroidered cloak who easily falls prey to a feckless lover and a state determined to carve its prerogatives into his back. At trial, Wilde's elaborate persona shatters before straight-male authority, and in the spectacle of his collapse one sees not just the sadomasochistic rite that has animated him all along, but the helplessness of the artist before political reality. This is not just the tragedy of Oscar Wilde but of every writer who dares to subvert the symbolic order.
It would be a tragedy, indeed, if the Oscar boom turned the real man into a tchotchke of nobility. The best way to prevent that is to reclaim Wilde's personality, and that's what Merlin Holland has set out to do. His own son has just entered Oxford, Oscar's alma mater, and unlike his father, he's studying Oscar's subject—the classics.
"He's thinking about restoring the name," Holland says of his son, "so it may get done." A century after the scandal that forged the future—and destroyed a family—it's about time.
Research: Nita Rao
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