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The Wilde Bunch

[whitespace] Wilde
Liam Daniel

Iron Wit in a Velvet Coat: Stephen Fry plays the famous author as a sympathetic martyr for gay rights in 'Wilde.'

A new film and a trio of plays testify to the enduring influence of Oscar Wilde on culture, politics and rock

By Gina Arnold

RECENTLY, I was invited to speak on a BBC Radio 4 arts program in London. We were supposed to be discussing rock music, but instead the talk turned to Oscar Wilde. Last year marked the 100th anniversary of Wilde's release from Reading Gaol, where he was imprisoned for the crime of perversion, and 2000 will be the centenary of his death.

Perhaps these chronological way stations explain why Wilde is currently making his presence felt in London in three separate productions: the plays The Invention of Love by Tom Stoppard and The Judas Kiss by David Hare, and the film Wilde by Brian Gilbert. Wilde has just opened in the U.S., and there is also a play called Gross Indecencies: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde by Moisés Kaufman, which just finished its run in San Francisco. (The Invention of Love will have its American premiere in San Francisco next year.)

The British critics on the program had mixed feelings about the first two productions--particularly Liam Neeson's portrayal of the Irish wit in The Judas Kiss--but we all agreed that we liked Wilde's line in The Invention of Love: "I made the 20th century able to look itself in the face."

But is it true? I queried.

"Yes," replied one famous critic. "No one did so much for gay liberation until Morrissey came along."

That comment shocked me. After all, any way you look at it, putting Morrissey and Oscar Wilde on the same plane is foolhardy in the extreme, since there's no guarantee that Morrissey's work will last 100 years. True, some critics might have said the same about Wilde, whose work, in retrospect, seems rather thin. But few would dispute that Morrissey-penned songs like "Bigmouth Strikes Again" and "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now," good as they are, hardly belong in the same class as The Importance of Being Earnest.

The comparison, however, marks one of the notable things about the Wilde revival: its revisionist quality. Although as a man and an artist Wilde has much to offer the modern mentality, as a gay icon--which is how most of his fans wish to see him--he is a failure. At the time that Wilde was arrested for "gross indecency," there was no such thing as "gay" rights, and the word "homosexual" had yet to be invented.

(There's a wonderful line in The Invention of Love about that: "Who is responsible for this barbarity!" shouts A.E. Housman, when someone suggests the word "homosexual."

"Why, what's wrong with it?"

"It's half Greek, half Latin."

"Yes, that sounds about right.")

The film Wilde, in particular, seems to want to make Oscar into a martyr for gay rights, but the facts simply don't fit. Wilde star Stephen Fry bears a close physical resemblance to the real Oscar Wilde, but the casting masks an overly deferential interpretation that's so sympathetic as to be both unbelievable and unbelievably naive. From the movie, one might infer that the main effect of Wilde's trial was to make it safe for singer George Michael to admit his preferences after being arrested on similar charges in a public restroom in L.A.

And that is, of course, one major impact of Wilde's story. It wasn't gay life that he championed so much as the artistic life. Unfortunately, ever since his day, the two have somehow been confounded. From Wilde's time forward, people of an artistic temperament have been labeled queer. (Think how many budding painters and rock stars were called "faggot" in high school.) But the truth is that the percentage of artists who are homosexual is probably the same as the proportion of gays in the population as a whole.

ONE REASON Wilde suffered the fate he did at the hands of British law was that the issue of perversion had become the political hot ticket of the moment, attached as it was to a bill that was meant to stamp out teenage prostitution by raising the age of sexual consent. (There is a current parallel in various political movements that focus on family values and the censorship of movies, TV and rock music.)

In that sense--and in others--Wilde's case was very much the O.J. Simpson trial of its day. Simpson's trial was as much about racism in America as it was about murder; Wilde's was really about Victorian morality. Allegedly, government officials feared that if they didn't prosecute Wilde on the charge--which was their natural inclination--they, too, would be accused of being secret sodomites.

So Wilde, like Jesus (but not like Simpson), suffered for other people's sins. Indeed, to the artistic world, Oscar Wilde is a Christ figure, pilloried for his ideas rather than his actions. His status as a martyr doesn't seem to jibe with such witty fluff as The Portrait of Dorian Gray or The Happy Prince, but make no mistake, Wilde did suffer. His two years (1895-97) of hard labor at Reading Gaol first impoverished him, then estranged him forever from his wife and children and, finally, led to his death.

It's this suffering that Wilde, The Invention of Love and The Judas Kiss commemorate. The strategy is sound, because it's really Wilde's suffering that sets him apart from other artists of his day--from, say, George Bernard Shaw, whose output was far more incendiary than Wilde's, but whose personal life was much more tame, and who was not, therefore, persecuted for his subversive ideas.

Neither, however, is Shaw as famous--precisely because he didn't suffer for his art. According to Gross Indecencies: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, by 1913, Wilde was the most read English author after Shakespeare, a fact that can be attributed mainly to the notoriety of his internationally covered trial.

THE SHADOW that Wilde cast over the 20th century is long indeed. It can certainly be seen in pop music, where Wilde's doctrines are held up today as righteous justification for almost anything at all. "Nothing is immoral or moral in thought," Wilde said at his trial, not adding, for obvious reasons, that songs (or MTV videos) are not quite the same thing as thoughts.

But that is how the statement has come to be interpreted over the years, and indeed, perversion of thought and deed--boiled down to the catch phrase "sex and drugs and rock & roll"--is often taken to be one of rock & roll's main tenets.

Subversion--masquerading as perversion--is rock's historical legacy, from the effeminate images of Elvis Presley and Little Richard wearing eyeliner to the appealing androgyny of David Bowie and Boy George to the legendary tale of Led Zeppelin, a shark and a groupie in a bedroom in Seattle. The Rolling Stones' entire ethos and existence is based on what Wilde would have called épater le bourgeoisie (shocking the middle classes)--as is all of gangsta rap.

More recently, Guns N' Roses, Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson have followed Wilde's lead in their dumb-ass, inarticulate way, professing to believe that a lack of moral constraint is the prerogative of the "true artist." But this, of course, is merely a justification for sloth and lechery.

Manson's interpretation of Wilde's bohemian text is particularly stupid. The androgynous shock-rocker purports to deride social strictures and comment on the innate hypocrisy of American life, asking, on his Anti-Christ Superstar album, the age-old question "Will we continue to be oppressed by the fascism of Christian morality?" Clearly, Manson won't know from fascism until he's beaten to a pulp by the military police.

Wilde, of course, was a much deeper thinker than that, and his private behavior was not meant as an intentional snub of society. Still, what Wilde, The Judas Kiss and The Invention of Love have in common is a strange refusal to acknowledge that perhaps, in the end, Wilde repented of his profligacy. (The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde does hint at this unglamorous thought.)

Nevertheless, if one is to get anything out of the legend of Oscar Wilde, one has to grapple eventually with the fact that he lied on the witness stand and that his private morality (Wilde was accused of having sex with "rent boys," or underaged male prostitutes) was not nearly as wonderful as his beautiful prose and unforgettable fairy tales would indicate.

Indeed, what Wilde's trial really brought to light was the fact that, like that of so many celebrities, his personal life didn't bear close scrutiny. In that sense, Wilde's real legacy may have been the fact that he raised the following question: Do artists, teachers, politicians and others in the public eye have a moral obligation to uphold societal standards, or is their private life their own business?

The answer, of course, is still very much open to question. We see President Clinton and Kenneth Starr struggling with it every day. Regarded on that level, the current profusion of Oscar Wildes might lead to some enlightenment; otherwise, it will merely serve to uphold the old stereotype that a true artist has to suffer, and possibly even die, before his or her work can really be appreciated. We'll have to wait and see what Morrissey makes of that one.

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From the June 4-10, 1998 issue of Metro.

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