OSCAR WILDE: AN OVERVIEW
  Overview    July 16, 2016     Lacy Soto

 

Your basic Dwarf+Giant Overview is a comprehensive survey of an author or series. It is not an in-depth analysis, nor is it a summary. Think of it as a buying or reading guide, telling you what’s out there, what’s essential, what to avoid and so forth.

 

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

– Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan. (1893)

 

One of my favorite recurring daydreams is one in which I’m planning an elegant dinner party for some on my favorite icons of literature. In these reveries I’m sitting at a rather large dark wooden table (similar to my work desk in The Last Bookstore’s Annex) dipping a feathered quill into a pot of murky ink and writing out my list of guests with flourish and ink splatters (à la Ralph Steadman). My invite list sometimes varies a bit in these fantasies but mostly remains the same: Edgar Allan Poe, Flannery O’Connor, Truman Capote, Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Vladimir and Vera Nabokov, Charlotte Brontë, Edward Gorey, Dorothy Parker, and the ultimate literary libertine, and in my mind the life of my imaginary party, Oscar Wilde.

 

When contemplating the character of Oscar Wilde a few things immediately come to mind, clever epigrams, the hedonistic Dorian Gray, Dandyism, and Morrissey. It was Morrissey who would introduce generations of young fans to Wilde through imagery and lyrics including one of my favorite songs off The Smiths’ 1986 record The Queen in Dead “Cemetry (sic) Gates”.

 

A dreaded sunny day

So I meet you at the cemetry (sic) gates

Keats and Yeats are on your side

While Wilde is on mine.

 

Morrissey, I’m with you and I too possess a ‘weird love of Wilde” so let’s go deep with Oscar…

 

THE LONE NOVEL

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The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). Wilde’s one and only novel is Faustian fiction at it’s best and one of my favorite novels of the 19th century. A Faustian fave if you will. Part horror novel, part cautionary tale, The Picture of Dorian Gray is the story of an exceptionally beautiful young man who is described as being “made out of ivory and rose-leaves” who makes an ominous wish for eternal youth that leads him to a life of hedonism, violence, destruction and death. There have been many screen adaptations of The Picture of Dorian Gray my favorite being the 1945 black and white MGM-produced film, which stars a young Angela Lansbury as Dorian’s first love interest, and features American artist Ivan Albright’s incredibly grotesque full size painting of The Picture of Dorian Gray, now found in the Art Institute of Chicago’s collection. Other amusing Dorian Gray’s in popular culture include the dreamy Dorian from the spooky Showtime series Penny Dreadful and in the The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie adaptation (terrible, however Alan Moore did give Dorian Gray a small role in his adult graphic novel series Lost Girls).

 

 

[The Albright painting. Gack - it really is awful - editor]

[The Albright painting. Gack – it really is awful – editor]

 

PLAYS

Wilde famously wrote plays galore and seemed to have a flair for comedies. He was especially keen on witty dialogue, insults and double entendres, the best example being in The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) where Earnest is both name (Ernest) and a state of mind. Now that all of Wilde’s works can be found in collections such as The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde: Stories, Plays, Poems & Essays published by Harper Perennial Classics, it’s not really necessary to buy individual editions (unless you are Wilde about collecting).

 

1. Vera: or The Nihilists (1880). Wilde’s first play was a melodramatic tragedy based on the life of radical writer, revolutionary and assassin Vera Zasulich. The play was described by critics of the time as “wretched” and is generally considered a dramatic #fail. Definitely not essential unless you happen to be reading a Wilde collection in which it is included.

Aubrey Beardsley illustration for Salomé

Aubrey Beardsley illustration for Salomé

 

2. The Duchess of Padua (1883). After the failure of Vera, Wilde writes another tragedy, a sordid tale of love and revenge, obviously very influenced by Romeo and Juliet, where at the end no satisfaction is achieved and everyone is dead. Derivative for sure, but fun nonetheless.

 

3. Salomé (1891). For Wilde’s third tragedy he chose the biblical tale of Salomé and John the Baptist. My copy of Salomé is a Dover edition which is beautifully illustrated by Art Nouveau master and Aesthetic movement ringleader Aubrey Beardsley (only Beardsley could make a severed head so elegant). For cinephiles there is an incredible silent movie version from 1923 of Salomé which stars glamorous Alla Nazimova and boasts set designs meant to emulate Beardsley’s illustration and INCREDIBLE costumes designed by Natacha Rambova (a.k.a. the second Mrs. Rudolph Valentino).

 

Wilde and his lover Lord Alfred Douglas

Wilde and his lover Lord Alfred Douglas

 

4. Lady Windermere’s Fan (1893). Wilde enjoyed writing about questionable parentage and situations involving mistaken identities, Lady Windermere’s Fan being one example and The Importance of Being Earnest another. Lady Windermere’s Fan is one big mixed up situation after another where everyone in the narrative thinks everyone else is hooking up in secrecy, but really everyone is faithful and lives happily ever after. There’s a mediocre adaptation from 2006 renamed A Good Woman starring Scarlett Johansen, but I wouldn’t bother with it. Instead you might try the 1925 silent film version from distinguished director Ernst Lubitsch.

 

5. A Woman of No Importance (1893). A continuation on Wilde’s themes of secrets and questionable parentage where the future of a now grown illegitimate child of the upper class is dissected and satirized. This play is full of witty dialogue and gossipy small talk but not much else.

 

6. The Importance of Being Earnest , A Trivial Comedy for Serious People (1895). My favorite and the most popular of all Wilde’s plays is a story of two dandified men who use the guise of a man named Ernest to engage in libertine activities on the sly. Questionable parentage, double lives, veiled sexuality and lots of witty Wildean quips permeate this play making it enjoyable to read and to watch if you can catch a live performance. There’s a terrific film version from 2002 starring Rupert Everett (charming) and Colin Firth (boring).

 

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7. An Ideal Husband (1895). Wilde’s second most popular play is full of dirty business deeds and blackmail in the upper class with lots of Lord this and Lady that. The plot is more complicated and slightly less fun than The Importance of Being Earnest but still definitely an essential Wilde play to check out.

 

8. A Florentine Tragedy and La Sainte Courtisane (1894) Wilde had two unfinished plays at the time of his death, A Florentine Tragedy which pertains to a duel of passion between two nobleman and La Sainte Courtisane (The Holy Courtesan) about a beautiful courtesan and a Christian hermit who seem to switch identities. According to literary urban legend, Wilde left La Sainte Courtisane in a taxi cab and was so disheartened after his release from prison that he never revisited either play.

 

STORY COLLECTIONS

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1. The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888). Wilde isn’t thought of much today as a writer of children’s stories, however he did write a handful of charming tales for a younger audience. My favorite in this collection is the titular ”The Happy Prince”, a bittersweet story of a friendship between a lonely swallow and an elegant empathetic statue. The other stories in this collection include a cautionary fable about the consequences of love, “The Nightingale and the Rose”, a story of a garden that Spring forgot ”The Selfish Giant”, and two other Aesop-style fables ”The Devoted Friend”, and “The Remarkable Rocket”.

 

 

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2. Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories (1891). Five entertaining and mostly comical (but often murderous) short stories from Wilde were originally printed in various British literary magazines. ″Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime″ has an almost Dostoyevskian feel to it, although it seems unlikely to me that Wilde was a fan of Dostoevsky. ″The Canterville Ghost” is my favorite in the collection, a humorous ghost story (which undoubtedly must have influenced Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice), about a dead nobleman and the family he haunts. The other stories in the collection generally include the mysterious ″The Sphinx Without a Secret”, the parable-like “The Model Millionaire” and “The Portrait of Mr. W. H.” an investigation into the lives of Shakespeare and his supposed muse Willie Hughes.

 

owHouse

3. A House of Pomegranates (1891). A colorful little collection of original Wildean fairy tales, not necessarily intended for children, which recall the style of the Brother’s Grimm without being derivative. The best story in the collection has to be “The Birthday of the Infanta” which is a macabre little piece about a princess and a hideous hunchbacked dwarf. I also notably enjoyed the sad Mermaid story “The Fisherman and his Soul” the empathetic “The Young King” and the fable of “The Star Child”.

 

 

 

POETRY

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Wilde wrote over ninety poems during his lifetime all of which can be found in The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde or in various other collections like Poems in Prose, Selected Poems of Oscar Wilde or the Oxford World’s Classics Complete Poetry by Oscar Wilde. While there are many different editions available today why not just acquire The Complete Works and have everything in one volume? Here’s an excerpt from Wilde’s lovely poem “Requiescat” which was inspired by the death of his sister and which I find pretty and almost Poe-like in theme and feeling.

 

Tread lightly, she is near

Under the snow,

Speak gently, she can hear

The daisies grow.

All her bright golden hair

Tarnished with rust,

She that was young and fair

Fallen to dust.

 

TRIALS + PRISON LIFE

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1. De Profundis (1905). Published five years after his death in 1900 De Profundis (meaning from the depths) is a 50,000 word letter addressed to his ex lover Lord Alfred Douglas which Wilde had written while he was imprisoned in Reading. The first half of De Profundis reads like an autobiography and explores Wilde and Douglas’ exorbitant lifestyle, where the second half describes Wilde’s path to enlightenment and spiritual development. Love letter or break up letter? You decide. Either way De Profundis is an undertaking not without satisfaction.

 

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2. The Trials of Oscar Wilde by H. Montgomery Hyde. Hyde really did his research, and here he recounts the trial of Wilde in all its gory details. At his trial Wilde said that his aim in life had been self-realization through pleasure rather than suffering. Later, he recants and admits that only through pain and sorrow can true nobility of soul be achieved. I felt Wilde’s pain AND sorrow trying to get through this book: how H. Montgomery Hyde made a book about Oscar Wilde boring is a mystery in itself.

 

 

 

owReading

3. The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1897). After Wilde’s release from prison he wrote nothing other that The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Reading Gaol (pronounced “redding jail”) is where Wilde was incarcerated after being convicted on charges of sodomy and gross indecency or “Illicit behavior” in 1895 and sentenced to two years’ hard labour in prison. While it is often speculated that Wilde was homosexual, it’s more likely he was bisexual or just open to different sexual experiences. Either way, Wilde was forever changed after prison and would die only three years after his release.

 

 

 

WIT, EPIGRAMS, + STYLE

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1. Oscar Wilde’s Wit and Wisdom: A Book of Quotations or The Wit and Humor of Oscar Wilde.

An amusing collection of Wilde’s epigrams categorized by subject and mostly taken from Wilde’s plays, essays and conversations. A nice anthology to have on hand if you’re looking for a witty insult, quip or quote to include in a tediously long overview of Oscar Wilde, instead though I think I’ll add a quote about Oscar Wilde… from Dorothy Parker.

 

If, with the literate, I am

Impelled to try an epigram,

I never seek to take the credit;

We all assume that Oscar said it.

-Dororthy Parker. Life Magazine, 1927.

 

 

2. The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde (1875-1900). A very entertaining and revealing anthology of Wilde’s personal letters. Wilde wrote letters prolifically, and this is a big book (over 1300 pages) which could make a great beach read, or doorstop.

 

 

 

owDress

 

3. The Philosophy of Dress or Oscar Wilde On Dress. Oscar Wilde was indeed fashion- forward, and I often think of him as a strutting peacock against the grey drab backdrop of Victorian London Society. “Fashion is ephemeral. Art is eternal,” wrote Wilde. and “One’s style is one’s signature” and also “One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art” were words that Wilde lived by. Wilde’s eye for sartorial detail was unrivaled, and it’s through his long lost essay The Philosophy of Dress that his ideas on style, feminism and Dandyism are explored.

 

 

Wilde just loved having the last word…and here’s his take on endings.

 

“Everything is going to be fine in the end.

If it’s not fine it’s not the end.” ― Oscar Wilde

 

Oscar Wilde

 

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