Born to be (Oscar) Wilde!

Illustrazione di Zoa Studio dedicata ad Oscar Wilde

On the last trip to Ireland, in which The Phantom of the Opera found me, I also came across Oscar Wilde. Or rather, in his statue and in his house. The photos below prove it!

Even those who have not studied him in high school or university know Oscar Wilde and his works, because he is a very dandy and very rock and roll writer. Honestly, if he had reincarnated as someone, I think it would have been David Bowie or Freddie Mercury.

On the occasion of the anniversary of his birth, we tell you the story of this Irish writer, one of the leaders of decadence as well as of aestheticism. And we also talk about his most famous novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, characteristic of this literary movement.

Oscar Wilde biography

Born on October 16, 1854 in Dublin (here is where I took the photos), Oscar Wilde came from a well-known middle-class family. He is the second of three children of William Wilde, an internationally renowned surgeon and Jane Francesa Elgee, a committed poet.

Oscar is sensitized, from an early age, to poetry, precisely by his mother. A brilliant student, Oscar Wilde in 1874 obtained a scholarship from Magdalen College, one of the highest rated colleges of the University of Oxford.

During this period, one of his teachers, John Ruskin (please read who he is, not really the last of the stupid), introduced him to the “aestheticism” movement, a school of thought that believes that art should only be research of beauty, without any moral or social concern.

In 1878 he won the Newdigate Prize thanks to his poem about Ravenna.

Later on, in 1881, he published his first collection of poems, Poems, which was received fairly well by both critics and the public.

In those years, Oscar Wilde moved to London and began attending London high society. This elegant dandy with a quick and cynical intellect quickly builds a reputation in the British capital. He is the apostle of aesthetics in his refined verse poems as well as in his plays. But his masterpiece in this field is certainly his fantastic novel: The Portrait of Dorian Gray, published in 1891. Which we will tell you shortly.

Oscar Wilde reaches the pinnacle of his glory. He stages one of his plays, , Salomé, in Paris in 1891 and wrote several cynical comedies that made him famous. The same year he meets Lord Alfred Douglas of Queensberry, whom he falls in love with, although Oscar is married and father of two.

The trial, conviction and death

Oscar Wilde was tried for this manifest homosexuality in 1892. In 1895, the poet was sentenced to the maximum sentence. He was sent to prison for two years and in this process he lost his reputation and the love of the public. During this period of loneliness and despair, Wilde composed a long letter addressed to Alfred Douglas which, after his death, was published under the name of De Profundis.

When he was released in 1897, the poet left England for France. Deeply impressed by his experience in prison, he composed his latest work on this theme: The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

Oscar Wilde died in solitude and misery in Paris on November 30, 1900 at the age of only 46. It seems that the cause of death is meningitis. Soberly buried in Bagneux cemetery, his body was transferred to Père-Lachaise cemetery in 1909 after his last lover, Robert Ross, raised enough money to pay him a concession. Long considered scandalous and provocative, Oscar Wilde’s grave is topped by a monument representing a winged sphinx, sculpted in 1912 by Jacob Epstein.

The modernist angel depicted in relief on the tomb was originally complete with male genitalia, initially censored by the French authorities with a gold leaf. The genitals have since been vandalized; their current location is unknown. In 2000, Leon Johnson, a multimedia artist, installed a silver prosthesis to replace them. In 2011, the tomb was cleared of numerous lipstick marks left by admirers and a glass barrier was installed to prevent further marks or damage.

The epitaph is a verse from The Ballad of Reading Gaol,

And alien tears will fill it

the long-broken urn of piety,

For his mourners will be marginalized men,

And the marginalized always cry

Oscar Wilde’s works

Throughout his life, Oscar Wilde wrote short stories (The Happy Prince and Other Tales, 1888), short stories (The Murder of Lord Arthur Saville and Other Tales, 1891), followed by an essay (Intentions, 1891). Also in 1891 he published The Portrait of Dorian Gray, a novel that brought him great notoriety, but also many criticisms. In 1892, the success of his play Lady Windermere’s Fan encouraged him in theatrical writing and in 1895 he composed one of his greatest works entitled The Importance of Being Earnest.

Now we will briefly tell you about some of these works.

The Happy Prince and other tales

The Happy Prince and Other Tales is a collection of Oscar Wilde’s short stories for children first published in May 1888. It contains five short stories, all wonderful, but two I have always loved, because they break your heart.

The Happy Prince

The statue of the Happy Prince, magnificent, covered with gold and precious stones, is the pride of the city. One day, a small swallow on its way to Egypt lands there and feels bathed in tears. It is the misery and misfortune around him that makes the prince so sad. So the swallow will help him sweeten the fate of his neighbors, at the risk of his own life.

The nightingale and the rose

This story begins with a young student complaining in his garden that the love of his life will only dance with him if he brings her a red rose but there is no red rose in his garden. The nightingale, who lives in the oak tree of his garden, feels the pain of that boy and wants to help him.

The bird flies and goes among the various bushes but does not find a red rose. Eventually the nightingale carries out a suicidal act, donating the blood of its heart to a white rose which transforms it into a beautiful red rose. In this process the nightingale dies.

When the student wakes up, he sees the red rose under his window, takes it with joy and brings it to his love for him. The girl refuses the rose saying that it will not match her blue dress and that someone else has brought her jewelry that is worth more than a rose. The boy throws the rose into the gutter and a cart passes over it.

Eventually he decides that logic is better than love and that love is unrealistic. He goes back to his house and starts reading a book.

The Canterville Ghost

In 1887, Oscar Wilde became editor-in-chief of The Woman’s World magazine. In the same year he wrote several short stories, the most famous of which was The Canterville Ghost. This fantastic tale, which also incorporates the characteristics of the gothic novel, tells the strange coexistence between a ghost and a family that bought an old house.

But the ghost, used to terrifying the inhabitants of the house, finds himself facing a family that is not exactly shy. Through a parody and resolutely comic angle, the work then retraces the small misfortunes of the specter which, due to a humiliating reversal of the situation, becomes itself a victim of the family.

If you think, Beetlejuice pretty much tells the same thing exactly a century later.

The picture of Dorian Gray

On June 20, 1890, Oscar Wilde published the first version of his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, in Lippincott’s monthly magazine. To sum up the story, a handsome young man, Dorian Gray, nurtures the desire to be able to retain charm and youth throughout his life.

This wish is fulfilled when a friend of his, a painter, paints the portrait of the young man. Dorian Gray soon realizes that the portrait is transformed in his place: while he bears no signs of aging, the face painted on the canvas seems to take on the weight of his passions and his sins.

Through this novel that reflects his concern for aesthetics, Oscar Wilde advocates the emancipation of art from morality. The description of the debauchery in which the main protagonist abandons himself also reveals the author’s belonging to the decadent movement. Accused of promoting immorality, the novel has been considered scandalous since its first publication.

The importance of being Earnest

The Importance of Being Earnest is the most famous of Oscar Wilde’s comedies. It is the story of two bachelors, John “Jack” Worthing and Algernon “Algy” Moncrieff, who create alter egos named Ernest to escape their boring lives. They attempt to win the heart of two women who, conveniently, claim to love only men named Ernest.

The couple struggles to keep up with their own stories and becomes embroiled in a tale of deception, disguises and misadventures. The elaborate plot ridicules Victorian sensibility with some of the most beloved, and indeed bizarre, characters found on the modern stage.

Wilde originally wrote it in four acts, but during early rehearsals George Alexander persuaded him to shorten it to three.

The movie version of the work was also released in 2002, starring Colin Firth and Rupert Everett in the roles of Jack and Algy, flanked by Frances O’Connor, Reese Witherspoon, Judi Dench and Tom Wilkinson.

Conclusion

As we have just read, Oscar Wilde is a prolific writer of incredibly fine and sophisticated intellect and humor. He is also a man convicted of homosexuality, who paid for his love for other men with years in prison.

However, his genius has never been forgotten and there are numerous posthumous honors.

On February 14, 1995, Wilde was commemorated with a stained glass window in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. The memorial, above the monument to Geoffrey Chaucer, was inaugurated by his nephew Merlin Holland, while Sir John Gielgud read the final part of De Profundis and Judi Dench read an excerpt from The Importance of Being Earnest.

In 2014, he was one of the inaugural awardees of the Rainbow Honor Walk, a Walk of fame in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco that remembers LGBTQ people who have “made significant contributions in their fields”.

To note that, in addition, Wilde received a symbolic posthumous pardon. In 2017, Wilde was among approximately 50,000 men who were pardoned for homosexual acts that were no longer considered a crime under the Policing and Crime Act.

The same year the Oscar Wilde Temple, an installation by visual artists McDermott & McGough, was inaugurated in collaboration with Church of the Village in New York City, and then moved to the Studio Voltaire in London the following year.

And we leave you with a sentence from this installation, which describes well the life and vision of today’s protagonist:

A work of art 

#theimportanceofanoscar

#artforart

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