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Joseph Bristow, ed. Oscar Wilde and Modern Culture: The Making of a Legend. Athens, Ohio: University of Ohio Press, 2008. ISBN: 978-0-8214-1838-3. Price: US$59.95

  • John Paul Riquelme

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  • John Paul Riquelme
    Boston University

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This well-illustrated collection of twelve essays edited and introduced with commitment and care by the distinguished critic Joseph Bristow, has a main thread: that the disappearance of Oscar Wilde’s influence after his arrest and imprisonment in 1895 has been much exaggerated. Without arguing narrowly for this thread as a thesis, nearly all the essays provide evidence for the claim as Bristow tactfully formulates it in his Preface: “that although Wilde’s name remained a source of prurient interest for many years after his death, a growing number of supporters during the earlier parts of the twentieth century publicly recognized his significance as a critical thinker, playwright, and novelist of the Victorian fin de siècle” (xxix). This historical, historicizing assertion beneficially challenges the notion that Wilde’s legacy was shrouded in shame and obscurity until the revolution in sexual attitudes late in the third quarter of the twentieth century brought him suddenly back to prominence virtually ex nihilo. Instead of seeing Wilde as a gay skeleton shrouded in the closet for three-quarters of a century, Bristow emphasizes a vibrant, almost immediate resurgence in Wilde’s presence and influence, beginning in the first decade after his death in 1900, with Richard Strauss’s opera Salomé and Robert Ross’s edition of De Profundis (both 1905).

The editor’s organizing and interpretive presence is extensive and salutary. His detailed Chronology, Preface, and Introduction constitute one-fifth of the book. The Chronology is in itself a valuable contribution that extends from Wilde’s birth in 1854 through 2008, including selective but also abundant listings of biographical, critical, and artistic works that respond to Wilde’s life and writings. Bristow’s lengthy Introduction presents movingly from diverse perspectives the painful collapse of Wilde’s reputation and the reversal that, according to Bristow, started almost immediately. Rather than accepting an anachronistic mapping of the cultural recovery of Wilde as a postmodern phenomenon, the collection traces Wilde’s modernity primarily in the context of late nineteenth-century culture. Bristow describes Wilde’s rehabilitation not as a leap from enforced obscurity, but as a complex, gradual matter (x-xi), a steady reappraisal whose tipping point is Richard Ellmann’s Oscar Wilde (1987). The collection’s act of historical recovery contributes significantly to late-Victorian and modernist literary studies. Its virtues are evident in the new sense that the volume makes of Wilde in his time and later.

The essays are original, detailed, and diverse. The first three examine Wilde’s engagements in his own time with developments we would call modern. Lucy McDiarmid’s lively opening essay concerning the politics of late-Victorian table-talk brings out the political edge of that engagement in Wilde’s risky social encounters with power brokers who turned against him (though some aristocrats, including W. S. Blunt, the poet and Irish Home Rule advocate, did not). Daniel Novak’s suggestive essay on Napoleon Sarony’s iconic celebrity photographs of Wilde in America establishes Wilde’s involvement physically and aesthetically in the issue of the ownership of represented images that arose with photography’s emergence. Does the photographer who posed Wilde have rights to the image, or is it the possession of the artist in the photo who was posing in another sense? Erin Hyman’s essay contributes to our understanding of both theatre history and Wilde’s affiliation with anarchist politics by presenting the remarkable circumstances of Lugné-Poe’s first-ever staging of Salomé in Paris in 1896 as an act of anarchist solidarity with the imprisoned Wilde. Like several other essayists, Hyman provides important details about Wilde’s influence crossing the Channel before his death and in the years immediately following it, a crossing recognized before but not regularly explored with such specificity.

The six middle essays take up the importance of Wilde’s legacy soon after his death. Richard Kaye identifies the widespread influence (on Hoffmannsthal, Mirbeau, and Proust) of the myth of Wilde’s homosexual martyrdom, to which Wilde contributed through his sonnet, “The Grave of Keats,” by portraying homosexual desire as tragic. Kaye’s treatment of St. Sebastian as a late-Victorian homosexual icon is particularly resonant. Yvonne Ivory goes well beyond the instance of Richard Strauss in exploring the multiple responses to Wilde’s life and work in Germany and Austria early in the twentieth century through translations, operas, and orchestral works, and in homophilic debates about unrestrained and abstinent same-sex desire. Julie Townsend argues compellingly that, despite the antecedents for Salomé, by Gustave Flaubert, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Joris-Karl Huysmans, it is not a derivative work because of the play’s distinctive dialectic between the aesthetic and the biblical. She argues as well for Loïe Fuller’s revisionary achievement in Tragédie de Salomé (1907). The filmmaker Lizzie Thynne also brings to light a distinctive revisionary response to Salomé in the work of Claude Cahun, a lesbian surrealist. One memorable aspect of Wilde’s influence on Cahun’s work is her invocation of Salomé while challenging Freud’s patriarchal emphasis on the phallus in understanding sexual difference. Focusing on the issue of sexual equality, central to An Ideal Husband (1895), Laurel Brake argues persuasively for Wilde’s influence on later playwrights, in particular W. Somerset Maugham, whose The Constant Wife (1926) takes up the issue under changed social circumstances for women. The essay by the legal scholar Leslie Moran moves Wilde’s continuing presence forward to mid-twentieth-century films but in a way that retains a focus on Wilde in the 1890s because the films concern Wilde’s trials. As with Novak’s consideration of Sarony’s photographs, Moran addresses the matter of rights; in this case rights to use the reports of the trials, which became a matter of legal dispute regarding one of the screenplays. Moran makes clear that the reports themselves leave us in doubt about the reliability of our main sources concerning the trials.

The final triad of essays considers aspects of Wilde’s influence and representations of him in the second half of the twentieth century and the opening of the twenty-first. Francesca Coppa’s commentary on plays about Wilde identifies key shifts in understanding away from treating him as the victim of his own erotic desires. Central to her argument is Micheál MacLiammóir’s award winning one-man show The Importance of Being Oscar (1960), which treats Wilde as Irish rather than degraded. Equally important, in their reflection of changed social attitudes toward homosexuality, are plays by Tom Stoppard, David Hare, and Neil Bartlett, with their differing narratives concerning the role of Alfred Douglas. Wilde’s humanity is significantly on display in these plays in ways that would have been impossible on the mainstream stage in the first half of the century. The last two essays concern film. Matt Cook movingly links the works and compares the lives of Derek Jarman, as writer, independent filmmaker, and gardener, and Wilde: both languishing in confinement ninety years apart, one from HIV and the other from a conviction for having committed illegal acts; both developing a specifically gay aesthetic for the expression of queer desire. Oliver Buckton’s contribution contrasts two Hollywood films, Brian Gilbert’s Wilde (1997) and Oliver Parker’s The Importance of Being Earnest (2001), the former projecting the enigma of Wilde’s homosexuality, whether present from the start or late developing, but looking at it unflinchingly; the latter, more conservative work refusing to look by laundering Wilde’s play of details with homosexual implications, as if they were decoration, rather than essential. Concerning the opposing directions that Gilbert and Parker take in rendering Wilde’s life and work, it’s worth remembering Wilde’s statement in “The Truth of Masks” that “a truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true.” The afterlife of the artist and of the artist’s work is open to antithetical responses. As Wilde also wrote, in the Preface to Dorian Gray, “When critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself.”

Although Bristow’s fine collection documents convincingly a continuing response to Wilde of a significant kind long before his apparently phoenix-like, wider revival starting in the 1970s, continuity and gradualism would not have been the experience of most potential readers of Wilde at the time his importance became more generally recognized. When I attended university in the United States in the 1960s, no text by Wilde was assigned in my literature courses. While I was studying with Richard Ellmann as a graduate student in the late 1960s, he told me that he hoped students would write dissertations with him on Wilde rather than on Yeats and Joyce. I could not accept the invitation, and I do not believe that any of my cohort accepted. We were simply not familiar enough with Wilde, who was a minor figure and not straight. The silence about Wilde was not total, considering that Ellmann would mention him, but the volume was turned down so low that Wilde’s presence was muffled and intermittent at best. Attitudes can change. Retrospectively, we see and hear with differently attuned senses that can—with the kind of assistance that Oscar Wilde and Modern Culture provides—recover what went unnoticed at the time: that Wilde was significantly there all along. The collection reveals incontrovertibly that the volume was considerably more audible to some ears than many of us heard.

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