Perhaps the cruelest trick literature has played on itself is New Historicism, a school of critical thought that aims to understand a literary work through historical context and, in that process, understand historical context through the work. In the dramatic arts, where the negotiators of a text are many, it becomes particularly hard to know just when to stop peeling the onion. This is especially true of Oscar Wilde’s work, which is layered with such scathing social commentary that it is tempting to look at it as burlesque representation of his times. But Wilde, a vocal proponent of the Decadent movement (“art for art’s sake”), would have hated that. It is true that he was ever delighted to have his person associated with his work, often using his flash and bombast to further his career within London’s torrid celebrity culture (had he lived today, he might have conquered Twitter, admired Lady Gaga, and run a tabloid). But rather like the epigrammatic witticisms in his plays that come together like they fit together, these are parts that stand alone when they are not whole, and so much more than the sum of the parts when they are.
Still, there are times when context must seep into art, particularly on nights like the premiere of The Importance of Being Earnest on Valentine’s Day 1895. By this time, Wilde was an acknowledged master of social comedy, known for his aesthetic and journalistic integrity and his hatred of sanctimonious moralising. While his contemporaries gave in to farce, Wilde insistently immersed himself in the business of creating beauty. Despised and ridiculed by the American presses and adored by the London intellectuals, Wilde was already in talks about his next play, a tragedy of marital discord. Although he never wrote it, it was clear he intended to explore the plight of his female protagonist, a perspective he had earlier championed with plays like Salome and with The Woman’s World, a magazine he briefly edited.
Earnest received a response so spectacular that Allan Aynesworth, who played Algernon Moncrieff, remarked, “In my 53 years of acting, I never remember a greater triumph than (that) first night.” The title of the play works out to be a triple pun: “earnest” was Victorian underworld slang for “gay”. At the time, Wilde’s love affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, a much younger aristocrat, had just come to light. Wilde chased beauty in every form and young Douglas was undoubtedly very beautiful. Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensbury, in a furious attempt to humiliate Wilde, whom he believed had unmanned his son, planned to throw rotten tomatoes at the playwright during his curtain call. Wilde was tipped off and had the Marquess banned from the theatre. After a series of trespasses, Wilde and Douglas, against the counsel of friends including George Bernard Shaw, accused the Marquess of criminal libel and he, in order to avoid conviction, went on to have Wilde charged with gross indecency. In the trials that followed, Wilde was vain enough to lie about his age, but honest enough to tell the truth about his sexuality. His prosecutors repeatedly used passages from The Picture of Dorian Gray as evidence of guilt despite the fact that it was written before Wilde and Douglas first met. Ironically, it was after reading Dorian Gray that Douglas had become infatuated with Wilde and engineered their meeting. Frustrated by their attempts to use his art against him (after all, it was he who famously argued that life imitated art far more than art imitated life in his 1889 essay The Decay of Lying) Wilde went on to present an eloquent defence of “the love that dare not speak its name” (a term first used in Douglas’s poem “Two Loves” and now a euphemism for homosexuality), inspiring applause and a retrial. But in May that year, less than four months after the premiere of his best-known play, Wilde was sentenced to two years’ hard labour. He never wrote another play.
During his imprisonment at Reading, Wilde wrote what is now known as De Profundis, a 50,000-word letter to Douglas. Later, he wrote a poignant ballad based on his harrowing prison experiences, which was published under the pseudonym of his cell-name. It was a huge success, going into seven reprints in only two years before the truth of its authorship became known. He spent his final years in France under the name Sebastian Melmoth and was reunited with Douglas, even living with him briefly, until they were parted on pain of disinheritance. During his lifetime, he frequently wondered if he would outlive the millennium, but this was not to be. He narrowly missed, dying penniless in Paris on November 30, 1900, but not before remarking, “I am dying as I have lived, beyond my means.”
In the century following his death, his lovers were extravagant. By 1905, Salome, which was originally banned in England, was adapted to the opera and De Profundis was published to immediate critical acclaim; by 1920, fake manuscripts flooded auctions; by mid-century, several biographies of varying authenticity had emerged. But by 2011, aside from films, status as a gay icon, and alarmingly frequent quotable quotes, his most distinguishing legacy was on his gravestone at Pere Lachaise in Paris: it was found to be so covered with lipstick marks from kisses left by adoring fans that parts of it had eroded, leading the Irish Government to put up a glass wall around it. Wilde might have liked these flamboyant displays of affection better than the wall of chastity that prevented them, but he was, in the course of his life, so often imprisoned from love that he might have appreciated the irony as well.