"a man of genius makes no mistakes; his errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery."
Genius is based on many elements, human and circumstantial. Nothing enables genius to evolve from some internal inchoate spark into a staggering, illuminating flare as the capacity to be external to social norms. The public expects artists to move well beyond the quotidian in artistic form. The funny lines in a play would be burlesque, if they were not also insightful. The plot of a novel would be banal if it lacked symbolism. The reach of literary metaphor is based on a primal idiosyncratic resonance with each member of an audience. But the level of tolerance expressed by this same public for artists' lifestyles that ride the edge does not match their appreciation of the products of genius. The public adored Oscar Wilde -- for as long as he stayed sufficiently within the boundaries of acceptable eccentricity. For Victorian society, the band of acceptability -- of propriety -- was not broad.
A quote attributed to Wilde is associated with one of his visits to America (Bradford 2011). Upon entering customs in New York, Wilde was asked by a customs officer if he had any goods to declare (Bradford 2011). Wilde is said to have replied, "No, I have nothing to declare…except my genius" (Bradford 2011).
A Man of Genius
Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills was a name befitting a man of good family from Dublin, Ireland, but it was not a name that would trip clearly over the tongue on stage -- or in print in some critic's review (Bradford 2011).So the name Oscar Wilde became associated with the Irishman's artistic work and reputation Wilde's brilliance earned him several scholarships, which paired with some money from his father's surgical practice, got Wilde through Trinity College in Dublin and Magdalen College in Oxford (Bradford 2011). During his seven years of university study (1871 -- 1878) with esteemed cohorts, Wilde affiliated with the Oxford Movement and the school of aestheticism (Bradford 2011). From the one group, he developed an appreciation of classical art and culture, from the other way of thinking, he developed a belief in art for its own sake (Bradford 2011).
Wilde was a natural performer and was blessed with a sly wit. Fabulously flamboyant in his dress, Wilde enjoyed the attention it -- and his enormous talent -- garnered for him (Bradford 2011). Wilde found a natural outlet for his sensibilities and demonstrative nature on the stages of London, and it is fair to say, that for him, London itself became a stage (Bradford 2011). With celebrity, came a flagrant disregard for the oppressive social mores of the day. Wilde was alternately labeled a homosexual and a bisexual -- according to Wilde's biographers, he is reported to have had homosexual relations as young as 16 years of age (Worth, 1983). As luck would have it, Wilde married into money (Worth, 1983). In 1884, he wed the heiress Constance Lloyd and, with her father's wealth, was able to pursue his creative interests (Worth, 1983). In two years, Oscar and Constance had as many sons -- Cyril and Vyvyan (Worth, 1983). Wilde was not a conventional family man -- for that matter, Wilde was not conventional in any regard, which -- according to this author's bias -- contributed significantly to his literary genius (Worth, 1983). Unfortunately for him, Wilde's enjoyment of decadent parties -- and apparently associated homosexual affairs -- did not grease good will with those who determined the social mores of the day (Worth, 1983).
A New York Times theatre critic exhibited a degree of premonition following the opening of The Importance of Being Earnest with this comment, "Oscar Wilde may be said to have at last, and by a single stroke, put his enemies under his feet" (Ellman 430-31).
Look Out London, Here He Comes
On February 14, 1895, The Importance of Being Earnest premiered at the St. James Theatre -- Wilde became the darling of London society. The play is "both a whimsical romantic comedy as well as a sharp-witted satire of Victorian society" (Bradford 2011). Critics consider The Importance of Being Earnest to be Wilde's merriest play, "and perhaps the most balanced with dialogue, romantic misunderstandings, and laughter-inducing coincidences" (Bradford 2011).
Wilde's hubris, which armed him well to poke fun at social mores in his drawing room comedies, was also his Achilles Heel. An intimate affair with a man considerably younger than Wilde, Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas, led to charges of sodomy (Bradford 2011). The Marquis harassed Wilde at length, confronting him, sending him insulting letters and notes -- his intention was to cause a public demonstration that would interfere with the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest.
In response to the public accusations made by the father of Lord Douglas, the Marquis of Queensbury, Wilde responded with legal action of his own -- against the advice of his friends -- he took the Marquis to court on the basis of criminal libel (Bradford 2011). Wilde's attempt to seek justice for the claims made against him turned into a sordid threat by the defense (Bradford 2011). In the course of the trial, Wilde's other sexual exploits and relationships with men were exposed to the light -- and to the public (Bradford 2011). The defense attorney capitalized on this information, claiming he would bring male prostitutes to testify in court (Bradford 2011). Wilde wisely dropped the case, but too much water had gone under the proverbial bridge -- Wilde was charged with gross indecency and arrested (Bradford 2011).
Doubtless, Wilde's heart was broken. He was host on his own petard, so to speak. The morality of the day -- the narrow-minded parochial thinking that he so enjoyed satirizing -- stuck like an unseen snake. The poison spread relentlessly. Wilde stayed in the country after the first trial, was arrested and tried a second time (Worth, 1983). Under the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, which made homosexual acts punishable, Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labor in Reading Prison (Worth, 1983). It was the harshest penalty the law permitted for the crime Wilde was judged to have committed (Worth, 1983). Overnight, the celebrated playwright's esteemed and prolific career came to an end (Worth, 1983). The government pursued Wilde, by some reports, because Lord Alfred's older brother was apparently engaged in homosexual affair with Archibald Philip Primrose, Lord Rosebery, who would become Prime Minister (Worth, 1983). The Marquis threatened to disclose the relationship, forcing the government to take action (Worth, 1983). The punishment of Wilde and his lover was an attempt to deflect the anger of the Marquis (Worth, 1983).
In exile following his release from prison -- perhaps in the hotel in Paris where he lived incognito as Sebastian Melmoth -- Wilde wrote The Ballad of Reading Goal, several lines of which are now well-known, though the catalyst for penning the poem is not (Worth, 1983). During the time that Wilde was imprisoned, a young trooper, Charles Thomas Wooldridge, of the Royal Horse Guards was hung (Worth, 1983). Wooldridge was convicted of cutting his wife's throat (Worth, 1983). In the foreign surrounds of the hard-labor prison, this execution of a young man profoundly assaulted Wilde, causing him to harbor astonished horror, resignation, and despair at human cruelty (Worth, 1983). Published by Leonard Smithers in 1898, under the nom de plume -- of sorts -- c.3.3., which was code for cell block C, landing 3, cell 3, Wilde wrote:
Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard.
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word.
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword! (Safire 1987).
In Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Bassannio asks, "Do all men kill the things they do not love?" (Safire 1987). Wilde's response was resoundly, "No!" Men kill the things they do love -- this, Wilde had experienced directly. Wilde's actions, directly and indirectly, brought about the end of his career, the end of his health, and the end of meaningful friendships, save one (Worth, 1983). Reginald Turner remained a steadfast friend to the end -- quite literally -- as he was at Wilde's bedside when the impoverished genius playwright died of cerebral meningitis (Worth, 1983).
Word has it that Wilde's last words were: "Either that wallpaper goes, or I do (Worth, 1983)." One hopes this is true, as could cherish him all the more for saying it (Worth, 1983). Frankly, this author would have preferred that the insouciant phrase appear on Wilde's tomb in place of the deeply moving lines chosen from The Ballad of Reading Goal which serve as his epitaph (Worth, 1983).
And alien tears will fill for him,
Pity's long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn. (Safire 1987).
The Importance of Being Earnest
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