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Spring 2001

The Importance of Posing as Oscar

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Eric Bentley
Reading Richard Ellmann’s biography of Oscar Wilde a dozen years ago, I rejoiced that someone had moved sex from the center of Wilde’s life in order to present him instead as a great Irish writer. Re-reading Ellmann today, I can’t help feeling that in so generously accepting Wilde’s homosexuality, Ellmann had also put it on one side or, in the jargon of today, “marginalized” it. Which might not much matter, except that in the work of Oscar’s full maturity (1885–1895), a homosexual dynamic is omnipresent, even when it might at first seem totally absent.

On this point two subsequent biographers—Gary Schmidgall (1994) and Barbara Belford (2000)—have supplemented Ellmann’s account and, it could be said, corrected it. At the time, Oscar the polemicist was telling critics and readers not to look for the author in any literary work but only for an objective creation. What our recent biographers have been showing is that, in his stories and in his plays, Oscar Wilde was constantly, even amazingly, injecting oblique references to his own person and that of his friends and lovers. That is point one. But the new biographies make a second point even more interesting and far-reaching.

I have spoken of a dynamic. For this “second point” is not anything Wilde mentions or discusses. It is a matter of the pressures behind the writing, and the fact that they all have to do with the author’s homosexuality. The simplest element in a complex of forces here is the compulsion to confess. Long before Ellmann, it was clear that Oscar tended, if not exactly to mention the unmentionable, at least to give unmistakable hints. That he was himself aware of the danger involved is shown in, for example, the way he toned down the obvious gay references in The Picture of Dorian Gray when, after magazine publication, it was revised as a book.

More than confession is involved. André Gide would tell us it was a self-destructive streak in Wilde, but this proposition only raises a more complex issue. We all sense that there were more Wildes than one in this man: did he want to destroy them all, and, if not, which did he want to destroy? An answerable question at least partially: at times, he wished to destroy Wilde the homosexual. That seems explicit enough in the notoriously homophobic letter he wrote to the Home Secretary when asking to be let out of jail.

The petition of the…prisoner humbly sheweth that he does not desire to palliate in any way the terrible offences of which he was rightly found guilty, but to point out that such offences are forms of sexual madness…the most horrible form of erotomania which…left him the helpless prey of the most revolting passions, and of a gang of people who for their own profit ministered to them, and then drove him to his most hideous ruin. It is under the ceaseless apprehension lest this insanity, that displayed itself in monstrous sexual perversion before, may now extend to the entire nature and the intellect, that the petitioner writes this appeal…

You could, of course, declare this letter insincere and disingenuous. But did Wilde destroy himself? Certainly, he asked for trouble and got it, and was the first to refer to his incarceration as his ruin and his death. But was it? The evidence usually produced is that he wrote no comedies after he got out, and perhaps no major work at all, but this is not in itself proof of self-destruction, and there is evidence of something quite different, for instance, in a letter (1898) to a gay friend where these words occur:

I have no doubt that we shall win, but the road is long, and red with monstrous martyrdoms. Nothing but the repeal of the Criminal Law Amendment Act would do any good. That is essential.

I don’t know if any of Wilde’s biographers, early or late, have seen what underlies such a letter. Oscar speaks here as one homosexual to another. In my play Lord Alfred’s Lover, I had him add: “Lord Queensberry’s charge is libel now: I do not pose as a sodomite, I AM a sodomite.” The key word in this whole discussion should not be self-destruction but pose. Wilde was, or had been, the ultimate poseur, and Queensberry wasn’t stupid, even if he couldn’t spell sodomite. On the contrary, he sensed the deeper truth that what you pose as may be what you actually are but haven’t admitted. This was a man who called Oscar a “bugger” (to his face) and a “cocksucker” (in a letter to one of his sons). He reasoned that Oscar was a fraud and a hypocrite too, and this was the message that stung Oscar so much that he, suicidally, sued Queensberry.

Go back and read all Oscar’s major work, fiction, drama, essays. It is mostly about posing! Often he seems close to the Pirandellian notion that all life may be a pose or a succession of poses, but often, too, he asserts his commitment to a diametrically opposite notion. For, obviously, when he tells you to be yourself, which he so often does, he takes for granted that there is a self to be. A tragic conflict ensues if you can’t find that self, or if you aren’t sure you really want to find it, because it scares you.

Such is the tragic conflict in Oscar Wilde’s “posing as a sodomite.” It could have destroyed him utterly. What it did do was undermine him considerably, upsetting his judgment and his thinking, as well as his heart and his feelings. Until he could say “I do not pose as a sodomite, I AM a sodomite” and mean it, and feel it, and be unrepentant about it, he was bound to seek out more and more poses, and he would so seek them out at whatever cost to his morals or to his art.

The notorious book-length letter to Lord Alfred Douglas known as De Profundis has to be looked at afresh. It is a ghastly document, the only work of Wilde’s which I ever wish he had burnt (as Douglas once said he had done with his copy). Not because it lacks positive qualities: it contains brilliant observations and dazzling eloquence, even some information that is important and reliable. Unfortunately, it also reveals a side of Wilde that one might wish had not been there. It is not just that he exaggerates and misremembers and lies, which many readers have noticed, but we learn from it that he shared some of the worst qualities he imputes to Douglas, and comes to us here a bitchy queen, self-absorbed, self-pitying, full of loathing and contempt, if not outright hate, for his “lover.”

Was it all a pose? On one page he is on the point of posing as Jesus Christ, which may be the source of the thought, now widespread, that Bosie was Judas to his Jesus. Bernard Shaw thought that De Profundis would make a good comedy, but that could be only if Wilde was the chief butt of the joke, which is hardly what Oscar had in mind. (I assume Shaw had read only the shortened text of the letter, which has little or nothing of Douglas in it.) Some Wildeans think the worst thing about De Profundis is its being addressed to “Bosie,” whom it demonizes ad nauseam. Worse is the fact that it’s Wilde’s apologia pro vita sua and is addressed to posterity: a melodrama of angel (if fallen angel) and devil, played out before the world. Wildean books represent Oscar as always writing well, if not superbly, but he was the most uneven of great writers. As a poet he was only slightly superior to Lord Alfred Douglas. His efforts at tragedy were hopeless. Even Salomé, the best of them, only becomes a work of art with integrity when transformed by Richard Strauss’s music. His drawing-room plays (Lady Windermere, A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband) can still be charming entertainments, and contain passages of high, pure comedy, but are rendered somewhat second-rate by kitschy fake plots of the school of Dumas fils (whose drama only became great when transfigured by Giuseppe Verdi). The children’s stories are not quite first-rate either—he is in the class neither of Lewis Carroll nor of Hans Christian Andersen. Was he a great literary critic? Certainly his essays are splendid writing, and he has a great deal to say there on a variety of subjects, but he is not a great literary and dramatic critic on the scale, say, of Samuel Johnson: he does not discriminate enough, weighing this against that, but simply aims satiric barbs or offers startling, sometimes electrifying generalizations.

He did hit perfection at least once: in The Importance of Being Earnest. What makes it so superior to all his other plays? For one thing, it is all of a piece, not split personality, part drawing-room comedy, part domestic tragedy, like Lady Windermere and the others. The point of view (even if one that an audience may not grasp) is consistently held. Has he got beyond pose in this play? Its tone might suggest it is all pose, like Dorian Gray. But there is not the ugly tension of his other works of this period, in which he is uncertain what to pose as, and oscillates awkwardly. Should we call it the pose of the ultimate poseur? I know of no other comedy so constructed: it comes on as a farce, and seems to be about nothing (James Agate, leading drama critic in London not long after Oscar, and gay, thought it was about nothing), yet is about almost everything, and certainly about Victorian morals and mores and Wilde’s topic A: homosexuality. (Wilde was aware of this last point, of course, and deleted at least one overt gay reference in his manuscript before having it typed and performed.)

The Importance of Being Earnest, finished in 1895, was a mountain top. Here he resolves the struggles I tried to define just now. If he had been searching for the right way for him to write, this could have been seen as it, and we could imagine him, a stable genius now, writing a series of such plays. It was no accident from outside that destroyed this possibility. He did indeed encounter outside forces he could not master, but there were actions of his own (and words are actions) that contributed. 1895 was the year in which he sued the Marquess of Queensberry for libel. He lost, and the Marquess (more precisely, the Crown) sued him—twice.

In “Reading Gaol,” in De Profundis, he announced a new course for himself. A friend had talked to him about Dostoevsky’s prison experience in Siberia: grist to his novelistic mill. In prison, you suffer. Then you write about suffering. Comedy and joy, adieu! Hail, the depths of suffering from which one may rise to the heights of religious faith—about all of which one must now write! Out of some such train of thought Oscar did achieve one work more satisfactory than De Profundis: “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” To some people this is indeed a masterpiece. Others of us find it marred by a quality that mars all Wilde’s work that is not either the sprightly, sinuous, natural prose of the letters or the high comic style of the essays—and of The Importance of Being Earnest. Is it, at bottom, sentimentality? Recourse to an outmoded orotund Victorian rhetoric? The poem asks to be compared with “The Ancient Mariner,” but it has an exactly opposite relation to its maker. In the “Mariner,” a philosophic poet of High Romanticism abandons all grand, German, philosophic airs and adopts the simple airs of English folklore. In the “Ballad,” a poet of deliquescent post-Swinburne romanticism adopts an oracular air in which his self-pitying sonorities become not a little pompous. It has good parts, though. W. B. Yeats included these, and only these, in The Oxford Book of Modern Verse.

On leaving jail, remembering The Cloister and the Hearth, Oscar said he must now choose between the cloister and the café—the hearth had already failed him or he it. He did in fact make an attempt, perhaps half-hearted, to enter a monastery, but was turned down by the folks there. So it was to be the café. He did not write a Dostoevsky novel in some dive on the Left Bank. The tentatively planned turn from comedy to tragedy did not happen. He had died at Reading. Or? He survived but at a tremendous cost. He could scarcely claim to be an artist any more, the joie de vivre, all the primal energies, seemed to have gone, and yet his spirit seemed to have achieved a kind of calm. He had lost the need to pose as a sodomite. Was he a sodomite then? He was. What he felt was not what would later be called gay pride. Nothing to be ashamed of, but why pride? Any comfort it brought was that of touching bottom—rock-bottom reality—himself. The process nearly killed him. But, as was said by a contemporary and kindred spirit: what does not slay you makes you stronger.

Parallel to the two studies I have cited of Wilde, let me cite two of Alfred Douglas: Bosie by Rupert Croft-Cooke (1963) and Bosie by Douglas Murray (2000). Croft-Cooke was one of the gay English writers who went to jail, as Oscar had, “for being queer.” This was in the 1950s. He learned from experience that such inmates develop a “prison neurosis,” a form of hysteria which makes them want to get out at any cost. They will say anything to get their sentences reduced, and what they do say is that they are someone’s victim, often their lover’s or best friend’s.

That is certainly the Oscar of De Profundis, and it is heartbreaking to see a man devoted above all to a kind of nobility becoming so ignoble. Bosie-Judas did not betray Oscar-Christ in the 1890s, and it is good to have the point proved by Croft-Cooke in the 1960s and confirmed by the young Mr. Murray, now twenty years old, in the year 2000. Both of them have to concede, on the other hand, that the Douglas who lived on till 1945 was a madman. And a bad man, who hounded Oscar’s “friend of friends” Robbie Ross, not quite into jail, but to a premature death (by “natural” causes), a copycat persecution mimicking his father’s pursuit of Oscar.

There is a great deal of re-enactment and déjà vu in the Douglas-Wilde story. Oscar and Bosie both had their times of fanatic homophobia and times when they saw homosexuals as either an equal class or a superior one. Ironies everywhere. What most enraged Oscar when in jail was that Bosie published an article in the Revue Blanche stating that homosexuals were a superior caste, and had been recognized as such by the Greeks. After Oscar was dead, Bosie called him the most evil influence on the young since Martin Luther and used words like “filthy” and “loathsome” and “hideous” when referring to Ross or any other homosexual.

After a century of memoirs and biographies, the nature of the Oscar-Bosie relationship is still far from clear. There was never anything I would call a romance, let alone a marriage (of true minds or otherwise). Our playwrights and screenwriters have been mistaken in basing their scripts on a romance that never was. De Profundis is not the only letter from Oscar to Bosie that was absurd. Oscar’s earlier Love Letters (in caps, definitely) had been equally absurd. Nobody has ever loved anyone like that! Oscar resembles Orsino in Twelfth Night: he got crushes on people and liked to make an embroidery of words about that experience. Any marriage this relationship resembles would be a Strindbergian one. They fought, and Oscar recorded in De Profundis what a bitchy fighter Bosie was. They slept little with each other, but much with 1,003 others, usually teenagers.

Mr. Murray’s prior experience is less a propos than Mr. Croft-Cooke’s. At fifteen or so he fell in love with Douglas’s poetry, finding him to be an unrecognized peer of Oscar’s. He didn’t realize that Oscar’s poetry isn’t much good. End of this chapter, unless Mr. Murray’s publishers continue spending money on misleading publicity.

André Gide has told the world that Oscar said he put his genius into his life and only his talent into his work. How silly! One is tempted to think Gide is lying. Everyone in this story is a habitual liar, Oscar not only included but the only one who actually complained of “a decay of lying.” There is nothing that Oscar might not have said in an unguarded moment. None of his moments were guarded. There lies his vulnerability—and, I’m afraid, his charm.

Eric Bentley’s own portrait of Oscar and Bosie is provided in his play Lord Alfred’s Lover. His books include Thinking About the Playwright, which includes a chapter first published in The Threepenny Review.

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