Friday, October 16, 2009
Happy Birthday, Oscar Wilde
Today is Oscar Wilde's 155th birthday (though I'm sure he'd only admit to 35 at dinner parties) and as I rarely need an excuse to draw him anyway, here's a watercolour doodle and an overly long post in his honor. Oscar is the patron saint of too-smart-for-their-own-good weirdo adolescents everywhere; a strangely dressed, sharp tongued young man who wanted to live up to his china collection and declared his own genius on custom forms, who grew into a playwright, wit and storyteller who knew life was far too serious a thing to ever take entirely serious.
Wilde was born in Dublin; his father was a prominent optometrist and his mother was a poet, collector of literary lions and agitator for Irish independence who styled herself as 'Speranza' (her real name was Jane) and was a character in her own right. Oscar gained a certain amount of fame as an undergrad for a number poems, but it was his witticisms, foppish appearance and involvement with the aesthetic movement that gained the most attention.
He was parodied, caricatured, and Gilbert & Sullivan actually wrote an operetta called 'Patience', satirizing him and fellow aesthete Whistler (of Whistler's Mother fame). Having run successfully in the west end, the producers wanted to transfer it to New York, but Wilde was a largely unknown figure in America.The production company paid Oscar to tour the US, lecturing on his views of beauty and home decor and generally being himself. Had Wilde been around today, I'm pretty sure he'd have his own reality show, alla Kathy Griffin.
Oscar eventually married Constance LLoyd, had two children (Vyvyan and Cecil) and tried his hand at a number of different things. He was the editor of a Woman's magazine for a while & made a point of it featuring female contributors and covering issues like suffrage & dress reform; he wrote a novel (The Picture of Dorian Gray), several short stories and fairy tales, and a number of extremely successful plays (of which The Importance of Being Earnest is the funniest and best known today). But more than anything, he was largely know for being himself- a bigger than life figure who held forth on any and every subject from his own incisive and sly point of view, dropping bon mots, pardoxes and parables as he went.
Successful, well off and well known, Wilde was meanwhile living a double life (a theme that emerges again and again in his work) becoming increasingly involved in the emerging gay culture and Uranian movement (I didn't make the name up, folks) of 1880's & 90's London. Eventually he began a relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas (known as bosie) who was emotionally unstable, prone to violent tantrums and abusing Wilde's generosity (granted, Wilde was something of an enabler), and was generally just a nasty character. I think Kate Beaton's comics below sum it up pretty well.
Oscar got caught up in the feud between Bosie and Bosie's father the Marquis of Queensbury (incidentally the creator of the modern rules of boxing, and as equally hateful as his son), sued the Marquis at Douglas' behest for libel for implying his friendship with douglas was untoward, and on the strength of the evidence from that trial, wound up getting arrested, charged and convicted of sodomy, and served two years hard labor. Soooo, that didn't work out that well.
Upon his release he wrote The ballad of Reading Gaol (his best and most lasting poem, i think), several letters on the topic of prison reform, and an extremely long and posthmously published letter to Douglas called De Profundis, but his health was shattered and he drifted in paris, living on what his friends could spare. He died in 1900, declaring on his death bed that he and the wallpaper were in a fight; either it went or he did. The wallpaper won. He's buried in Pierre Lachaise cemetery, sharing his monuement with his bff and literary executor Robbie Ross. Here's an awkward picture of me kissing said grave, as is the custom.
Oscar taught me a number of things- people will forgive (nearly) anything if you're funny; wear your learning lightly (overly serious know-it-alls are no fun); even smart people can do stupid things for love and sex; and that every work is a self portrait of the artist. Happy Bday Oscar!