Prophet

Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde

a play written and directed by Moisés Kaufman. at the Minetta Lane Theater, New York City
Vintage, 143 pp., $10.00 (paper)

The Trials of Oscar Wilde: Deviance, Morality, and Late-Victorian Society

by Michael S. Foldy
Yale University Press, 206 pp., $30.00

Oscar Wilde’s Last Stand: Decadence, Conspiracy, and the Most Outrageous Trial of the Century

by Philip Hoare
Arcade, 256 pp., $25.95

Wilde thought he was the symbol of his age. In fact he was a prophet of the century to come. He died in pain and penniless in a cheap Paris hotel room in 1900 at the age of forty-six, perhaps of a prison injury to his ear. Had he lived he might now be remembered as England’s most articulate—and most extreme—theorist of modernism, of the evolution, that is, of the Romantic idea that the objective world is, as he called it, “fictional,” while reality is created by the “critical” imagination in its various artistic forms. There is no telling what plays he might have written had he lived another thirty years. Wilde thought of Christ as a kindred spirit. He called him the “precursor of the romantic movement in life,” an artist who spoke permanent truths to the beliefs and customs of the day. “The highest criticism,” he wrote, perhaps with Christ in mind, “is the record of one’s own soul.” Wilde was an absolutist of subjectivity, an apostle of what in degraded form is now called self-realization, and thus a hero of the present age, admired by the antinomian young and the subject of many academic articles and books. Gross Indecency, a highly praised play based on Wilde’s three trials, has been playing to full houses in New York for a year. Another play about Wilde, written by David Hare and starring Liam Neeson, will soon arrive here from London.

Though Wilde believed that art and morals should remain separate, his aesthetic creed implies a moral corollary. “The supreme vice is shallowness.” He meant taking the world at second hand rather than creating from one’s sympathetic imagination a personal reality. “I think the realization of oneself is the prime aim of life,” he said at his trial. Three years before his death, as his brutal incarceration was ending, he wrote a long letter, eventually published under the title De Profundis, to his sometime lover and treacherous friend, Alfred Douglas. “I treated Art as the supreme reality,” he told Douglas, “and life as a mere mode of fiction.” Wilde hated and defied the fiction of the closet. Within his own circle he made no secret of his sexual preference. “In art as in politics,” he had told an American lecture audience, “there is but one origin to all revolutions, a desire on the part of man for a nobler form of life, for a freer method and opportunity of expression,…[one that] will create a new brotherhood among men….” But at his trial for committing acts of gross indecency, his courage failed him. He lied about his sexual encounters.

This was his tragic hour. It could not have been avoided. He was not shy about declaring his sexuality. He was terrified of prison and disgrace, despite the bravado with which he joked about the advantages of incarceration during his trials. His loss of nerve cost him his supreme moment of self-realization. He was found …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.