Sunday, July 07, 2019

Fortnightly Book, July 7

In his early twenties, it looked very much like Oscar Wilde would become known for being a competent, albeit not stunning, poet. At twenty-five, he wrote a play, Vera, or The Nihilists, and as he knew almost nothing about the theater, it is not surprising that it never managed to do well. The Duchess of Padua, his next, didn't do much better, and he had difficulty finding anyone to stage Salome. At this point, he reassessed what he was doing and made a change that would change everything: having struggled at tragedy, he decided to write comedy. Lady Windermere's Fan was a great success -- although the audience didn't like Wilde smoking a cigarette when he came out to address them. A Woman of No Importance, which soon followed in 1893, was also successful -- although Wilde himself was booed when he addressed the audience on opening night due to a tasteless comment about the English (he himself was Irish, of course). An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest were staged in early 1895, a significant year for Wilde.

In the meantime, Wilde was carrying on an affair with Alfred Douglas, one of which Douglas's father, the Marquis of Queensberry, very much did not approve. The latter publicly insulted Wilde as a "somdomite", and Wilde, despite his cleverness never a good judge of how other people would see things, had Queensberry arrested and prosecuted for criminal libel. Since Queensberry could only defend himself in court by arguing that what he said was something a reasonable person could take to be true on the evidence, this meant that Wilde's entire life was put on display in the courtroom. It became clear that Wilde was not going to win, and he dropped the case (which made him bankrupt because he had to pay Queensberry's legal costs). But all the evidence was now public, so he was arrested for sodomy and gross indecency, and now he had to defend himself. This was easier to do though; the result was hung jury, but new evidence resulted in the prosecutor retrying the case, and Wilde lost. He was sent to two years of hard labor. In 1897, still in prison, he wrote a book-length letter to Douglas, later published as De Profundis. After he was released, he left England, never to return. In 1900 he caught a severe illness and, having spent all of his life straddling the border of Catholicism, was conditionally baptized and received extreme unction. (He may very well have been baptized as a Catholic as a child, and claimed to have a vague memory of it, but didn't know for sure, and he had once arranged a date for baptism and at the last minute sent the priest a bouquet of lilies as an apology for not showing up.)

I happened to pick up a copy of The Plays of Oscar Wilde recently at Half Price Books, and so, as you might expect, the books for this fortnight will be The Plays of Oscar Wilde and De Profundis. My condensed-term summer course starts this week, and reading plays I always find slower than reading novels, so we will see if I actually get through it in a fortnight -- I don't foresee any problems, but I'm also not going to be bothered if it goes over.

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