We all know Oscar Wilde as the consummate wit, but there’s more to this fascinating artist than scintillating epigrams.
1. Oscar Wilde was a socialist
It may be difficult to square the aristocratic dandy with the author of the essay The Soul of Man under Socialism, which argues for the abolition of private property and government.
In a community like ours, where property confers immense distinction, social position, honour, respect, titles, and other pleasant things of the kind, man, being naturally ambitious, makes it his aim to accumulate this property, and goes on wearily and tediously accumulating it long after he has got far more than he wants, or can use, or enjoy, or perhaps even know of.Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man under Socialism
This is not such a surprise if one is familiar with the best-known of his fairy tales, The Happy Prince, in which the gilt statue of a prince asks a swallow to strip the gold leaf from his body to be distributed among the poor – a metaphor for socialism, if ever there was one.
2. Oscar Wilde was a camp icon
Before camp was a thing, Wilde was living and breathing it. The seminal essay on this unique sensibility and aesthetic, Susan Sontag’s Notes on Camp (published 1964) was dedicated to Wilde and quoted him extensively.
Today, camp is everywhere: in RuPaul Drag Race and every Ryan Murphy hit series, in last year’s Met Gala and exhibit Camp: Notes on Fashion, and (in the opinion of this writer) in many of Meryl Streep’s late-career performances.
3. Oscar Wilde was an editor of a magazine for women
While Wilde was building his reputation as the most sought-after dinner guest in London, he started work as an editor of a magazine he renamed The Woman’s World (from The Lady’s World), undertaking the task to transform it into “the recognised organ for the expression of women’s opinions on all subjects of literature, art, and modern life.”
Under his short-lived tenure, he commissioned articles on the campaign for women’s suffrage, and according to his sub-editor Arthur Fish, was committed to championing “the the right of woman to equality of treatment with man.”
3½. Oscar Wilde was a closet… feminist
Are the men in The Importance of Being Earnest exceptionally passive, or are the women just boss? This is a love story in which the women dictate the terms of the romance, outmanoeuvring the men at every turn. “The home seems to me to be the proper sphere for the man,” says Gwendolen of her father – will the same be said of her beau John Worthing after marriage?
4. Gay code deciphered
Is there a homosexual subtext to The Importance of Being Earnest? Consider the following:
- Cecily is name of a major character, and Victorian slang for male prostitute
- 🥒 🥒 🥒 Cucumber sandwiches are mentioned by male and female characters alike, but is only consumed by one: Algernon, who will fall in love with Cecily
- Algernon invents a friend called “Bunbury” whom he has to visit whenever he wants to shirk social obligations. He also accuses his friend Jack of being a “confirmed and secret Bunburyist.” This is curious: What exactly does Algernon want to “bury” in a “bun”?
5. Train stations in art and in life
The running joke of the play involves a certain handbag left at a train station. And at the climax in Act 3, Lady Bracknell declares, “We have already missed five, if not six, trains. To miss any more might expose us to comment on the platform.”
This hysterically absurd line (how would fellow commuters know of her tardiness?!) brings to the fore a world of Victorian disapproval, where what is merely a private inconvenience is perceived to have public consequences. Tragically, this comic remark would find its dark fulfillment in real life after Wilde was convicted of “gross indecency” for his homosexuality. En route to prison, the platform at a train station would become the site of Wilde’s greatest humiliation.
On November 13th 1895 I was brought down here from London. From two o’clock till half-past two on that day I had to stand on the centre platform of Clapham Junction in convict dress and handcuffed, for the world to look at… When people saw me they laughed. Each train as it came up swelled the audience. Nothing could exceed their amusement. That was of course before they knew who I was. As soon as they had been informed, they laughed still more. For half an hour I stood there in the grey November rain surrounded by a jeering mob. For a year after that was done to me I wept every day at the same hour and for the same space of time.Oscar Wilde, De Profundis
The Importance of Being Earnest opens 7 Feb.