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Oscar Wilde vs.wallpaper

Playwrights? You’ve probably heard of Neil Simon, the Big Mac of playwrights (to paraphrase novelist Stephen King’s description of himself). You’ve heard of Tennessee Williams. The existentialists among us embrace Samuel Beckett (and even if you haven’t, you’re probably familiar with the catch phrase taken from the name of his greatest play, “Waiting for Godot”). There is the absurdist Eugene Ionesco, the great thinker and socialist George Bernard Shaw (My Fair Lady is a musical adaptation of his “Pygmalion”).


These were all interesting characters, but let’s look at one of the most colorful of all time: the flamboyant Oscar Wilde!


Currently we are staging his greatest play (and possibly greatest work), "The Importance of Being Earnest", a show first staged in 1895 and just as funny and brilliant today as it was then. If you’ve seen the play and remember the character, Algernon, you’ve got a good idea of who Mr. Wilde was. Have you seen the 1971 “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”? Gene Wilder? There’s another good example of what Oscar Wilde was like.


He was prolific. I have a volume of his complete works, 861 pages long and you need a microscope to read the print. It includes hundreds of poems, dozens of essays, nine plays, a plethora of short stories and his famous novel (which could compete with “Earnest” as his greatest work), “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” in which the corrupt Dorian remains young and handsome throughout his life while his portrait, hidden in the attic, takes on all the corruption and ages in horrible ways.


Perhaps Wilde was a bit like Dorian.


His full name was as elaborate as his personality: Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde. A Dubliner by birth, he attended Magdalen College where he won numerous awards. He became a student of aesthetics in the world – that is, the study of how we all perceive the world around us. He lectured in America for a time (of America, he wrote, “America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between”). He married Constance Lloyd, a girl of well-known family and had two sons, began editing a women’s magazine, wrote reviews, and published his lone novel, Dorian Gray, in 1890.


After this he began publishing the plays that gave him his greatest fame. His best known are Earnest – of course – “Lady Windemere’s Fan,” and “A Husband of No Importance.” They’re all great pieces, and I would highly recommend your reading them. I plan to read them someday, myself.


He also rapidly built himself a reputation for poetry, winning a number of coveted prizes. One day I plan to read those, too.


In a world that had no tolerance for homosexuality, Wilde made a pariah of himself in 1891 when he began a relationship with Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas. Douglas’ father exposed them after four years. Wilde sued him, dropped the suit when the evidence against proved too strong, was tried for gross indecency with men. The trial ended in a hung jury so he was tried again, found guilty, and sentenced to two years’ hard labor.


After his release in 1897 he was bankrupt, his name largely ruined in England. He sailed to France in hopes of rebuilding his reputation through his pen but wrote only one more work – “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” a poem highly critical of life in British prisons.


He had often suffered ear infections – his enemies declared them to be the result of syphilis. In November 1900, one of those infections developed into meningitis and killed him.


His last words: “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has got to go.”


Do you want to have some fun and close out your day with a wry smile? Google “Oscar Wilde quotes” and prepare to be both inspired and entertained.


It’s a sad thing to be defeated by wallpaper. But the world has well remembered Mr. Wilde—and that papered wall has been forgotten long ago.



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