Exiled to the Colonies: 'Oscar Wilde' in Australia, 1895-1897

Article excerpt

When Oscar Wilde was imprisoned in 1895, his plays were withdrawn from the London stage and, as Joel Kaplan and Sheila Stowell note, 'exiled to the provinces and played with their author's name discreetly removed.' Reinstating them on the London stage was a protracted exercise in 'dissociating the plays from . . . their author's irredeemable behavior,' with Wilde's plays not reappearing in London theatres until several years after his death in Paris in 1900, and even then with his name still omitted from the advertising playbills.1

The situation in Australia was radically different: there were major seasons by the Brough-Boucicault Comedy Company2 throughout the 1895-1897 period of Wilde's trials and imprisonment, which were enthusiastically attended by colonial high society including several governors and their wives. As in London and New York, Wilde's name was at first removed from advertising hoardings and playbills by the theatre management.3 Later, again as in London, they used the evasive phrase 'By the author of . . . [ one of the earlier-staged plays, most often Lady Windermere's Fan, his first success in Australia, as in England]'. Nevertheless, even at the height of the controversy, Sydney and Melbourne newspapers frequently mentioned Wilde by name in their reviews and gossip paragraphs, and Wilde's name reappeared in their theatrical advertisements in March 1896 a full decade before George Alexander dared to do likewise in London.

In 1895 Australian daily newspapers relied on cables forwarded from London by the overland telegraph. They devoted many column inches to the events of March to May that year: first Wilde's action against the Marquis of Queensbury for libel, and then the two trials of Wilde himself for indecency and sodomy with workingclass youths, though he was of course also notoriously associated with Queensbury's son, Lord Alfred Douglas. As in London, fascination with the cases increased quickly: the Sydney Morning Herald placed short news updates about the case in a column headed'special Cables from the Herald's London Correspondents.' It chose to present on Monday 8 April its cumulative account of the weekend of Wilde's arrest as a series of breathless 'unedited' news-flashes: four paragraphs on the collapse of the case against Queensbury, then a single line 'LATER. Oscar Wilde has been arrested,' followed by three further update items.

During Queensbury's trial the upper-class nature of the matter was also emphasized. Although Wilde himself was not an aristocrat (nor English), Australian newspapers initially viewed the events much as some London papers did, producing what Alan Sinfield has called the 'composite' figure of 'Wilde + [Lord Alfred] Douglas'.4 The Melbourne Age headlined 'An Aristocratic Scandal' ( 11 March) and 'A Society Scandal' (5 April); however after Wilde became the defendant this changed to 'The Wilde Scandal,' a headline it used throughout Wilde's two trials as his behavior became the object of horrified fascination. The Melbourne Argus likewise started with 'scandal in London' (11 March), 'The London Society Scandal' (4 April) before focusing in on 'The Trial of Oscar Wilde' (1 May) or simply Oscar Wilde' (8 May). The Sydney Morning Herald began with 'A Society Libel case' (11 March) before similarly personalizing the matter as 'The Oscar Wilde case' (11 April), though it reverted to 'The London Scandal' occasionally (8 April, 13 April). The lower-class and 'servant' status of some of Wilde's alleged partners was reported, and readers learnt that he had been 'on terms of intimacy' with young men 'not his social equals,'5 but this was not taken up as an editorial issue by any Sydney, Melbourne, or Brisbane newspaper. The emphasis was always on scandal at the centre of London high society as well as on Wilde himself. As we shall see, colonial society regarded this as highly significant.

In general, however, editorial comment was muted. Even the normally conservative Melbourne Argus announced that 'We have no intention of commenting on the disclosures which have made hideous wreck of an exceptionally brilliant career' and proceeded to take issue with Lord Queensbury's attack, during his trial, on Wilde's literary output. …