Oscar Wilde at the Movies: British Sexual Politics and the Green Carnation (1960)

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In her 1990 study Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siecle, Elaine Showalter notes,

The 1980s and 1990s ... compulsively tell and retell the stories of the 1880s and 1890s, in contemporary versions of Victorian novels, in film and TV adaptations, in ballets and musicals, and in all the myriad forms of popular culture.... Yet in retelling these stories we transmit our own narratives, construct our own case histories, and shape our own futures. (18)

But this phenomenon is in fact nothing new. For the whole of the twentieth century, popular culture in general, and film in particular, has repeatedly turned to the creations of the late-Victorian literary imagination--to Robert Louis Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde, to Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, to Bram Stoker's Dracula, to Oscar Wilde's Salome--and embodied these characters in ways that have both reflected and furthered particular social or political agendas of the present day, far more than those of the past. Often, these characters have been appropriated, animated, and reimagined as what Wilde would have called "masks"--personae through which different movements and moments have spoken.

No fictional creation of the British fin de siecle--no character out of any play, novel, or narrative poem of the nineteenth century--has proved so useful or durable a mask as the figure of Oscar Wilde himself. The number of British, American, and Irish novels, poems, plays, performance pieces, TV productions, and films in which Wilde has appeared as a central or peripheral presence is nothing short of astonishing. [1] Anne Varty scarcely exaggerates in describing this as "a kind of industry," dedicated to generating and increasing "Wilde's legendary reputation" (40). But the ultimate aim of this industry has centered less upon the vaunting of the reputation for its own sake and more upon turning that reputation to the support of particular causes dear to the makers of these images. Using the voice of "Gilbert," one of his own innumerable masks, Oscar Wilde had remarked in "The Critic as Artist" that "Yes, the objective form is the most subjective in matter. Man is least himself when he talks in his own pers on. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth" (389). In recent years, Wilde has been used by Terry Eagleton, for instance, in the 1989 play Saint Oscar, as a voice crying out not only against the nineteenth-century oppression of the Irish by the English, but by allegorical extension, against the late-twentieth-century British government policies toward Northern Ireland condemned by Eagleton himself (Varty 40). By way of accounting for the range and multiplicity of the political positions for which representations of the life of Oscar Wilde have served as platforms, John Stokes has said, "In the 1890s Wilde was a public figure, in the 1990s he is the public itself" (Oscar Wilde 184). Wilde's chief value, nevertheless, has been to those who have wanted to address, whether overtly or covertly, the issues of homophobia, gay rights, and gay pride, for the story of his career--and especially of its end, in a conviction on charges of having committed "acts of gross indecency" with a variety of working-class male prostitutes, and a sentence of two years in prison at hard labor--lends itself well to such purposes.

As we mark the year 2000, the centenary of Wilde's death at the age of forty-six not long after his emergence from prison, we have seen an avalanche of competing representations of Oscar Wilde. Several of these are now familiar to readers, theatre patrons, moviegoers, and video rental audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1998, a production of David Hare's drama about Wilde's relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, The Judas Kiss, moved from London to New York, with the presence of Irish Actor Liam Neeson, fresh from his role in Michael Collins, meant to remind the audience of Wilde's importance as a symbol of ultimately unassimilable Irishness, even as the male nudity and lovemaking onstage brought issues of same-sex erotics to the fore. …