Acting Wilde: Victorian Sexuality, Theatre, and Oscar Wilde

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Kerry Powell, Acting Wilde: Victorian Sexuality, Theatre, and Oscar Wilde. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 216 pp. £59.00/$90.00.

Kerry Powell's approach to Wilde is to relate the man and his plays so closely that they become one, indivisible subject, a prime Victorian example of what he calls the 'intertextuality of theatre and life'. Author of two previous books, Oscar Wilde and the Theatre of the 1890s (1990) and Women and Victorian Theatre (1997), Powell in this latest study takes a fresh, penetrating look at the composition of Wilde's major plays-dealing not only with texts and with text itself, but with what that writing process reveals about the author and his artistic and personal predicament in the contexts of the fin de siècle. Powell is not fully accurate in saying he has conducted 'a first-hand examination of all surviving, pre-production manuscripts and typescripts of these plays'; he has missed some, and mistaken others. But it is true, as he claims, that the 'Oscar Wilde' who emerges 'is more contingent and conflicted, more "Victorian" and less consistently progressive in his sexual and political views' than the figure clarified in previous criticism.

Powell gives considerable credit where he should: to Sos Eltis' ground-breaking Revising Wilde: Society and Subversion in the Plays of Oscar Wilde (1996), which studies the manuscripts of the four major West End plays and also of Wilde's first play, the early Vera; or, The Nihilists (but not the second, The Duchess of Padua-and, startlingly, not Salomé). Writing nearly fifteen years ago, Eltis felt the need to penetrate a still-prevailing smoke-screen generated by the author himself, posing as a dilettante who threw off these plays effortlessly, whereas the manuscripts reveal a hard-working dramatist engaged in painstaking revision, leading his plays away from conventional, derivative origins toward becoming 'far more subtle and subversive works.' What distinguishes Powell's later approach is his attention to the great complexity of the pose and what lies beneath. Laying comprehensive emphasis on sexuality and its multiple ramifications, especially clandestine homosexual culture, he develops a sustained central concern with sexuality, urging a postmodern revaluation of the topic and, finally, identifying Wilde as in important ways the first postmodern-echoing Terry Eagleton, who, Powell says, sees Wilde as possessing 'the fundamental insights of contemporary cultural theory.'

Powell concurs. In certain pronouncements in De Profundis (Wilde's long letter to Lord Alfred Douglas from prison), for example about the tendency of human beings to lead inauthentic lives, Wilde, he argues, 'uses the vocabulary and concepts that would be invoked a century later in articulating postmodern concepts of subjectivity'. And yet, on the same page, Powell finds moments in De Profundis in which Wilde becomes 'less the precursor of Derrida, and more conventionally Victorian, by embracing the idea of an autonomous individual with an "own self."' One would have thought that this amounts to an actual contradiction, and not just a diminution, of Wilde's status as a precursor. All the same, from his explicitly postmodern vantage point, Powell views this as a failure on Wilde's part to embrace his own indeterminate subjectivity (Powell's terms). Unfortunately, Wilde was writing, he explains, 'without any map of postmodern theory to guide him' (98). Poor fellow. It is in passages like these in Acting Wilde that one perceives a widely embraced theory of criticism and culture betrayed by its own solipsistic tendency to prize the writer of a by-gone day to the extent that he thinks and behaves like one of us. …


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