My LGBT Hero: Oscar Wilde

WILDE1Watching Rupert Everett’s impassioned West End performance in The Judas Kiss a few weeks ago reminded me of just how important the story of Oscar Wilde is to gay history. I feel the need to champion his story again and again because many young people in the gay community are often only vaguely aware of some relevance he once had, or oblivious to his legacy altogether. We must all fully understand and appreciate the stand he made.

Oscar spoke up for same sex love at a time when it was barely even understood, let along accepted, or tolerated – and for it, he paid a great price. Victorian England was not particularly welcoming to the prospect of homosexuality. It was still illegal and carried a prison sentence. Old Queen Vic herself famously refused to believe lesbianism existed. Wilde was a one of a kind, flamboyant genius from Irish aristocracy who arrived in London armed with staggering intelligence, a killer wardrobe and astonishing wit. Soon, he was documented in newspapers and his name spread to America, where he then travelled to deliver lectures. He was a celebrity in a time before celebrities existed.

His appeal was extraordinary, and when he took to playwriting, he became the star of the London stage. But his private life earned him many enemies, who resented his relationships with young men, which he unashamedly played out in public, despite having a wife and children. The irony was that it was largely young men who had led him into the gay lifestyle and not the other way around. It was his one ill-fated love affair with Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie), which put him in the bad books of the boy’s father Lord Queensbury, and ultimately led to his arrest for ‘gross indecency’. The scores of men who had followed Oscar so faithfully around London society, and basked in his fame and fortune, were suddenly nowhere to be seen – including Bosie himself. The links made in The Judas Kiss to the story of Jesus are slightly exaggerated but not without relevance. Oscar suffered the same arc of fame, adoration, envy, betrayal and ultimate destruction – all the while holding his head high in defiance of contemporary society.

WILDE2Oscar could have fled abroad and never had to face the charges that most publications dared not even describe – but he chose to stay. His trial in 1895 was quite literally the trial of the century, on account of his celebrity, and the shocking charges placed against him for living life so openly as a homosexual. The judge called it ‘the worst case I have ever tried’. Taking the stand in London’s Old Bailey, Oscar gave one of the most spellbinding testimonies in history, defending what he referred to as ‘the love that dare not speak its name’. When asked to explain what that was, he declared:

‘”The love that dare not speak its name” in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art, like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as “the love that dare not speak its name,” and on that account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an older and a younger man, when the older man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so, the world does not understand. The world mocks at it, and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.’

Wilde served the maximum sentence of two years hard labour, which the court ruled ‘totally inadequate’, but his real punishment was much worse. Upon leaving prison, Wilde was forced into exile in Europe – far too infamous to stay in England, with a reputation too toxic to be allowed anywhere near his wife and children. He was penniless, in terrible physical and mental health, and suffering from writer’s block when he died in Paris at age 46. There is nothing more tragic than considering how – on his death bed – he surely thought his crime had resigned him to the dustbin of history.

But a genius like Oscar’s – much like many of our LGBT heroes before and after – is one which could never be erased. As the tide turned on sexual politics in the 20th century, and his legacy began to be reassessed, Wilde was soon catapulted back to the fore of the literary canon and his legacy is now remembered with wonder, not blocked out in shame as it was in his lifetime. Plays like The Importance Of Being Earnest and A Woman Of No Importance are some of the most performed works in theatre, and many would cite him as the greatest playwright since Shakespeare. His letters – including De Profundis, written to Bosie from jail – are some of the greatest to be written in the English language.

Aside from his political importance, Oscar’s famous wit was equally revelatory and more than just satirical banter for his contemporaries. It was the foundation of camp, which remained the unofficial language of the gay community for the century to come. Oscar concealed knowing references to same sex love in his jokes and plays, and played out a certain fabulousness through characters like Lady Bracknell, to the delight of Victorian high society, who never knew what he was really talking about. As a result, the gay community grew to communicate with one another in ways that didn’t reveal its true nature to outsiders. As gay equality becomes more of a reality, there is less of a need for this unspoken sensibility, but we should never forget where it comes from and how it was used for decades as a means of both friendly dialogue and social survival.

As with any great movement, there are many people who chip away at the issue before it sees its full glory. Certainly the 20th century gave us more gay icons than we can shake a stick at, but in my opinion, Wilde is our founding father. He opened the door through which everyone else would pass, and in doing so, sacrificed his reputation, his art and ultimately his life. A special place should always be reserved for him in LGBT history.

WILDE3This article originally appeared on SoSoGay online.

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The Judas Kiss

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It was long accepted after his performance in the 1995 movie Wilde, that Stephen Fry had given the ultimate portrayal of Oscar Wilde. But after witnessing Rupert Everett’s stunning performance in the current revival ofThe Judas Kiss, it would appear Mr Fry has some stiff competition.

Wilde has long been accepted as the martyr of homosexuality, and here in David Hare’s excellent play, the religious analogy is spelled out clearly. As he awaits arrest in the Cadogan Hotel, it is clear that the love of men is Wilde’s religion, in which he is both ahead of his time and unapologetic. He choses to stand trial and punishment, rather than fleeing into exile, to be forgotten forever. He explains ‘If I leave now, my story is over. If I stay, the story continues.’ Indeed, Wilde’s legacy is as much about his historic trial and conviction, as it is about his rich body of literature. The hotel is Wilde’s garden of Gethsemane, where he has been cruelly abandoned by the men who followed him in his years of glory.

Freddie Fox makes an impeccable Bosie – Lord Alfred Douglas – the young aristocrat whose relationship with Wilde was the toxic element that led to his downfall. His temper, arrogance, and utter disregard for others are presented here as they have been in scores of biographical accounts. Wilde was blinded by his beauty, and forgiving of his wicked nature. Their relationship was tempestuous and destructive, and by betraying Wilde for his own ends, before leaving him to face the mob alone, he is quite obviously the Judas of the play’s title.

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Freddie Fox makes an impeccable Bosie in the production.

The second act is set in Naples, where Wilde is exiled after his two years in prison. Reunited with Bosie, he now lives in poverty, in deep contrast with the lavish lifestyle he enjoyed in Victorian London. Suffering from writer’s block, he blames Bosie for eroding something greater than his life – his art. Once again, in his hour of need, Bosie leaves him to return to England. Despite spending the act frolicking around with a naked Italian fisherman – a worthy attraction in itself – Bosie believes he can ‘give it up at anytime’, and insists he’s ‘not an invert’. It is then that Wilde recalls movingly the biblical account of Christ. ‘Judas was practically a stranger. It would have been more artistically true if Christ had been betrayed by John: because he was the one he loved the most.’

There is no doubt as to who the star of this show is. Everett triumphs as Wilde. Dressed to look every bit as large and flamboyant as the legend himself, he captures the stage with his arrival, and lights it up with every line. Everett has had a lifetime of preparation for this, playing Wilde’s own dandies, and their great modern equivalent – the gay best friend. The audience marvels as he recites in the manner we imagine Wilde did: every monologue rich with observation and unrivalled intellect; every retort delivered with legendary wit and wisdom. But more importantly, this story is about the forgotten years of Wilde. This is a man who was a star of the academic world, the toast of the London stage, a celebrity before celebrities existed – and yet he ended his days in disrepute, poverty, and loneliness, deprived of his lovers, his children, and his ability to write. Performing Wilde’s comedy is one thing, but Everett delivers his painful tragedy.

There is a consensus that Rupert Everett has been sold short in his career – typecast because of his decision to be openly gay. In many ways, it makes him a suitable successor to Wilde’s philosophy. But if there is any justice for talent, this will mark the beginning of a new period of theatrical roles for Everett, for which he is more able than many of his contemporaries. Although Wilde is his specialist subject, and this performance was bound to be outstanding, it opens a door that should lead to his greatest years yet.

The Judas Kiss plays at the Duke of York Theatre, London until 6 April 2013. Tickets start at £15.

This review appeared originally on SoSoGay online.