Thursday, October 6, 2016

Oscar Wilde's Collected Letters - reading lots of Wilde

Recently, I finished off a jolly year-long project of reading not all of Oscar Wilde’s writing but most of it, the largest proportion, 1,200 pages – big pages – on The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde (2000, eds. Merlin Holland – Wilde’s grandson! – and Rupert Hart-Davis).

Two little books of what he called fairy tales and a similarly short collection of comic stories, including “The Canterville Ghost.”  Salomé (1892) and the four great comedies (1892-5) written at the height of Wilde’s fame, but not a pair of early verse* plays which sound unreadable (“The Duchess is unfit for publication – the only one of my works that comes under that category” writes Wilde in 1898, p. 1,091 of Letters).  The Artist as Critic: Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde, ed. Ricard Ellmann, a huge help for understanding his period, even if his ideas are not much other than watery Walter Pater – but funnier, crucially funnier.  Almost no early poems.  The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) for the third time, which honestly might be enough for a lifetime.

The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), by contrast, still seems endlessly rereadable.  I had the luck this year to see the touring company of the American Shakespeare Center perform it, too, young actors throwing themselves into Wilde’s nonsense.  It is the purest distillation of Wilde’s personality into literary form, with the stage business and social commentary of the earlier plays eliminated, replaced with pure Wilde, somehow distilled into a half dozen separate characters.

I had assumed that Wilde’s tragic crash, his legal troubles and imprisonment soon after the play opened, cut off the creation of more like it, so it was fascinating to read – between the lines – that Wilde did not really know where the play had come from and had no plans to write another like it, but rather more in the mode of The Ideal Husband (1895) and A Woman of No Importance (1893).

Who knows what might have happened.  Wilde’s creativity was destroyed by his farcical imprisonment for homosexuality, along with his social standing, income, family, and health.  Who knows what works Lord Alfred Douglas, the odious, sponging “Bosie,” and his idiotic feud with his repulsive father, cost Wilde.

Although he barely published after his imprisonment, Wilde did not stop writing - letters, I mean.  Fully half of the surviving Collected Letters are from after the trial, from prison – including the long self-explanation De Profundis (1905) – and then from the Normandy coast, or Paris, or Naples, or Switzerland, where Wilde finds himself trapped with the “tedious and unbearable” Harold Mellor, who is rich and pays for everything, but is also a miser.  “In the evening he reads The Times, or sleeps – both audibly” (1899, p. 1,134).  Someone should write a play about Wilde and Mellor.

This last half of Letters reads, as they say, like a novel.  It has terrific tragicomic narrative drive.  Wilde himself is comic; everything else is tragic.  Wilde struggles with his writing, money, depression.  He becomes a sponge, preferring the indignities of constantly begging for money to those of living on a budget.  Once in a while, he goes back to Bosie – oh no, don’t do it Oscar – he’ll break your heart again.  And he does.  Poor Oscar Wilde.

Anyway, this was all well worth reading, regardless of how little I have to say about it.

* Oops, one is verse - see comments.


  1. Unreadable plays, you say? You just threw that out as a challenge to your readers, didn't you? Well, I have them here, and now you've made me curious. I just read a couple of books that were pretty rough going (Vachel Lindsay's only novel, "The Golden Book of Springfield," and Tristan Tzara's final descent into looniness, "Le Secret de Villon"), so I'm prepared. And is one of those plays "Vera"? That one's in prose...

  2. Yes, "unreadable" is more of a metaphor than an accurate description. But it is a useful genre description. I am impressed you got through Lindsay, and tempted by the Tzara. I just read the "Manifestos," but those are almost too readable.

    I had already - well I guess that was a year ago - forgotten that Vera is prose. It is about Russian revolutionaries. Maybe it is readable but merely a bad idea. Contemporary America reviews: "long-drawn dramatic rot," "unreal, long-winded and wearisome" (Letters, p. 215). In other words, who knows? I don't trust those guys.

  3. You can never have too much Wilde, in my opinion! :)


  4. Oh, the Lindsay is kind of a mess. There are a few flashes of his usual gusto, but it's confused and directionless.

    "Le Secret de Villon" is sad, 500 pages of Tzara finding anagrams in Villon and Rabelais. He became like one of the more misguided Baconians, finding hidden messages in Shakespeare. The book was rejected when he wrote it, and not published until 1991.

    But I'm going to crack open those Wilde plays...

  5. The Tzara is wilder than I knew. A perfect example of the "unreadable." I fear that the Wilde plays will be merely readable but dull. Please let me know.

  6. Wilde wrote one great poem: The harlot's house.

    I think that you will like it.

  7. You're right, thank you. The puppet imagery is wonderful.

    No mention of the poem in the surviving letters.

  8. "Le Secret de Villon" is a sorry end to a brilliant career. I'm now reading "L'homme approximatif," a long poem which may be his best.

    Well, those early Wilde plays aren't dull, exactly, just cornball. "Vera" is a pretty good first play. It's short and punchy, has some juicy roles, and he keeps the conflict and plot twists coming. But a melodrama about the plight of the Russian people probably isn't the best use of Wilde's talents.

    "The Duchess of Padua" is a Jacobean revenge tragedy, which isn't the best vehicle for him either. His verse is musical enough, but it's still heavy on the hambone.

    One of the problems with both plays is that the heroes spout platitudinous speeches about love and democracy, while the villains get all the epigrams. Wilde soon fixed that.

    So, they're certainly not unreadable, just immature. It's still fun to watch Wilde at work.

  9. All right, better than I would have thought. Interesting.