When Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest: a trivial comedy for serious people premiered in London on Valentine's Day, 1895, Wilde (aged 40) was widely acknowledged to have decisively conquered the theater world...
Even the New York Times noted "Wilde may be said to have at last, and by a single stroke, put his enemies under his feet."
But within 100 days, Earnest had closed, Wilde's plays were universally considered unproduceable, Wilde had been publically humiliated beyond all imagining, and he was facing a two-year prison term... all for being homosexual.
For the last two years, Wilde's primary love-interest had been Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas. Bosie's father, unfortunately, was a severely repressed and repressive individual, best remembered as the originator of the "Marquess of Queensbury rules" in boxing. The Marquess was livid over his son's relationship with Wilde, and determined to bring Wilde down.
His first plan had been to disrupt the premiere of Earnest, but Wilde having gotten wind of this, the Marquess was denied entrance. So a few days later, on February 18, he left a calling card at Wilde's club, with the note: "To Oscar Wilde posing Somdomite" [sic].
Perhaps if Wilde had ignored this, it might have resolved itself without any great tragedy... but more likely Wilde knew that Queensbury was not going to let the matter drop, so unwisely, at Bosie's urging, he swore out a warrant on March 1 for the arrest of Queensbury, for libel.
The trial was set for April 3, with Queensbury represented by a college acquaintance of Wilde's-- Edward Carson. A day or two before the trial, Wilde was appalled to learn that the defense had come up with ten names of boys Wilde had (supposedly) solicited, along with some letters he'd written Bosie.
Wilde took the stand on the first day, and at first delighted the court with his wit. (Carson reads a verse from an essay of Wilde's, and asks, "And I suppose you wrote that also, Mr Wilde?" "Ah no, Mr Carson, Shakespeare wrote that...")
But gradually, Carson zeroed in on his target, and gained the upper hand. The tide's turning reduced Wilde to: "You sting me and insult me and try to unnerve me; and at times one says things flippantly when one ought to speak more seriously. I admit it..."
Queensbury was not just exonerated, the judge instructed the jury to find him justified in calling Wilde a sodomite in public. Having lost, Wilde's friends unanimously recommended he flee the country, because arrest seemed inevitable, but Wilde's pride would not allow it, and on the fifth of April he was arrested and jailed.
During April, Wilde faced a series of preliminary hearings, in which new evidence was introduced by various hotel employees testifying about Wilde's bedpartners, and the fecal stains found on his sheets! But the trial ended in a hung jury, and a second trial had to be scheduled for May 22.
Having been released on 5000 pounds bail on May 7, Wilde again had the opportunity to flee, and chose not to. On May 25, the jury found him guilty, and the judge declared, "People who can do these things must be dead to all sense of shame... It is the worst case I have ever tried.... I shall, under such circumstances, be expected to pass the severest sentence that the law allows. In my judgement it is totally inadequate for such a case as this. The sentence of the Court is that... you be imprisoned and kept to hard labour for two years."
In Pentonville prison he was required to
walk a treadmill for six hours every day, and to sleep on a bare board.
He was allowed no communication with the outside world for the first three
months. He lost twenty pounds in the first month. A chaplain wrote:
When he first came down here from Pentonville [he had been moved to Wandsworth] he was in an excited flurried condition, and seemed as if he wished to face his punishment without flinching. But all this has passed away. As soon as the excitement aroused by the trial subsided and he had to encounter the daily routine of prison life his fortitude began to give way and rapidly collapsed altogether. He is now quite crushed and broken. This is unfortunate, as a prisoner who breaks down in one direction generally breaks down in several, and I fear from what I hear and see that perverse sexual practices [masturbation] are again getting the mastery over him. This is a common occurrence among prisoners of his class and is of course favoured by constant cellular isolation. The odour of his cell is now so bad that the officer in charge of him has to use carbolic acid in it every day.... I need hardly tell you that he is a man of decidedly morbid disposition.... In fact some of our most experienced officers openly say that they don't think he will be able to go through the two years.He was moved again, to Reading, the subject of his "Ballad of Reading Gaol", where he wrote his apologia, De Profundis. Released finally on May 18, 1897, Wilde settled in France, where he died on November 30, 1900, at the age of 46.
During his final fever, he still retained his wit: "My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go..."
[Source: Oscar Wilde by Richard Ellmann]
And here's a happier image of Wilde, also from Ellmann:
In January 1882, before his (hetero) marriage and long before his recognition of his own sexuality, Oscar Wilde gave a well-received lecture tour in the US.
One of his first stops was to pay a call, on January 18, on the poet Walt Whitman at his home in Camden, NJ. They drank homemade elderberry wine together, and milk punch, talking for two hours...
"He is the grandest man I have ever seen," Wilde told a reporter, "the simplest, most natural, and strongest character I have ever met in my life..."
And, much later, in private, he bragged:
"The kiss of Walt Whitman is still on my lips..."
HIS LIFE THROUGH THE FILM
THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY
© 2000-2001 Carolina Gómez Martínez.