Oscar Wilde did not hail from London originally, but he came to be very strongly associated with this city and, eventually, seen as the quintessential Londoner. He loved the capital and, as we found out over the course of this evening, mixed in every single social circle as a wit, satirist and, of course, a writer.
It was fitting that this ‘Theatreland’ talk by Neil McKenna’s, Wilde’s biographer, was taking place at the Café Royal, a building which witnessed many of Wilde’s triumphs and tragedies and from which he was forcibly ejected on at least one occasion. Wilde led such a fascinating and well-documented life that it’s difficult to know where to begin in talking about him, but tonight the focus was firmly on Wilde’s four plays, society comedies written over a remarkably short period of time (1891-1894): ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’, ‘A Woman of No Importance’, ‘An Ideal Husband’ and ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’. McKenna’s central argument, and the one he based his book around, is that the plays represent the pinnacle of Wilde’s genius – a view that is hard to disagree with, given that 120 years after their publication they have (i) never been out of print, and (ii) continue to be produced, frequently, by theatres around the world. In fact, during Wilde’s lifetime all four were performed just a stone’s throw from where we were sitting – and all made him a great deal of money.
It probably isn’t a coincidence, argued McKenna, that the plays were written shortly after Wilde met the infamous Bosie: Lord Alfred Douglas, son of the Marquess of Queensberry and Wilde’s nemesis / muse. Together, they lived an incredibly intense life: money, love, sex, infidelity, blackmail, champagne, food…all form a narrative of Wilde’s life during this period and all are reflected in his writing. “Nothing succeeds like excess”, he is famous for declaring – an apt statement from a man renowned for his unbridled appetite and, let’s be honest, sheer greed.
Although a great admirer of Wilde’s work, McKenna had no hesitation in telling us about Wilde’s less savoury characteristics, expressing exasperation at what he described as the “increasing Disneyfication” of Oscar Wilde, citing Stephen Fry’s portrayal as a good example of this. McKenna was not referring simply to Wilde’s excessive appetites, of course, but also to the way in which Wilde treated his long-suffering wife, Constance – and, indeed, most other women – having very little time for the fairer sex, to the point of misogyny.
Back to the plays, though, and ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’ was an instant success which earned Wilde £600,000 over the course of its first 18 months. He spent this money as quickly as it was earned, aided by Bosie who, with no money of his own, spent Wilde’s instead. What people may not be aware of is that the character of Lady Windermere is based upon Constance. Seven years younger than Wilde, Constance described herself as a puritan and had very stern outlook upon the world which Wilde found appealing at first but later came to loathe. Long before the play opened, Wilde was spending lengthy periods of time away from home, a husband in name only.
Play number two, ‘A Woman of No Importance’, was written in 1892 when Wilde was 38 years old and summering in Norfolk with Constance and their two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan – a family holiday that ended abruptly when Bosie arrived to stay; Constance and the boys left immediately. Again, this play is highly autobiographical.
By now, Wilde was churning out the plays at a rate of knots. ‘An Ideal Husband’ opened in 1895 and was based around a topic uncomfortably close to Wilde’s heart: blackmail. Indeed, Bosie had been a victim of blackmail and Wilde had hired a private detective to identify the perpetrator and pay them off.
An interesting character, Bosie – to say the least. Unlike Wilde who, with a family and reputation to protect tended to be more restrained in his behaviour, Bosie had, says McKenna, no sense of shame or guilt – nor any fear of scandal, despite the deeply conservative times in which they lived. His father, Queensberry, hated his son’s lifestyle and was determined to bring down all those close to Bosie. Queensberry took to hanging around the Café Royal, determined to catch Bosie and Wilde together. Wise to his tricks, they managed to avoid him, but it was only a matter of time before matters escalated – which they did in dramatic style. At the height of his powers, with ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ just having opened to rave reviews, Wilde took the bold – and ultimately disastrous – step of suing Queenberry for libel. Fifteen weeks later, Wilde was in prison – where he would spend two years, losing his family and his health, and falling out catastrophically with Bosie in the process.
It’s well-documented that Wilde never recovered from those two years’ hard labour and died, in Italy, at the relatively young age of 46. But what of his family? I wasn’t aware of this before tonight, but poor Constance who, puritan or not, had more to contend with in life than most of us, died aged only 39, following a botched and unnecessary medical procedure. A tragic ending, too, for Oscar and Constance’s elder son, Cyril, who never forgave his father for the way he treated his family and was killed in a suicidal act of bravery in the First World War. Vyvyan, though, led a relatively contented life, happily married and with a good career as a writer. In fact (and this is something else I didn’t know), his son (and Wilde’s only grandchild) Merlin is a Wilde “ambassador” and has just curated an exhibition of him in Paris.
As for Wilde himself: he and Bosie were, perhaps surprisingly, reconciled and lived together in Naples for several months – before, quite literally, nearly killing each other. Eventually, they were reconciled again and went on to maintain what McKenna described as a “warm friendship” for the remainder of their lives.
Wilde’s writing, of course, lives on. Banned straight after he went to prison, the plays were resurrected a few years later and continue to bring laughter, and much joy, to new generation after new generation. The legacy, I feel sure, that he would have wanted.