Friday, February 17, 2017


Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest opened in London in 1895 on Valentine's Day.
Though at the height of his success, and fond of applause, Oscar Wilde's personal life made him vulnerable to attack. He had heard that his eventual nemesis, the Marquess of Queensbury, planned to publicly confront him on the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest; he had arranged to have Queensbury's ticket withdrawn and to have a policeman present, but he declined a curtain call, just in case. The Marquess had made it clear in notes to his son, Lord Alfred Douglas, that his relationship with Wilde must stop -- or else: "If I thought the actual thing was true, and it became public property, I should be quite justified in shooting him at sight. These christian English cowards and men, as they call themselves, want waking up. Your disgusted so-called father. . . ."
Horribly, more recently, an elder son had committed suicide on the heels of his own homosexual relationship with a politician.
The Marquess was particularly incensed that Wilde's play was opening on Valentine's Day.
Having been prevented from attending the opening, three days later Queensbury appeared at Wilde's Albemarle Club with a witness and a calling card inscribed, "To Oscar Wilde posing Sodomite." This written accusation, the desire of Lord Douglas to spar with his father in public, and Wilde's naïve belief that he would merely have to deny his homosexuality in court to win, provoked him to file charges of libel. He found out too late that Queensbury would play by his rules, and be able to frighten, cajole or bribe a number of male prostitutes into testifying against him.

Not long after its triumphant debut, The Importance of Being Earnest was withdrawn from theaters across England and America; not long after that, Wilde was in prison. The last, tail-spin years ended in one of the cheapest, un-Oscar hotels in Paris, and with "un enterrement de 6e classe" in Bagneux cemetery:
    JACK: Poor Ernest! He had some many faults, but it is a sad, sad blow.
    CHASUBLE: Very sad indeed. Were you with him at the end?
    JACK: No. He died abroad; in Paris, in fact. I had a telegram last night from the manager of the Grand Hotel.
    CHASUBLE: Was the cause of death mentioned?
    JACK: A severe chill, it seems.
    MISS PRISM: As a man sows, so shall he reap.
    CHASUBLE: Charity, dear Miss Prism, charity! None of us are perfect. I myself am peculiarly susceptible to draughts. Will the interment take place here?
    JACK: He seemed to have expressed a desire to be buried in Paris.
    CHASUBLE: In Paris! I fear that hardly points to any very serious state of mind at the last. . . .

(from Steve King and Ellmann)

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