Roped In: Oscar Wilde’s Influence in Art and Crime

In this clip Matt Baume delves into the history of the 1948 Hitchcock film “Rope,” which was based on the real-life Leopold and Loeb muirders.

What particularly caught my interest was the description of the miscast Jimmy Stewart as “the Oscar Wilde character,” Rupert. The stage play, on which the film was based, was set in London. The film changed the setting to New York. Rupert was an aesthetic professor who introduces his protogees, Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan, to Nitetzsche’s philosophical notion of the Superman. Two of Rupert’s students were especially taken with the idea that some people are superior to others and that murder is, therefore, justified. For Rupert, the theory is a thought exercise, a bit of mental play. The students, however, decide to take the theory to what they believe is its logical conclusion. They kill a fellow student believing Rupert will be impressed by their work of art.

This led me to reflect on whether, and how much, art imitated life when it came to Oscar Wilde and his artistic fascination with criminality. Could Wilde’s theories have served as a justification for real world crimes, in particular crimes by one young member of the Wilde circle, Maurice Schwabe. Schwabe went on to be a major player (perhaps even ring leader) in a circle of international confidence tricksters who were suspected in at least one murder.

A number of young artists described encounters in which Wilde encouraged them to, at least imaginatively, throw off social convention and embrace a thrilling lawlessness. In 1891, Wilde met Adre Gide during a trip to Paris in which he wrote most of his play Salome. Gide described being almost overwhelmed by the “radiant” Wilde. Gide denied that Wilde tried to seduce him physically. (If he had, there would be no record as the pages for the months of November and December were torn out of Gide’s 1891 journal.)

Wilde, Gide wrote, was “always trying to instill in you a sanction for evil.” He preached the virtues of experiencing every form of vice. “I don’t like your lips,” he told Gide, “they are straight like those of someone who has never lied. I want to teach you to lie, so that your lips may become beautiful and twisted like those of an ancient mask.”

Gide wrote to his friend Paul Valery, “Wilde is religiously contriving to kill what is left of my soul, because he says that in order to know an essence, one must eliminate it.”

After Wilde had gone he wrote in his journal, “I think that Wilde did me nothing but harm. In his company I had forgotten how to think. I had more varied emotions, but could no longer get them in order.”

Lord Alfred Douglas wrote in his Autobiography:

Even before I met Wilde I had persuaded myself that “sins of the flesh” were not wrong, and my opinion was of course vastly strengthened and confirmed by his brilliantly reasoned defence of them, which may be said almost to have been the gospel of his life. He went through life preaching the gospel which he puts into the mouth of Lord Henry Wotton in Dorian Gray. Wilde was, in fact, a most powerful and convincing heresiarch. He preached that it was the duty of every man to “live his own life to the utmost,” to “be always seeking for new sensations,” and to have what he called ” the courage ” to commit “what are called sins.”

I am trying to be fair to Wilde and not to make him responsible for “corrupting” me more than he did. All the same, I must say that it strikes me now that the difference between us was this: that I was at that time a frank and natural pagan, and that he was a man who believed in sin and yet deliberately committed it, thereby obtaining a doubly perverse pleasure. I was a boy and he was a blasé and very intellectual and brilliant man who had immense experience of life. Inevitably I assimilated his views to a great extent.

Of course, the crime that Gide and Douglas were discussing here was something that is no longer illegal in this part of the world– sexual expression between men. But Wilde’s fascination with crime went beyond “gross indecency.”

As a young man Wilde had kept a notebook with clippings on the poet Thomas Chatterton who had composed poems he claimed were the works of a 15th-century Bristol monk, but which were his own fictional creation. Wilde believed his forgery “came from the desire of artistic self-effacement.” Thus, it was a perfect example of art for art’s sake.

Douglas, in 1895, told the French reporter George Ducquois that Wilde “would love to chat with an assassin and would happily invite him to dine in his room. This would involve danger. He believes this would be truly fun.”

Wilde certainly discussed his artistic fascination with lying and forgery with Robert Ross, and those conversations inspired works by both Wilde and Ross. (Wilde’s The Decay of Lying and The Portrait of W.H. were more enduring than Ross’s efforts.) It is not hard to imagine that Wilde discussed crime and its aesthetic qualities with a young and impressionable Maurice Schwabe as well.

We know Schwabe was still friendly with Wilde after his release from prison because he was the recipient of a gift. Leonard Smithers published a special deluxe edition of The Importance of Being Earnest in 1899. This edition was limited to twelve copies, which were distributed to Wilde’s closest friends. Schwabe had an autographed copy. It is not clear when and where Schwabe connected with his friends, but he was a constant world traveler so little can be ruled out. Schwabe had family connections to Naples, where Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas briefly lived together.

There is an intriguing anecdote that hints at the idea that Maurice Schwabe, by then a master card sharp, could have used his skill to help his friend Lord Alfred Douglas out of some financial difficulties. When Masolino D’Amioco was researching Douglas and Wilde’s time together in Naples he came across an interview with the descendants of Villa del Giudice where they lived. It was later called Villa Douglas. The family claimed that the original owner had lost the property to Douglas in a game of cards “the five of diamonds being the instrument of Fate.” D’Amico, however, rejected this story as “fanciful” noting that we have every reason to believe Wilde and Douglas had a hard time paying the rent.

The Italian writer Aronoldo De Lisle who knew Wilde in this period said that he was drawn to “studies of the underworld, feeling attracted to it by an irresistible force.” Wilde suggested that De Lisle write a novel about someone who, finding himself in prison for a trifling offence found himself envying the prisoners who had much more colourful stories to tell. “…he feels humiliated having only a very small crime to his credit. So, such was the power of the seduction of crime upon him that, so that he would be able to talk about himself, he gets up one night and strangles the most feared member of the Camorra.” Perhaps Schwabe, too, condemned to be a criminal by his sexuality, was driven to become a more dangerous class of criminal. Gerald Hamilton embraced a life of crime with Schwabe and his associates and cultivated an image of himself as one of the wickedest men in the world, in part to cover for the embarrassment of being jailed for gross indecency.

One of Wilde’s most notorious associations in his post-prison years was with Ferdinand Esterhazy, the real spy who allowed Alfred Dreyfus take the blame for his treason in the scandal known as the Dreyfus Affair. Esterhazy was thrillingly immoral, like Dorian Gray who killed to experience the sensation, or Salome, who asked for the head of John the Baptist on plate.

In one of their dinners together, Wilde told Esterhazy that he should not feel guilty about condemning an innocent man to the horrors of a prison colony because “the innocent always suffer…Besides, we are all innocent until we are found out. It is a poor, common part to play and within the compass of the meanest. The interesting thing surely is to be guilty and wear as a halo the seduction of sin.”

The idea that criminals are those who have been caught is something Wilde had been pondering since he was at Oxford. Plato’s myth of the Ring of Gyes, which Oscar read in the Republic, asks whether a person would still be moral if there were no consequences to his actions. In the myth the shepherd Gyges is caught in an earthquake that opens a chasm in the field where he attends his flock. He descends into the chasm and finds a dead body with a gold ring on its hand. He takes the ring and discovers it has the power to render him invisible. Unseen, he seduces the king’s wife, murders him and takes posession of the kingdom. The moral of this tale is related by Plato’s character Glaucon, “those who practice justice do so unwillingly and from want of power to commit injustice” and “every man, when he supposes himself to have the power to do wrong, does wrong.”

This view of human nature is echoed in Wilde’s own Ballad of Reading Gaol.

So with curious eyes and sick surmise
We watched him day by day,
And wondered if each one of us
Would end the self-same way,
For none can tell to what red Hell
His sightless soul may stray.

Esterhazy was impressed by this argument and he stood up in the restaurant and said, “Why should I not make my confession to you? I will. It is is, Esterhazy, who alone am guilty. I put Dreyfus in prison and all France cannot get him out.”

The interactions with Esterhazy seemed to have rekindled something in Wilde’s imagination, although he did not live long enough to bring his new ideas to fruition. Wilde spent his later days attending the trial of a couple who had murdered a debt collector and his nights at The Kalasaya, “a bar with sodomist outcasts who were sometimes even dangerous in other ways.”

Meeting with the young writer Wilfred Chesson around this time, Wilde said that his “work was all in his head.” He told Chesson “I do not doubt that there are as wonderful things in my future as there are in my past.” He spoke about a drama about a murder staged in a theatre frequented by criminals, described an execution by guillotine he claimed to have witnessed, and contemplated the morgue. He asked, “Have you ever noticed a thief’s hands? How beautiful they are? How fine and delicate the tips? They must be fine and delicate to take the watch from your pocket without your knowing.”

For Wilde, examining the dark side of humanity was an artistic and intellectual exercise. In the same pleasant afternoon with Chesson, the writers discussed art and artists in literate depth. They talked about religion and Wilde’s attraction to Christianity. Chesson witnessed the writer’s warm relationship with local children and Oscar mesmerized him with stories and parables. Wilde was curious and playful with ideas, never holding on to one for long.

Did others take his ideas more seriously then he ever did himself? Was Wilde the Rupert to Maurice Schwabe’s Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan? Unfortunately, because Schwabe left few first-hand accounts, his motivations and how much Wilde influenced them will likely never be known. You can learn more about his actions, however, in the book Wilde Nights & Robber Barons, now available in paperback and Kindle format.

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