After Oscar Wilde’s downfall, William Powell Frith wrote to the owner of his famous painting The Private View of the Royal Academy, which featured the playwright, and offered to paint Wilde out of it at no cost to the owner.
“I will do whatever you wish as regards Wilde — it is unfortunate for the picture but what could be so inconceivably unexpected.”
I spent the last six years of my life immersed in the story of Oscar Wilde’s downfall and the effect that it had on the people who loved him. My book Oscar’s Ghost finally came out just last month in the U.S. (in August in the U.K.). It is still very fresh in my consciousness.
When the public first learned that Wilde had engaged in illegal sex with male prostitutes they were appalled. It was an act that was considered as immoral and disgusting as anything they could imagine in his day, and there was a rush to disassociate from him. The mere thought of Wilde, who had been at the height of his fame as a beloved wit just days before, made people uneasy. They heard “Oscar Wilde” and thought of perversion. They didn’t want to be confronted with his name or to have to see his face. They wondered if having enjoyed his work made them somehow complicit or suspect.
George Alexander, the manager of the St. James Theater, was overseeing and starring in the production of Wilde’s new comedy The Importance of Being Earnest.
This was the original program for the production, but after Wilde’s arrest for gross indecency new programs were printed without the playwright’s name. The play, it seems, had written itself. These days, with Wilde now redeemed, we tend to interpret this as a act of disloyalty and cowardice. The Victoria and Albert Museum’s blog, for example describes Alexander as “ashamed of the connection, but not too ashamed to keep making money out of it for himself and Wilde’s family.”
Alexander explained his decision differently. Wilde was not the only one involved in the production. The theater had a whole cast and crew that were counting on Earnest for their livelihoods. Alexander wanted to try to keep the production going for their sake, but he knew he couldn’t do it with Wilde’s name attached. It was inevitable, however, audiences stayed away and the play closed. It was replaced on May 11, 1895 with a play called–I am not making this up– “The Triumph of the Philistines.”
Oscar Wilde joined the convict ranks, placed in a solitary cell, identified by a number not a name.
A prison wall was round us both,
Two outcast men were we:
The world had thrust us from its heart,
And God from out His care:
And the iron gin that waits for Sin
Had caught us in its snare.
The worst day of Oscar Wilde’s life was November 20, 1895, the day he was transferred from Wandsworth Prison to Reading Gaol. He wrote:
From two o’clock till half-past two on that day I had to stand on the centre platform at Clapham Junction in convict dress, and handcuffed, for the world to look at. I had been taken out of the hospital ward without a moment’s notice being given to me. Of all possible objects I was the most grotesque. When people saw me they laughed. Each train as it came in swelled the audience. Nothing could exceed their amusement. That was, of course, before they knew who I was. As soon as they had been informed they laughed still more. For half-an-hour I stood there in the grey November rain surrounded by a jeering mob…. For a year after that was done to me I wept every day at the same hour and for the same space of time.
I spent six years reading personal letters, diving into archives, and putting myself in the place of a man who lost his profession, his sense of identity, his good name. I wrote about his time in exile in France, where he vacillated between hopefulness and despair, sometimes defiant of public opinion, sometimes afraid to show his face in public because he feared being shunned.
One of the things that drew me to Wilde’s story was the spectacle of this process of ostracism in motion. To see someone go from the greatest heights, being lauded, to the deepest depths, reviled and ostracized was riveting.
For six years I contemplated the ripple effects of Wilde’s ostracism. I read about how it became the central fact of two of his closest friends’ lives. I read about how these once intimate friends spent years locked in combat in the courts trying to come to terms with their own roles in Wilde’s downfall.
Wilde’s lover, and the subject of his bitter prison letter De Profundis, Lord Alfred Douglas, was an aristocrat, raised with the expectation that he would receive deference. He became an object of gossip, exclusion and ridicule himself. How did those experiences shape him and steer his actions? I know now, very well.
There is something you should keep in mind about Oscar Wilde. He was guilty. He broke the law and his crime was considered to be disgusting and damaging to society.
These are topics I have contemplated, in depth, for the past six years of my life.
So when I read a story about the producers of the series House of Cards, first instinctively canceling the series, then deciding to go on without Kevin Spacey in order to preserve the jobs of the rest of the cast and crew, I think of George Alexander and Earnest.
When I read about the paparazzi snapping images of the disgraced actor jogging on the grounds of a sex rehab clinic, I think about the gawkers trying to catch a glimpse of prisoner Wilde on the train platform.
When I see a story about a Spacey mural being painted over because it disturbs the owner of the building it is painted on, I think of William Powell Frith offering to paint Wilde out of his own work. I feel those resonances keenly.
When I hear people dismissing the ramifications of ostracism, saying “it’s only a job” or giving a sarcastic “boo hoo,” I know that they are wrong. Whether the target of the ostracism deserves it is a separate question from whether or not it is painful. Kipling D. Williams, a scholar of ostracism, found that the objects of exclusion often say they would rather be physically beaten or put in prison than shunned.
All societies have used ostracism to define acceptable behavior in their communities because it works. It is a serious punishment. We should not engage in it casually or blithely.
I think I had a personal attraction to Oscar Wilde’s story as someone who felt excluded and bullied in school. I have a bitter memory of two bullies throwing rocks at my back, joking about my butt being a big target, and how many points they would get for a bullseye. I never forgot what it was like to be dehumanized like that, and it produced in me an instinctive empathy for anyone who is being dehumanized, shunned or excluded.
Yesterday, I posted a link to the Kevin Spacey mural story in a twitter discussion that someone else had initiated about the actor’s “erasure.” In a reply to the thread, I was accused of not caring about the victims, “do they not matter?”
I ache for the victim of the harasser’s casual debasement. I also feel empathy for the man who has been toppled from his perch and sentenced to cultural exile. I recoil at the story of a famous man grabbing someone’s genitals with impunity and treating that person as an object or plaything not a person, just as I recoil at human beings being given dehumanizing labels like “predator.” Dehumanizing is distasteful. Empathy is not a zero sum game.
Over the years I’ve learned that befriending a social pariah can be hard because there are often good reasons people don’t like them. They often have abrasive personalities, do questionable things and do not play well with others. To feel empathy for the pain they must feel is not to excuse their eccentricities or bad behavior. It is not to make them innocent.
“It’s easy to forgive the innocent,” wrote Sister Helen Prejean, “It’s the guilty who test our morality. People are more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.”
I understand that it is too early, and too fresh, to talk about forgiving some of the perpetrators who have come to our attention. To welcome the transgressor back too quickly would be a sanction of his behavior. There are some we may never fully be able to forgive. We’ll only know with time. Oscar Wilde did not start to receive a measure of social forgiveness until five years after his death.
It is good to remember that Oscar Wilde’s most famous poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, was not about a man who had been unjustly accused. It was about the common humanity of the guilty.
And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourner will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.