Lord Alfred Douglas

Does Art Belong to Its Audience or Its Creator?

…For many other artists, however, the arts network proves an unmitigated disaster. Sometimes it’s just that the freewheeling thought patterns that lead to artmaking don’t lead as gracefully to tidy record keeping. More often, though, the same artists who diligently follow a self-imposed discipline (like writing in iambic pentameter, or composing for solo piano) prove singularly ill-equipped to handle constraints imposed by others… Ideally (at least from the artist’s viewpoint), the arts network is there to handle all those details not central to the artmaking process… If all this evidence of the reach of today’s arts network still fails to impress you, consider the sobering corollary: once you’re dead, all your art is handled by this network.

David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking

As the artist works away, creating, revising, failing and starting again, she never knows if her work will live beyond her, if it will be cherished or forgotten; if it will be deemed classic or garbage. Much of this has little to do with the artist or the quality of her work at all. To become “a classic” a work has to have a champion who is determined to share it after the artist is gone. It has to have teachers who present it to students. It has to have archivists who deem it worthy of preservation. These are the artist-makers. Their passionate enthusiasm transforms a struggling artist, who may have died penniless, into a vital part of our culture. Sometimes these executors carry on in accordance with the artists’ wishes. Sometimes they do so in spite of the artist.

The Atlantic today featured a review of Benjamin Balint’s forthcoming Kafka’s Last Trial, a book about the posthumous legal battle over Kafka’s manuscripts. In his review Adam Kirsch wrote:

At the time of his death, in 1924, at the age of 40, Kafka hardly seemed like a candidate for world fame. He had a minor reputation in German literary circles, but he had never been a professional writer…

Famously, he had tried to keep it that way. Before he died, Kafka had written a letter to Brod, who found it when he went to clear out Kafka’s desk. In this “last will,” Kafka instructed Brod to burn all his manuscripts, including his letters and diaries. But Brod, who admired Kafka to the point of idolatry, refused to carry out his friend’s wishes. Instead, he devoted the rest of his life to editing, publishing, and promoting Kafka’s work—even writing a novel about him, in which Kafka was thinly disguised as a character named Richard Garta. In this way, Brod ensured not only Kafka’s immortality, but his own. Though Brod himself was a successful and prolific writer, today he is remembered almost exclusively for his role in Kafka’s story.

The question of whether Brod acted ethically in disregarding Kafka’s dying wishes is one of the great debates of literary history, and it lies at the core of Balint’s book. As he notes, “Brod was neither the first nor the last to confront such a dilemma.” Virgil wanted the Aeneid to be burned after his death, a wish that was also denied. Preserving an author’s work against his or her will implies that art belongs more to its audience than to its creator. And in strictly utilitarian terms, Brod undoubtedly made the right choice. Publishing Kafka’s work has brought pleasure and enlightenment to countless readers (and employment to hundreds of Kafka experts); destroying it would have benefited only a dead man.

Does art belong more to its audience than its creator?

Put another way: Is the life of the work of art more valuable than the human considerations of the artist and his relations?

Robert Baldwin Ross, who became Oscar Wilde’s literary executor a number of years after his death, was one who placed a high value on the life of works of art. In response to an editorial that said in a burning museum anyone would save a child over an old master, Ross wrote that he hoped he’d have the courage to save the art.

One of the great debates in Wilde circles is how closely Ross’s actions on behalf of Wilde’s estate followed Wilde’s wishes. Nowhere is this more relevant than in his handling of the manuscript of Wilde’s prison letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, which Ross named De Profundis. Ross was determined that the work was important, and he went to great lengths to preserve it. His efforts proved painful and detrimental to Douglas, and ultimately to himself as Douglas battled against them.

We, the modern-day readers and researchers who benefit from the continued existence of De Profundis, are grateful for Ross’s choice and therefore there is a strong bias in favor of the idea that Ross did act in accordance with Wilde’s wishes. We would like the ghost of Wilde to be pleased at his literary resurrection and our interest in his life.

There is reason to doubt that Ross did follow Wilde’s instructions when it comes to the manuscript. He did not follow the only written instructions that were preserved– they said to send the handwritten original to Lord Alfred Douglas, which did not happen. He claimed to have received different verbal instructions. Of course, the only evidence for this is Ross’s own statement.

Ross did not always follow Wilde’s instructions when he disagreed with them while he was alive.  After Wilde was released from prison, they had a minor falling out over how The Ballad of Reading Gaol should be published. Ross felt, for artistic reasons, that it should only be put out as a book. Wilde’s concerns at that point were more down to earth and human. He’d lost everything when he went to jail and he wanted the biggest, fastest paycheck. That meant serial publication.

Unable to persuade Wilde to think long-term, he went behind Wilde’s back and tried to enlist Leonard Smithers in preventing serial publication. “I hope you will refuse to publish [the ballad] at all if the market is going to be spoiled by having it published in an English newspaper.” Ross wrote. When Wilde learned of this he was understandably annoyed with Ross.

One thing that I found interesting in Kirsch’s article on Kafka was the speculation that Kafka chose his literary executor precisely because they disagreed.

And in choosing Brod as his executor, he picked the one person who was certain not to carry out his instructions. It was as if Kafka wanted to transmit his writing to posterity, but didn’t want the responsibility for doing so… Brod, for his part, had no doubts about the importance of his friend’s writing.

Was a similar dynamic at work in Wilde’s reliance on Ross’s contrary advice and his decision to name him as his literary executor? Did he chose someone who he instinctively knew would value the art over even his own point of view about it?

Or would Ross’s handling of De Profundis have, in the words of their mutual friend Reggie Turner, “pained its author.”

Even Wilde’s desire to have Ross as his executor is contentious– a fact that has largely been forgotten. Ross’s position as executor was only won after lengthy litigation. His success in court was based on a single line in one of Wilde’s prison letters, the same one in which he instructs Ross to send De Profundis to Douglas.  The exact line is “If you’re going to be my executor you should have [De Profundis].” Ross used this letter in court to prove that he had the authority to be Wilde’s executor and also that De Profundis was his personal property. My personal theory is that Ross may have destroyed letters that contained more of Wilde’s instructions regarding the manuscript, but he had to retain the letter that called him Wilde’s executor. It was easier for him to make the claim that Wilde had given him verbal instructions that contradicted his first written ones than to support the claim that he had any right to act on Wilde’s behalf without it.

If he did edit the record to make his actions on the estate’s behalf clearer should we care? What if he took actions that went counter to Wilde’s own wishes? Should we care about that or is Wilde’s own view ultimately less important than ours as the audience?

I believe three things: First, I believe (though I cannot prove) that Wilde’s desires for De Profundis changed after he reunited with Douglas after his release from jail. Second, I believe (and also cannot prove) that Ross disregarded at least some of Wilde’s instructions for what he thought was the greater good.  Finally, I believe that the preservation of De Profundis was, in fact, a greater good.

What do you think?

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The Many Shades Between Vilification and Admiration

Today’s Times (London) features an article by director Dominic Dromgoole on his production of The Importance of Being Earnest being staged at the Vaudeville Theater.

Wilde has also shown us something beyond the chill of certainties. As he knew, people come to the theatre to escape certainty; it is the place for adventure and questioning and imagination. It has been a pleasure to watch our audiences relishing Wilde’s ability to balance several different points of view in one paradoxical sentence. Not for him the hammer-headed tweet, with its partial point of view. Theatre, as he knew, is in a constant state of searching for more complex moral judgments; it uses interrogation and empathy to reveal the multifaceted nature of human choice and human transaction. In an age when left and right search for new ways to express monochrome absolutes, one can feel the audience relishing a few hours’ holiday in a world of maturity and nuance.

Wilde knew that charity is more likely to be found among sinners than among the pious; and that kindness is more likely to be found in the free of mind than in the closed. He had lived with wolves and had lived out his own wolfishness. Each of his puritans discovers that those they thought of as all bad have reserves of the greatest kindness, and those they idolised as perfect are capable of meanness and clumsiness.

That sense of complexity and nuance is something that has always drawn me to Wilde. He uses paradox to show that opposites are not opposites, he resists polarization and easy judgment.

I’ve been thinking about this in relation to Matthew Sturgis’ review of Oscar’s Ghost in the latest edition of The Wildean. I mentioned the review earlier, but now that the issue has been out for a while, I think it is safe to quote it a bit more.

The joint review of Oscar’s Ghost and Nicholas Frankel’s The Unrepentant Years begins: “These two books are useful– and enjoyable–additions to the Wildean canon…They are both full of good things, novel insights and interesting asides…”

So you’ve got to like that.

“The intricacies and repetitions of the various court cases initiated by Ross, Douglas, Crosland and others can be fascinating, tedious, dispiriting and incomprehensible– almost all at the same time… There is much impressive research here and [Lee] lays it out with a light, sometimes humorous touch…Lee brings a certain freshness to her project.”

It is a detailed review of both books, thorough and knowledgeable, as one would expect of The Wildean. In all it is a thoughtful and balanced review.

NonameThere is one word of it, however, that has been playing on my mind. The word is “admiration.”

“Both Lee and Frankel are broadly sympathetic to Bosie, emphasising his eduring love and loyalty to Wilde at the time of his incarceration–and afterwards. It is a useful corrective,” Sturgis writes before discussing some of the questions of whether or not Wilde and Douglas only split because they were forced to by circumstances, or whether their romance had run its course.

My view is that they intended to have a future together but found it too difficult to live together given all of the external pressure. I also suspect they had a row over this just before they stopped living together in Naples, with Douglas wanting to keep fighting the world and Wilde not wanting to.

I also suspect, incidentally, that part of Douglas’s anger when Wilde insisted that he should set aside some of his inheritance to support Wilde post-Naples (see my previous post on the film The Happy Prince) derived from the fact that it was Wilde, not Douglas, who had given up on their living together.  Had they still been living together, they would have pooled their resources, and Douglas’s inheritance would have benefited them both. If Wilde did break up with him, then came back insisting that he should be set up financially for life, Douglas’s anger becomes quite a bit more comprehensible.

But given that their relationship was never exclusive, and that they continued to spend time together and to fall back into old habits, I’m not sure it is actually all that clear whether they broke up or not.  Beyond that, whether the relationship formally ended is a separate question from whether their feelings for each other ended. In essence, as with most things Wilde related, I don’t think it is a simple yes or no question.

And now we come to the point in the review where the word “admiration” rears its head: “An authorial admiration for Lord Alfred Douglas, moreover, has to be sustained in the face of much terrible behaviour…”

This comes in a paragraph of the review that does a good job describing the complexities of the battle between Ross and Douglas over Wilde’s legacy.  “Ross for– for all the personal and professional admiration that he enjoyed– could be a touchy and difficult character… not for nothing did Max Beerbohm dub him the ‘botherationist.’ But Douglas was far touchier and far more difficult.”

It is not entirely clear that “authorial admiration for Lord Alfred Douglas” is supposed to refer to my book, but it seems as though it is. So knowing my feelings better than anyone else, I will say for the record that “admiration” is not what I feel about Lord Alfred Douglas. There is a wide swath between “broadly sympathetic” and “admiration.”

Douglas has always been a polarizing character– it is part of his fascination. The polarization tends to create a “with him or against him” mindset where anything short of condemnation can be seen as approval or even admiration.

Here is my point of view on Douglas. I think that he has been too much blamed for some things and not enough blamed for others. I do not believe he deserves to be condemned as much as he has been for wanting to be loved by Oscar Wilde while having a difficult personality. (Wilde was often drawn to people with challenging personalities, judging by many of the other friends in his circle, including Ross.)

On the other hand, the way Douglas treated his good friend Freddie Manners-Sutton was appalling. (After Sutton refused to invest in Douglas’s literary journal The Academy, he dragged him into court to expose his personal secrets, bad behavior that it seems he had, himself, encouraged.) He had no excuse for it, and few have commented much on that aspect of it, focusing instead on what the libel trial revealed about Douglas’s relationship with Wilde. As I wrote in the book, I suspect that some of Douglas’s emotional and behavioral extremes were influenced by what we would today term mental illness, (Manners-Sutton’s correspondence with Olive Douglas suggests that even as he was being abused by Douglas, his former friend viewed him as not being entirely in control of himself and maintained a certain pained sympathy) but that is an explanation, not an excuse.

Facebook status: “it’s complicated.”

The more I dug into the characters of Douglas and Ross, the more I discovered contradictions and episodes that didn’t fit well with the polar views of these characters: Douglas as chaos, Ross as stability. Ross, like Douglas, was litigious. He seems to have been drawn to difficult people and conflict. Ross was probably as promiscuous as Douglas. Douglas, not only Ross, tried to find Wilde work after he got out of prison. Some of Ross’s efforts to help Wilde were as ill-conceived as some of Douglas’s, and so on.

But, indeed, Douglas was more extreme in his feud with Ross. He was more extreme in everything. He was a man who was hardwired with poor emotional control (call it bipolar disorder or something else) who was also pushed by extreme circumstances and the combination was combustible.

My view of Douglas is best summed up in the epilogue of Oscar’s Ghost: “Douglas was a class snob, capable of great selfishness, petulant self-pity and outbursts of irrational rage, but… [he] was a more complex, multifaceted individual than he is often given credit for.”

I do find Douglas (and Ross) fascinating, but I did not intend for this to read as admiration.

In any case, I am grateful for the thorough and thoughtful review in The Wildean, and if you have any interest in Wilde, I recommend subscribing.

 

 

 

Oscar Christ?

Around the time I was writing the novel Angel, I started a project of reading the New Testament with the books in the order that scholars believe they were written. (This was before the late Marcus Borg released his Evolution of the Word, which does this very thing for you.)

Reading chronologically you start to see how the idea of Jesus expanded over time as he moved from a more human figure in Mark to a thoroughly mystical Christ in John. One of the things that made an impression on me was how Jesus’s response to his arrest and execution evolved.  What was, in Mark, deeply traumatic was transformed over time so that in John, Jesus was aware of his destiny, nearly choreographing his own destruction, walking with a sense of the larger meaning this event would one day have for the world.

I was reminded of this while watching this interview with Rupert Everett about his new film The Happy Prince. Everett describes Wilde as stage managing his own ruin.

The tendency to cast Oscar Wilde as the gay Christ is something I have talked about occasionally here, particularly in the context of the Oscar Wilde shrine that was created by two artists in New York a while back. Stephen Fry is another actor who has portrayed Wilde and spoken of him in the same terms.

I have some reservations about this comparison. It depends a great deal on what you take a “Christ figure” to be.

The most obvious parallel is that Wilde was punished by society, he died as a reviled figure but was resurrected by his apostles, in particular by Robbie Ross and friends of his like Christopher Millard who preserved Wilde’s work and tried to bring it to new audiences.

This common refrain of Wilde as Christ figure certainly speaks to a need for a symbol to make the sufferings that gay men have enured meaningful, to spiritualize the pain and make it transcendent. A Christ figure is not just resurrected, the story of his rebirth is cleansing for those who identify with him.

This is easier to do, I think, with a symbolic Wilde than with Wilde as a man. But perhaps this was also true of Jesus of Nazareth. He has come down to us as both fully human and fully divine, yet not quite so human that he could make mistakes. (Whereas for Everett being “an idiot” sometimes is part of the humanity of his gay Christ figure.)

When I read the first chronological gospel, Mark, I was surprised by one episode I found there. (Also by the naked guy who went streaking through Mark 14:51-52.)

I am talking about the story of the Syrophonecian woman in Mark 7:24-29 (the story is repeated in Matthew 15:21-28).

A Gentile woman comes to Jesus. I am not informed enough to understand all of the ancient cultural politics between Syrophonecians and Jews. In any case, the woman begs Jesus to cast a demon out of her daughter. Maybe he is tired and his nerves are frayed after the constant barrage of his own people asking him to heal them, now he is supposed to heal Syrophonecians too? He refuses and compares her to a dog. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

She answers, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

Jesus dismisses the woman because of her social status. He doesn’t see her suffering as his problem. He speaks to her in a rude manner. What should a reader make of that?

The way Mark depicts Jesus at this point is like a celebrity being hounded by paparazzi. Jesus was getting tired, he wanted to be off the clock, and he snapped at this woman in an inappropriate way and she called him on it. He changed his mind and healed the woman’s daughter.

So perhaps Jesus was once seen as someone human enough to make mistakes too. But today Christ is not a man who makes mistakes, but a man who was too good for the world and was thus destroyed by it.

For someone like Oscar Wilde to be Christlike in this sense means he is a symbol of the best of humanity being destroyed by the worst of society. To make that case, it helps to make good and evil a bit neater and clearer.  Oscar Wilde has often been polished to enhance the tragedy of his downfall, a process that I wrote about in detail in Oscar’s Ghost.

An interesting question, one which came up in the comments on my previous article on The Happy Prince, is whether Lord Alfred Douglas became a scapegoat for some of Wilde’s own sins. Both men were snobbish, but Wilde’s snobbishness is often read as charming. Both were promiscuous, but Douglas has been depicted as the driving force in their amorous adventures. Both were careless with money, but Douglas has often been blamed for making Wilde overspend.

Because of his erratic behavior, his attacks on people like Robert Ross, his litigation, Douglas made himself an easy target for those who would try to find a vessel for some of Wilde’s sins.

I believe that today we might be inclined to forgive some of Douglas’s emotional extremes were it not for his cardinal sin, his anti-Semitism in his bitter middle years. The views that are so rightfully distasteful to us today were unfortunately common in his time. (And in fact, we seem to be in a similar era today with anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment becoming increasingly accepted.)

One of the aspects of the story that I explored briefly, and wished I was able to explore in more depth was the time Wilde spent in the company of Ferdinand Waslin Esterhazy during his exile in Paris. At the time the Dreyfus trials had polarized French culture.

Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the only Jewish officer on the general staff of the French army had been a convenient patsy when it became clear that military secrets had been passed to the German military attaché in Paris. Dreyfus was found guilty on questionable evidence and, before a howling mob shouting anti-Semitic epithets, exiled to the Devil’s Island penal colony off the coast of French Guiana. He was kept in solitary confinement, manacled to his bed at night. By the time Zola took up his cause, he was losing his teeth and hair and was unable to speak.

In February 1898, Wilde and Douglas’s friend, the journalist Rowland Strong, was in Paris covering the trial of the author Emile Zola who had been accused of defaming the high command of the French army with an open letter that alleged the Dreyfus affair was a gross miscarriage of justice.

In the wake of Zola’s article, the French public became divided along familiar fault lines as to who was the real traitor. On the right were those who believed the verdict had been just. This group included nationalists, the military and the Catholic church. On the left were the Dreyfusards, mostly Protestant, Socialists, Freemasons and intellectuals. In fact, the word ‘intellectual’ was coined by Georges Clemenceau, the politician who published Zola’s letter, to describe the Dreyfus supporters.

One might expect Wilde, who had so recently suffered public prejudice and a painful jail term, would be sympathetic to Dreyfus. Instead he spent a number of evenings in the company of the real culprit, Esterhazy.

There were a number of reasons he might have made this choice. One may have been his personal feelings about Zola. Zola, whose works were also frequent targets of censorship, had fathered two children with his live-in seamstress under the nose of his wife, but had refused to sign a petition calling for clemency in Wilde’s conviction.

Most of the people in Wilde’s circle at the time were anti-Dreyfusards including Douglas, Strong, and journalists Frank Harris and Robert Sherard. Was Wilde the singular standout among his circle? As I wrote in Oscar’s Ghost:

What Wilde actually thought of the Dreyfus affair is hard to discern. Douglas was an anti-Dreyfusard, although he in September 1898, admitted in a letter to Wilde that things looked rather bad for his side. It is not clear from the letter whether he believed Wilde agreed with him or not. At the very least, he did not think Wilde would be shocked by his opinion. Sherard was not much better at defending his friend against the charge of anti-Semitism than he was against homosexuality. He explained that Wilde’s sympathies were, of course, with Dreyfus. He liked Jews. “’The Jews,’ he used to say, ‘are the only people who lend money.’”

Could Oscar Wilde have been, at the same time, the victim of prejudice and on the side of those who perpetrated it against others?

I was quite interested to read a review in the Guardian of Michèle Mendelssohn’s new book on Oscar Wilde, which I am looking forward to reading. According to the Guardian’s review, Mendelssohn presents Wilde during his famous American lecture tour as someone who was sensitive to being marginalized both as an Irishman and as a homosexual whose feminine mannerisms made his difference apparent. (Max Beerbohm described Wilde as “Effeminate but vitality of twenty men.”) She describes some of the public pillorying he endured in post-Civil War America.

One episode that bookends quite nicely with his socializing with Esterhazy was his visit to meet the Confederate president Jefferson Davis. He publicly identified with white Southern farmers, the former slave owners, and told stories that connected him to the most manly of men.

The story, for instance, about the miners he met in Leadville, Colorado – one he loved to tell audiences at his Personal Impressions of America lectures on his return home – was almost entirely made up to make himself seem more masculine.

Wilde would be far from the first or last marginalized person to seek protection by identifying with the oppressors. This tendency could help explain his snobbishness, his attraction to a young man with a title, and his fateful decision to sue the Marquess of Queensberry for libel.  He expected to be able to win over the legal authorities as he had done with so many other establishment figures. It is understandable, but it certainly complicates him as a pioneer of gay rights or a gay Christ. As the Guardian’s article concludes:

Wilde returned from the US in 1883. By 1892, he was London’s leading theatrical phenomenon, the writer of Lady Windermere’s Fan and A Woman of No Importance. What impact did his American adventures have on his comedy? Mendelssohn links these early hits to the influence of the Christy Minstrels show, an American blackface group that went in for much witty repartee and which always placed a dandy centre stage. Lord Illingworth in A Woman of No Importance is, she believes, a near relative of the blackface dandies who parodied Wilde while he was on tour (he must have known about them; these troupes were attracting audiences far greater than his own). Wilde’s most successful characters often wear masks; he had created, Mendelssohn writes, “his own kind of white face theatre”, one that used the sweetening effect of comedy to expose hierarchy and social prejudice.

Why are these influences largely forgotten today? In his own time, after all, the critics were certainly aware of them. Mendelssohn’s research is prodigious; she has tapped sources previously unavailable to other scholars. But the thought also occurs that, perhaps, there is something willed at play here, too. In the 21st century, the good and the bad, the tolerant and bigoted, the free and the closed, are simply not allowed to snuggle up together. Our understanding of what it means to be human – by which I mean to be flawed – grows ever more limited. As we all surely know, Wilde’s extended afterlife has been every bit as extraordinary as his corporeal one. He has long since become a saint, gay history’s Christ figure. It may be that we can only see him as a victim of the attitudes of his age, when, at key moments, he was also in cahoots with them, an accomplice after all.

Together these episodes from two ends of his life show how successful Wilde was in crafting his own biography.  The 1997 film Wilde opens with the playwright’s visit to Leadville. Lord Alfred Douglas is depicted in the film (as he was in Richard Ellman’s biography on which it was based) as the alluring but sinister influence he was in Wilde’s De Profundis. The film ends before the story has a chance to get too messy.

With the help of Robert Ross, the story of Oscar Wilde’s operatic downfall and resurrection has endured and continues to intrigue. The biography of Oscar Wilde may be Wilde’s greatest work.

Rupert Everett’s Depiction of Wilde’s Last Years in “The Happy Prince”

I am looking forward to Rupert Everett’s new film “The Happy Prince,” which tells the story of Oscar Wilde’s last years. It has a distributor and is “coming soon” but so far I’ve only had the opportunity to see trailers and clips.

Having spent quite a few years researching that period, and the years that followed, I was especially interested to see this clip of a famous episode in the lives of Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas. After Douglas inherited his portion of the family fortune upon his father’s death, Wilde had dinner with him and asked him to set him up with a regular endowment. The conversation went badly and both Wilde and Douglas gave an earful about the other to the journalist Frank Harris. Wilde also wrote about the episode in a letter to Robert Ross who was not present. Harris wrote about the fight in his biography of Wilde. It was the one thing in Harris’s book that Douglas hated the most and he spent years trying to suppress it.  The chapter bolstered Robbie Ross’s view that Douglas was only interested in Wilde for his money. That view has been enduring, as you will recall from my review of The Grand Rapids Ballet’s “Happy Prince.” 

Obviously, as I have not seen the film, I don’t know how this scene appears in context. What I like about it, however, is how it depicts Bosie not as hopelessly selfish and callous but rather as disgusted with how Wilde is squandering his talent. This is also how I saw the episode, and so I thought I would share an excerpt on the subject from Oscar’s Ghost.

Many years later, Frank Harris would publish a biography of Wilde, with Ross’s help. It has been widely criticised for its literary style, which bolsters his own importance and invents direct quotes as a narrative device. Douglas hated Harris’s biography. He fought to keep it from being published in England, and he worked with Harris and later George Bernard Shaw as the writers tried to come up with a version Douglas would find satisfactory.

There was one incident in the Harris book that offended Bosie the most. After Queensberry’s death, Oscar invited Bosie to the Café de la Paix. Robbie had suggested to Oscar that now that Bosie had his inheritance, he should ask him to set up an annuity of £2,000 from his estate. (About £22,000 today) This would give Oscar a regular income and would make him no longer dependent on his wife’s estate if he did anything to upset the administrators of the fund.

Something went wrong, however, in the way Oscar presented the idea to Bosie. It sparked one of Bosie’s rages. What struck a nerve seems to have been a suggestion that Bosie owed him for the ruin his family had brought on him. This was probably not the first time he had heard this complaint. As Oscar recounted the argument to Robbie, Bosie ‘went into paroxysms of rage, followed by satirical laughter’ and said Oscar had no claim of any kind on him.

Harris happened to be staying in Paris along with Bosie and Oscar and he saw each of them shortly after the blow up. Harris quotes Bosie, two days latter saying to him, ‘I do not see that there is any claim at all,’ and spitting the word ‘claim’ ‘as if the very word maddened him.’ The word ‘claim’ might have come from Wilde and was at the heart of his anger.

Although Harris does not record Oscar saying anything negative about Bosie in the conversation he reportedly had with him, two pages later Harris tells Bosie that Oscar seems to blame him for egging him on in the libel trial. (Given how the Harris book was written, Wilde may have said something like this to Harris or Harris may have gotten the idea that Oscar felt that way from a conversation with Robbie or one of Oscar’s letters to Robbie…)

‘How did I know how the case would go?’ Bosie snaps. ‘Why did he take my advice, if he didn’t want to? He was surely old enough to know his own interest… he is simply disgusting now…’

In his letter to Robbie, Oscar describes Bosie as ‘revolting’ and ‘mean, and narrow, and greedy.’ He says he is ‘disgusted’ and considers Bosie’s refusal to be an ‘ugly thing’ that ‘taints life.’ He also threw in a few negative comments Bosie had reportedly said about Robbie’s attitude towards money for good measure, contrasting Robbie’s goodness with Bosie’s badness. Bosie’s memory of the argument differed from Wilde’s. He said he had just given Oscar £40 (in another source it was £80) and that he ‘whined and wheedled and wept’ to get more.

In the letter to Robbie, Oscar quotes Harris as saying ‘One should never ask for anything: it is always a mistake.’ He suggested that Oscar should have had Robbie make the suggestion. This is quite different in tone to the conversation as it appears in Harris’s biography. There is no way Harris could have appreciated all of the subtext in that quarrel between lovers. (Harris admits as much himself.) Bosie clearly was enraged by the personal associations in something Oscar said.

‘He could earn all the money he wants if he would only write; but he won’t do anything,’ Harris quotes Bosie as saying. ‘He is lazy, and getting lazier and lazier every day; and he drinks far too much. He is intolerable.’ Bosie admitted in his ‘setting the record straight’ preface to the 1930 edition of the Harris biography that he might well have called Oscar ‘an old prostitute.’

As usual, however, the mood soon passed and had no lasting effect on his relations with Oscar. If Harris had not been around to witness it, the whole thing would probably have been forgotten. The sad fact is that at this time, Oscar was sinking deeper and deeper into addiction. He drank to excess and spent every penny that fell into his hands on liquor and rent boys. His friends were at a loss on how best to help him.

…[Oscar’s] brother Willie died at age forty-six from the effects of chronic alcoholism. After Willie’s death in 1899, Robbie got Oscar to sober up for a few months. ‘Had circumstances permitted me to be with him more than I was,’ Robbie said, ‘I might have done something with him as he liked being ordered about by people whom he knew were fond of him.’

This goes a long way to explaining Bosie’s furious pronouncements that Oscar could support himself if he were not so lazy. He and Robbie had different styles, but it seems that Robbie in his gentle, thoughtful way, and Bosie in his direct and brutal way, were both ordering Oscar around out of love.

Robbie, Bosie and Harris each tried to support Wilde without giving him the means to drink himself into a stupor. Wilde griped to each of his friends about the stinginess of the others.

Yet Bosie believed Robbie did the right thing in doling out funds to Oscar. Years later, when he had little love left for Robbie, he wrote, ‘…I do not blame Ross at all for his cautiousness about the money and for his, unfortunately fruitless, efforts to make it last a little longer than it did. In this respect he certainly acted entirely in Oscar’s interests and with the best motives.’

T.H. Bell who knew Wilde in his last year found him to be someone who had ‘nothing left in him of responsibility, truthfulness or common honesty.’ Robbie complained to him of Wilde’s ingratitude. Bell was impressed by Robbie’s loyalty to him, given how he had been treated. ‘It is evident that there must have been something at one time, if there was not much of it left in his last period, that drew to the man those good friends who stood by him.’

 

An Oscar Wilde Ballet in Grand Rapids

IMG_9969I am grateful to the Grand Rapids Ballet for inviting me to come and sign copies of Oscar’s Ghost during the May 11 performance of their new ballet The Happy Prince.

It was an ambitiously original performance in an era when even many larger companies often rely on old standards to attract a guaranteed audience. (Swan Lake anyone?)

Choreographer Penny Saunders was inspired by the fairy tales of Oscar Wilde, which she found “haunting and beautiful.”

 

That “haunting” tone was evident throughout the ballet in the musical selections, lighting, and choreography.  It had a surreal quality especially as the light tone and colors of the first act shifted into darkness as the story progressed. I was a bit surprised when I arrived at the theater and looked at the program to see that the ballet was less the stories of Wilde than the story of Wilde.

The underlying drama was Oscar Wilde’s rise and fall with The Happy Prince, The Selfish Giant and other tales used as narration as metaphors for the playwright’s own life much as the 1997 film Wilde used The Selfish Giant as a metaphor for Wilde’s relationship with his sons.

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Of course, as the author of Oscar’s Ghost, I have some opinions about the depiction of Robert Ross and Bosie Douglas in the production. The Happy Prince depicts the De Profundis/Robert Ross narrative about Wilde, which presents Ross as Wilde’s constant, ever-loyal good influence set against Bosie as Wilde’s passion and bad influence. The program describes Ross as “the helpful swallow to Oscar’s Happy Prince, offering him support and compassion, throughout his life.” Choreographically, Ross appeared, in the form of dancer Nigel Tau, as a calming presence, with a hand on the shoulder of Isaac Aoki as Wilde, after scenes of chaos.

Bosie, danced by Matt Wenckowski, by contrast, was described as someone who Wilde could not satisfy.  “Bosie does little to repay him, dragging Wilde deeper into an illicit world, acting incredibly rude towards Constance, and antagonizing those who disapprove of the two men’s relationship.”

You can see how the illicit world looks in ballet in this clip.

Bosie was a man of moods, and he did clash with a number of people, especially in his later years. There is little evidence, however, that Constance and Bosie were at odds before Wilde went to jail or that he was rude to her.  In fact, Bosie wrote of her in his autobiography in complementary terms.  It does not appear that Constance was aware of her husband’s sexual orientation or habits until it all came pouring out in court.

If you have read Oscar’s Ghost you will know that Oscar did not need to be dragged into the red light district by Bosie or anyone, that some of his other friends were as instrumental or more, in introducing Wilde to “the gutter.” Also Wilde had been playing with the idea of a passion that burns so bright it destroys its object in his writing long before Bosie appeared on the scene. For example in his play Salome, in which Salome wants to see John the Baptist’s head on a platter not for theological or political reasons, but because she loves him and is so determined to kiss his lips she is willing to have him decapitated to do it. It was as much artistic fashioning as actual history and the prison context that made Wilde depict Bosie as a fatal passion in De Profundis and in letters to Robbie Ross.

The entire feud between Ross and Douglas after Wilde’s death was sparked by another question: whether Bosie abandoned Wilde when the money ran out. Bosie sued the author Arthur Ransome for libel for making such a claim. He prepared to go into court to show that he had not abandoned Wilde at all. In fact, he had lived with him, supported him financially and had only separated from him because of insurmountable outside pressure from families on both sides. (At one point when they were living together in Naples, a representative of the British consulate actually came to their house to let the couple know that England disapproved of their living arrangement.)

In court, Bosie did prove that he had not abandoned Wilde, which was supposed to be the whole point. But a strange thing happened. Thanks to personal letters that Bosie had written to Ross when they were close friends, which described events that left little doubt to his sexuality, as well as a dramatic reading of previously unpublished parts of Wilde’s prison manuscript De Profundis (through which Bosie sat pale, emotionally overwhelmed, and flipping through pages of the Bible for comfort) the trial became less about whether Bosie had abandoned Wilde than whether he had been his lover.

The lawyer for Ransome asked the jury to put aside the question of abandonment and not to reward a person who was as guilty as Wilde of homosexual crimes. The judge instructed the jury in the same vein. The jury found in favor of Ransome, not because Bosie had abandoned Wilde, but because he had not and this disgusted them.  Even so, the opposite impression was passed down through history.  In fact, Bosie and Oscar remained close until Wilde’s early death in 1900. “Somehow he is my life,” Wilde told Reggie Turner.

These historical quibbles, however, are small matters when it comes to the performance. I can’t say, for example, that the idea that Bosie abandoned Wilde was clear to me in the staging of the ballet, and in choreography Bosie and Constance being in conflict can be as much a depiction of the tension of the whole social situation rather than a specific episode of historical rudeness. The stories of ballets exist as a frame on which to hang choreography more than the ballet exists to tell a story.  As George Balanchine said, “In ballet a complicated story is impossible to tell. We can’t dance synonyms.”

The choreography had substantial modern influence, a tone which I found most effective in the third act after Wilde’s downfall. Unfortunately, during Friday night’s performance there were problems with the sound system which caused the dancers to perform passages in silence. This is impressive in its own way. (One of the reviews of a performance of my partner Valery Lantratov’s tour with Rudolf Nureyev mentioned the sound going out and Valery dancing his entire variation without music, which garnered him a standing ovation.) But in the second act, after a loud pop, the curtain closed to deal with the technical difficulty which did interfere with the momentum of that bit of the show. Once the act resumed, however, the pause was quickly forgotten.

Congratulations to all involved, and thank you for allowing me to be a small part of the evening.

 

 

Before Oscar Wilde

When I was researching Oscar’s Ghost, I read an article in a literary journal (forgive me for not looking it up right now) that made the persuasive case that Oscar Wilde’s trial was an aberration. What was unique about it, the author said, was that previous to the Wilde trial,  prosecutions of this class of crimes operated on the assumption that the gentleman was the victim of the blackmailers and prostitutes. In the Wilde case suddenly Wilde was presented as corrupting the young men in spite of their sometimes questionable backgrounds.

Shortly after Oscar Wilde went to prison, a young man from Newcastle named James H. Wilson came to visit Lord Alfred Douglas in exile in France. They commiserated with one another about the injustice of it all, and Wilson, with a fresh ear-full of Douglas’s complaints, went home to write a pamphlet that came to be called Some Gentle Criticisms of English Justice under the pseudonym I. Playfair.

It mostly focused on Oscar Wilde’s trials and Douglas’s theory that a political conspiracy, and a desire to protect certain prominent people, was behind the prosecution. It does, however, mention another case in passing, an 1893 case in which Wilson alleges that young men were not only let off scot-free, they were actually encouraged to solicit men in order to bring about their prosecution. He identified the prosecutor in the case as Mr. Waddy, Q.C.

After a bit of searching in the newspaper archives, I uncovered the case that had so outraged Wilson. While it is little remembered today, it caused a minor sensation in 1893.

That year Mr. Waddy had been in ill health and therefore had not been busy in the Royal Courts in London, but he had an important circuit practice. I turned up a shocking number of cases that he prosecuted in the assize courts of assaults against women, a libel action for a bad theatrical review, a fraud on a farmer, a number of libels involving businesses ranging from a coal company to an inn, a few divorce cases, a breach of promise case, a couple of slander cases, one murder case, a dispute over cattle, two injury cases–one involving a builder and one a steam ship, a betting conspiracy, a shipyard  dispute, theft of furniture and a case called “The case of the Gipsy Queen and Organ Grinder.” His most time consuming case in 1893 was an insurance fraud case. The only other case involving homosexuality and Waddy was of a man who felt up a boy on a train.
And then there was the case that the press dubbed “The Newcastle Scandal.”
The case is interesting for its parallels to the Wilde case and perhaps gives a sense of what things might have been like if Lord Alfred Douglas had been tried along side Wilde.

Lionel Hans Hamilton, 44, like Oscar Wilde, was born in Ireland. It is not clear why the court was determined to make an example of him, but it is clear that it was.  Hamilton was a factory inspector, a highly prominent position but also one that presumably made him enemies. His status was such that after his arrest the Queen saw fit to post a notice disassociating her government from him.

Hamilton had been having a sexual relationship with a clerk named Henry Dady, 22, for two to three years.

A number of letters “of a very indecent nature” were cited as evidence. In magistrates court, the prosecutor, Mr. J.E. Joel argued that Dady had acted as a procurer for Hamilton.  “The evidence was of a revolting nature and seemed to indicate the existence of a horrible club.”

The two men plead guilty to misdemeanor, but the judge set this aside as he felt the plea was not sufficient. On advice of counsel, Hamilton pled guilty and admitted that he and Dady “feloniously, wickedly and against the order of nature, did carnally know each other and commit the abominable crime of buggery.” In addition, he plead guilty to gross indecency with three other young men.

Dady was also advised to plead guilty, but he refused. On the date of his trial, he seemed confident, and waved to friends in the gallery.

Mr. Waddy, opening the case for the prosecution, said that he did not intend to wallow in the filth of a crime “not to be named among Christians” any more than necessary and if the charges were proved it would be the duty of the court to give the strongest sentence as this was “the worst crime known to all humanity.”

A series of witnesses described engaging in acts that the papers were coy about, and admitted to accepting money for it, but they were not charged themselves and were described as victims.

The jury took little time to find Dady guilty, and counsels for both men made pleas to the judge for leniency. The judge was having none of it. It was a most egregious case, he felt, because Hamilton had encouraged boys to follow these abominable and filthy practices. Hamilton was the head, he said, of “an extensive system for the corruption of youth.” The only redeeming thing he found in Hamilton was that he had plead guilty and spared the court having to hear the details of his debauchery.

“It is necessary to make an example of men of education and position who so lower themselves to commit these most abominable crimes,” said Lord Chief Justice Coleridge.

To Dady he said, “you are younger, and although you are 22 years of age, I am satisfied that you have been following these practices for a considerable time. You acted as a decoy to other boys, and you acted as a procurer of other boys, and you corrupted other boys and led them into the commission of these terrible offences.” The judge was especially annoyed that Dady had compelled the court to listen to the horrible details instead of pleading guilty. “But although your crime is great, yet I will take into consideration your age, I will take into consideration the fact that no doubt you were somewhat influenced by a man who was older than yourself, probably better educated than yourself, and who may have had influence over you.”

The older man was sentenced to 10 years penal servitude, the younger man to 5. Dady burst into tears as he was led away.

Dady served four years of his five year sentence. Prison records at the time of his release describe his distinguishing characteristics as including scars on his eye and finger and pockmarks on the buttocks. In 1907 he was arrested again for false pretenses and served a 6 month sentence. Ten years later he had changed his name to Henry Dudley and was working as a waiter.  He was arrested for committing an act of gross indecency with a boy in a theater, but was found not guilty. After that, his trail goes cold.

Hamilton served 8 years of his 10 year sentence, and went blind in prison. Upon his release, he went to live with a nephew. He died in 1931.

Rupert Croft-Cooke’s Bosie Biography

The sun is shining through my office window this morning. The spring has brought light snow as it happens. But I spent the chilly evening reading Rupert Croft-Cooke’s “The Caves of Hercules,” a memoir of the author’s time in Tangier.


I ordered the book through Melcat inter-library loan as part of my continuing search for Schwabe– the mysterious member of the Wilde circle who went on to be a card sharp and possibly a spy. Croft-Cooke was the first to suggest that Maurice Schwabe was significant to the Wilde story, although he didn’t say a great deal about him. He included, in one of his books on Wilde, a description of Schwabe he got from “a barkeep” who had known Schwabe in 1910 in Tangier.


When I learned about Croft-Cooke’s “Smiling Damned Villain” an account of the life of a swindler named Paul Lund who he met as a bartender in Tangier, I thought perhaps he was the source. But looking back at Croft-Cooke’s description of what he learned of Schwabe, I found that he described the bartender who knew Schwabe as West Indian, which Lund was not, and I also realized that Lund was the wrong age to have known Schwabe in 1910. But Croft-Cooke did write a whole series of memoirs about his travels. This eventually (I checked out the wrong volume first) led me to “The Caves of Hercules,” which covered his time in Tangier.


I didn’t learn anything about Maurice Schwabe, except for an understanding of how the subject of him came up. Croft-Cooke was working on his biography of Lord Alfred Douglas at the time. He described him as a man who had given him “his ageing friendship and thus a faraway link with Oscar Wilde.”


The reason Croft-Cooke wrote his biography, he said, was that he realized “that there were intelligent people who still saw Bosie Douglas as the man Robert Ross and his followers depicted him.”


His biggest challenges, he said were persuading Douglas’s literary executor, Edward Colman, that he was going to do right by his subject. “Fortunately at the time he accepted my honesty of purpose and allowed me, on payment, the freedom of the Douglas copyright.” His second challenge was obtaining the books he needed in Tangier. He obtained some through a friend who opened an account for him with a specialist book seller, and others were lent and posted by the London Library. (Why won’t the libraries in London mail books to me?)


Croft-Cooke estimated that he spent less than six months writing his Bosie, “but I knew when I came to the end of it that it was the best book I could write.”


I feel a certain kinship with Croft-Cooke when he laments that “it met the fate of every book I had written up til then…No book of mine…has ever reached five figures in hardback editions, and Bosie was no exception.”


“But,” he wrote, “I loved writing it and to some degree I know that– in a useful modern phrase– I had set the record straight. There were people, my late dear friend and literary godfather Sir Crompton Mackenzie among them, who still thought Ross a hero and refused to realize that in his treatment of Bosie he had been a despicable little wretch, and there were still people who labelled Bosie with the epithet used by a miserable scissors-and-paste scribbler whom I know, named Percy Colson, ‘the Black Douglas’; but here and there light dawned and Sir Rupert-Hart Davis wrote me a promise (not, unfortunately, fulfilled) that in the next impression of The Letters of Oscar Wilde he would correct one of the most unjust passages by re-writing a footnote to read– ‘According to Ross’, instead of letting it be supposed that he had accepted the Ross version of what had been done about the ‘De Profundis’ letter after Wilde came out of prison. Old unhappy far-off things and battles long ago, but they seemed desperately important while I was writing ‘Bosie’…”


His follow-up book was “Feasting With Panthers” in which he wrote that “it is scarcely yet realized what a large part [Maurice Schwabe] played in Wilde’s ruin…” The book brought Croft-Cooke nothing but the initial payment, “which was a modest one.”


“I do not complain,” he wrote, “that I am, and am likely to remain, an extremely poor man; so far from feeling self-pity, I realize, as I have said, that I have the utmost good fortune in being able to earn an unskilled railwayman’s wages by doing what I like best in the world, and during the fourteen years of which I am writing, doing it in cheerful surroundings and among people who interested me. Sometimes I am plaintive enough to say, as the King told the Queen and the Queen told the Dairymaid, ‘I would like a little bit of butter with my bread,’ but the mood soon passes as I start another book.”


And that is a fairly good depiction of this author as well, as I tune out the sounds of crickets chirping over Oscar’s Ghost and dive into the investigation of that intriguing panther. If only I could call Rupert Croft-Cooke on the phone and ask him what else he knew.