Only in his supposedly lost years was Wilde free to express his genius in his lifeby Alex Dean / July 13, 2018 / Leave a comment
Nearly 120 years after his death, Oscar Wilde’s works continue to delight with their brilliant paradoxes and comic twists. His children’s stories, poems and political essays captivate us today just as they captivated his contemporary audience. The Picture of Dorian Gray has become a haunting classic. And a successful season of his plays at the Vaudeville Theatre culminates with Wilde’s greatest work, The Importance of Being Earnest, which starts on 20th July.
Then, of course, there is the Irish writer’s remarkable personal story. His tragic fall after his humiliating trial for “gross indecency” is a story as famous as any of his plays—perhaps more so. Wilde’s story has become a legend, retold a thousand times in books, on stage and screen. But Nicholas Frankel, a respected Wilde scholar, is sceptical of such myth-making. Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years takes the story of Wilde’s demise and turns it on its head.
The conventional view is that after his release from Reading gaol in 1897, Wilde was “a broken, tragic figure” languishing in self-pity, and pining for his ex-lover Lord Alfred Douglas. In miserable exile on the continent, he fell into a depression, no longer resembling the brilliant charmer he had once been, bouncing from run-down hotel to run-down hotel and despised by those he had once called friends. Wilde wasted away until his death in 1900, aged only 46, thus completing the tragic arc.
Certainly this is the narrative line pursued in The Happy Prince. This exceptional new biopic—a labour of love for Rupert Everett, who writes, directs and stars in the film—is a moving and unsettling portrayal of Wilde’s final days. Everett’s Wilde bumbles pathetically from one humiliation to the next: from public beatings by teenagers to begging for money from former admirers. He lives only a half life.
But Frankel’s excellent book argues that, far from being ruined, Wilde mounted a remarkable recovery after his release. He returned to top form, delighting company with his wit, which had not been blunted by prison. Frankel goes so far as to claim that it was during the last three years of his life that Wilde was finally allowed to become himself. Far from withering away, he staged a defiant comeback.
The premise of The…