Who Owns the Legacy of Oscar Wilde?



Why It’s New York Irish Arts: It’s a cross-post from Oscar Wilde In America by guest blogger John Cooper.
How It’s New York: It’s a review of a conference held at Drew University, 29 miles from NYC, featuring Gwen Orel and Charlotte Moore, founder and artistic director of New York’s Irish Repertory Theatre.
How It’s Irish: Oscar was a celebrated Irish poet, dramatist and wit


by John Cooper 

Wilde Conference at Drew University, June 1-2, 2012


Who Owns the Legacy of Oscar Wilde?

So it was to Drew University (Madison, NJ) hopeful of enlightenment as to the nominal question posed by the conference: Who Owns The Legacy of Oscar Wilde?

With an author in the public domain the answer to this question is usually nobody. However, this conference was a reminder, should it be needed, that in the sphere of Wilde studies nobody often translates into anybody willing to marry the subject, for better or worse, to their own vision of Wilde. This is hardly surprising given Wilde’s dualities of nationality, gender and style, and over the years writers have enjoyed an open season and taken careful aim. At least in a forum such as this the subject becomes a moving target. So we had varied questions, not only of the Irish Wilde and the gay Wilde, as might be expected, but also an array of topics ranging from thesis to the practical; subjects from Wilde’s reputation as a classicist to the ownership of his work and imagery. 

Drew University is a private school in Madison, New Jersey, which is in the leafier suburbs in the north of the state, with direct access to New York City. Founded as the Drew Theological Seminary in 1867, it now has a graduate enrollment of approximately 2,500 students who enjoy Neo-Classic surroundings including Mead Hall, a Greek Revival mansion where the conference took place. 

There was much at the conference to learn from and enjoy. Pleasingly, the itinerary had been thematically arranged into several sessions throughout the two days.  But alas, not all of the conference can be reported as it was impossible to attend all the lectures. On each day there was a time slot in which two sessions occurred concurrently: thus on Day One one had to choose between the Hellenistic Wilde and the masculine Wilde; and on Day Two, frustratingly, between the key aspects of Wilde’s Irishness and sexuality. 

A second reason for incompleteness is the strain put upon attention span at such conferences. This is partially explained, for me at least, by the fact that lectures are often the verbatim text of a paper that was intended to be read not spoken.

What follows therefore is a subjective précis of the noteworthy, not an exhaustive review of content.

The highlight for many was Margaret D. Stetz (University of Delaware) whose presentation extended into performance art. Her bravura talk: To Live on in the Minds of Men: Sewell Stokes and the Shaping of Wilde’s Gay Legacy, included not just her usual scholarship, but also well-received impersonation, acting, humor and personality. The subject was for many an introduction to the English novelist, biographer and playwright, Francis Martin Sewell Stokes (1902-1979) whose works include Oscar Wilde, a play in 3 acts (1937). The talk was valuable in understanding Wilde’s 20th century theatrical legacy. One now wishes to know more: the hallmark of good instruction.

Gwen Orel, an independent scholar, displayed an enthusiastic, yet grounded, command of her subject: Oscar Wilde and Irish Comedy. She presented a perceptive study of the language of comedy. There is Irishness and there is comedy, but Ms Orel fused the ideas to identify how verbal and structural nuance informs ethnic humor, particularly the Irish idiom in Wilde.

There was a fascinating panel entitled Queering Wilde consisting of mostly younger contributors who examined variously the aesthetic novel (including the enigma of Teleny), queer theology, and homoeroticism. 

The panelists were led with confidence and charm by Frederick Roden (University of Connecticut), whose panache was evident in his Wild(e) Religion: The Legacy of Oscar Wilde for Queer Theology. There was the promising voice of Joseph Lavery, a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, who gave his talk: Luxury, Wilde, and the Queer Moment in a self-possessed manner and with an impressive breadth in his use of language. He demonstrated how a nineteenth-century East-West cultural dialogue created an aesthetic globalism, exemplified by Wilde’s penchant for Japanese vellum in favoured editions. There was also Meredith Collins (Temple University) whose studious paper Teleny, Oscar Wilde, and the Aesthetic Novel traced the aesthetic novel back through “Teleny” to Pater’s “Marius the Epicurean”. Finally, Anthony D’Errico (Drew University) gave us The Homoeroticism of Dorian Gray in a manner as youthfully earnest as his subject. 

It was noted during the panel discussion how the word Queer has crept back into favour, and several in attendance wondered whether the word is now interchangeable with, or distinct from, the word Gay. The panel members elaborated on this inconclusively but with a discernible move away from such labels, favoring the more descriptive ‘same-sex attraction’. The discussion turned to the paper given by Professor Roden which again reflected the claim being made to Wilde’s legacy. He argued that the empathy Wilde displays for Christ in De Profundis helps to inform modern queer theology. In this contemplation my notion instead was of Oscar as a latter-day Paul: not merely all things to all men, but all things regardless of sexual orientation.

Biblical revisionism was also a convenient segue into a session about the propagation of myth in the written portrayal of Wilde. Thus the story of the blind leading the blind found its parallel in the concept of the biographer leading the biographer. As I have always been skeptical of blind faith in biography, it was pleasing to discover a kindred soul in Jason Boyd from the Department of English at University of Toronto. Dr. Boyd is another young and, moreover, enterprising scholar. One of his works is “Contriving Wilde: A Genealogy of the Biographical Discourse to 1945 on Oscar Wilde”. He took this occasion to discuss a new project: Wilde’s Text: Encoding the Biographical Legacy in which he proposes to compile an online database of Wilde biography to be encoded – or descriptively “marked-up” – with the aim of elucidating the Wilde biography. 

Dr. Boyd credited Merlin Holland’s instructive analysis [1] of the notorious incident in Wilde biography of the “icy hand” that clutched Oscar heart (a moment of gay realization) while he was out shopping with his wife at Swan and Edgar’s. The example illustrates how the same story can be treated in four different ways (Leverson, Pearson, Weintraub, Ellmann) to suit the author’s purpose. Therein I note the difference between art and science: scientists are willing to concede they stand on the shoulders of their predecessors while biographers seem content to cling to their coattails. The worst part of such bad scholarship is not the common failure to provide a source. Fact thus asserted can be easily identified as dubious. More egregious, and misleading for students, is the biographer who cites, as if gospel, a source that itself is unfounded. Typical is the refrain “as Ellmann tells us”. It is a pity that one thing Ellmann (the noted Wilde biographer) didn’t tell us is that much of what he wrote was wrong [2]As I sat through the session I was moved, perhaps by the Wildean atmosphere, into aphorism to observe: Doubt in biography is its only certainty. 

One scholar who cannot be accused of lacking attention to correctness is Phillip Smith (University of Pittsburgh). Wildeans are already grateful to him for coediting Oscar Wilde’s Oxford Notebooks: A Portrait of a Mind in the Making (Oxford University Press, 1989). At Drew he introduced us to the next installment. Professor Smith’s paper Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Hellenist was drawn from the “Lady Eccles Oscar Wilde Collection”, a 2003 bequest to the British Library, in which further, but hitherto little-known, material has emerged from Wilde’s days at Oxford. We were shown slides of the original manuscripts to demonstrate the forensic skill and detective work necessary to interpret Wilde’s classical allusions. It was noteworthy how Oscar jotted down sentence fragments as aide-memoir, but stopping short when he knew from memory what should follow. In awe of the debt we owe to Professor Smith’s for his analysis of the text, I remained able only to interpret Wilde’s marginalia, which I concluded were self-evidently just doodles.

Sometimes the theme of Wilde’s legacy became not just more specific, but more conjectural. 

One such began with the hackneyed lead-in: “The Importance of Being…”. This time Jonathan Rose’s (Drew University) examination of The Importance of Being Winston Churchill’s Wildean Legacy. The connection, however, was not quite as tenuous as might be suspected. We learned that the two men were surprisingly alike, and that Churchill held Wilde in high regard. It was touchingly pointed out that Churchill, who was characteristically terse in acknowledging gifts, reserved his most effusive autograph thanks for the receipt of a Wilde volume.

Another was by S.I. Salamensky (UCLA): Oscar Wilde’s Jews, in which every Semitic allusion in the Wilde canon, (and there aren’t many) was mined, nay, exhumed. The principal example was from The Picture of Dorian Gray, with the unsympathetic, near parodic, portrayal of the character Isaacs, the Jewish theatre manager. This subject has already been examined by Christopher Nassar, in The Wildean [3] (January, 2003), and the paper at this conference was a decent refresher, often focusing on the extent to which Wilde’s perceived attitude towards Jews was contemporary.

The last session posed the intentionally understated question: Does a Lady Take Her Gloves Off For Tea?  Such considerations are real for the dramaturg and present a challenge often faced in achieving correctness in the theatre. This discussion made for a palatable appetizer for an entrée into the world of Charlotte Moore, founder and artistic director of Irish Repertory Theatre. Ms. Moore is a veteran actor and director of the American stage, full of drive and passion. Interviewed by Gwen Orel, Ms. Moore entertained us with anecdote and gave many the benefit of her expertise. For instance, her first-hand experience of performing on stage with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor at the same time – something they did only once. The exchange of ideas was a welcome change of pace.

Finally, my apologies for any omission in this review. It does not reflect the quality of the papers, all of which were fine. 

So we retired again to the comforts of a well-catered event and stimulating conversation. Represented were colleges from across the country and abroad, although it had become noticeable how many of the attendees were, in fact, Drew faculty or alumni awaiting their turn as conference speakers or moderators. So for the organizers the number of paid attendees was perhaps disappointing, and there was a suggestion that the conference was not well publicized. Still, the intimate experience made it the more convivial and several friendships were able to be formed that might not have been otherwise.

© John Cooper, Oscar Wilde In America


[1] Originally given by Merlin Holland in his essay “Biography and the Art of Lying” in The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde, Cambridge University Press, 1997)
[2] Additions and corrections to Richard Ellmann’s Oscar Wilde. Horst Schroeder, 2002.
[3] The Wildean: A Journal of Oscar Wilde Studies, published by the Oscar Wilde Societ
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