||[Sep. 21st, 2004|10:42 am]
Some fascinating reading [gaol?] from Sydney Morning Herald.|
Oscar Wilde was more complex than we assume, his grandson tells Angela Bennie.
The final mystery is oneself, wrote Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde.
There is indeed a mystery at the core of Oscar Wilde, well buried beneath the brilliantly constructed mask of superficiality he wore with such panache.
On the surface he is the epitome of elegantly structured Victorian manners and mores. But today, more and more is he claimed by scholars and the public alike as one of their own - a 20th-century modernist, urbane, transgressive, subversive, whose flamboyant mask of wit and daring disguised a much deeper, troubled complexity.
Masks are the key to Oscar Wilde, claims his grandson, Merlin Holland.
"You will find he talks often of masks - 'Give a man a mask and he'll tell you the truth'; behind the humour is always a deep truth," says Holland. "Too much of Oscar is taken too much at face value. He is a paradox.
"On one level he is immensely accessible, and because of this there is no presumption of 'difficulty' about him, as in the sense that people call Joyce 'difficult', a sort of code for deep, complex. Yet beneath the presumed superficiality, there is, in fact, always a complex truth at work."
Holland is Wilde's only grandson. Given Wilde's spectacular rise to fame and fall into ignominy and disgrace, his notoriety for having been called "a somdomite" (sic) by the Marquess of Queensberry and his consequent trial and conviction for his crime of "gross indecency" - his homosexuality - it is often forgotten that Wilde was also a loving husband and father.
With his wife, Constance, he had two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan. In the wake of Wilde's trial and imprisonment, a wash of scandal and disgrace accompanied the Wilde name wherever it was heard. In desperation, Constance discarded it for an old family name of "Holland", which she and her family kept for the rest of their lives.
Cyril, the oldest son, was killed in World War I; Vyvyan was eventually to marry and father an only child, Merlin.
On Vyvyan's and then his mother's death, Merlin Holland became the sole executor of Wilde's estate. But he admits to a certain ambivalence in this: hard to define or explain, but there all the same. On the one hand, he says, there was the duty he felt towards his family and to his grandfather; on the other, there was a reluctance to step into the limelight "simply because of his genes".
"I have never liked the idea of descendants capitalising on their heritage. I had promised myself I would never do this. People thought I must be a walking encyclopedia of Oscar Wilde, but I wasn't. At that time I knew as much as any other member of the public did.
"So I took the task on partly as a pleasure, and partly from a sense of obligation. I used to call it my Saturday job, where I would sit down and deal with Oscar matters."
Holland is putting it too lightly. One of his "Oscar matters" was to edit superbly a revised volume of Wilde's collected letters. It was a huge task, requiring patient research, erudition and a certain Wildean sensibility of his own, which allowed the volume to sing with Wilde's o voice, that "texture of brown velvet and played like a cello", as it was once described.
Another "Oscar matter" was Holland's decision to edit and publish in full the transcript of Wilde's trial. It had been published before, of course, for the trial is now part of English legal history. Wilde's trial ranks, says the writer Peter Ackroyd, "with those of Thomas More and Mary, Queen of Scots".
It is certainly great theatre, not the least for Wilde's own performance in the witness box. As Ackroyd so adroitly puts it, it began "as opera bouffe and ended as domestic tragedy".
But previous publications had been carefully expurgated, and Holland was determined to allow the full weight of Wilde's tragedy its due. With a forward from John Mortimer, the unexpurgated transcript was published last year.
For the book launch, Holland whittled out of the transcript a performance text, with actors Corin Redgrave and Steven Berkoff agreeing to play Wilde and his merciless prosecutor, Sir Edward Carson, respectively, for a one-off performance.
It was such a success that the Chichester Literary Festival asked Holland if they could repeat the exercise one more time: "But Corin had to pull out for health reasons. I went to Steven and I said: 'Who can we get to do it? And he said: who better to do it than you?' So I did."
The experience, says Holland now, was "uncanny".
"One side of me enjoyed the experience of speaking my grandpa's words, because it shows people what really went on in court, what he went through.
"But then there is another side to me that wonders if there is not a kind of hubris in me, playing the part of my grandpa. It is a strange mix of feelings I have."
Holland will experience that strange mix all over again this week, in more ways than one.
Holland is in Sydney to take part in a conference and celebration of the 150th anniversary of Oscar Wilde's birth, organised by the University of NSW's Irish Studies department. The event opens tomorrow evening with a dinner at the Sydney Opera House, followed by four days of lectures and a film festival (which opens with Wilde, starring Stephen Fry).
As part of the conference, Holland has agreed to perform once more in The Re-trial of Oscar Wilde. He will again play his grandfather; and, in the role of his adversary, Carson, will be the Australian QC, Francis Douglas. Uncanny, for Douglas is a distant relative of Wilde's enemy, the Marquess of Queensberry.
With these two men standing before each other, confronting each other as Wilde and Carson, speaking those fateful words uttered more than a century ago, it seems as if fate has once again assumed the right to a role in the affairs of Wilde.
"Wilde said once after his release from prison 'The fates rocked my cradle'," says Holland. "I believe now that there was something Greek about his downfall. There was this sense of destiny in him, as if he was aware of a power in his life carrying him forward and on, that his life was going to take a certain course.
"The events of his life seem to have a certain inevitability about them. I also feel that at a point in his writing, say from about 1887 onwards, a certain dark quality creeps in. Look at Dorian Gray: he wants to reform himself. Yet in stabbing the picture of Dorian Gray, he reunites himself with his evil soul."
The Oscar Wilde of The Picture of Dorian Gray is indeed not the Oscar Wilde of The Importance of Being Earnest, that exquisite "prose opera", as Auden called it, regarded as perhaps the most perfect comedy written in the English language.
And the Oscar Wilde in the slough of despair and anguish of De Profundis, written during his incarceration at Reading Gaol, is not the Oscar Wilde who quipped his way insouciantly to fame, whose children's stories are still read with joy and delight for their wisdom and compassion.
Or is he? The final mystery is indeed oneself, as Wilde said. "When one has weighed the sun in the balance, and measured the steps of the moon, and mapped out the seven heavens, star by star, there still remains oneself. Who can calculate the orbit of his own soul?"
Details of the conference are available at http://irishstudies.arts.unsw.edu.au