Oscar Wilde, His Life and Confessions, by Frank Harris

Chapter 9

The Summer of Success: Oscar’s First Play

No season, it is said, is so beautiful as the brief northern summer. Three-fourths of the year is cold and dark, and the ice-bound landscape is swept by snowstorm and blizzard. Summer comes like a goddess; in a twinkling the snow vanishes and Nature puts on her robes of tenderest green; the birds arrive in flocks; flowers spring to life on all sides, and the sun shines by night as by day. Such a summertide, so beautiful and so brief, was accorded to Oscar Wilde before the final desolation.

I want to give a picture of him at the topmost height of happy hours, which will afford some proof of his magical talent of speech besides my own appreciation of it, and, fortunately, the incident has been given to me. Mr. Ernest Beckett, now Lord Grimthorpe, a lover of all superiorities, who has known the ablest men of the time, takes pleasure in telling a story which shows Oscar Wilde’s influence over men who were anything but literary in their tastes. Mr. Beckett had a party of Yorkshire squires, chiefly fox-hunters and lovers of an outdoor life, at Kirkstall Grange when he heard that Oscar Wilde was in the neighbouring town of Leeds. Immediately he asked him to lunch at the Grange, chuckling to himself beforehand at the sensational novelty of the experiment. Next day “Mr. Oscar Wilde” was announced and as he came into the room the sportsmen forthwith began hiding themselves behind newspapers or moving together in groups in order to avoid seeing or being introduced to the notorious writer. Oscar shook hands with his host as if he had noticed nothing, and began to talk.

“In five minutes,” Grimthorpe declares, “all the papers were put down and everyone had gathered round him to listen and laugh.”

At the end of the meal one Yorkshireman after the other begged the host to follow the lunch with a dinner and invite them to meet the wonder again. When the party broke up in the small hours they all went away delighted with Oscar, vowing that no man ever talked more brilliantly. Grimthorpe cannot remember a single word Oscar said: “It was all delightful,” he declares, “a play of genial humour over every topic that came up, like sunshine dancing on waves.”

The extraordinary thing about Oscar’s talent was that he did not monopolise the conversation: he took the ball of talk wherever it happened to be at the moment and played with it so humorously that everyone was soon smiling delightedly. The famous talkers of the past, Coleridge, Macaulay, Carlyle and the others, were all lecturers: talk to them was a discourse on a favourite theme, and in ordinary life they were generally regarded as bores. But at his best Oscar Wilde never dropped the tone of good society: he could afford to give place to others; he was equipped at all points: no subject came amiss to him: he saw everything from a humorous angle, and dazzled one now with word-wit, now with the very stuff of merriment.

Though he was the life and soul of every social gathering, and in constant demand, he still read omnivorously, and his mind naturally occupied itself with high themes.

For some years, the story of Jesus fascinated him and tinged all his thought. We were talking about Renan’s “Life” one day: a wonderful book he called it, one of the three great biographies of the world, Plato’s dialogues with Socrates as hero and Boswell’s “Life of Johnson” being the other two. It was strange, he thought, that the greatest man had written the worst biography; Plato made of Socrates a mere phonograph, into which he talked his own theories: Renan did better work, and Boswell, the humble loving friend, the least talented of the three, did better still, though being English, he had to keep to the surface of things and leave the depths to be divined. Oscar evidently expected Plato and Renan to have surpassed comparison.

It seemed to me, however, that the illiterate Galilean fishermen had proved themselves still more consummate painters than Boswell, though they, too, left a great deal too much to the imagination. Love is the best of artists; the puddle of rain in the road can reflect a piece of sky marvellously.

The Gospel story had a personal interest for Oscar; he was always weaving little fables about himself as the Master.

In spite of my ignorance of Hebrew the story of Jesus had always had the strongest attraction for me, and so we often talked about Him, though from opposite poles.

Renan I felt had missed Jesus at his highest. He was far below the sincerity, the tenderness and sweet-thoughted wisdom of that divine spirit. Frenchman-like, he stumbled over the miracles and came to grief. Claus Sluter’s head of Jesus in the museum of Dijon is a finer portrait, and so is the imaginative picture of Fra Angelico. It seemed to me possible to do a sketch from the Gospels themselves which should show the growth of the soul of Jesus and so impose itself as a true portrait.

Oscar’s interest in the theme was different; he put himself frankly in the place of his model, and appeared to enjoy the jarring antinomy which resulted. One or two of his stories were surprising in ironical suggestion; surprising too because they showed his convinced paganism. Here is one which reveals his exact position:

“When Joseph of Arimathea came down in the evening from Mount Calvary where Jesus had died he saw on a white stone a young man seated weeping. And Joseph went near him and said, ‘I understand how great thy grief must be, for certainly that Man was a just Man.’ But the young man made answer, ‘Oh, it is not for that I am weeping. I am weeping because I too have wrought miracles. I also have given sight to the blind, I have healed the palsied and I have raised the dead; I too have caused the barren fig tree to wither away and I have turned water into wine . . . and yet they have not crucified me.’”

At the time this apologue amused me; in the light of later events it assumed a tragic significance. Oscar Wilde ought to have known that in this world every real superiority is pursued with hatred, and every worker of miracles is sure to be persecuted. But he had no inkling that the Gospel story is symbolic — the life-story of genius for all time, eternally true. He never looked outside himself, and as the fruits of success were now sweet in his mouth, a pursuing Fate seemed to him the most mythical of myths. His child-like self-confidence was pathetic. The laws that govern human affairs had little interest for the man who was always a law unto himself. Yet by some extraordinary prescience, some inexplicable presentiment, the approaching catastrophe cast its shadow over his mind and he felt vaguely that the life-journey of genius would be incomplete and farcical without the final tragedy: whoever lives for the highest must be crucified.

It seems memorable to me that in this brief summer of his life, Oscar Wilde should have concerned himself especially with the life-story of the Man of Sorrows who had sounded all the depths of suffering. Just when he himself was about to enter the Dark Valley, Jesus was often in his thoughts and he always spoke of Him with admiration. But after all how could he help it? Even Dekker saw as far as that:

“The best of men

That e’er wore earth about Him.”

This was the deeper strain in Oscar Wilde’s nature though he was always disinclined to show it. Habitually he lived in humorous talk, in the epithets and epigrams he struck out in the desire to please and astonish his hearers.

One evening I learned almost by chance that he was about to try a new experiment and break into a new field.

He took up the word “lose” at the table, I remember.

“We lose our chances,” he said, laughing, “we lose our figures, we even lose our characters; but we must never lose our temper. That is our duty to our neighbour, Frank; but sometimes we mislay it, don’t we?”

“Is that going in a book, Oscar?” I asked, smiling, “or in an article? You have written nothing lately.”

“I have a play in my mind,” he replied gravely. “To-morrow I am going to shut myself up in my room, and stay there until it is written. George Alexander has been bothering me to write a play for some time and I’ve got an idea I rather like. I wonder can I do it in a week, or will it take three? It ought not to take long to beat the Pineros and the Joneses.” It always annoyed Oscar when any other name but his came into men’s mouths: his vanity was extraordinarily alert.

Naturally enough he minimised Mr. Alexander’s initiative. The well-known actor had “bothered” Oscar by advancing him £100 before the scenario was even outlined. A couple of months later he told me that Alexander had accepted his comedy, and was going to produce “Lady Windermere’s Fan.” I thought the title excellent.

“Territorial names,” Oscar explained, gravely, “have always a cachet of distinction: they fall on the ear full toned with secular dignity. That’s how I get all the names of my personages, Frank. I take up a map of the English counties, and there they are. Our English villages have often exquisitely beautiful names. Windermere, for instance, or Hunstanton,” and he rolled the syllables over his tongue with a soft sensual pleasure.

I had a box the first night and, thinking it might do Oscar some good, I took with me Arthur Walter of The Times. The first scene of the first act was as old as the hills, but the treatment gave charm to it if not freshness. The delightful, unexpected humour set off the commonplace incident; but it was only the convention that Arthur Walter would see. The play was poor, he thought, which brought me to wonder.

After the first act I went downstairs to the foyer and found the critics in much the same mind. There was an enormous gentleman called Joseph Knight, who cried out:

“The humour is mechanical, unreal.” Seeing that I did not respond he challenged me:

“What do you think of it?”

“That is for you critics to answer,” I replied.

“I might say,” he laughed, “in Oscar’s own peculiar way, ‘Little promise and less performance.’ Ha! ha! ha!”

“That’s the exact opposite to Oscar’s way,” I retorted. “It is the listeners who laugh at his humour.”

“Come now, really,” cried Knight, “you cannot think much of the play?”

For the first time in my life I began to realise that nine critics out of ten are incapable of judging original work. They seem to live in a sort of fog, waiting for someone to give them the lead, and accordingly they love to discuss every new play right and left.

“I have not seen the whole play,” I answered. “I was not at any of the rehearsals; but so far it is surely the best comedy in English, the most brilliant: isn’t it?”

The big man started back and stared at me; then burst out laughing.

“That’s good,” he cried with a loud unmirthful guffaw. “‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’ better than any comedy of Shakespeare! Ha! ha! ha! ‘more brilliant!’ ho! ho!”

“Yes,” I persisted, angered by his disdain, “wittier, and more humorous than ‘As You Like It,’ or ‘Much Ado.’ Strange to say, too, it is on a higher intellectual level. I can only compare it to the best of Congreve, and I think it’s better.” With a grunt of disapproval or rage the great man of the daily press turned away to exchange bleatings with one of his confrères.

The audience was a picked audience of the best heads in London, far superior in brains therefore to the average journalist, and their judgment was that it was a most brilliant and interesting play. Though the humour was often prepared, the construction showed a rare mastery of stage-effect. Oscar Wilde had at length come into his kingdom.

At the end the author was called for, and Oscar appeared before the curtain. The house rose at him and cheered and cheered again. He was smiling, with a cigarette between his fingers, wholly master of himself and his audience.

“I am so glad, ladies and gentlemen, that you like my play.9 I feel sure you estimate the merits of it almost as highly as I do myself.”

The house rocked with laughter. The play and its humour were a seven days’ wonder in London. People talked of nothing but “Lady Windermere’s Fan.” The witty words in it ran from lip to lip like a tidbit of scandal. Some clever Jewesses and, strange to say, one Scotchman were the loudest in applause. Mr. Archer, the well-known critic of The World, was the first and only journalist to perceive that the play was a classic by virtue of “genuine dramatic qualities.” Mrs. Leverson turned the humorous sayings into current social coin in Punch, of all places in the world, and from a favourite Oscar Wilde rapidly became the idol of smart London.

The play was an intellectual triumph. This time Oscar had not only won success but had won also the suffrages of the best. Nearly all the journalist-critics were against him and made themselves ridiculous by their brainless strictures; Truth and The Times, for example, were poisonously puritanic, but thinking people came over to his side in a body. The halo of fame was about him, and the incense of it in his nostrils made him more charming, more irresponsibly gay, more genial-witty than ever. He was as one set upon a pinnacle with the sunshine playing about him, lighting up his radiant eyes. All the while, however, the foul mists from the underworld were wreathing about him, climbing higher and higher.

9 Cfr. Appendix: “Criticisms by Robert Ross.”

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30