This is an extraordinary film from 1960 about the downfall of Oscar Wilde in the 1890’s. We are very lucky to have the whole film available on YouTube. I find it very well acted. I first saw it more than thirty years ago, but only now did I really appreciate the personalities of Wilde, his wife Constance, Bosie (Lord Alfred Douglas) and the pompous and angry Marquis of Queensberry.
On the YouTube page containing the film, you will find extracts from a review attesting the quality of the acting and authenticity of the screenplay. The one question remains: what was Wilde doing with cheap and vulgar “rent boys”?
As the film went on, I had the impression that Wilde was acting out the Greek tragedy Antigone by Sophocles – English translation and the moving German text which was set to music by Mendelssohn. Throughout the trials and consultations with his solicitor, Wilde seemed to be bent on destroying himself by trying to be too “clever” with the prosecution and defying the advice of his own counsel.
First of all, the vile Marquis of Queensberry had a visiting card delivered to Wilde with the words “posing as a sodomite”. In what way was that libel? The matter was private and did not involve anything said or written in public. The portrait of Queensberry showed an abusive and violent man who mistreated his wife and his children alike, a perfect picture of the pathological personality. I detected the same toxic traits in “Bosie” which showed through his manipulative arrogance. Wilde also lived far beyond his means and I had little sympathy for any of them other than Constance and the two children.
I often quote from Wilde’s De Profundis as he seemed to have an understanding of the noblest aspects of humanity, after two years of the hell of a Victorian prison. He was so badly destroyed that he was unable to rebuild his personality or spiritual life when he lived in Paris, and ended his life most tragically as meningitis ate his brain away. What was the nature of that love that dare not speak its name? The line was actually written by “Bosie”, not Wilde. The expression is conventionally taken to mean homosexuality, something that was severely repressed in the Victorian era. At his trial, Wilde attempted to give a more noble explanation on the basis of friendships between mature men and boys in the ancient Greek culture. St Paul was explicitly severe about homosexuality in the Epistles to the Romans and Corinthians in particular. Homosexuality in the New Testament is a particularly interesting article giving various exegetical approaches to the various Pauline and Old Testament texts. Some liberal scholars interpret the texts as a prohibition against paedophilia and prostitution, but more conservative exegetes hold a complete condemnation of all same-gender sexual acts and relationships. I would as a priest be more inclined to discourage physical sexual acts in favour of the kind of friendship described in De spirituali amicitia (Spiritual Friendship) of St Aelred of Rievaulx, a Christian counterpart of Cicero’s De amicitia. St Aelred, as Abbot of a large monastic community, would have been very severe on physical sexuality between monks. But the friendship he described is perhaps a love that forgot to speak its name over the centuries. I think we do well to read this work, which has been translated from Latin into English and other modern languages, and discern the spirit of this venerable idea of friendship, real friendship, between two human persons. Churches and priests need to develop a truly pastoral approach in helping men to transcend their sexual desires through profound friendship and spiritual life. It is easier said than done, but the feeling of “falling in love” can be a dangerous and catastrophic illusion.
I suspect that Wilde lied to the court when he denied having “it” with rent boys. He is not the saint many would like to believe. How would a man of that level of culture and nobility of spirit get mixed up with such lowly persons? As for taking the Marquess of Queensberry to court, when setting out on vengeance, one must first dig two graves. Being blinded by love can lead a person to abdicate reason and common sense to a degree that self-destruction is the only issue. How else would Wilde have been so reckless in putting all his faith in his wit and sense of humour? A court of law is no place for such foolishness! His attitude was probably not far from contempt of court.
Constance could only do what she could for the good of her children, as a woman of her time. Today, the equivalent would be a case of a paedophile who abused children sexually, a priest or a teacher in particular. She showed her pain and sense of duty in forcing her husband after his release from prison to give up his parental rights. The couple never divorced. I saw in the portrayal of this woman a profound altruism, sense of duty and genuine care for her discredited husband.
I don’t think I can draw any absolute conclusions from this reconstruction of long-dead historical figures. I am very fond of Wilde’s work. I have several of his plays in videos that I can watch. The Picture of Dorian Grey is haunting, to say the least, and an incredibly fine understanding of the human soul. The little stories for children like the Happy Prince are just as profound in their tenderness. The two post-incarceration works De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Gaol show Wilde in his pain after having suffered such a disproportionate and soul-killing punishment for his indiscretions. The Soul of Man under Socialism was a prophetic piece of writing for a century of which he saw only the first year.
What do I conclude? I can only observe the cruel division between a spirit of such nobility and sense of the transcendentals of truth, beauty and goodness, a Romantic to the last, on one hand, and someone who perhaps shared the narcissistic traits of Bosie and his violent and abusive father who was fanatically bent on Wilde’s destruction. I think I understand the spirit of contradiction in ideas like Work is the curse of the drinking classes and overcoming temptation by giving in to it. He waged war on conventional morality and the self-righteousness of the Philistines of his age. In his opposition to hypocritical moralism, he overstepped the fragile line into sin and suffering.
He died a hundred and twenty years ago, and his grave is found at the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. The monument is of a singular ugliness in my opinion. Wilde left his mark, certainly on me.