Laurel L. Russwurm's Free Culture Blog

a writer, the copyfight and internet freedom

Happy Birthday Oscar Wilde

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My first awareness of Oscar Wilde was when I first saw the beautiful Canadian animated film of “The Selfish Giant” on television when I was in elementary school. It struck the most wonderful balance between beauty and sadness.

The Selfish Giant - 1971 animated short film

The Selfish Giant - 1971 animated short film

That was before I’d begun reading credits, so I didn’t know at first that this was based on an Oscar Wilde short story. At that time I had no idea who Oscar Wilde was.

Dorian Gray and The Complete Short Stories

Dorian Gray and The Complete Short Stories

My next encounter with Oscar Wilde was when I read The Picture of Dorian Gray in high school. I don’t think anyone was brave enough to include Wilde in the curriculum in those days, certainly not in my rural school. But it was in there in the library, and I was a long time fan of historical novels by then. What beautiful language.

Although I was probably still too young to really get it, I was captivated all the same. But that was the only Wilde in the school library.

During my college years I was a camp counsellor one summer, and the camp rented films to project out doors for a Movie Night. When I saw “The Selfish Giant” again, and I made a point to remember it.

The Importance of Being Earnest DVD

When I was in college I was charmed by an amateur production of “The Importance of Being Earnest”, but I still didn’t realize that the same man wrote this extremely varied body of work.

When I was a new mother I discovered a beautifully illustrated version of “The Nightingale and the Rose” in the children’s section of a large book store. It made me weep, but I bought it just the same.

What an incredibly sad book to read to a child. What an incredibly sad story for anyone. Perhaps reading this and The Happy Prince to my child when young has something to do with the fact that he has empathy.

Of course the world is a different place today, so my son studied The Picture of Dorian Gray in high school English class.

Oscar Wilde photographed by Canadian Portrait Photographer Napoleon Sarony in New York

Oscar Wilde photographed by Canadian Portrait Photographer Napoleon Sarony in New York City

From the children’s books my sister said about Oscar, “You can tell he’s suffered.”

I have a nephew named for Dorian Gray.

The more I found out about Oscar Wilde, the more impressed I became. When I was given “The collected Works” a few years back, I read it cover to cover.

He came from an eccentrically brilliant family and he had absolute self confidence. Or if he didn’t he faked it awfully well.

What an amazing man. He had style. He pretty much invented celebrity. But when he began to be published it was clear he wasn’t just another pretty face. He was a genious.

On his tour of North America Oscar was famously photographed by the Canadian photographer Napoleon Sarony.   Having these photographs in existance today adds to the Wilde mystique, back then, they helped build the legend.

Interesting copyright aside: An advertiser used one of Sarony’s photographs of Wilde in an advertisement without permission. Sarony sued, which resulted in the addition of photography to the protection of copyright law.

The plays Oscar wrote were brilliant dissections of “society” which was so overwhelmingly important in the time.

Film version of Lady Windemere's Fan

Film version of Lady Windemere's Fan

The Importance of Being Earnest.

Lady Windermere’s Fan.

An Ideal Husband.

Delicious, all. He was adored and lionized for his pronouncements, style, and wit. Conveniently he was blessed with a prodigious talent.

He married and had children because that was what you did, but Oscar Wilde committed a terrible crime. He made the mistake of being born gay. He separated from his wife, and came out of the closet. And he was still accepted and respected.

Until the father of his true love threatened Oscar with the full force of the law.

Because Oscar was so supremely self confident, because he was so terribly famous, because the glitterati sought his advice and hung on his every word, and because he believed he lived in an enlightened age, he felt he could withstand the justice system.

Unfortunately he was wrong. He was jailed for the crime of being gay. He lost everything. Oscar did not thrive in jail. When he emerged from jail he had an epic poem, but he was truly a broken man. His health was a memory. He died quite young in France.

An Ideal Husband DVD

Oscar Wilde brought so much joy, so much joie de vivre, so much beauty into the world.

I think that the most important thing for Oscar Wild was being famous and having his words read or performed. Because he was an artist. In his lifetime he went from being seriously famous and terribly in style to being a pariah cast out of the society he loved. Because of his infamy, his works were not reprinted.

For years Oscar’s fame was kept alive quietly, but for the most part society was frightened to read his words. Because Oscar Wilde wasn’t just gay, he was seriously out of the closet. But because he died young, his works entered the public domain far earlier than they should have if he’d kept his health.

There are always publishers wanting to reprint material that they don’t have to pay for. And Oscar Wilde’s work was gorgeous.

So slowly Oscar’s works crept back into society. His words are as fresh today as they were then, his wit as razor sharp. The depth of love he imbued in the nightingale is just as powerful now as ever. Maybe even more so. Am I weeping as I type because of Oscar’s breathtaking prose, or are my tears for Oscar?

"Life is too important to be taken seriously." -- Oscar Wilde

In 2009 Brian Bedford told Oscar’s story in “Ever Yours, Oscar” a one man show at the Ontario Stratford Festival. Oscar’s words are immortalized in books, posters, T shirts. His plays are performed live and recorded on DVD. There are probably more of Oscar Wilde’s quotations online than anyone else’s. Because above all else, Oscar Wilde was funny. Today, the only thing that matters is that Oscar’s words live on.

I think Oscar would get such a kick out of getting the last laugh.

Written by Laurel L. Russwurm

October 16, 2009 at 2:16 pm

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