Grandson's lecture shows importance of Oscar Wilde

By STEVE BARNES, Staff writer

"The Importance of Being Earnest" opened in London 104 years ago Sunday--Valentine's Day, 1895.

By April of that year, one of the most perfect comedies in the English language had closed, its author plunged into such disgrace and disrepute that his reputation would require almost a century to be rehabilitated.

And yet Oscar Wilde has been restored to his rightful place, said Merlin Holland, Wilde's grandson, during a lecture Wednesday night at the University at Albany. It was only the second Albany lecture by a Wilde in 117 years--Oscar Wilde spoke in New York's capital city in 1882, during his American lecture tour. According to press accounts at the time, Wilde was most notable for boring the audience into a stupified ennui.

Holland said he hoped he wouldn't have the same effect, and he didn't.

The tall, wavy-haired Holland, born 45 years after his grandfather's 1900 death, bears a resemblance to Wilde, and also inherited familial eloquence and wit. His lecture, titled "Confounding the Critics and Surviving the Scandal," sums up his mission, he said, to elevate Wilde from merely being a "first-class funnyman struggling to get out of the second class of literary" acclaim.

As Richard Ellmann wrote in his meticulous 1987 biography of Wilde, "He is not one of those writers who as the centuries change lose their relevance. Wilde is one of us. His wit is an agent of renewal, as pertinent now as a hundred years ago."

Wilde exploded so many conventions, challenged so contemptuously the mores, ethics and aesthetics of his time, it was no wonder that Victorian society was eager to send him to "the grave of contemptuous oblivion," Holland said, addressing approximately 150 people in a UAlbany recital hall.

"He was a sacrificial ram caught in the thicket of his own making," said Holland. His appearance, part of Authors Theatre and co-sponsored by the New York State Writers Institute & Capital Repetory Theatre, was a component of the university's Irish Semester.

Like many great men, Wilde helped facilitate his downfall as a result of arrogance and love. He had for several years been keeping company with Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas, much to the fury of Douglas' father. After the elder Douglas called Wilde a "sodomite," Wilde sued for libel, at the urging of Bosie, who hated his father. Evidence introduced during the libel trial led to Wilde's arrest for "gross indecency"--in other words homosexuality--and he was convicted. After two years of hard labor, Wilde, physically and emotionally defeated, retreated to France, where he died in 1900.

Most of Wilde's possessions were sold to pay court costs, and his papers and rights to his writing left family hands, Holland said. The Wilde name was so besmirched that the rights to one of his greatest prose works, "The Picture of Dorian Gray," were sold after his death for the equivalent of only 10 English pounds, Holland said.

The Holland name was adopted by, Wilde's wife, Constance, out of necessity, for herself and their two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan. The disgust at Oscar Wilde caused Constance and the boys to be evicted from a Swiss hotel at the request of other English guests, Holland said.

Merlin Holland is the son of Vyvyan; Cyril, Wilde's oldest child, died in World War 1.

Wilde's name and reputation began their slow rise back toward acceptability and now, celebration, only in the 1960s, Holland said. He cited two significant factors: the 1962 publication, by Rupert Hart-Davis, of Wilde's collected letters, which revealed the fullest portrait of the man available until the Ellmann biography, and the 1969 revocation of the Sexual Offenses Act, which decriminalized private homosexual behavior in England.

As homosexuality became less taboo and appreciation of Wilde's work and wit increased, Holland said, "prurient interest (gave way to) genuine desire to know what lay behind the mask of sparkling superficiality."

In closing, Holland quoted Wilde, who in "De Profundis" wrote, "I was a man who stood in symbolic opposition to the life and art of my age."

Copyright 1999, Capital Newspapers Division
of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.