Oscar Wilde and Art: Tragedy of Dorian Gray

An adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) was performed recently in Geneva with professional actors auditioned and cast in London. The production focused on the main characters, stripping away some of the minor characters allowing the audience to follow the themes and ideas more easily. Fast moving and dynamic while staying close to Wilde’s original ideas and language, the tragedy of Dorian Gray is in many ways that of Oscar Wilde himself.
Wilde himself wrote one thing in his Preface considered by the Director to be the strength of the PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY: “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors”.
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was one of the most notorious of nineteenth century aesthetes, renowned for his conversation and wit. He was educated at Portora Royal School, Enniskillen, and studied classics at Trinity College Dublin (TCD). In 1874, as a classics scholar he went to Magadalen College, Oxford, England, on a scholarship.
His mother, Lady Jane Francesca Wilde, was the Irish Nationalist, poet, critic and feminist. His father, Sir William Wilde, was a distinguished pioneer of eye and ear surgery and of antiquarianism. The bohemian life at their home in Merrion Square introduced Wilde to an emancipated and indulgent atmosphere in which he met many leading artists, lawyers and scientists of the day.
Living in London he was a dominant and controversial figure in British cultural life from his undergraduate days. His views on literature, art and criticism of their relation to conduct are implicit or explicit in almost everything he wrote including his public demeanour and celebrated table talk. In 1884 he married Constance May Lloyd, the daughter of a well-known Irish barrister, and two sons were born within the next two years.
Nearly all Wilde’s criticism was written between 1885 when he stopped making his living as a lecturer, and 1891 when he became a dramatist. It consists of about 100 book reviews and brief articles. Wilde’s works include the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) and a series of brilliant social comedies: Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895), and The Importance of being Earnest (1895).
His flamboyant lifestyle, ego and choice of romantic partners had dire consequences. Wilde was prosecuted for his love of Lord Alfred Douglas (1870-1945), Bosie, whom he met in 1892 at a time when homosexuality was a criminal offence. While serving his sentence he constantly attacked the prison system and prison life. His best-known poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898), exposes the inhumanity of the prison system and reflects his prison experiences with hard labour between 1895 and 1897. It has the line … “He does not win who plays with sin In the secret House of Shame”.
He was the first man to be prosecuted and given the maximum sentence under the Criminal Law Act for “acts of gross indecency with another male person.” The notorious trial and it consequences led to his social and financial ruin. He was also forbidden from ever seeing, or contacting, his sons again.
On his release he was declared bankrupt and left England for good, to live in France. In 1899 Wilde was received into the Catholic Church. Dying in a Paris bedroom, attributed to him is the quotation … “Either that wallpaper goes or I do”. In 1990 he died of meningitis and is buried in the Parisian cemetery of P?re Lachaise. Lord Alfred Douglas, Bosie, attended his funeral.
Tragedy of Dorian Gray
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde was first published in New York and London in 1890 and a revised version appeared in London in 1891. Branded as immoral, the earlier book is shorter and more explicit than the later one. A classic novel and enduring story relevant today, it has inspired many adaptations for stage, film, television and opera.
The novel was used as the main literary evidence against Wilde at his trials … the three central characters are friends but also torture and corrupt each other. So Wilde tortured himself, indeed destroying himself as an artist and man with his provocative libel case against his lover’s father, the Marquess of Queensbury.
Director’s Notes … It is quite common to suggest that the three central characters of the novel are aspects of Oscar Wilde. This is his only major novel and surely his most revealing work. Dorian is the Oscar Wilde of his youth – his innocence and his beauty, Basil is Wilde the serious artist, the introvert who aspires to morality as he labours alone – his obsession is beauty for its own sake. Lord Henry is the public Oscar Wilde, the bon viveur, the master of wit, the notorious celebrity. Basil is also, of course, the secretive homosexual – although interestingly Wilde’s own predatory sex life was far less tortured than Basil’s even if it was concealed until the notorious trials.
From his many quotations … Oscar Wilde and Art … “All art is quite useless”. From Dorian Gray … “It is only shallow peope who do not judge by appearances” … “Being natural is only a pose, and the most irritating pose I know” … “The real drawback to marriage is that it makes one unselfish. And unselfish people are colourless” … Oscar Wilde on Regrets … from Dorian Gray … “Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one’s mistakes”.
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With a brush stroke of Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera, the adaptation of the play was a provocative evening of theatre. Performed by TNT Theatre Britain and produced by American Drama Group Europe (ADGE), it was brought to Geneva by Howard Productions. The latter has brought professional theatre productions to the Geneva area since 1998.
Ita Marguet, February 2009
Note: Acknowledgement is given to all sources used in this text including programme content The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, Geneva 29,30,31 January 2009. The text follows a published article by the author entitled Ireland and Estonia: The Wilde connection (Ita Marguet, October 2004).