Assistant Curator, Alex Clayton, celebrates LGBT History Month with a blog exploring the career and legacy of Oscar Wilde, using material from the V&A’s Theatre and Performance Collections.
On the 31st January 2017, Queen Elizabeth II signed the Police and Crime Act. The law posthumously pardoned over 50,000 historic convictions of ‘gross indecency’ and other charges related to homosexual acts. Among the men to be pardoned was Oscar Wilde (16 October 1854 – 30 November 1900), the Irish playwright, novelist and poet.
Between 1880 and 1895, Wilde produced seven completed plays; many of these productions continue to be revived, with Wilde’s legacy influencing theatre, literature, music and politics.
The V&A Theatre and Performance Collections house a wide variety of archives, costume and museum objects. These include prints, photographs and printed texts relating to Wilde’s life and work as a playwright. Using this material it is possible to trace his dramatic rise to fame, as well as the circumstances of his imprisonment, early death and enduring legacy.
Vera (1883): High Society and Societal Comedies
After finishing his studies at Trinity College, Dublin and Oxford University, Wilde moved to London and quickly established himself amongst London’s social and cultural elite.
Wilde produced his first play, Vera, in 1882. The play was turned down in London, and instead opened at the Union Theatre, New York in 1883. Its poor attendances saw it close after just one week.
Wilde returned to London undeterred, continuing to produce poetry, journalism and popular public lectures. He soon found success in London producing a string of societal comedies, such as Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892) and An Ideal Husband (1895), which satirised the expectations and behaviours of his own social circle.
This print depicting Wilde, published in Vanity Fair, was printed just days before Wilde’s high profile marriage in 1884 to Constance Lloyd, the daughter of Horace Lloyd, a member of Queen Victoria’s legal council. The marriage propelled Wilde further to fame, and facilitated the couple’s opulent London lifestyle.
After the birth of Wilde’s second child in 1886, strong rumours began to emerge of Wilde’s homosexual relationships. Wilde spent increased time in London hotels and restaurants with his lovers, later forming an intimate friendship with Lord Alfred Douglas.
The Importance of Being Earnest (1885): Success and Prosecution
Wilde wrote perhaps his most famous play, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) at the height of his fame and popularity. The comedic farce satirised Victorian social obligations and the institution of marriage. The production was received well by critics, and has arguably become Wilde’s most enduring and revived work.
The Importance of Being Earnest was Wilde’s last play. During the production’s successful run at the St James’s Theatre, Wilde became enthralled in a series of legal battles that ultimately lead to his arrest and prosecution for ‘gross indecency’ with men.
Wilde had attempted to prosecute Lord Alfred Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensbury, for libel after he had discovered and condemned their relationship. In his defence, Queensbury’s lawyers produced evidence from several male prostitutes to support his accusations and clear the charges. Wilde was subsequently arrested and convicted of gross indecency, being sentenced to two years hard labour.
The conviction left Wilde publicly disgraced, and upon his release from prison in 1897 he sailed immediately to France. He never returned to Britain. Wilde’s plays, novels and poetic work nonetheless remained popular, however these two programmes for The Importance of Being Earnest show Wilde’s name deliberately omitted after the prosecution for gross indecency.
Salome (1891): Decline, Exile and Death
Although The Importance of Being Earnest was Wilde’s final play, his biblical tragedy Salomé (1891) was not produced publicly in Britain until 1931, over 30 years after Wilde’s death. The Lord Chamberlain had banned its production in Britain due to its depiction of biblical characters, a restriction placed on all productions at the time until 1968. Originally written in French, the play was first produced in Paris in 1896 during Wilde’s imprisonment.
After Wilde’s retreat to France, he described a period of ‘spiritual renewal’ but was rejected by the Catholic Church. His last years were spent in isolation, poverty and alcoholism. He refused to publish again, describing how ‘I can write, but have lost the joy of writing’. Wilde died of cerebral meningitis in November 1900.
Initially Salome was performed privately to invited audiences and members clubs. When the play was first publicly produced in Britain, at the Savoy Theatre in 1931, it was met with a harsh critical reception. The Telegraph described how ‘this is most certainly a play that should be kept on the shelf, Censor or no Censor’. Despite its initially negative reviews, the play has nonetheless been appreciated as one of Wilde’s greatest works, with its characters and scenes being revived in theatre, film, music and art. In 2017, both the Royal Shakespeare Company and The National Theatre will produce revivals of the play.
Over 100 years after his death, Wilde continues to have an enduring legacy in British culture. His plays, The Importance of Being Earnest and Salome, and his literature The Ballad of Reading Gaol and The Picture of Dorian Gray are commonly accepted as English classics.
His fame, prosecution and decline also see him remembered as far more than a writer, and Wilde has been embraced by the gay rights movement, socialism and popular culture. His image features on the cover of The Beatle’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) and statues memorialise him in London and Dublin.
Objects in the Theatre and Performance Collections can be accessed via the V&A’s Search the Collections online catalogue: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/
Library and Archive items can also be viewed by appointment at the Archive and Library Study Room at Blythe House, Kensington Olympia, W14 0QX. For appointments please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org