Oscar Wilde Mania
Canada AM – CTV Television; Toronto
(Jun 23, 1998)
HOST: Valerie Pringle
GUEST: Paul Miller, Actor; Michael Coren, Writer
PRINGLE:This is a scene from the critically-acclaimed play “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde”, which has wowed them on Broadway and off-Broadway and will debut in Toronto on Thursday. It chronicles the arrest and judgement, sentencing of Irish playwright Oscar Wilde when he was arrested for homosexual practices. There’s another play on Broadway called “Judas Kiss”, starring Liam Neeson. There’s a Tom Stoppard play in the West End called “The Invention of Love”. There is a movie out now starring Stephen Fry as Oscar Wilde — a whole bunch of new books, including a new one from his grandson. So, people are saying it’s Wilde mania even though he’s been dead almost a century. What gives? And here to answer that question, writer Michael Coren is here — and Paul Miller, who’s portraying Oscar Wilde in “Gross Indecency”, which as we mentioned debuts or premiers on Thursday.
MILLER: It will open Thursday night.
PRINGLE: Thursday night. So, what gives? Do you feel like all of a sudden, “Oh, I’m part of a trend”?
MILLER: I know. I’ve been asked this question a couple of times and have always been hard put to answer why he’s become so popular all of a sudden. What’s occurred to me in thinking about the question is that I think Oscar was about something kind of in reaction to the Industrial Age that he was growing up in. And we may be at a place now where people are looking to satisfy themselves in ways other than material methods, and maybe there’s something about what he had to say about the deepening personal experience of life through art and what not that may speak to us now. But beyond that, I’m hard pressed to put an answer to that question. [laughter]
PRINGLE: Was he heroic? Was it just his wit that we’re now saying, “Wow, that was catchy”?
COREN: I think it was the wit rather than the real content of his working life. Most people don’t read Wilde any more, and in fact some of his plays if you actually see them — they’re dated. They are dated like most people think [unclear] or Shaw as well, even Noel Coward. It was the idea of the life — a life of decadence, a life that wasn’t glorious. Here was a man who left his wife and children at home so he could go out and indulge in sex with young working-class men, and that’s hardly something to aspire to.
PRINGLE: And some high-class men.
COREN: Well, one in particular. [laughter]
PRINGLE: Lord Alfred.
COREN: Yes, I mean, he was very egalitarian in that way.
PRINGLE: Picked carefully.
COREN: Exactly. I think it was a style. It’s all about style here, plus there was a certain decadence. He may have actually rejected the idea of decadence. I mean, he never said, “I am gay” — well, that would be anachronistic — or “I am homosexual.” He denied that in court of course. But the perceived decadence of Wilde’s life has become very fashionable. We look around — this sort of new paganism and so on that is very trendy these days — and people put Wilde on a pedestal as an icon. I actually don’t think he would have liked that idea.
PRINGLE: But he was no sort of gay hero or advocate.
COREN: Well, he’s seen as a gay icon, but certainly he wasn’t. Remember that the English idea of homosexuality — even to an extent now, particularly then — was different from the North American one. A young upper-class man could have homosexual affairs as young men and then be happily married and never say they were homosexual. Wilde always denied this, and he only actually went into homosexuality when his doctor said, “You have a venereal disease and you can no longer have sex with your wife.” Until that point, he’d had sex with female prostitutes. That was when he changed.
PRINGLE: The person who wrote the play that you are starring in — Moises Kaufman, who wrote “Gross Indecency” — said as he was reading through a book of the wit of Oscar Wilde and a transcript of the trial that the whole concept of his art being on trial and whether or not it was moral he found fascinating.
MILLER: Yeah, I think it’s something that’s prevalent. We talked about this early in rehearsals. And of course our director Amanda Gronick [sp?] and Moises, being from the United States, have had this debate going on with the NEA and things like this.
PRINGLE: NEA — National Endowment for the Arts.
MILLER: The National Endowment for the Arts, whereby the funding bodies by virtue of them denying funding to certain things become censorship bodies in a way. So, in a manner, one’s art does end up being on trial by virtue of the fact that you’re denied the ability to be able to practise it because the payroll is cut off from whomever. And I think in that way, it is quite prevalent.
PRINGLE: There was a quote from someone — Margo Jefferson writing in The New York Times, who’s been looking at this phenomenon (I guess) as people have. Jane Austen seemed a couple of years ago. And she said it’s not that Oscar Wilde’s catching up with us; it’s that we’re finally catching up with him.
MILLER: Yeah, it’s been curious for me because before auditioning for the play and finding out about it, I had no huge interest. I didn’t pursue Oscar Wilde’s work with any great fervour.
PRINGLE: You didn’t play Lady Bracknell? [laughter]
MILLER: No. Not yet anyway.
COREN: Not even at home? [laughter]
MILLER: But I’m working my way toward it.
MILLER: But in discovering it — and my research has involved some biographical reading but mostly reading his own work to try to gain access to that mind — and I think he’s a deeply entertaining writer as well as much as anything else. And I think there’s a lot of merit in that for us. And his paradoxes, his witticisms — I mean, in the beginning we think, “Oh, that sounds ludicrous.” But then upon closer inspection, there’s sometimes a fairly deep grain of truth there that sheds a little light.
PRINGLE: Any lines in particular that you like or that people would say, “That’s a cliche,” thinking he had it as an original thought.
MILLER: Well, things like “If one tells the truth, one is sooner or later to be found out.” And you think, “Well, that’s absurd.” But eventually if you think about it long enough, there is something a little more to that than just a funny saying, you know.
COREN: There is but — I mean, just if we have time to get back to the idea of morality or not in art. I mean, Oscar Wilde also said, “There’s no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are either badly written or well written.” Mein Kampf? You see, I actually think that that triviality can be damaging. There are immoral books; there are immoral works of art.
He’s particularly significant today because we’re pushing the frontiers, the boundaries of art further and further. We have pictures of Jesus Christ soaked in urine that get public funding in Vancouver. But we have to discuss “Do you have morality or not?” I would say Yes. Wilde was at the centre of that in his time. To say we’re catching up with him, to be honest, I think is a bit fatuous. I don’t really know what that means. But incredibly entertaining, very witty. The thing is he could push the boundaries and be good. We have too many artists today who push the boundaries but are actually no good.
PRINGLE: And what are we left with of Oscar Wilde? I mean, are the trials it or just those clever lines? You know, “The cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
COREN: And the wonderful line to Frank Harris, who was a writer at the time and who was boasting, “I’ve been to every house in London.” And Oscar Wilde said, “Yes, Frank — once.” [laughter] Wilde left us a great legacy of very entertaining dramas.
I’m not sure how much he has to say about the modern world.
PRINGLE: All right then, thank you very much. And you can look for the movie and the books, et cetera, and of course the play “Gross Indecency” which is opening in Toronto Thursday night. Thank you both very much.
COREN: A pleasure.
Copyright CTV Television Network Ltd. 1998 All Rights Reserved.