The Wilde way of setting up camp
'`Wow!" we'd say, if Oscar Wilde could be brought here today: "what a fabulous camp queen!" - effeminate, flamboyant, theatrical, aesthetic, dandified, witty, charming, amoral. For us, he is the ultimate image of the traditional queer man.
The question, surely, is not why he was prosecuted, but how he got away with it for so long. For 14 years, from his student days at Oxford until the trials in 1895, Wilde camped it up outrageously, first as an effeminate aesthete, then as an effeminate dandy. Yet he was regarded by society, the press and the public, as rather wicked; by no means as a pariah. It was only in late 1894, only a few months before the trials, that serious rumours about his private life and habits became persistent.
The answer must be: Wilde's contemporaries didn't recognise and stigmatise him as queer because they didn't have the modern idea of what a queer man should look like. Even when he was directly accused and witnesses were brought against him, contemporaries such as Frank Harris and W.B. Yeats thought Wilde was innocent.
This, I try to show in my book, The Wilde Century, is because his dandified, camp image was associated far more with class than with sexuality. The newly-dominant middle class justified itself by claiming manly purity, purpose and responsibility. The leisure class, correspondingly, was identified with effeminate idleness and immorality. The leisured gent might engage in all kinds of debauchery - drinking, gambling, using drugs, living beyond his means. He might have sexual relations with serving girls and stable hands. He was generally dissipated, but not distinctively queer.
The Wilde trials installed a new framework of interpretation. Suddenly and infamously, the Wildean figure was transformed into a brilliantly precise image: the effeminate, camp, queer man. Our stereotypical notion of the male homosexual derives from this moment. It is not, I think, that most people had a concept of gayness like our own, but avoided talking about it. Hitherto, engaging in same-sex practices did not make you a special kind of person. The idea, rather, was that anyone might fall into such a sin - since we are all "fallen". The modern idea of the homosexual as a particular type of person was in the process of getting constituted.
After the trials, everyone knew what the queer man was like. Of course, this change did not come out of nothing. People had begun to talk about homosexuality. Sexologists were theorising it (Ulrichs, Ellis, Freud); parliamentarians were criminalising it (Labouchere); activists were promoting it (Carpenter, Symonds). But with the trials, a distinctive possibility cohered, far more clearly and for far more people. The unspoken gained a name.
"Oscar Wilde" became, for many decades, the main format through which queer speech might occur. "The Wilde trial had done its work," Carpenter wrote, "and silence must henceforth reign on sexsubjects."
However, it was a Wilde-shaped silence. The Echo declared: "The best thing for everybody now is to forget all about Oscar Wilde, his perpetual posings, his aesthetical teachings and his theatrical productions. Let him go into silence, and be heard no more." But, of course, this very injunction is reproducing Wilde as the representative of the forbidden topic; the unspeakable hovers on the edge of speech.
This effect was important for homosexuals, as well as for those who stigmatised them. As Havelock Ellis put it: "The celebrity of Oscar Wilde and the universal publicity given to the facts of the case by the newspapers may have brought conviction of their perversion to many inverts who were before only vaguely conscious of their abnormality." One of Ellis's correspondents reported that his erotic dreams had invariably involved women, "with this one remembered exception: I dreamed that Oscar Wilde, one of my photographs of him incarnate, approached me with a buffoon languishment and perpetrated fellatio". Gradually this man found himself to be homosexual: "hypothesis merged into reality: I myself was inverted".
Between 1900 and 1970, a Wildean manner afforded the most plausible gay self-identification. In E.M. Forster's novel Maurice, written in 1914 and published in 1971, the protagonist blunders about, only obscurely aware of his own feelings. He learns to explain himself as an "unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort", but eventually rejects the camp, effeminate model of same-sex passion.
Autobiographies and oral histories repeatedly follow this sequence: Wilde offers at least the initial framework for self-discovery. More recently still, in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral, the flamboyant gay character played by Simon Callow is asked if he knows Oscar Wilde.
Few gay men now accept the Wildean image, mainly because they prefer a more democratic idea and don't want to be perceived as effeminate. "Straight acting - no fems", the contact ads often say. Anyway, Wilde's career and writings hardly celebrate gay love. The Picture of Dorian Gray explores some of the boundaries of sexuality, but the moral is that delinquents like Dorian come to a bad end. It requires considerable ingenuity to read Algernon and Jack in The Importance of Being Ernest as a gay couple; or their deceptions in pursuit of a suitable wife as cruising; or Lady Bracknell as a drag queen.
Above all, despite his fortitude in the dock, Wilde denied everything sexual - in his writing, with Alfred Douglas, with the young men he had picked up. He said his love letters were just poetic licence. His speech about "the Love that dare not speak its name" specifies a platonic love. Wilde's legacy puts gay men back in the closet, as well as invoking elements of snobbery, misogyny, and class and inter-generational exploitation; there is a touch of routine (for the time) anti-Semitism in Dorian Gray.
But if Wilde is unacceptable as a role model today, that doesn't make him irrelevant. He is a key part of gay history; he represents our vulnerabilities, as well as our aspirations and accomplishments. He affords a tool for thinking with, not an identity to be embraced.
How far, and in what ways, these arguments might apply in Ireland needs more investigation. Padraic Pearse seems to allude to "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" in his homoerotic play The Master. The young Brendan Behan in Borstal Boy finds a queer circle, centred upon a boy who sports a cigarette holder and a rose-coloured silk tie and is reading Harris's Life of Wilde. However, the tendency has been to regard queerness as something Wilde picked up in England.
I'll be trying to say something about this at The Wilde Legacy conference. Perhaps the Wildean model of the queer man is a rightful part of Irish inheritance too. If so, that does not mean that this is what Irish gays must be like. The Wildean legacy is something to work with, not a blueprint. It is to be recovered, contested and mediated. Gay men in the Republic today have a better legal standing than in England, Wales, Scotland and the North. Dublin has a more amiable atmosphere than most English cities. Here and around the world, people of diverse races, ethnicities and cultures are finding their own ways of being lesbian, bisexual and gay.
Alan Sinfield is the author of The Wilde Century: Effeminacy, Oscar Wilde and the Queer Moment (Cassell) and Out on Stage: Lesbian and Gay Theatre in the Twentieth Century (Yale University Press).
The Wilde Legacy, an international symposium on the writer, runs from December 1st-3rd at the Oscar Wilde Centre for Irish Writing, Westland Row, Dublin. Lecturers include Prof Alan Sinfield, Dr Angela Bourke and Prof Eilean Ni Chuilleanain. Specially commissioned events include a play by Thomas Kilroy entitled My Scandalous Life and an adaptation of Wilde's fairytales for children by the Storytellers Theatre Company. For information, phone 01-6082885.