Wilde About Oscar

On the screen, on the boards and on the page, the 19th century aesthete emerges as a superstar

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All that's missing, it seems, are the dashboard statuettes and the black velvet portraits--but they will come. Almost 100 years after his death, in a multimedia postmortem comeback spearheaded by a Broadway play and a feature film (both British imports that hit U.S. shores this week) and including countless books and websites, Oscar Wilde, the infamously persecuted--some say martyred--gay Irish playwright, poet and novelist, is threatening to become the aesthete's Elvis.

The comparison with a redneck superstar might outrage bluestocking Wilde partisans, but it isn't quite the heresy it seems. Like Elvis, Wilde was a fiercely ambitious hinterlander who took the cultural establishment by storm ("I am not English, I am Irish--which is quite another thing," he stipulated). And here's the coup de grace: reviled as the leading bad influences of their day, both the King of Rock and the King of the Epigram have been resurrected as secular saints, albeit with slightly different constituencies.

But unlike Elvis, Wilde was one of his era's foremost men of letters, inordinately well-read and a master of irony. He was also a man of notoriously reckless appetites--for young men, fine things and controversy.

And yet, "there's a heroic generosity about the man that I find enormously appealing. He literally never passed a beggar in the street without giving him money." The softhearted populist is Oscar, not Elvis, and the quote is from English playwright David Hare, whose play about Wilde, The Judas Kiss, opens in New York City this week. Starring Liam Neeson, Hare's play examines the aftermath of the episode when words finally failed Wilde: the trials for "gross indecency" (1890s British legalese for homosexuality) that ended in his imprisonment and ruin but also assured his permanent status as a gay-rights icon.

Still, it's not Wilde's sexuality but his "mystery" that Hare says inspired him to write The Judas Kiss. (The play received mixed reviews during its London run.) By bringing a doomed libel suit against the Marquis of Queensberry--the outraged, decidedly macho father of Wilde's bratty, poetic young lover, Lord Alfred Douglas--Wilde unleashed the forces that in time consumed him. "There was an element of hubris," says Hare. "He may have thought there wasn't a situation that he couldn't talk himself out of."

He tried, of course. For a pitch-perfect record of the proceedings, rather than Hare's imaginative reconstruction of their aftershocks, audiences need only go off-Broadway to Moises Kaufman's Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. Taken entirely from courtroom transcripts and excerpts of Wilde's and Douglas' writings, the play opened 14 months ago as a sleeper hit and has since become a small New York City institution--The Fantasticks for humanities majors.

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