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The frank acceptance of all experience

June 9, 2018



Last Saturday I went to see the production of Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband”, currently playing at the Vaudeville Theatre. An excellent cast, led by father and son, Edmund and Freddie Fox and the timeless Susan Hampshire, did full justice to Wilde’s unique combination of wit and pathos. It was a welcome reminder of how much I have always enjoyed his work.

Wilde remains a very accessible figure for a modern audience and, while, in one way, firmly set in his own era, he also manages to speak very clearly to our own. Next to Shakespeare he is one of those writers whose best lines are instantly recognisable and whose wit has a timeless quality. While less well known than “The Importance of Being Earnest”, “An Ideal Husband”, a story of political corruption and blackmail and the eventual triumph of friendship and love, is an excellent play.

It is all the more poignant, as a piece of theatre, knowing that it was first performed when Wilde was on the edge of his own disgrace and eventual imprisonment. It is hard not to sense the feeling of anxiety in Wilde’s authorial voice. His characters speak of their fear of public humiliation and disgrace and the emotional power and genuine pathos of their words is reinforced by what we now know, with hindsight, of Wilde’s predicament.

In part we revere Wilde for his wit, in part as man who became a victim of prejudice and hypocrisy on account of his sexuality. Personally, I admire Wilde for both of these things but, more than anything, I admire him for his love of beauty, his humanity, and his non-judgemental acceptance of his own fate.

Born in Dublin in 1854, the son of a successful Anglo-Irish family, his father Sir William Wilde was an ophthalmic surgeon. After first attending Trinity College Dublin, Wilde came to study in Oxford in the 1870s and later established himself as part of the English aesthetic and intellectual scene. A man who could literally live of his wit, famously telling the American immigration authorities on a trip to America in the early 1880s “I have nothing to declare except my genius”, there is no doubt he would have thrived in our own age as a darling of chat shows and television game shows.

Despite this, during the 1880, Wilde struggled to establish himself as a serious intellectual figure. He was versatile in a number of artistic forms, but it was, as a playwright, in the 1890s that he really made his name and it is through these plays which he is largely remembered today.

Wilde was much idolised by society but he also made enemies, none worse than the Marquess of Queensberry, the father of Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas. With relentless hatred and prejudice, fuelled, in part, by his pathological relationship with his own son, he pursued Wilde to his eventual conviction for “gross indecency”. In a fall from grace of epic proportions, Wilde turned overnight from the society darling to a common convict sentenced to two years hard labour.

Though Wilde’s charm and wit remain a source of delight, it is in the Wilde of the years of disgrace that I find the most to admire, captured in his two final works, “The Ballad of Reading Goal” and “De Profundis”, both works of great beauty but written in a very different key from what went before.

In the “Ballad of Reading Gaol” Wilde gives a profound and moving account of the horror and pointlessness of prison, made all the more poignant because its base is not self-pity but, rather, a deep sense of empathy for his fellow prisoners.

In De Profundis, the subject of the very first of my blogs, Wilde makes a reckoning of what has happened to him. In doing so, he recognises not only the horror of what has happened to him, but also, this own role, in those events. “I turned the good things of my life to evil”. Most beautifully it acknowledges his gratitude to those, such as the man who greeted him with respect when he was standing outside the Court of Bankruptcy in his prison garb, who were prepared to show kindness to him in his darkest hour.

One of my favourite pieces of music is Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony. It contains a gripping shift of mood between the third and last movements which resounds with an enormous sense of sadness. It is a piece of the same era and days after its first performance Tchaikovsky, himself a troubled man, was dead. There is a striking resemblance to the mood of Wilde’s last works.

There is a line in De Profundis where Wilde talks of the humility as the “frank acceptance of all experience. It is a deeply moving definition which I have often thought about. Wilde was a man who experienced the heights and depths of the human condition and was in the end, capable of looking both in the eye. It is that for which I most love him.

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