Oscar Wilde is one of Ireland’s greatest, if not most humorous exports. Many today know the controversial, flamboyant, and debonair Victorian dramatist, through his works the “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Larger than life, Wilde was a poet, dramatist, author, and celebrity, donning many quite fashionable hats. His work and spirit are as relevant, witty, and alive as ever 116 years after his death.
“To be born, or at any rate bred, in a handbag, whether it has handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution.”
―Lady Bracknell from “The Importance of Being Earnest”
Oscar Wilde was born at 21 Westland Row, Dublin (now home of the Oscar Wilde Centre, Trinity College), the second of three children born to Sir William Wilde and Jane Wilde, two years behind William (“Willie”). Wilde’s mother, under the pseudonym “Speranza” (the Italian word for ‘Hope’), wrote poetry for the revolutionary Young Irelanders in 1848 and was a lifelong Irish nationalist.
She read the Young Irelanders’ poetry to Oscar and Willie, inculcating a love of these poets in her sons. Lady Wilde’s interest in the neo-classical revival showed in the paintings and busts of ancient Greece and Rome in her home. William Wilde was Ireland’s leading oto-ophthalmologic (ear and eye) surgeon and was knighted in 1864 for his services as medical adviser and assistant commissioner to the censuses of Ireland. He also wrote books about Irish archaeology and peasant folklore. A renowned philanthropist, his dispensary for the care of the city’s poor at the rear of Trinity College, Dublin, was the forerunner of the Dublin Eye and Ear Hospital.
Until he was nine, Oscar Wilde was educated at home, where a French bonne and a German governess taught him their languages. He then attended Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh. Until his early twenties, Wilde summered at the villa, Moytura House, his father built in Cong, County Mayo. There the young Wilde and his brother Willie played with George Moore.
His sister Isola died aged nine of meningitis. Wilde’s poem “Requiescat” is written to her memory.
“Tread lightly, she is near
Under the snow
Speak gently, she can hear
the daisies grow”
Oscar Wilde’s time in Reading Gaol, where he was imprisoned from 1895 – 1897 on charges of homosexual acts, marked a devastating turning point in his life. Before his trial against his lover’s father, the Marquess of Queensbury, whom Wilde sued for libel after the Marquess publicly accused him of sodomy, Wilde was at the peak of his career, having just debuted “The Importance of Being Earnest.” A mere 15 weeks after its debut, Wilde would be in prison.
Reading Gaol took a horrible mental and physical toll on Wilde. He was confined to his cell for 23 hours each day, and forbidden from speaking with anyone during the one hour he was permitted outside. Mental illness and poor hygiene were rampant. Halfway through Wilde’s sentence there, Reading held its first execution by hanging in 18 years, an event that would inspire Wilde’s “Ballad of Reading Gaol.”
There is no chapel on the day
On which they hang a man:
The Chaplain’s heart is far too sick,
Or his face is far too wan,
Or there is that written in his eyes
Which none should look upon.
After his release, he would live only three more years, dying from cerebral meningitis in a shabby Paris Hotel in November, 1900 at 46 years of age. Now, 116 years after this death, Reading has been transformed into a massive tribute to Wilde, its most famous prisoner.
— angelasamata (@Angelasamata) October 16, 2016
Reading ceased to be an active jail in 2013 and sat empty for some time until the multidisciplinary art group Artangel received permission to stage a Wilde exhibition there. Running through October 30, “Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison,” features the works of writers, performers and artists including Colm Toíbín, Patti Smith, Steve McQueen, Nan Goldin, Ben Wishaw, Marlene Dumas and Chinese artist and former prisoner Ai Weiwei.
The exhibition offers the chance to step inside the cell where Wilde passed so many hours and takes visitors on a self-determined journey through the prison’s main atrium, wings and cells. Only 100 people are admitted at a time in order to convey how quiet the prison was when Wilde was there. As James Lingwood, Artangel’s co-director, told the New York Times, “One of the things that was very important to us was that the soundtrack to the whole experience be silence. When Oscar Wilde was here, prisoners were basically kept on their own in their cells almost all the time, and there was almost no sound. We want people to be deeply moved, to reflect.”
Works of visual art hang throughout Reading, and headsets allow visitors to listen to recorded readings. Each Sunday, a different performer (including Ralph Fiennes, Colm Toíbín and Ben Wishaw), sit in front of the old door to Wilde’s cell and do a full, six hour reading of “De Profundis,” the 50,000 word letter Wilde wrote while at Reading. It has been aptly described as the most important letter never sent.
Wilde has been undergoing something of a renaissance in recent years, but, given its setting, this exhibition may just be the weightiest tribute yet.
For more information, visit ArtAngel’s website.
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde (16 October 1854 – 30 November 1900) Irish playwright, novelist, essayist, and poet