The Oscar Wilde Collection

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/5/06


  While comic and filmmaker Woody Allen once said that writing drama was like ‘sitting at the grown ups table’ vis-à-vis writing comedy, there is little doubt that writing good or even great comedy is an art form that few have done well with, much less mastered. There is as wide a gulf between great comedy and great drama as there is between even greater genres of art- say writing great poetry and great history, or great plays and great short stories, or even great short fiction and great novels. No better example of this failure can be shown than with the execrable comedies of William Shakespeare, the man whose dramas and histories mark him as, arguably, the greatest serious dramatist in world literature. Yet, compared with the dull, often trite and inept characterizations that define Shakespeare’s comedies, one can contrast the great comedic plays of Oscar Wilde. While there have been other prose humorists of note- Nikolai Gogol, Mark Twain, and Kurt Vonnegut come to mind, no other writer had written as witty and humorous pieces of stage work than Oscar Wilde. Some may find humor in the Absurdism of a Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, or Harold Pinter, but, in truth, it’s the ‘Tee-hee, oh, that’s the funny part, right?’ sort of humor, not the still crackling repartee that dominates Wilde’s greatest works, and elicits guffaws from even the uneducated. This is because Wilde did the near impossible- he bridged high and low art, and his nexus was humor. For that, he is as nonpareil as any writer in world literature.

  One can only imagine had the sex scandal that ruined his career not occurred, he not been sentenced to two years of hard labor, then died a shell of a man, of cerebral meningitis, at forty-six, in 1900, and lived another quarter century or more, for then his precious handful of great plays and stories might have multiplied a dozenfold, or more, to the point where he, not Shakespeare, would have been considered the greatest playwright of the species, for there is no doubt that he was capable of admixing his comedic intentions with truly serious and modern drama the equal of contemporaries like Anton Chekhov, August Strindberg, and Henrik Ibsen. Nowhere is this truth manifested more clearly than in the BBC’s 2002 release of The Oscar Wilde Collection, on a two DVD set. Forget about the old British film adaptations of his works, or the spate of more recent Hollywood takes on his genius. No, this is it- the definitive Oscar Wilde- at least in non-print form, for it captures the theatrical television productions that the BBC staged from the 1960s through the 1980, during their Play Of The Month series. The DVD set has five features: The Importance Of Being Earnest, an adaptation of Wilde’s 1890 novel The Picture Of Dorian Gray, An Ideal Husband, and Lady Windermere’s Fan. It also includes an hour long mid-1990s BBC documentary on the life and fall of Wilde, called The Life And Loves Of Oscar Wilde.

  The Importance Of Being Earnest, directed by Stuart Burge, from 1988 (or 1986), is a truncated version of the four act original play, and stars Paul McGann and Rupert Frazer, among others. It is the comedy of false identities that secured Wilde’s reputation as the ‘genius’ he declared himself to be when he toured America in the 1880s. It is a nonpareil example of Wilde at his best, as quips and humor hide the daggers of emotion that the play’s protagonists long to gouge each other with. The Picture Of Dorian Gray, directed by John Gorrie, from 1976, stars renowned actor Sir John Gielgud as Sir Henry, and is the modern myth of art as Fountain Of Youth that Wilde created. It may well be that, centuries from now, this will be considered Wilde’s most distinctly personal piece. An Ideal Husband, directed by Rudolph Cartier, from 1969, stars Jeremy Brett and Susan Hampshire, and is likely Wilde’s most underrated major work. While it is technically a drama, it is laced with wit, and its tale of blackmail, forgiveness, redemption, and fruit from a tainted tree is as relevant today, in light of the Iraq War debacle and Big Oil’s death grip on that region, as it ever was. Like the others, it is flawlessly acted, and, in my opinion, is the best of the four productions, if not Wilde’s greatest play. Had he lived longer, it gives a good idea of where his talent may have taken him. Lady Windermere’s Fan, directed by Tony Smith, from 1985, stars Helena Little and Tim Woodward, is another underrated gem that is loaded with the infinitely quotable dialogue Wildeans expect, and deals with the quintessential Wildean theme: infidelity and the suspicion of it. Finally, the documentary, The Life and Loves of Oscar Wilde, makes excellent use of dramatic techniques to contrast the life of Wilde with that of the shamed and tainted descendants of both Wilde and his infamous lover, Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas. It is one of the better documentaries on a real subject you’ll find.

  Yet, the really great thing about the DVD is the unbelievably sharp video quality. That, plus the fact that the plays are period pieces, means that even the oldest of the plays, An Ideal Husband, looks like it was videotaped just yesterday, not nearly four decades ago. Were all DVDs given such attention to such basics, the world and viewing experience of the cineaste and teleaste would be much improved. Wilde, as a writer, was certainly not perfect, as his poetry, aside from the famed The Ballad Of Reading Gaol, is not much, and his short stories are quite uneven. But even were these four works the only remanent pieces we had of Wilde, as if he were some lost uncovered Greek master, they would be more than enough to secure his place as one of the all time great writers. Yes, sometimes his battle of epigrams tends to blur his characters into each other, but that’s a minor quibble. Read any Shakespeare, and one might think that all humans are prone to iambic soliloquies. Read Arthur Miller and one might think all humans have secrets and political axes to grind. This is part and parcel of the dramatic fugue, and no writer ever crafted as unique and great a melody as Oscar Wilde. Listen, laugh, and maybe even learn from the crumbs left over at the children’s table.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the The Simon website.]

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