OSCAR WILDE AND MYSELF
LORD ALFRED DOUGLAS
THE PLAYS AND PROSE WORKS
I HAVE demonstrated in the foregoing chapter the absolute folly of Wilde's claim to supremacy as an artist. It is a claim which would never have been put forward for him if he had not put it forward for himself, but it is a claim which his adherents have constantly reiterated since his death, with nobody to gainsay them ; and so vociferous and persistent have these people been that the idea of Wilde's supreme artistry has come to be accepted without question by a gaping public and to pass current as good, sound, critical coin even among the cultivated.
Wilde the supreme artist in the capacity of poet does not exist and never has existed. We have now to turn to Wilde the supreme proseman. The Ross-Ransome faction are nothing if not wonderful in this regard. Their one cry, which they repeat with parrot-like iteration and to which they cling as a drowning critic might cling to critical straws, is this—Wilde's own saying: ''The fact of a man being a poisoner is nothing against his prose”
Now, this is such a truism that, of itself, it is not worth talking about, but it has been put up for the defence and glorification of Wilde, in and out of season. Even our great literary judge, Mr. Justice Darling, takes his cue from this remark and tells twelve English jurymen that because a man was a bad man, that is not to say that we are to refrain from reading his books, and so on. But all these people miss the real point, which is that, though the fact of a man being a poisoner is nothing against his prose, it is equally, and just as clearly, nothing for it.
Without going further into the question at the moment, I shall venture to deal with Wilde's prose writings on the assumption that if they are no worse they are certainly no better through the fact of the shamefulness of his life. Wilde himself never made any great fuss about his prose writings other than the plays. He regarded—and very properly regarded — the essays in “Intentions," together with the fairy tales and his other stories (excepting, of course, “The Picture of Dorian Gray"), as so much donkey work, and pretty well on the level with his lectures, which were written for the pure purpose of getting money and with no eye to ''supreme artistry."
"Intentions" was first published in 1891. Three years went by before the book passed into its second edition. The first edition was published at 7s. 6d., and I believe I am right in saying that the second edition, published at 3s. 6d., was simply a ''remainder" of the first in a cheaper binding. It was not till after Wilde's imprisonment and death and after the ''boosters" had been at work on him for some years that we began to hear of the marvellous artistry and genius which this volume is alleged to exhibits. Wilde himself would have laughed in his sleeve if he could have been told that such preposterous claims would ever be made for his pot-boiling fleers and ironies. He knew that the "Decay of Lying," the "Critic as Artist" and the "Truth of Masks" were, in a large measure, cribbed from Whistler, and he knew that "Pen, Pencil and Poison" was the merest review article, and neither better nor worse than the average stodginess which the public of his day accepted from their somnolent monthlies.
The doctrine in these papers will not bear examination. When it is good it is not Wilde's, and when it is bad it is horrid, and not necessarily Wilde's at that. It is studded with such clap-trap statements as "All art is immoral"; "Society often forgives the criminal: it never forgives the dreamer"; "There is no sin except stupidity"; "The Greeks had no art critics" ; "It is difficult not to be unjust to what one loves"; "His crimes gave strong personality to his style"; ''I am prepared to prove anything''; "The more we study art the less we care for nature"; ''Shakespeare is too fond of going directly to life and borrowing life's natural utterance" ; "Meredith is a prose Browning—and so is Browning" ; "I live in terror of not being misunderstood" ; "To have a capacity for a passion and not to realise it is to make oneself incomplete and limited."
And so we might continue, to the complete exasperation of reason and decency. Pernicious and scurrilous stuff was always in Wilde's bosom, and if he could get it off in a sly way while pretending to discuss serious matters in a serious sense he was delighted. His doctrine was nothing more or less than a doctrine of smart negation. That he had literary skill enough and wit and scholarship enough to be entertaining nobody wishes to deny, but the cultivated people whom he entertains place no value upon his opinions. It is the middling-minded who are not entertained, and yet take him for gospel and allow such intellectuality as they may possess to be damaged and warped by his insincerities.
On the whole, therefore, I say that "Intentions" will not do if we are to consider Wilde in the light of a serious and illuminating thinker. On the ground of artistry, style and so forth the book is not by any means flawless. That Wilde had a good, easy prose style and did, at times, write accomplished prose I admit; but in this regard he stands on no better level than Mr. Frank Harris or Mr. Gilbert Chesterton.
All three of them—Wilde, Harris and Chesterton—are killed by the exuberance of their own facility. They have the pen of the ready writer and they fall accordingly. Moreover, Wilde is prone to the over-sugared and over-gilded passage ; even though he can be as bald as the baldest and as limping as the lamest. Of his minor defects I will say nothing, except that his split infinitives are a standing disgrace to him.
We may now pass to his stories. I have always held that if Wilde was anything at all he was an inventor of stories. Such social success as he ever attained was almost entirely due to this gift coupled with a remarkable delivery and a good voice. “I have thought of a story" was an announcement for ever on his lips, and his intimates knew that five times out of six the story would be worth listening to. When I first knew him his pet stories were of the order of the inverted fable; somewhat in the manner of the fables of Ambrose Bierce. Two examples which have never been published I may set down here. One of them is what Wilde called 'The True Story of Androcles and the Lion.''
He said that though Androcles may have been an early Christian slave, he was also a dentist. A certain lion found himself suffering from severe toothache and consulted Androcles on the subject. The dentist advised gold filling for the back teeth and an entirely new set of teeth for the upper jaw or mandible. Later, Androcles, because he was a good Christian, was thrown to the lions or, rather, to a lion, and perceiving when the beast was let loose upon him that here was an old friend, approached him with joy, feeling sure that the lion would not hurt him inasmuch as he had made no charge for the gold filling and the upper set of teeth. But the King of Beasts had other views and promptly tore Androcles to pieces, and chewed him up with the very teeth which had been so kindly and generously supplied to him.
And the other story was called ''Presence of Mind." 'In a theatre in America,'' said Wilde, ''there was a young flute-player who was gifted with an extraordinary presence of mind. One evening some of the scenery caught fire and, as the smoke and flames began to rush into the building, the audience prepared to flee. Whereupon, with singular presence of mind, the young flute-player jumped out of his seat and, holding up a lily-white hand, cried in stentorian tones: 'There is no danger!' In consequence of these words the audience kept their seats and every single soul of them was burnt to death. Thus we may see” added Wilde, ''how useful a thing presence of mind really is."
Of course, he had other stories in different veins, and I believe that all the tales in “The Happy Prince" and "The House of Pomegranates," as well as in the volume which contains "Lord Arthur Saville's Crime," were told by Wilde over and over again before they were written; just as he told the tale of “La Sainte Courtisane" and the plots of his plays before they were written. “The Happy Prince" and “The House of Pomegranates" are not without their merits as fairy tales in the manner of Hans Andersen, but Wilde could not be content with the simplicities of his model, and some of the stories are marred by the obliquities of the cynic and the perverse mind.
“Lord Arthur Saville's Crime" and the stories printed with it may be said to represent Wilde's attempt to come up with Robert Louis Stevenson on the plane of the New Arabian Nights. For my own part, I do not think that any of them quite "comes off." Wilde's friends have been at great pains to dilate on their "exquisite charm," their "mordant humour," and so forth; but they have always seemed to me to be fairly feeble. "Lord Arthur Saville's Crime'' itself is so over-fantastical that it becomes farcical.
“The Canterville Ghost," which Wilde describes as a hylo-idealistic romance, is a feeble but unblushing imitation of a now forgotten story called “Cecilia de Noel,'' by Lane Falconer. “The Sphinx, Without a Secret," is a very stale and flat disappointment; and “The Model Millionaire" is exactly the kind of story for which Tit-Bits or Answers gives a guinea prize every week. I should not like the reader to imagine that I am dismissing these things airily or pooh-poohing them for the mere sake of doing it. I have lately read them with care, and I marvel that anybody can pretend that there is a great or dazzling merit about them.
I believe that at the bottom of his heart Wilde felt that his true genius had found expression in his plays. Being the man he was, he could not refrain from praising his own poetry, his own essays and stories, and professing that they were very fine things indeed; but when he talked of himself as a supreme artist, it was the plays that he always had looming in his mind. For his poetry he had never received any of the critical rewards which would have so delighted him. He was never hailed poet by the poets contemporary with him; never admitted to that higher hierarchy to which Tennyson, Swinburne, Arnold, Browning and, if you like, even Rossetti, felt and knew themselves to belong. But his general prose and some of his essays (paid for lavishly by Frank Harris when he was editing The Fortnightly) made a nine days' sensation, but they brought him no real credit or reputation ; neither did the story books.
It was with Lady Windermere's Fan that he first got home, as it were; with results which, in the way of finance and applause, were entirely beyond his wildest dreams or expectation. Lady Windermere's Fan was a success, as successes went in those days, and it was followed by other successes, culminating in The Importance of being Earnest, which brought Wilde more money and more appreciation than any of them.
Because the plays were a success and London went to see them, Wilde allowed himself to think that they must be important as literature and that he was a great dramatist.
Sir Arthur Pinero will probably not consider himself too flattered when I mention that Wilde had the greatest possible admiration for his work, and told me that from Pinero and Dumas Fils he had learnt all he knew of stagecraft and that he considered The Magistrate to be the best of all modern comedies. It is certain that for the plays, as for everything else he did, Wilde had to model himself on somebody, and Sir Arthur is fortunate or unfortunate in having been the man. One has only to compare the constructive methods of the two to recognise this. The only difference between them is that Sir Arthur Pinero maintains an illusion of strict sanity among his characters, whereas Wilde is not always to be depended upon in this regard.
Besides which, there is the further difference that, while Pinero conforms to the established code of morals and makes his good people good and his bad people bad, Wilde has a tendency to hold up bad people for good people, and drops out really good people altogether. I am going to say this much and no more about the plays as a body: namely, that they put Wilde into a secondary position with regard to Pinero and Mr. Sydney Grundy. His plays are not literary or intellectual plays, but just the conventional things which were stirring in London during Wilde's period, with the Wilde paradox, irony, flippancy and insincerity thrown in.
I am no frantic believer in the supreme gifts of Mr. George Bernard Shaw, and I have never been able to get up any great enthusiasm for the sentimentalities of Sir J. M. Barrie; but it is quite certain that both these gentlemen have beaten Wilde as exponents of a drama which is supposed to be concerned with art and literature rather than with the stage and the box-office. Wilde will not last as a dramatist, whether behind the footlights or in the closet. His plays have been revived occasionally, and the glitter has been found in a great measure to have died out of them ; while as plays for reading they would not be read at all if they bore any other name but Wilde's.
I will ask any unbiassed person to peruse Lady Windermere's Fan or, if you like. An Ideal Husband and The Importance of being Earnest, and tell me if here is great work. I do not wish to load these pages with quotations from books which are readily obtainable ; but if I were so disposed I could set forth twaddling and mock-heroic dialogue and feeble humour from Wilde's plays by the yard. There are passages in all the plays which might have been written by a sentimental schoolgirl rather than by an artist, or by a giggling actor rather than a wit. I shall not say that the plays failed of their purpose, which, however, could have been at best only a temporary purpose.
A man who boasted of the intellectual superiorities of which Wilde boasted, demeaned himself when he wrote them, and still more hopelessly demeaned himself when he pretended to take the popular applause which followed for honest fame. I was constantly with him, as I have shown, when he wrote the most successful of them. In a careless way I aided and abetted him in their production, but it never entered my mind that they were either fine drama or fine literature.
And whatever Wilde himself might have thought about them, he certainly would not have contended that they were wonderful works or genius before me. I do not wish to suggest that a man of genius is not entitled to condescend to the demands of the popular stage in certain circumstances, such as need of money or a desire to show that genius can do common things quite as capably as common people ; and it is therefore that I do not blame Wilde for writing the prose plays. But it is obviously illogical and idiotic of him to turn round and profess that because he could tickle the popular fancy of his period, the work with which he did it is as fine and as worthy as anything in dramatic literature.
Nobody knew better than he how false and foolish and how subversive of reason such an assumption must be. Wilde's ''boomsters" have gone further in this stupid business than even Wilde himself would have gone. If we are to believe what they write, Wilde is the greatest dramatist since Shakespeare, and beats Goldsmith, Congreve, Sheridan and all the rest of them into a cocked hat. The cold truth is that he never succeeded in rivalling Sir Arthur Pinero or Mr. Jones, and that he has been outdistanced by his own pupil, Mr. George Bernard Shaw.
0. Book profile
10. Naples and Paris
17. Wilde's Poetry
19. For Posterity
28. The Smaller Fry