The queeniest queen I’ve ever come across was a Christian evangelical, self-described “literary connesoir” [sic], who insisted that Oscar Wilde was heterosexual… “because he married!” A connesoir. Cute.
When he spied a quote from Wilde on a mutual friend’s Facebook page, he was up in arms. The quote was about fox hunting, described as “the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable.” The quotation, this man claimed, which happened to criticise something he enjoyed, had nothing to do with Wilde. “Never attribute quotes from a fictional character to their authors”, he advised, coining a unique approach to English syntax.
Of course, this person splendidly misses the point: Wilde was not a story teller. He was a wit. This is why every character in everything he wrote is a master of spontaneous banter. And this is why characters as varied as Dorian Gray and Lady Bracknell (if you don’t get these references, shame on you) often say exactly the same words. Wilde redrafted like mad, always starting from witty observations. Plot and character didn’t matter to him, so much as getting his one-liners down on paper. Any text by Oscar Wilde is basically a collection of quotes.
And his personality has a lot to do with it. No one cares which character said that “the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it”, or “I can resist everything except temptation” – because Wilde himself was the very picture of excess.
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde (1854-1900) is a queer icon and rightly so. In my very first piece for Vada I opined that his 1891 novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, is essential reading for any self-respecting homosexual. Indeed, Wilde’s trial, 120 years ago, for indecency, at which he was called “a sondomite” [sic – what is it with homophobic bigots and the English language?] by his lover’s father, invented homosexuality as we know it. The word “homosexual” only entered medical lingo in the 1860s and Wilde was the first – tragic – celebrity gay.
Wilde expelled several finely sculpted words defending “that noble love” with reference to ancient Greeks. He inspired the sexologist Edward Carpenter who later argued that homosexual desire was the purest and highest form of love in the world. Plus, he influenced pretty much everyone. Wilde was a celebrity – any line that went to his name was calculated to do so – and therefore to point out a Wildean witticism and say it has nothing to do with its author is about as pointless, even dangerous, as casting Keanu Reeves in a role demanding nuance.
Back in Wilde’s day, a homosexual was considered an “inverted male”– that is, a man with a woman’s soul. Wilde was influential in cementing this stereotype. In fact, his image depended on it. Acting in a very feminine way but also asserting himself as a man and a father, Wilde was responsible for playing into recognisable stereotypes and giving the individual behind them a voice. Even when he was disgraced socially, living in exile in France, his intelligent drama played to packed audiences in London.
Importantly, Wilde used the artistic respect he attracted to insert queerness into the mainstream. For example, he once encouraged rich men in the audience of his play Lady Windemere’s Fan to wear green carnations to the theatre. What they didn’t know was that the green carnation was the flower by which gay men in London made themselves known to one another. Lol.
In a day and age when gay wit is generally sassy and mean, simple, respectable one-liners like Wilde’s are inspirational. Giving gays a good name while still valuing the stereotypes.
Wilde was indeed the master of the one-liner. Milton Jones can pun (after all, a good pun is its own re-word), but Wilde’s jokes remain more intelligent and twice as snappy. So here are eight of his witticisms to live by. I don’t give a flying fiddle which character said which line, five quarters of a century ago. Your homework is to slip one or more into everyday conversation and watch your friendship circles get a little classier – or more exclusive.
“I am not young enough to know everything.”
“All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling.”
“You can never be overdressed or undereducated.”
“Experience is simply the name we give to our mistakes.”
“I sometimes think that God, in creating Man, overestimated his ability.”
“The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”
“A good friend will always stab you in the front.”
“The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast.”