Acting Wilde: Victorian Sexuality, Theatre, and Oscar Wilde

Acting Wilde: Victorian Sexuality, Theatre, and Oscar Wilde

Given the modern perceptions of Victorian-era society as one which held strict views on issues of gender and sexuality, it’s no surprise that a writer like Oscar Wilde has created such a lasting legacy. Kerry Powell, a Professor of English at Miami University, studies Oscar Wilde through the lens of Victorian sexuality in his book, Acting Wilde: Victorian Sexuality, Theatre, and Oscar Wilde. Wilde, an Irish playwright, novelist, and poet, was one of the most popular yet controversial writers of the 1980s, known especially for his society comedies. Much of the controversy over Wilde was rooted in the fact that he was quite open about sexuality in his works, and even alluded to homosexuality, which was an extremely taboo topic during the time period. For instance, one of his most famous works, The Picture of Dorian Gray, was heavily criticized for its homo-eroticism. However, the infamous trials that led to Wilde’s downfall were perhaps the most controversial aspects of his life and legacy. As a consequence of these trials, his literature, and his wild persona during his lifetime, Wilde became an iconic gay figure, remaining so today. According to Powell, whose research interests include not only Victorian literature, but also gender and performance studies, “Wilde was among the first to discern that life is a continuum of performance, and everyone an actor” (1). The objective of Powell’s book is to examine Wilde’s ideas of gendered and sexual identity, and analyze them through the framework of Victorian ideas of concepts such as masculinity and homosexuality. Powell claims that “Wilde’s revolutionary contribution was not only to conceive of gender, personal identity, and life itself as ‘performed,’ but to welcome this recognition with open arms and adopt, in both theory and practice, a calculate strategy of self-fashioning” (5).

Powell organizes his book into six different chapters in order to discuss various aspects of Oscar Wilde’s life and legacy, and how it tied into Victorian society during the time period. The first chapter, “Posing and dis-posing: Oscar Wilde in America and beyond” discusses Wilde’s ideas of self-enactment and how he presented himself through art. It also examines various representations of Wilde in Victorian society and popular culture, such as photographs and portraits, many of which were satire. The satirical nature of these representations were largely due to how Wilde was thought to have acted and styled himself in gender-non-conforming ways, particularly ways that were not considered masculine by contemporary ideals. Newspaper publications tended to focus on Wilde’s physical appearance, often describing him in meticulous detail. For example, The Daily Tribune wrote, “His nether garments did not extend to his ankles, as those of modest men ought to do, but stopped at his knees” (16). It also commented on how his “‘femininely disposed hair’ and ‘redundancy of collar and cravat’ made him look like ‘a great homely girl – one of those girls whose brother is sure to be good looking, ,and who would be good looking herself had she been born a boy” (17). Such descriptions demonstrate how important style of dress can be as a form of self-expression, both artistic and gendered, indicating how the rigidity of Victorian gender roles extended to clothing. Likewise, various magazines featured satirical comic-like images of Wilde depicted in “feminine” poses surrounded by clichéd images of “femininity,” like flowers. Interestingly, although people laughed at the way he dressed and found humor in these images, Wilde did not seem to take offense to such caricatures but instead found them rather entertaining. Wilde’s disregard for adhering to societal gender norms was a bold statement in more than one way – Wilde considered self-portraits to be forms in which he could “realize himself artistically and sexually, for art is a ‘mode of acting,’ and attempt by the artist to perform and develop his own personality” (33).

Nevertheless, although Powell presents some insightful information in Chapter 1, I believe Powell missed an opportunity to delve deeper into what these representations meant on a larger scale. He could have included greater discussion on Victorian ideas of gender and sexuality, Victorian constructions of gender normativity, and how Wilde threatened these gender norms. Instead, Powell mainly focuses on the representations themselves, and not as much on why Wilde was presented that way, or how those conceptions of him came to be. Meanwhile, chapters two, three, and four of Powell’s book examine Wilde’s works, including: Lady Windermere’s Fan, Salomé, A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband, and The Importance of Being Earnest. These chapters analyze how these literary works challenged common perceptions of gender and sexuality during the time period. However, the bulk of the analysis involves close readings of the texts, and is therefore primarily aimed at audiences familiar with Wilde’s works. As a result, these chapters do not pertain to the larger scholarly discourse in gender and sexuality studies to the same extent as the other chapters in the book. Perhaps the most important takeaway from these chapters is the claim that “Wilde’s greatest plays of the 1890s are the acting out of the author’s conflict and to a high degree his compromise with an increasingly powerful variety of late-Victorian feminism – rigid in its insistence that the ‘law of purity’ be applied to men and women alike” (41). This “law of purity,” in other words, refers to the double standard regarding chastity in men and women in Victorian society, a concern which Wilde addresses in his plays. Skipping over to the sixth and final chapter, in “Prison performativity,” Powell discusses Oscar Wilde’s experience during his two years in prison and how it connects to his performed identity. While the chapter analyzes Wilde’s letter from prison, De Profundis, which documents his personal experiences, much of Powell’s emphasis is on Wilde’s identity in his artistry rather than in his sexuality.

On the other hand, the fifth chapter of Powell’s book, “The ‘lost’ transcript, sexual acting, and the meaning of Wilde’s trials,” which focuses on the infamous trials that led to Oscar Wilde’s demise, contains perhaps the most significant contribution to other scholarship on gender and sexuality studies. Powell initially points out, “Although the trials in Wilde’s retrospective view were an irredeemably coarse drama – not metaphorically, but really – they have come to be seen more positively in our own time as a painful yet valuable crisis of transition between the Victorian world and what came after” (11). However, Powell’s research is more concerned with the meaning of these trials during Wilde’s lifetime as opposed to its meaning for modern society. In the course of doing research for his book, Powell examined the recently recovered transcript of Wilde’s first courtroom trial – a transcript he describes as “one of the top-security items in the British Library” and having only “been seen first-hand by very few people” (131). During the time period of Wilde’s trials, any case involving homosexual activity would have been heavily censored in written accounts, and this censorship also applies to the Wilde transcript. This erasure of detail in the transcript reflects how homosexuality was an unspeakable, taboo topic in Victorian society. Powell suggests, “The Victorian code of silence on this matter, therefore, hardly means that homosexuality did not exist before Wilde – and the fact that so many scholars today believe that Wilde was the “first Homosexual” is testimony to the power of a social policy of silence whose entire point and purpose was to erase all traces of the existence of homosexuality even while policing it” (139). This Victorian silence also pertains to the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, the law which Wilde was persecuted for violating. This law forbade “any male, in public or private, committing any act of gross indecency with another male” (135). Interestingly, the law fails to specify what exactly constitutes “gross indecency,” making the reference to homosexual activity very vague. Furthermore, the law only refers to males, not females, demonstrating the double standard in Victorian society that Wilde wrote about in relation to the “law of purity.” The exclusion of females also relates to the Victorian controversy over what it means to be a man, or what it means to be masculine. Although Powell only touches on these points, he clearly articulates in this chapter how “Part of the inestimably great value of the lost and now recovered transcript of Wilde’s first trial is that it breaks through [the] veil of silence and allows us a glimpse of homosexual culture” (139). Ultimately, as a comprehensive piece, Kerry Powell’s Acting Wilde: Victorian Sexuality, Theatre, and Oscar Wilde offers an insightful glimpse of not just Victorian homosexuality, but gender and sexuality in general. Powell’s book successfully presents the audience with a more realistic, rather than romanticized, portrayal of Oscar Wilde’s life that stays true to the historical and social circumstances of the time period.


Work Cited:

Powell, Kerry. Acting Wilde: Victorian Sexuality, Theatre, and Oscar Wilde. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Print.