Wilde disappointment

He was the first modern celebrity, but also the first Irish joke. On the centenary of his death, Dav

No writer is more disappointing than Oscar Wilde. We expect so many irreconcilable things of him: both the first modern celebrity and a queer radical before his time; popular entertainer and harbinger of the avant-garde; Irish outsider and English wit. Subversion and sentiment equally stipple his fairy tales and drawing-room melodramas, while his capacity to challenge seems reduced by the facile flip of paradox.

One hundred years after his death, Wilde's ability to disappoint us is his great legacy and enduring fascination. The critic Jerusha McCormack, discussing Wilde's Anglo-Irish identity, describes him as "living on both sides of the hyphen". The phrase beautifully encapsulates so much of Wilde's life and subsequent reputation, and also suggests his disconcerting gift for inhabiting opposing identities. There is nothing indeterminate about Wilde's writing. His dandies and dowagers lay down the law with unshaken authority ("On this point, as indeed on all points, I am firm," asserts Lady Bracknell), and Wilde, provocatively prefacing The Picture of Dorian Gray, fashioned his own glinting maxims, pearl-scattered through society and disseminated in the press, or unforgivingly rehashed in the courtroom.

Part of our problem with Wilde derives from the tumultuous and apparently defining events of 1895, a year in which the successful opening of The Importance of Being Earnest on Valentine's Day was closely followed by Wilde's libel proceedings against his lover's splenetic father, the Marquis of Queensberry. By the end of the year, Wilde's name had been scrubbed from the playbills, his comedies had disappeared from the London stage, and the playwright himself was weeping in Reading Gaol.

The Importance of Being Earnest was Wilde's last major work before his public infamy, and the first to return to the West End stage after his death. From our vantage point, it seems so tightly bottled in wit, so dazzlingly familiar, that it is tempting to accept it as the logical summation of his writing. We read it backwards into the earlier works, and judge them florid, forgetting that heartbreak came easily to Wilde. But the dramatist was already planning future works quite different from this "trivial comedy for serious people", and its performance history, especially the plush film version encasing Edith Evans's adamantine Lady Bracknell, makes the play increasingly difficult to read. Like William Blake's "Jerusalem", a potentially radical work is wrapped in overfamiliarity.

Just as we are tempted to read Wilde's work primarily through The Importance of Being Earnest, so it is misleading to read back our knowledge of Wilde from his trial. Gwendolen considers that "once a man begins to neglect his domestic duties, he becomes painfully effeminate, does he not? And I don't like that. It makes men so very attractive." Scholars formerly apologised for their interest in Wilde - again, The Importance seemed the easiest text to assimilate if it was read as a sheer play of language, an enchanting abstraction of Victorian society. "Pure verbal opera", was W H Auden's description, and "pure" helps considerably in steering the work past its author's problematic reputation. More recently, the painfully effeminate Wilde, the antithesis of the manly man, has become immensely attractive to literary critics. They sift the scintillating exchanges of The Importance and Algernon's dedicated "Bunburying" for encoded meanings.

The Marquis of Queensberry precipitated Wilde's entry into the courtroom when he left an insulting card for him at his club. Queensberry told the court, in a notorious malapropism, that he had accused Wilde of "posing as a Somdomite". In fact, he had written "To Oscar Wilde, posing Somdomite". Perhaps he found the posing as perverse as the sex, attacking Wilde's belief that you could live through masks. But Queensberry's blunder usefully reminds us that Wilde cannot easily be considered a modern homosexual. He is less a sod than a "somd", his own category of unique slippage that straddles the borders between Victorian paterfamilias and contemporary queer. Alan Sinfield has suggested that, before Wilde, the indicators of effeminacy, aestheticism and verbal inversion did not necessarily point towards same-sex activity. Wilde infused them with meaning, set the template for 20th-century homosexuality, so that E M Forster's Maurice could stammer: "I'm an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort." Nothing proves the point so neatly as a photograph, supposedly of Wilde dressed as Salome, that slipped into Richard Ellmann's biography. The corpulent figure crouching over John the Baptist's head, jewels biting into pale flesh, was readily taken for the dragged-up author, out and proud, celebrating his most perverse creation. However, the figure has since been revealed as the soprano Alice Guszalewicz, performing Strauss's operatic version.

Even while it was being created, Wilde was imprisoned by his celebrity. He published his first book of poems in 1881, but earlier that same year had been the model for Bunthorne, "a fleshly poet" who "walked down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily in his medieval hand" in Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience. Still in his mid-twenties, his outlandish taste and nimble talk had already sealed the image. "The House Beautiful", a current exhibition on Wilde and the aesthetic interior at the Geffrye Museum in London, shows Wilde as a sometimes unwitting publicist for the aesthetic movement, rather than its theorist. He was jolted into promoting it when hype made audiences for his American lecture tour familiar with his advertised topics ("The Renaissance in English Art"); hastily, he had to dredge up views on home decoration and handicrafts. His resulting lecture, "The House Beautiful", was heavily indebted to John Ruskin and William Morris. But if Ruskin and Morris were the sonorous prophets, Wilde was their apostle, spreading the word by widely reported exhortation and incandescent personal example.

It was not Ruskin who inspired a double-sided teapot mocking male and female aesthetics. With crooked handle and limp-wristed spout, the long-haired exquisites brandish emblematic flowers and expressions of drooping sensibility. When Wilde decorated his house in Chelsea after marrying Constance Lloyd in 1884, it was considered an overdue test of his much-advertised pronouncements, and he seems to have been anxious about living up to his own publicity. He turned to the painter James McNeill Whistler for advice, but was reproved: "No Oscar, you have been lecturing us on the House Beautiful; now is your chance to show us one." With the architect Edward William Godwin, he created what was, in effect, a stage set with an unusually pale colour scheme, cut with vivid gold and vermillion. Visiting the house, W B Yeats was reminded of "some deliberate artistic composition".

Living life through masks, or as an artistic composition, was more than a pose - it was an identity built through the assertion of identity's necessary artificiality. The Irish playwright Frank McGuinness notes that, in De Profundis, Wilde's keening letter to his former lover, Wilde revised the phrase "an artist as I was" to read "an artist as I am", suggesting that even this apparent confessional was primarily a performance. When Wilde was transferred from Pentonville to Reading Gaol, a man spat at him as he passed. "For a year after this was done to me," he wrote in De Profundis, "I wept every day at the same hour and for the same space of time." A heartfelt ritual; an acutely theatrical grief.

Perhaps this centenary will prompt a critical re-evaluation of Wilde's oeuvre. Richard Allen Cave's introduction to a new edition of the plays, published by Penguin Classics, neatly subverts expectation by discussing Wilde the spatial artist with an eye for movement, rather than the verbal plate-spinner. Cave gives unusual prominence to the arrestingly airless one-act play, A Florentine Tragedy, an abrupt love triangle in which "all this mighty world/[Is] Narrowed into the confines of this room/With but three souls for poor inhabitants". Among the increasingly revived society comedies, A Woman of No Importance, superficially the most ragged, also repays closer attention.

The verbal registers in Wilde's plays offer far more than his trademark flip paradox. A Woman of No Importance teases his host nation, opening with the terrifying line: "I believe this is the first English country house you have stayed at, Miss Worsley?" But clotted symbolist language also dapples the play, as if Salome had slithered into an English drawing room. Aristocrats share panther duets bristling with innuendo: "The Book of Life begins with a man and a woman in a garden" - "It ends with Revelations." The darkly splendid dandy Lord Illingworth scatters some of Wilde's most heartless lines: "The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future." Several cracks were filched from Dorian Gray, so that he appears doubly knowing, humming Wilde's greatest hits.

In Thomas Kilroy's play The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde, which is visiting the Barbican this month, the playwright's wife appalls her husband when she says: "There are times when what you say appears so very - limited." The play of paradox, Wilde's most celebrated characteristic, is an odd technique, a snap of finality masking the sigh of evasion. As a tactic in the courtroom, it failed to save Wilde from dogged cross-examination. Asked "Have you ever adored a young man madly?", Wilde replied: "I have never given adoration to anybody except myself." "I suppose you think that a very smart thing," harrumphed the opposing counsel.

Wilde courageously stayed in character for his most unsparing public performance, but his work had already questioned the limitations of easeful flippancy. His dramatic aphorists circle around the central plot, snapping up opportunities to shine. Lord Darlington in Lady Windermere's Fan and Lord Goring in An Ideal Husband dispense sympathetic epigrams on the sidelines, and only Lord Illingworth, in A Woman of No Importance, is at the centre of the narrative, as well as being its source of corruption. In Wilde, display is concealment, falsity is feeling, and evasion builds the bars of a glittering cage. Disappointment is the point.

The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde is at the Barbican Theatre, London (020 7638 8891) from 27 September to 7 October; "The Wilde Years" is at the Barbican Gallery from 5 October to 10 December (020 7638 8891). "The House Beautiful" is at the Geffrye Museum, Shoreditch, London, until 21 January (020 7739 9893). The centenary exhibition "Oscar Wilde: a life in six acts" is at the British Library from 10 November to 4 February (020 7412 7332)

This article first appeared in the 25 September 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Women: still firmly in their place