The Wilde Way of Setting Up Camp
The Irish Times, November 21, 2000
Camp men are made, not born, and before Oscar Wilde, being camp didnt
mean you were gay. The queer stereotype was born at the Wilde trials, argues
the writer Alan Sinfield, in advance of his lecture at a Dublin symposium
marking the centenary of Wildes death
"WOW!" wed say, if Oscar Wilde could be brought here today:
"what a fabulous camp queen!"effeminate, flamboyant,
theatrical, aesthetic, dandified, witty, charming, amoral. For us, he is the
ultimate image of the traditional queer man.
The question, surely, is not why he was prosecuted, but how he got away
with it for so long. For 14 years, from his student days at Oxford until the
trials in 1895, Wilde camped it up outrageously, first as an effeminate
aesthete, then as an effeminate dandy. Yet he was regarded by society, the
press and the public, as rather wicked; by no means as a pariah. It was only
in late 1894, only a few months before the trials, that serious rumours about
his private life and habits became persistent.
The answer must be: Wildes contemporaries didnt recognise and
stigmatise him as queer because they didnt have the modern idea of what a
queer man should look like. Even when he was directly accused and witnesses
were brought against him, contemporaries such as Frank Harris and W.B. Yeats
thought Wilde was innocent.
This, I try to show in my book, The Wilde Century, is because his
dandified, camp image was associated far more with class than with sexuality.
The newly-dominant middle class justified itself by claiming manly purity,
purpose and responsibility. The leisure class, correspondingly, was identified
with effeminate idleness and immorality. The leisured gent might engage in all
kinds of debaucherydrinking, gambling, using drugs, living beyond his
means. He might have sexual relations with serving girls and stable hands. He
was generally dissipated, but not distinctively queer.
The Wilde trials installed a new framework of interpretation. Suddenly and
infamously, the Wildean figure was transformed into a brilliantly precise
image: the effeminate, camp, queer man. Our stereotypical notion of the male
homosexual derives from this moment. It is not, I think, that most people had
a concept of gayness like our own, but avoided talking about it. Hitherto,
engaging in same-sex practices did not make you a special kind of person. The
idea, rather, was that anyone might fall into such a sinsince we are all
"fallen". The modern idea of the homosexual as a particular type of
person was in the process of getting constituted.
After the trials, everyone knew what the queer man was like. Of course,
this change did not come out of nothing. People had begun to talk about
homosexuality. Sexologists were theorising it (Ulrichs, Ellis, Freud);
parliamentarians were criminalising it (Labouchere); activists were promoting
it (Carpenter, Symonds). But with the trials, a distinctive possibility
cohered, far more clearly and for far more people. The unspoken gained a name.
"Oscar Wilde" became, for many decades, the main format through
which queer speech might occur. "The Wilde trial had done its work,"
Carpenter wrote, "and silence must henceforth reign on sexsubjects."
However, it was a Wilde-shaped silence. The Echo declared: "The best
thing for everybody now is to forget all about Oscar Wilde, his perpetual
posings, his aesthetical teachings and his theatrical productions. Let him go
into silence, and be heard no more." But, of course, this very injunction
is reproducing Wilde as the representative of the forbidden topic; the
unspeakable hovers on the edge of speech.
This effect was important for homosexuals, as well as for those who
stigmatised them. As Havelock Ellis put it: "The celebrity of Oscar Wilde
and the universal publicity given to the facts of the case by the newspapers
may have brought conviction of their perversion to many inverts who were
before only vaguely conscious of their abnormality." One of Elliss
correspondents reported that his erotic dreams had invariably involved women,
"with this one remembered exception: I dreamed that Oscar Wilde, one of
my photographs of him incarnate, approached me with a buffoon languishment and
perpetrated fellatio". Gradually this man found himself to be homosexual:
"hypothesis merged into reality: I myself was inverted".
Between 1900 and 1970, a Wildean manner afforded the most plausible gay
selfidentification. In E.M. Forsters novel Maurice, written in 1914 and
published in 1971, the protagonist blunders about, only obscurely aware of his
own feelings. He learns to explain himself as an "unspeakable of the
Oscar Wilde sort", but eventually rejects the camp, effeminate model of
AUTOBIOGRAPHIES and oral histories repeatedly follow this sequence: Wilde
offers at least the initial framework for self-discovery. More recently still,
in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral, the flamboyant gay character played
by Simon Callow is asked if he knows Oscar Wilde.
Few gay men now accept the Wildean image, mainly because they prefer a more
democratic idea and dont want to be perceived as effeminate. "Straight
actingno fems", the contact ads often say. Anyway, Wildes career
and writings hardly celebrate gay love. The Picture of Dorian Gray explores
some of the boundaries of sexuality, but the moral is that delinquents like
Dorian come to a bad end. It requires considerable ingenuity to read Algernon
and Jack in The Importance of Being Ernest as a gay couple; or their
deceptions in pursuit of a suitable wife as cruising; or Lady Bracknell as a
Above all, despite his fortitude in the dock, Wilde denied everything
sexualin his writing, with Alfred Douglas, with the young men he had
picked up. He said his love letters were just poetic licence. His speech about
"the Love that dare not speak its name" specifies a platonic love.
Wildes legacy puts gay men back in the closet, as well as invoking elements
of snobbery, misogyny, and class and inter-generational exploitation; there is
a touch of routine (for the time) anti-Semitism in Dorian Gray.
But if Wilde is unacceptable as a role model today, that doesnt make him
irrelevant. He is a key part of gay history; he represents our
vulnerabilities, as well as our aspirations and accomplishments. He affords a
tool for thinking with, not an identity to be embraced.
How far, and in what ways, these arguments might apply in Ireland needs
more investigation. Pádraic Pearse seems to allude to "The Ballad of
Reading Gaol" in his homoerotic play The Master. The young Brendan Behan
in Borstal Boy finds a queer circle, centred upon a boy who sports a cigarette
holder and a rose-coloured silk tie and is reading Harriss Life of Wilde.
However, the tendency has been to regard queerness as something Wilde picked
up in England.
Ill be trying to say something about this at The Wilde Legacy
conference. Perhaps the Wildean model of the queer man is a rightful part of
Irish inheritance too. If so, that does not mean that this is what Irish gays
must be like. The Wildean legacy is something to work with, not a blueprint.
It is to be recovered, contested and mediated. Gay men in the Republic today
have a better legal standing than in England, Wales, Scotland and the North.
Dublin has a more amiable atmosphere than most English cities. Here and around
the world, people of diverse races, ethnicities and cultures are finding their
own ways of being lesbian, bisexual and gay.
Alan Sinfield is the author of The Wilde Century: Effeminacy, Oscar Wilde
and the Queer Moment (Cassell) and Out on Stage: Lesbian and Gay Theatre in
the Twentieth Century (Yale University Press).
The Wilde Legacy, an international symposium on the writer, runs from
December 1st-3rd at the Oscar Wilde Centre for Irish Writing, Westland Row,
Dublin. Lecturers include Prof Alan Sinfield, Dr Angela Bourke and Prof
Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin. Specially commissioned events include a play by
Thomas Kilroy entitled My Scandalous Life and an adaptation of Wildes
fairytales for children by the Storytellers Theatre Company.
For information, phone 01-6082885.