by Philip Hoare ‧ RELEASE DATE: April 1, 1998
Even in death Oscar Wilde could still provoke upright society, as this lively and revealing history of a bizarre 1918 libel trial in London, concerning a play by Wilde, demonstrates. Focusing on the scandal surrounding the first British performance of Wilde's last play, SalomÆ’, Hoare, the biographer of Stephen Tennant (1991) and No'l Coward (1996), wonders what Wilde would have made of the early 20th century. A byword for unnameable perversity to the Edwardian middle class, Wilde had become a martyr figure for the decadent underground, which continued with desperate hedonism during WW I. The headline-making trial that SalomÆ’ touched off suggests that, even in 1918, public opinion would still not have been friendly to Wilde. Noel Pembleton Billing, the right-wing publisher of the yellow journals the Imperialist and the Vigilante, and a loose-cannon member of Parliament, needed to maintain his maverick political career, even through proto-McCarthyite tactics. He had already claimed that the Germans had a list of 47,000 high-ranking members of the government, the military, the aristocracy, and society (all of them secret homosexuals) who were being blackmailed into sabotaging the war effort. Why not suggest that a new production of SalomÆ’, starting the scantily clad dancer Maud Allan, was a Hunnish effort to undermine public morality? When he ran a ferocious attack on the play headlined ""The Cult of the Clitoris"" (not a term many readers knew), the producers took legal action. The ensuing circus of a court case, with Billing conducting his own manic defense, dug up Wilde for public obloquy again, this time with Lord Alfred Douglas leading the attack on his former lover. It also revealed that mainstream attitudes toward homosexuality, morality, and aestheticism had changed little since Wilde's death in 1900. Expanding an unlikely historical footnote, this account of Wilde's posthumous last trial and its wider significance is sensational in more than just the journalistic sense of the word.
Pub Date: April 1, 1998
Page Count: 256
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 1998
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