Review: In a Valley of Violence (2016)


A Western starring Ethan Hawke and John Travolta. It’s not perfect, but God, when it works, it works.

Here’s my review at Ebert.

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Happy Birthday, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

“These are the pure Magic. These are the clear vision. The rest is only poetry.” – Rudyard Kipling on John Keats and Samuel Taylor Coleridge

William Hazlitt, friend to Coleridge, wrote:

Coleridge has told me that he himself liked to compose in walking over uneven ground, or breaking through the straggling branches of a copse-wood; whereas Wordsworth always wrote (if he could) walking up and down a straight gravel-walk, or in some spot where the continuity of his voice met with no collateral interruption.

I’ll start with a personal anecdote because Coleridge entered my life early. When I was a kid, 9, 10 years old, I loved a book called The Boyhood of Grace Jones, by Jane Langton (one of my favorite authors as a kid, she wrote one of my favorite books ever (still) called The Diamond in the Window). The Boyhood of Grace Jones takes place in 1939, and tells the story of a young girl named Grace Jones who is about to start middle school and has taken to wearing her father’s Navy middy blouse. She has cut her hair short, and decides to behave like a boy. She is obsessed with all things sea-worthy, and has a couple of imaginary friends from a book she has read, Captain Nancy and Captain John, sailors both, who follow her around, give her advice, support her, or scorn her. She tries to live up to their expectations of her.

Meanwhile, in the world of middle school, suddenly boys become boys, and girls girls – and the girls are all in a state of apoplexy and sexual frenzy over Rhett Butler (Gone With the Wind had just premiered), and Grace refuses to buy into ANY of it, much to the consternation of her mother and some of her teachers, who wonders why Grace is so ODD. Why does she dress like a boy? Why does she swagger through the hallways shouting, “Ahoy there, matey?” Grace is a terrific character. I was in love with her. She follows her obsessions to extremes. I knew a little something about that. And then, in an English class, the teacher assigns a poem for them to read overnight. It is “Kubla Khan”, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

And something happens to Grace Jones when she reads it.

Dizzy with incantation, intoxicated with rhythm, Grace almost fell out of the tree. She had discovered poetry and nature in one fell swoop. “Beware,” she whispered to herself, “Beware! Beware! Weave a circle round him thrice …” Then her eyes raced back to the beginning of the poem, and she started to read the whole thing aloud once more, mumbling and whispering at first, then ranting and shouting …

By the time Grace noticed her dog Whitey at the bottom of the tree, sniffling and whining a doggy greeting, the two mimeographed pages in her hand were a damp smudge of purple ink. She never discovered the questions Mrs. Humminger had typed up on the second page, but she wouldn’t have been able to read them anyway, they were so blurred by now. But she knew the whole poem by heart. She slipped and fumbled down the tree, fondled Whitey, staggered home, burst into the kitchen door, struck a pose, and cried, “Beware! Beware! My flashing eyes! My floating hair!”

This was a heroine I could recognize. I did that kind of stuff too. I would read something and get so excited that I immediately needed to play make-believe with it. I always wanted to LIVE in the books I loved. I had never heard of Samuel Taylor Coleridge when I was 10 years old, but The Boyhood of Grace Jones introduced me to him.

Grace’s obsession becomes even more intense when the class is assigned “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”.

The Ancient Mariner was even more staggering than Kubla Khan. There wasn’t the slightest breeze moving in the top of the white pine tree, but Grace had to hang on with both arms to the branches on either side of her to keep from losing her balance, as Coleridge’s verses reeled and throbbed, ebbed and flowed across the pages of the book wedged open in her lap. The ancient mariner had shot a lucky bird, an albatross, with his crossbow, and ever since then his ship has been doomed with a curse. And what a curse! All the other sailors died, one by one, and after that he was alone.

Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide, wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.

The many men, so beautiful!
And they all dead did lie:
And a thousand thousand slimy things
Lived on; and so did I.
An orphan’s curse would drag to hell
A spirit from on high;
But oh! more horrible than that
Is the curse in a dead man’s eye!

There was something about the rhythm. It burned and froze. It beat and pulsed. It surged and dragged. It made Grace want to laugh and cry …

Grace began to learn this poem by heart too. It was easy. The verses beat themselves into her brain like hammerblows, leaving deep dents in her memory. By the time she was ready to climb down from the top of the tree and stumble home, stiff with cold, the dry grass of the field, like a dull mirror, was giving back the tawny color of the sunset sky. She had memorized forty-two stanzas. And that night at home she learned forty more while she was eating her supper and washing the dishes.

Later that night, Grace is so worked up about the Ancient Mariner that she can’t sleep.

She lay looking up at the cold moon, which was sailing high in the night sky, sucking the summer warmth from the ground, casting a cold, bald light on the floor beside the bed. The radiator hissed and knocked. The powerful rhythms of The Ancient Mariner were still tumbling and racing through her head. She couldn’t stop them. After the third time through all of the eighty-four stanzas she had learned that day she sat up warily, turning away from the window, and stared wide-eyed at the darkest corner of her room, where the open door into the hall cast a dense shadow. What if an angel should appear there, writing in a book of gold? Was it true that someone was keeping track? Watching her? Writing it all down on the good or bad side of the page? That would be terrible. It would be much worse to have an angel watching her than Captain Nancy or Captain John, because Nancy and John were her friends, after all, and they weren’t writing it all down like that and holding a lot of things against her forever after.

Grace kept her eyes pricked open, staring as hard as she could at the dark corner, trying by sheer force of will to materialize an angel writing in a book of gold. But she couldn’t do it, and she slumped back under the covers.

Was it true? Were angels true? Was God true? Grace wondered about God for the thousandth time. Her father didn’t believe in religion. He scoffed at the Sunday morning preachers on the radio. He always said the word “God” sarcastically, so that it came out “Gawd“. But Grace didn’t know whether he was right or not. What if he were wrong? Somebody in the family should take some responsibility about religion. Just in case it was true. Somebody, somebody, should pray for everybody. Grace shut her eyes and put her folded hands under her chin, and prayed for them all (just in case), ending up with a line from The Ancient Mariner, ” ‘O, shrive me, shrive me, holy man! Amen.”

BANG! exploded the radiator. Bubblety-gurglety-poppety-BANG!

Jane Langton is a great writer.

In the back of this magic little book is the entirety of the texts of the two Coleridge poems referenced in the book, Kubla Khan and The Ancient Mariner, which I, a child, caught up in Grace’s enthusiasm, read over and over and over again. Grace’s obsessions are free-range, her intelligence susceptible to suggestion. All she wants is to be inspired. Over the course of the book, things shift for her. It is the beginning of adolescence, and she finds herself caught up, almost against her will, in the Gone With the Wind mania. Clark Gable and Coleridge, competing for her affections. It’s a wonderful book. I highly recommend it!

I had to share that story because that was my introduction to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and it was almost like a master-class in HOW to read him. We read “Kubla Khan” in high school, and all I could think about was Grace Jones. I already felt like an expert in that poem because of The Boyhood of Grace Jones.

Camille Paglia, in her book Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World’s Best Poems, writes about “Kubla Khan”:

Sensitive about the poem’s eccentric structure, Coleridge attached a preface whose peculiar claims were accepted as fact by early readers and critics. In it he says that, while recuperating from “a slight indisposition” in the countryside, he was lulled asleep by an “anodyne” (laudanum, an opiate to which he was addicted) just as he was reading a passage in a seventeenth-century travelogue describing the lavish palace of the Chinese emperor Kubla Khan. Awaking from three hours of “profound sleep”, he began to write out the “two to three hundred lines” that had somehow coalesced during his dream. But a knock on the door suddenly called him away. Returning little more than an hour later, he found “to his no small surprise and mortification” that the rest of the poem had faded from memory.

The fifty-four line text of “Kubla Khan” is therefore to be understood, according to the subtitle, as a “fragment”. Was Coleridge’s defense strategy aimed at shadowy carpers or at his own festering doubts? The poem certainly does not feel incomplete to us, whose looser standards of form descend from the radical innovations of Romanticism and nineteenth-century realism. We no longer expect perfection, symmetry, or sharp closure in works of art. Indeed, modernist plays and dance pieces can end so ambiguously that raised house-lights must signal the end of a performance. “Kubla Khan” anticipates the fractures and fragmentation in Western culture that would be registered in collage, the jigsaw medium invented by Picasso on the eve of World War I and applied by T.S. Eliot to the shards of literature shifted from rubble in The Waste Land (1922).

Perhaps, Mr. Coleridge, it would have been better to NOT answer the door while in the throes of inspiration.

However, the whole anecdote is a wonderful metaphor for the elusive nature of creativity, of the dream-palace erected in our heads: the perfect work of art, emerging fully realized. But then most often everything falls short of that imagined paradise.

The wonderful Anne Fadiman wrote a gorgeous essay about a biography of Coleridge, included in her book At Large and At Small. Here is an excerpt. At one point Fadiman writes:

I half-woke one morning recently with an obscure sense of dread, nagged by the feeling that someone close to me was in trouble. I knew that soon I would be sufficiently alert to remember who it was and to start making plans to help him, plans that I feared would be difficult and complex and likely to swallow up my day. I turned over in bed and saw volume 2 of Coleridge on my bedside table. It was open to page 240. When I had left him at midnight, Coleridge was lying in a sweat-soaked bed at the Grey Hound Inn in Bath, in December 1813, having argued with two housemates and fled into the night. He was nearly penniless; had missed the last stagecoach and walked five miles in a rainstorm, dragging a bag of books and old clothes; had a terrible cold; and was hallucinating from an opium overdose.

I was relieved. The runaway was someone else’s responsibility. Nevertheless, I was unable to settle down to work until I had read far enough ahead to assure myself that Coleridge would be properly taken care of.

Michael Schmidt, in Lives of the Poets, writes:

Along with Doctor Johnson, Coleridge is the great critical intelligence among English poets, but a very different kind of intelligence from the Doctor’s. His interests extend beyond poetry to society, philosophy and religion, but poetry is the heart of wider concerns with language and the power of imagination and ideas. Unlike Johnson, he had no settled opinions; he was a man in search of truth, perplexed by personal, philosophical, political and aesthetic indecisions. We find consistency of principle, uncertainty of application. His mature political thought is lucid, but he cannot – for example in On the Constitution of Church and State – bridge the gap between idea and implementation in practical, institutional forms. Yet Hazlitt is wrong: Coleridge does not indulge in casuistry to get out of an intellectual corner.

Uncertainty has aesthetic consequences. Unlike other Romantic poets, he never establishes a personal mode. He writes Augustan verse of little distinction, discursive poems, then the handful of meditations and nature poems in which he is most himself, and finally three great poems that defy classification: “Christabel,” “Kubla Khan” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. Of these poems, two are ostensibly unfinished. Throughout his work there are fragments, including “The Destiny of Nations”. Other poems he worked on for years and remained dissatisfied. His “Dejection: An Ode” adopts a fragmentary form, juxtaposing verse paragraphs that are thematically but not logically sequential. Formal fragmentation reflects the theme: like a modernist, he breaks it to make it whole. He did not complete his vast projected philosophical work. His attempt to schematize transcendental philosophy distorted the ideas imagination could apply but analysis unraveled.

Coleridge started taking opium because of a toothache, and it became a lifelong addiction. He went to Cambridge. He was not particularly ambitious. He didn’t get a degree. He got swept up by the French Revolution, and had all kinds of idealistic Utopian plans/hopes, like a lot of people then who somehow (?) missed the Terror. He started publishing poems, his marriage was bad, he met Wordsworth, one of the most important friendships of his life. They collaborated, and the publication of their Lyrical Ballads marks the beginning of the new Romantic era. The collaboration pushed Coleridge to produce more. He was invigorated, despite his other circumstances (opium, terrible marriage, a melancholy disposition). He wrote a lot and Wordsworth was his main audience. He traveled to Germany, and was swept away by the philosophical revolution occurring there. Schmidt writes:

After visiting Germany in 1798-99, he returned to England and settled near Wordsworth in Cumberland to continue his studies. He fell hopelessly in love with Wordsworth’s sister-in-law, but he was already married. He wrote journalism, lectured, traveled, suffered further financial hardship and grew increasingly dependent on opium. In 1810 he quarreled openly – conflict had been brewing – with Wordsworth. It was one of the great losses of his life. They were reconciled, but the original friendship was over. His reputation grew as his powers declined. In 1817 his prose masterpiece Biographia Literaria was published. His mature political writing is the quintessence of that English Toryism rooted in Sir Robert Filmer and Richard Hooker, adhered to by Swift, Johnson and Goldsmith, and richly proclaimed by Edmund Burke. Its expression is elegiac: that moment in English history was over. Coleridge died in 1834.

In writing of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, Schmidt writes (echoing Grace Jones’ experience of the poem):

“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” achieves what no other literary ballad of the period did: the tone of folk ballad. In an impersonal ballad singer’s voice, Coleridge explores in dramatic ways a theme developed in the discursive poems. The Mariner chooses one of three young men bound for a wedding feast. He tells his story: his ship, ice-bound near the pole, the albatross of good omen, his gratuitous act of slaying it, the punishment wrought on the whole crew; his individual penance and regeneration when in his heart he blessed the creatures about the becalmed ship. Released, he travels the world teaching reverence, love of God and his creatures. For six hundred and twenty-five lines Coleridge touches our deepest interests. The poem works on us like a dream: questions of belief or disbelief never arise: we attend. Passages have entered common language; the images draw back to consciousness folk elements and hermetic symbolism. Wordsworth wrote privately to the publisher urging that the poem be dropped from future editions of Lyrical Ballads as being out of key with the other poems in the book. He was uncomfortable with its dimensions and themes: Did he sense, too, how much more powerful, durable and inevitable it was than the other poems in the book?

One more personal anecdote. When I was in high school, Frankie Goes to Hollywood hit the airwaves. “Relax” was, of course, the big hit. I bought the album, and there was another song included called “Welcome To the Pleasure-Dome”, which also eventually got radio play. I felt like the smartest person in the world because I immediately knew it was referencing Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”.

It had, by that point, entered into my personal lexicon because of Grace Jones. So often when you read literature, especially as a kid, it stays outside of you. It may make an impression but it doesn’t enter into your experience and your language and your thought process. But Coleridge did. His language … It’s got such REVERB.

Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

That one phrase alone starts off a series of images, crazy and untrammeled. I picture the “measureless” caverns, and that image brings a shiver of dread and awe (like, I beg you, please … measure them. Because I can’t deal with the thought of a cavern that is “measureless”) and then there’s the “sunless sea”, terrifying to contemplate. A sea deep beneath the earth. Untouched by sun. There are also complex and specific language elements here, the alliteration which gives those lines a sibilant sound, adding to the creepiness. It’s all “s”s.

Schmidt observes:

What the poem means is inseparable from the words and rhythms it uses. Paraphrase hardly gets a toehold. It is not until the second half of the poem that the “I” appears: “A damsel with a dulcimer / In a vision once I saw …” … The first half of the poem evokes the “stately pleasure dome”. In the second half the “I” wishes to retrieve it. Could he hear the music he once heard in a vision, he could re-create in air “That sunny dome! Those caves of ice!” He would be like Kubla Khan, himself sacred and exalted. The dulcimer recalls the harps we hear elsewhere in Coleridge’s work, instruments that harmonize the world of ideas and the world of the senses, and liberate imagination from the constraints of literal vision. In “Kubla Khan” the poetry achieves an intensity unprecedented in the discursive poems. The dulcimer’s sound would recreate not things perceived but imagined. Contemplation authenticates it; it can even transform and generate objects of contemplation, as in “Frost at Midnight”. “Could I revive within me”: it is a conditional clause. In face he cannot. He cannot even “complete” the poem. If he could, he could complete himself, become one with “flashing eye” and “floating hair”. Yet from its partial disclosure we can infer the vision. The poem is about desire, not the failure of desire. In this thwarted hope resides its power.

And so, let’s read the whole thing, once more, in honor of the Birthday Boy.

Kubla Khan

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And ‘mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!

The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ‘twould win me
That with music loud and long
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

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Supernatural, Season 12, Episode 2


Have at it!

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Gotham Awards 2016: Our Nominations for Best Breakthrough Performance

It’s that time of year again: one of (if not the?) first awards shows of the season: The Gotham Independent Film Awards!

I was on the committee to nominate the category of Breakthrough Actor Performance, along with Bilge Ebiri of the Village Voice, David Ehrlich of Indiewire, Tim Grierson, VP of LA Film Critis, and Katie Walsh, critic for LA Times and other outlets. It was a HELL of a year for brand-new actors giving unbelievably memorable performances and we had quite a task, narrowing the field down. There were some clear front-runners from the get-go, but after that, a free-for-all of opinion. Finally, though, we narrowed it down to 5 nominees that we all could agree on – and happily, I might add.

And they are:

Sasha Lane, “American Honey,” directed by Andrea Arnold

Lucas Hedges, “Manchester by the Sea, directed by Kenneth Lonergan

Ana Taylor-Joy, “The Witch,” directed by Robert Eggers

Royalty Hightower, “The Fits,” directed by Anna Rose Holmer

Lily Gladstone, “Certain Women,” directed by Kelly Reichardt

Congratulations to all of the very worthy nominees. It’s a pleasure to acknowledge you!

The full list of Gotham Awards nominations here.

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Happy Birthday to Wanda Jackson, the Queen of Rockabilly

Here’s a post I wrote awhile back after seeing the great and legendary Wanda Jackson play a show at Maxwell’s in Hoboken. She was 74 years old. She opened for Adele at the age of 73. LEGEND.

The Queen of Rockabilly and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Wanda Jackson, age 74, played Maxwell’s in Hoboken last Friday night (she tours constantly) and Jen, Charlie and I were there. It was a gloomy night with intermittent rainfall, and I wondered what the crowd would be like. I assumed it would be an older crowd mostly, with a couple of rockabilly types mixed in. I thought for sure I would be one of the youngest ones there. But the club was packed – packed – and the age range was 60-something to 20-something, the majority being 20-somethings, which warmed my heart no end. Wanda Jackson got her start in the mid-50s, and here she still is today. Jack White produced her latest album (which is kick-ass), and I imagine the fact that there were so many young people in the audience has something to do with him, bless his heart.

Maxwell’s is a small joint, no seats, a true rock club (reminds me of Lounge Ax in Chicago a bit, may it rest in peace). We scored a spot over to the side. People were pouring in.

The Saddle Tones opened for her, and they were awesome. I love any band that incorporates a stand-up bass, but the whole ensemble was great. The sound in Maxwell’s is great, it’ll blow your ears out, the room is so close. The Saddle Tones got the room rocking. People were dancing. You could feel the excitement. Wanda!! A legend!

After The Saddletones, Wanda’s band took the stage. It’s a small stage. These were some burly big men. We all were screaming in anticipation. There’s no backstage area, so I wasn’t sure where she would appear from, but then there she was, being led through the crowd up to the stage. She is so tiny (as my friend Caitlin would say: “Minz”. She’s so minz.) The excited crowd parted to let her come through, and then she was helped up onto the stage. She looked fantastic and we all just exploded at our first full sight of her. She was wearing a red fringed blazer (she must have a ton in her closet, all different colors), and her hair was jet-black, and swooped up high. She wore sparkly dangling diamond earrings, and a sparkly necklace, bracelet and rings. She picked up the light, and sparkled all over like a damn disco ball. I was very taken with her hands. Her fingers are long and tapering and she uses them brilliantly in all of her gestures, which were simple and eloquent.

And that VOICE. You can’t believe it when you hear it in person. It’s a growly voice, and yet 100% feminine at the same time. She started off by saying, in that raspy lived-in voice, “We are going to go on a musical journey tonight.” And I flashed 50 years into our future, suddenly, and I wondered who, of our young stars today, will still be going at age 74, playing small clubs, and touring constantly, who can command a room swiftly and suddenly with a simple statement like, “We are going to go on a musical journey tonight”? Who will still be standing? Who loves it that much, is basically the question. It’s an open question, that’s the best part about it.

There is something so, well, hot, about seeing a minz old lady backed by these giant guys, all of whom are in their 30s and 40s. It gives such a sense of history, of celebration, of continuity. These guys were poker-faced geniuses, and they are playing for the coolest lady in the world, and the sound they gave her … the giant rocking sound … was worthy of her. They’re playing for Wanda Jackson, after all. Life is good.

Of course, I saw her last Friday, which was the end of Elvis Week. It all seemed rather perfect since, of course, Wanda and Elvis dated (here’s Wanda telling the story), and they started out together.

Wanda Jackson, Elvis Presley, 1955

I hoped she might say something about him, and she did, but it far surpassed what I had hoped. I had thought she might reference Elvis Week, say she knew him, and then move on, but no, it was much much better than that.

She said:

“The first person I toured with was Elvis. We dated. Went to the movies, dinner. I was a country singer then, but Elvis encouraged me to try rock, although we didn’t really have a word for it. He pushed me, ‘Wanda, you’ll be great, do it, do it…’ So I did. He is one of the reasons I am standing here today, so at every show I do, anywhere, I always pay tribute to the King.”

I looked over at Charlie, and he looked back, nodding, like, “I know.”

I realize everyone loves Elvis, but I feel like he’s mine. I think that’s one of the things that distinguishes Elvis fans. We personalize him, we feel like we own him. He is ours, he speaks directly to us, it is a one-way track from him to us. It’s unique. Only a few stars have that.

After her beautiful words of tribute to Elvis, she went even further, and sang ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. (Here’s a clip of Wanda and Jack White performing “Heartbreak Hotel” live.)

I am not even sure I have ever heard that song played live. It’s one of those songs that is so much a part of our cultural landscape that I absorbed it by osmosis as a child. It was only when I decided to “rediscover Elvis” (and that far pre-dated all of the Elvis essays on my site) that that song emerged as the groundbreaker that it really was. But to hear it live. To hear its movements, its change-ups, its soft boozy burlesque open, to its grinding-sex guitar blasts … when Elvis would rotate his shoulder for his live audiences like a floozy and the girls would go wild… to hear it live made it sound like a whole other song. Wanda Jackson rocked it out, and on the line “cry there in the gloom”, she mimed tears falling down her cheek with her beautiful sparkly-ringed tapering fingers, and Jen (an acting teacher, and obsessed with gesture), grasped my hand and whispered, “Oh God, the gesture.”) It’s difficult to explain why something so simple and perhaps even cliche works. It’s because it is truthful, beautiful, and is not trying to be anything other than itself. Gestures like that are hard to come by, and you have to come by them honestly.

I looked around at the club at one point during ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, and the entire place was in a ZONE with the song, swaying and grinding, singing along in unison, arms pumping in the air. I got goosebumps. I glanced at Charlie and said, “The song still works.” It is still a thrilling piece of music and to hear it on Elvis Week, and to witness and feel how much it still works an audience, was a profound moment.

She sang many of her old hits, treating us to some of her yodeling (off the charts!). She talked about how she started writing her own stuff, because she was really out there on her own back then, a woman singing this type of music. The Boys weren’t writing stuff for her. There weren’t any songs from the girl’s point of view, so she went ahead and wrote them.

Here she is performing on television in 1958, singing “Hard Headed Woman.”

I think my favorite anecdote she told at the Maxwell’s show was one involving Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen has talked often about Wanda, and how much he loves her and how inspired he has been by her career. Jackson said:

“I was playing in Asbury Park and I look out and there’s Bruce Springsteen and his wife. I was playing in a bowling alley. There wasn’t even a real stage. But there they were.”

If you are not moved by that moment, if you don’t get why Jen and I held hands with tears in our eyes picturing Springsteen and his wife going out to a bowling alley to see Wanda Jackson the legend … then I certainly can’t (and won’t) explain it to you. You’re on your own.

She spoke about how she invited Jesus into her heart in 1971. She spoke in a simple and beautiful way about how every day she thanks the Lord that it happened: “Wherever I sing in this world, I want the world to know that I thank the Lord for that day, when I Saw the Light.”

And then, of course, she sang Hank Williams’ ‘I Saw the Light’, which she also recorded. It starts slow and churchy, and then explodes.

Jackson talked about how Jack White came into her life, wanting to produce a new album (as he had done with Loretta Lynn to monumental success).

Wanda Jackson and Jack White

Jackson said she had some hesitation about him but he said, “Wanda, I don’t want to change you. I want you to do your thing, but I just want you to have new fresh material.” She was IN from that moment forward. (She laughed, “And so far, it has been my most successful album. It actually cracked the Top 100.”) They worked together on the lineup. He suggested songs, he talked with her about what she wanted to do, he was very prepared. He was also flexible. For example, one song he brought to her she loved but she also felt that some of the lyrics were not “age-appropriate” for her. Jack White could have tried to twist her arm, he could have forced her into something she did not feel comfortable with, but instead, he sat down, took out a pencil, and edited out the lines she felt embarrassed about. I love him for that.

Jack White suggested Amy Winehouse’s “I’m No Good”, which Jackson did record. Jackson spoke to us of her sadness when she heard of Winehouse’s death: “I had hoped to meet her.” She performed “I’m No Good” at Maxwell’s, and listen to that growl, man.

Jack White also asked her in one of their preliminary conversations, “What is a song you have always wanted to cover but never did?” She thought a bit and said it was a song Elvis did that she had always loved, called “Like a Baby”. “Like a Baby” is not one of his better known songs, but it is certainly one of his sexiest performances. So Jack White was like, “Okay, let’s do that one.”

We didn’t want her to leave the stage at the end of the night, and there was this strangely touching moment, piercing even, when she had “exited” after her last song – only there was nowhere for her to go, there being no backstage, so she just huddled over to the side of the stage, in full view, as her band kept playing and we all screamed for an encore. There she was, huge smile on her face, and of course, she waited as we whipped ourselves into a frenzy (and we could SEE her, we knew she was coming back because she hadn’t gone anywhere), until finally she knew when the time was right and she came back on and sang”Let’s Have a Party”, and nearly blew the top of the roof off. But it was the vision of her, a “minz” 74 year old woman with a black swoopy pompadour, red fringe shimmying jacket, and sparkling jewelry reflecting and refracting the light, a freakin’ legend, a Hall of Famer, huddled over to the side of a tiny stage in a small club in Hoboken New Jersey … that nearly did me in completely. Because it was how she started in her career, too. Playing at school fairs and gymnasiums and picnics, where there would be no big celebratory opening, no real backstage, you just walked up there with your guitar and started. You either had star quality or you didn’t. You couldn’t rely on a light show or a big fanfare to pump up the crowd. You walked out there COLD.

And there she was last Friday night at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, 74 years young and 50 years into her career, but loving every second of it. Not caring, not caring that there was no backstage, not caring that we could still see her as we screamed for an encore … not caring at all, because she knows that what is important is not the trappings of success, but the immediate energy ricocheting around that particular room of 100 people.

She was responsible for that energy. She nurtured it and fed off of it.She created it. She will never stop doing so.

That’s a rock star.

Posted in Music, On This Day | Tagged , | 8 Comments

Announcement: Editor Anne Coates: Lifetime Achievement Oscar


I suppose I can mention this now, since my draft is in and there have been conference calls with the Dudes in Charge, and the train has most definitely left the station:

I have been asked to write the narration for the tribute reel that will play for editor Anne Coates at the Lifetime Achievement Oscars awards ceremony in November. You can see a list of the recipients here. (I also wrote the narration two years ago for Gena Rowlands’ Lifetime Achievement Oscar, which was read by Angelina Jolie.) The Oscar video dudes like my work and I was so pleased to be asked to pay tribute to Anne Coates!

Coates is a 90-year-old artist whose first job as editor, the first time she got full screen credit, was in 1952 with Pickwick Papers (although she had been second editor on the legendary The Red Shoes) and just last year she edited 50 Shades of Gray. (In her opinion, that last one should have been “raunchier.” She’s not wrong.) Of course she is most known for what is one of the most famous and celebrated cuts in cinema history in Lawrence of Arabia: going from a closeup of Peter O’Toole blowing out a match to the sun coming up over the desert. I have seen Lawrence on the big screen, and that cut – so breath-taking and so audacious at any size (TV screen, laptop, whatever) – is quite literally mind-blowing on the big screen. It’s RADICAL. How do you even begin to make the choice to do a cut like that? (Incidentally, they initially cut it like that because of a technological issue: they wanted it to be a dissolve but they had to wait a bit to see the result of that, due to the technology of the day. In the meantime, though, Lean and Coates both looked at that super blunt cut and thought: “Huh. It works really well like that, too, though, doesn’t it?”)

Editors go through entire careers without creating a cut that becomes as famous as that one.


In real time:

Along the way, she has edited Becket, The Horses’ Mouth, Murder on the Orient Express, The Elephant Man, Chaplin, In the Line of Fire, Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich, Unfaithful … and What About Bob?, and the inclusion of that film in that list makes me love her all the more. She has worked with legendary directors: Powell and Pressburger, John Ford, Jack Cardiff, Richard Attenborough, Peter Glenville, Wolfgang Petersen, Sidney Lumet. She loves working with younger directors, new names, those bringing energy and risk-taking into the profession. David Lynch. Steven Soderbergh. The seduction scene in Out of Sight is a masterpiece, and that is due in part to how Coates and Soderbergh decided to put it together, not to mention the choice to do these little freeze-frames. Sexy!










But of course, Anne Coates will go down in the history books for her Oscar-winning edit of Lawrence of Arabia (1962). The director David Lean was an editor himself, and he took a look at one of the first scenes she edited and said that she was the only editor he worked with where he saw what she did on her first pass and thought to himself: “That’s exactly how I would have done it.” It was a tremendously challenging job, with – literally – miles of footage of camels crossing the desert.

Another famous scene is the entrance of Ali (Omar Sharif), one of the most memorable character introductions in cinema history.

Coates is a rare one in that she believes that if you don’t need to cut, then don’t freaking cut: let a scene play out in one if it works. Initially they were going to cut away from Ali a couple of times during his legendary approach but then they saw how well it worked to just have him materialize, over an excruciatingly long period of time. You do not know if he is benign or malevolent. Maurice Jarre did the famous sweeping score of Lawrence, but there is no music playing beneath the scene. Nothing. We sit. And watch. And wait. Again: bold. Audacious. Radical. And RIGHT.

Speaking of her belief that if a scene CAN play out in one, then LET it play out in one: witness the slow push-in to Anthony Hopkins’ face when he first sees The Elephant Man. Lynch/Coates had talked a lot about how to “reveal” the Elephant Man, and this is a key moment. But instead of showing us the Elephant Man fully, Lynch stays on Hopkins, moving in closer, closer, closer, and at the closest point, a tear falls down his cheek. (THAT is acting technique, my friends.) Lynch was smart enough to know that the entire thing is about Hopkins’ reaction. Everything we need to know is on his face. And Coates – known as an “actor’s editor” for how well she takes care of performances (leaving them alone, for the most part, if they’re good), loved that choice. Look how beautiful.


I am thrilled to have been asked to pay tribute to this genius. So far there has been no word on who will read the script I’ve written, but the actress they have approached is an exciting prospect for me. Hopefully I will have given her something beautiful to read.

Congratulations to Anne Coates!

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“What If Elvis Had Lived?” My entry in Annie West’s What If? A Chronicle of What Might Have Been


My copy of What If? A Chronicle of What Might Have Been, edited and illustrated by Sligo illustrator Annie West, arrived a couple of days ago and what a gorgeous and funny book it is, and I’m not just saying that because I’m one of the contributors! The majority of the contributors are Irish writers and so there’s a lot of Irish history “What Ifs”, for example one involving Éamon de Valera and one involving Michael Collins. But there are some pop culture ones too. I was excited to see that someone had written a Robert Johnson “What If”.

Months ago, she reached out and asked for my pitches of what I wanted to write about. I had a bunch of ideas, sent them all to her. She picked the one that ended up appearing in the book. The one she picked feels like it was meant to be.

And her ILLUSTRATION for it. I can’t get over it.



But you’ll have to buy the book to find out what happened if Elvis had lived.

Purchase What If? A Chronicle of What Might Have Been here.

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Today In History: October 19, 1781: The Surrender at Yorktown


The surrender at Yorktown, which ended the American Revolutionary War.

The day before:

General Lord Charles Cornwallis to General George Washington, October 18, 1781

I agree to open a treaty of capitulation upon the basis of the garrisons of York and Gloucester, including seamen, being prisoners of war, without annexing the condition of their being sent to Europe; but I expect to receive a compensation in the articles of capitulation for the surrender of Gloucester in its present state of defence.

I shall, in particular, desire, that the Bonetta sloop of war may be left entirely at my disposal, from the hour that the capitulation is signed, to receive an aid-de-camp to carry my dispatches to Sir Henry Clinton. Such soldiers as I may think proper to send as passengers in her, to be manned with fifty men of her own crew, and to be permitted to sail without examination, when my dispatches are ready: engaging, on my part, that the ship shall be brought back and delivered to you, if she escapes the dangers of the sea, that the crew and soldiers shall be accounted for in future exchanges, that she shall carry off no officer without your consent, nor public property of any kind; and I shall likewise desire, that the traders and inhabitants may preserve their property, and that no person may be punished or molested for having joined the British troops.

If you choose to proceed to negociation on these grounds, I shall appoint two field officers of my army to meet two officers from you, at any time and place that you think proper, to digest the articles of capitulation.

(Check out the full correspondence in the days leading up to the 19th)

Cornwallis realized that aid would not come in time, and after two days of bombardment he sent a drummer out into view, who apparently was beating the rhythm of: “STOP! LET’S TALK!!!” A British officer high in rank came forward, was blindfolded and taken to George Washington (who was on his last legs himself).

The surrender document had already been drawn up, with Washington dictating the terms. Here are the Articles of Capitulation.

Over 7,000 soldiers surrendered at Yorktown.


The story goes that as the defeated army marched away, the band played “The World Turned Upside Down”. I did a quick Google search and found a lot of defensive impassioned people out there who feel the need to shout out into the wilds of the Internet with such comments as: “There is NO evidence that ‘The World Turned Upside Down’ was played …” I love nerds who take sides in meaningless historical debates like this. I adore them. I’m a nerd like that. But still. Whether or not it happened, it’s a good story. There are a couple of versions of said song (which has, by itself, a long interesting history). Here is one of the versions:

If buttercups buzz’d after the bee,
If boats were on land, churches on sea,
If ponies rode men and if grass ate the cows,
And cats should be chased into holes by the mouse,
If the mamas sold their babies
To the gypsies for half a crown;
If summer were spring and the other way round,
Then all the world would be upside down.

Dr. James Thacher, who served in the Continental Army, is one of our eyewitnesses of the capitulation, and he published his version of events a couple of years later, the relevant passage being:

“At about twelve o’clock, the combined army was arranged and drawn up in two lines extending more than a mile in length. The Americans were drawn up in a line on the right side of the road, and the French occupied the left. At the head of the former, the great American commander [George Washington], mounted on his noble courser, took his station, attended by his aides. At the head of the latter was posted the excellent Count Rochambeau and his suite. The French troops, in complete uniform, displayed a martial and noble appearance; their bands of music, of which the timbrel formed a part, is a delightful novelty, and produced while marching to the ground a most enchanting effect.

The Americans, though not all in uniform, nor their dress so neat, yet exhibited an erect, soldierly air, and every countenance beamed with satisfaction and joy. The concourse of spectators from the country was prodigious, in point of numbers was probably equal to the military, but universal silence and order prevailed.

It was about two o’clock when the captive army advanced through the line formed for their reception. Every eye was prepared to gaze on Lord Cornwallis, the object of peculiar interest and solicitude; but he disappointed our anxious expectations; pretending indisposition, he made General O’Hara his substitute as the leader of his army. This officer was followed by the conquered troops in a slow and solemn step, with shouldered arms, colors cased and drums beating a British march. Having arrived at the head of the line, General O’Hara, elegantly mounted, advanced to his excellency the commander-in-chief, taking off his hat, and apologized for the non-appearance of Earl Cornwallis. With his usual dignity and politeness, his excellency pointed to Major-General Lincoln for directions, by whom the British army was conducted into a spacious field, where it was intended they should ground their arms.

The royal troops, while marching through the line formed by the allied army, exhibited a decent and neat appearance, as respects arms and clothing, for their commander opened his store and directed every soldier to be furnished with a new suit complete, prior to the capitulation. But in their line of march we remarked a disorderly and unsoldierly conduct, their step was irregular, and their ranks frequently broken.

But it was in the field, when they came to the last act of the drama, that the spirit and pride of the British soldier was put to the severest test: here their mortification could not be concealed. Some of the platoon officers appeared to be exceedingly chagrined when giving the word “ground arms,” and I am a witness that they performed this duty in a very unofficer-like manner; and that many of the soldiers manifested a sullen temper, throwing their arms on the pile with violence, as if determined to render them useless. This irregularity, however, was checked by the authority of General Lincoln. After having grounded their arms and divested themselves of their accoutrements, the captive troops were conducted back to Yorktown and guarded by our troops till they could be removed to the place of their destination.”

One of my favorite sites, Boston 1775, describes the blame-game that ensued, following the capitulation, between the British generals.

Here is a strategic military map from 1781.


Map found here in this awesome collection (I could get lost in there forever.)

On the map you can see the positions of the British Army commanded by Cornwallis, and you can see the American and French forces commanded by Washington. And check out the French fleet (under Count de Grasse) comin’ down the pike!

And finally: here is a story I love. Again, perhaps it’s apocryphal, or even an out-and-out fabrication, but I love it nonetheless.

Benjamin Franklin was in Paris at the time of the surrender at Yorktown. He was there as a diplomat, and a walking-talking advertisement of Teh Awesome Colonies. He played chess, he drank, he socialized, he wore fur-lined hats, he was a great storyteller, and France went wild for him. One of the first international celebrities.

Word came to France of the decisive American victory, and the complete surrender to George Washington in Yorktown. Franklin attended a diplomatic dinner shortly thereafter where everyone was discussing the British defeat.

The French foreign minister stood, and toasted Louis XVI: “To his Majesty, Louis the Sixteenth, who, like the moon, fills the earth with a soft, benevolent glow.”

The British ambassador rose and said, “To George the Third, who, like the sun at noonday, spreads his light and illumines the world.”

Franklin rose and countered, “I cannot give you the sun or the moon, but I give you George Washington, General of the armies of the United States, who, like Joshua of old, commanded both the sun and the moon to stand still, and both obeyed.”


I would like to point out that I first wrote this piece in 2008, long before Hamilton came along. I’ve been an American Revolutionary War buff since … well, I was born into it. My family is a Boston family. It’s the air we breathed. But also my Irish immigrant family had absorbed the story into their bones and hearts. “John and Abigail” (no last names) were discussed in such a casual familiar way that when I was a kid I thought they were members of our family. So I just need to point this out. When I sat there in the audience at Hamilton (hands down, the most exciting night I’ve ever had in the theatre), and the Battle of Yorktown commenced, I felt a thrill of connection. I loved so much that Lin Manuel Miranda had incorporated the legend/myth/apocryphal-who-cares story about the British soldiers singing the old drinking song “The World Turned Upside Down,” as they marched off. The end of the song, the end of the war.

Posted in Founding Fathers, On This Day | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

“Am I Too Loud For You?” Happy Birthday, Eminem

A re-post for Marshall Mathers’ birthday, which is today. So psyched I finally got to see him perform.

WARNING: If, by some amazing circumstance, you have never heard “Kim” before, please know that it is completely unsafe for work, frankly psychotic, horrifying, awful, and contains more triggers than a gun-range.

Eminem gives one of the all-time great acting performances in this blistering screed named after his two-time (and two-timing) wife, “Kim”. Consider the creation of this song: He stands alone in the studio, and – like all great actors – imagines himself into a fictional circumstance, and – and this is key – he believes in it 100%. He’s not acting. He’s living it out. There it is: that’s the job of the actor. There are some A-List actors who haven’t gone as far as MM does here. It’s one of the most honest love songs ever written/performed. And with that comment, many people recoil from me in disgust. (‘Sokay. I’m used to it.)

Eminem creates the fantasy and then throws himself into all aspects of the fantasy, which is what makes the song unique and terrifying. He does not leave anything out. He does not only fantasize about anger and violence (which would be self-congratulatory, making him look righteous and tough), but he also fantasizes about other emotional elements that would also be present in such a situation, elements like adrenaline and insecurity, wild mood swings (“I hate you! I swear to God, I hate you!” – starting to sob – “Oh my God, I love you …”), attempts to stop the event (“Get a grip, Marshall!”), pathos and terror. “Kim” feels, actually, like: this is how such a horrible event often goes. That’s why it makes for such unbearable listening.

Listen to how he screams, “You can’t run from me, Kim!” A million things are going on in that moment. But more than the emotion, what I hear is his objective: Don’t let her get away from me. When he screams like that, I see that moment unfurling before me, her crawling away, him erupting after her, and the reason I can see it is because of the strength of his belief in the objective. And again: he the artist is standing alone in a studio, living it out, and it’s as real to him as if it were actually happening in the moment. All good acting has a strong objective as its engine. That’s why the moment is so bone-chilling: not because of what he is feeling, but because of his OBJECTIVE. You want her to get away. You know she won’t. It’s phenomenal acting.

Other people writing/performing such a song would have chosen to highlight the rage, because then they would seem like a tough guy, he’s getting imaginary revenge, he’s really “showing her”, isn’t he.

Eminem doesn’t go that route. Throughout the course of the song, he sobs, he pleads, he pulls himself together again, he goes snively pathetic (“You think I’m ugly, don’t you?”), he feverishly reminisces, trying to call back the good times, and then snaps again. The rage fights with a panic-filled sorrow.

In the midst of the emotional maelstrom, he keeps it specific: it’s not just one-note constant screaming. There’s a lot of subtlety in what he is doing. The way he yells at the other car on the highway, for example, is completely different from how he yells at his wife. What he does with his voice there is perfectly evocative of free-floating road rage. The roar of a helpless beaten man. Asserting himself, but totally impotent. Again: this is how such things often go … in real life. He also plays his wife Kim in the song, he plays her screaming for her life, begging for mercy, giving the performance a psychotic glee that is completely deranged.

There’s never been anything else like this performance.

I think what many people mostly remember about “Kim” is the rage (and, perhaps, how “inappropriate” the song is in the first place. I know it’s rude but my response to that is, seriously, “Whatever. Take it up with the PTA.”) There is a hell of a lot more going on in the song than rage, or anger at women, or whatever else. People call it misogynistic. I suppose. Anger at women has been the source of a lot of great art. (The same goes for every ugly emotion.) I wouldn’t want to be MARRIED to August Strindberg, but I love his plays. Besides, “Kim” is not free-floating unspecified MRA rage. It is rage and hurt at one very specific woman: Kim Mathers. “HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO MEEEEEEEEE?” screams Marshall. It’s HER he has the beef with. (Eminem long ago renounced the song. He rarely tours, but when he does, he never performs “Kim.” He and Kim get along fine now, rather incredible considering …. this song.)

The song is a fantasy. Last time I checked Kim Mathers is still walking among the living. Fantasies aren’t just unicorns and rainbows. Fantasies are often ugly and pathetic, which is why we hesitate to share them. We will be judged for our inner lives, our private dreamspaces. A lot of great art involves the artist attempting to live out a personal fantasy. And if you’re GONNA live out a fantasy, you might as well REALLY live it, in all its complexity, like MM does here. Who wants to fantasize about sobbing “I love you, God, I love you …” at your wife as you careen your car along a highway? Why would you willingly put yourself into a position where you imagine yourself in such circumstances and then decide to share it? Well, that’s art. That’s Eminem. That’s what it’s about. This is not a wish-fulfillment song. If it were only about wish-fulfillment it would involve more self-righteousness, a little bit more “Watch how I showed this bitch who’s boss.” That is NOT what is happening in “Kim” at all.

Eminem is interested in how this would go if it were actually to happen. It’s a work of imagination, a perfect example of Stanislavsky’s “magic What if”. What IF this were true, what IF something like this happened … Asking “what if” is the start of all imaginative and creative work. “What If” doesn’t just lead to pretty sunsets and Happily Ever After. “What If” leads you into the darkness, too.

And so Eminem’s imagination takes him into the personal, the traumatic, his whiny yet dangerous sense of victimization, his complete and utter instability as a man, his course-corrections back to ugly rage because the pain is too much, his childish begging/pleading … why why why would you do this to me? Whyyy would you do this to meeeee?

The song insists that I go where he goes. It is a prison for the listener. You are put in a tiny dark box with this screaming lunatic, nowhere to escape. Cramped, trapped, forced to listen to this man lose his fucking mind.

Is “Kim” sick? Yes. Is it deranged? Yes.

It is also a work of art.

Posted in Actors, Music, On This Day | Tagged | 9 Comments

“It Is Absurd To Divide People Into Good and Bad. People Are Either Charming or Tedious.”

So said Oscar Wilde, whose birthday it is today.


His mother, Jane Speranza Francesca Wilde (aka Lady Wilde, aka “Speranza”) was an incredible woman in the canon of Irish literary history certainly, not to mention its politics and social upheaval. My father knew a lot about Speranza, of course. She was a poet, a radical, a firebrand, an Irish nationalist, a revolutionary. In 1864, a new edition of her poems came out, and she dedicated it to her two sons:

Dedicated to my sons Willie and Oscar Wilde

‘I made them indeed
Speak plain the word country. I taught them, no doubt,
That country’s a thing one should die for at need’

That gives you a taste of the feeling of the household Wilde grew up in.

His father was a fascinating man as well, a physician who specialized in the eye and ear; to this day there are procedures referred to as “Wilde’s incision”, for example, or “Wilde’s cone of light”, dating back to the mid-1860s, when William Wilde was practicing in Ireland. He was also a writer, and published books on all kinds of things: one of his main interests was the archeology in Ireland, and he published a catalog of antiquities from one particular archeological site, and the book now sits in the National Museum of Ireland. He also published books on folklore, legends, wives’ tales – all of the things that his patients told him, their own received history and “cures” for their ills.

Oscar Wilde’s parents were, frankly, powerhouses.

He went to Oxford, starting in the year he was 20 years old. Oxford was his beginning. The beginning, certainly, of his notoreity (he was quoted as saying “I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china.” while at Oxford, and it caused a stir. People wrote horrified op-ed columns about the decadence of today’s youth, using Oscar Wilde’s comment as the ultimate example). Wilde consciously lost his Irish accent, and created a persona: he wore formal wear, he was obsessed with decorating his room, he had an “outfit” for everything. Wilde was testing the boundaries, interested in aesthetics and what that might have to do not only with art but also character, how a man lived.

Wilde distinguished himself at Oxford. He encountered many of the writers and philosophers that would make the deepest imprint on him, and leave him forever changed.

One of the things I love about Wilde is how suggestible he was. “Suggestible” meaning: openness, receptivity. He took everything on, tried it out for a bit, and then was willing to put it aside if it didn’t work for him. Or, if he realized, “That worked for me when I was 20, but now that I am older, it doesn’t have the same impact” he was able to let go. He really wrestled with his literary and philosophical influences. He argued with them in his papers at Oxford, he took them on, examined the implications, and tried to see what he could take from it for his own work (which was still in its infant stage at that point).

Pater, Swinburne were major influences. Many of his influences were very controversial at the time, the New Romantics, the aesthetes, not seen as particularly Christian, as a matter of fact, they were viewed as demonic, living only for pleasure and effete sensuality. Wilde, while obviously a funny man who liked hanging out with friends, was not really a decadent aesthete (as many of his ‘buddies” actually were). Wilde was more refined: He enjoyed art and beauty and the surface appearance of things, but he was too hard a worker, too intelligent and rigorous with his work ethic, to be a true decadent. That is why HE had to take the fall. Who cares if some nobody poet-wannabe gets convicted of sodomy? Nobody cares about that. But Oscar Wilde? That’ll send a real message.

When Wilde visited America for his whirlwind tour, he made it a point to make a pit-stop to visit (and bow down before) Walt Whitman. Richard Ellmann describes the meeting in his biography of Oscar Wilde:

Wilde initiated the conversation by saying, ‘I come as a poet to call upon a poet.’ Whitman replied, ‘Go ahead.’ Wilde went on, ‘I have come to you as one with whom I have been acquainted almost from the cradle.’ He explained that his mother had purchased a copy of Leaves of Grass when it was published; presumably this was in 1868 (Wilde put it two years earlier), when William Michael Rossetti edited a selection of Whitman’s poems. Lady Wilde read out the poems to her son, and later, when Wilde had gone up to Oxford, he and his friends carried Leaves of Grass to read on their walks. Whitman, in pleased response, went to the cupboard and took out his sister-in-law’s bottle of homemade elderberry wine. Wilde drained without wincing the glass Whitman had filled, and they settled down to consume the rest of the bottle. ‘I will call you Oscar,’ said Whitman, and Wilde, laying his hand on the poet’s knee, replied, ‘I like that so much.’ To Whitman, Wilde was a ‘fine handsome youngster.’ Wilde was too big to take on his lap like other youngsters who visited the sage, but could be coddled if not cuddled.

The encounter goes on. It was not all smiles and adoration. There were disturbing undertones.

The den was filled with dusty newspapers preserved because they mentioned Whitman’s name, and Wilde would complain later to Sherard of the squalid scene in which the poet had to write. It was hard to find a place to sit down, but by removing a stack of newspapers from a chair, Wilde managed to. They had much to talk about. Whitman was eager to know about Swinburne, who had long ago been his English advocate and had written the tribute ‘To Walt Whitman Across the Sea’. Wilde knew Swinburne well enough to promise to relay Whitman’s message of friendship to him. …

Wilde pressed his advantage to ask what Whitman made of the new aesthetic school. Whitman replied with an indulgent smile befitting his sixty-three years, ‘I wish well to you, Oscar, and as to the aesthetes, I can only say that you are young and ardent, and the field is wide, and if you want my advice, go ahead.’ With comparable politeness Wilde questioned Whitman about his theories of poetry and competition. Prosody was not a subject on which Whitman had ever been articulate, except in relentlessly extolling free verse. He responded with wonderful ingenuousness, ‘Well, you know, I was at one time of my life a compositor and when a compositor gets to the end of his stick he stops short and goes ahead on the next line.’ He went on unabashed, ‘I aim at making my verse look all neat and pretty on the pages, like the epitaph on a square tombstone.’ To illustrate, h e outlined such a tombstone with his hands in the air. Wilde treasured the remark and the gesture, and re-enacted them to Douglas Ainslie some years later. But Whitman concluded with impressive simplicity, ‘There are problems I am always seeking to solve.’

After this encounter, Wilde had this to say about Whitman:

He is the grandest man I have ever met in my life. I regard him as one of those wonderful, large, entire men who might have lived in any age and is not peculiar to any people. Strong, true, and perfectly sane: the closest approach to the Greek we have yet had in modern times.

A bit of code there (“Greek”), and everyone would have known to what he had referred. Wilde also said something like, “The kiss of Walt Whitman is still on my lips”. Whitman, while troubled by some of the aesthetes’ poses, defended Wilde from criticism. I am not sure if the two men, both homosexuals, admitted such a thing openly to one another. I don’t know if those words would have even been necessary.

Wilde, granted, was extremely careless near the end, and he allowed into his life the Marquess of Queensberry who would be his ruin.

I read about this dreadful gentleman, and what happened to all of his sons, not to mention his own terrible personality, and I can’t help but think: Dude? You’re totally gay, okay? Just admit it. Nobody is THAT angry without having some tendencies in that direction, not even back then.

Wilde, in love with the Marquess’ son, could not perceive the danger, could not understand what exactly he was inviting into his life. When we’re in love, we obviously aren’t always careful. But you read the slow clang of events in Wilde’s life, and you can feel the increasing danger, you can feel how much Wilde and Lord Douglas wanted to ‘get’ the Marquess. Lord Douglas (the Marquess’ son) was no great shakes himself, and basically saw a way to “stick it to dear old Dad”, by using the famous Oscar.

There is a kindness in Wilde which cannot be denied. I think people often characterize him as a witty dandy who was “brought down” into the muck, but I don’t find that to be accurate. Yes, he was the promoter of the aesthetic movement, and counseled people on what books to read and how to dress and interior decorate, but it was always for a deeper purpose. Also, anyone that funny could not be shallow. It is the people who are serious all the time who are the real shallow ones.

Wilde handled the insults with good humor, skewering his opponents, until he finally came across someone who could not be stopped, who had a chip on his shoulder the size of the entire British Empire, and who was determined to “save” his fairy son from further corruption. (Meanwhile, one of the Marquess’ OTHER sons had also been caught in a compromising relationship with another male, and had killed himself, right around the time that Queensberry started harassing Oscar Wilde. So. Imagine. This short angry little man had two gay sons, both of whom were living in an openly gay manner, in 1895. It had to have pushed all this guy’s gay buttons. Not to mention the fact that also right around this time, his second wife had divorced him, claiming publicly that his penis was too small for effective intercourse, and also that he was impotent, that the marriage had remained unconsummated. Make of that what you will. A tinder box of problems. His unresolved issues ruined another man’s life, so I’ve got zero sympathy for the guy.)

Illustration for Oscar Wilde’s “Salome”, done by Aubrey Beardsley

And so Wilde found himself a pawn in a family struggle between father (Marquess of Queensberry) and son (Lord Alfred Douglas). Lord Douglas was the main instigator, pushing Wilde further and further into it, forcing the confrontation. Wilde had two extraordinary people as parents, and did not approve of how the Douglas family treated one another. Lord Douglas would send telegrams to his father, saying stuff like, “You are a silly stupid man” and Wilde would just shake his head and remark, “You shouldn’t talk to a parent like that.”

Here he was talking about a man who was threatening to ruin him, who left notes under his front door calling him a “sodomite”, who staged protests outside productions of plays Wilde has written – who was doing everything possible to make Wilde miserable as well as criminal – and here was Wilde, chiding the son for talking to his father in a disrespectful manner. Wilde had class. Real class.

He, a man of exquisite manners and taste, who loved his parents and remained close to his mother all the days of his life (his father passed away much earlier) found himself embroiled in a brou-haha that would ruin him. Wilde had invited Lord Douglas into his life and, therefore, invited the Marquess into his life who would ruin everything, but Wilde (unlike Douglas) was not a vindictive person. Wilde knew Douglas could ruin him. Perhaps that was part of the thrill. The beautiful dangerous boy and all that. In reading about Wilde, in reading about all of the literary spats he got into, all of the verbal sparring with current authors of the day, I never feel that he is vindictive. Or cruel. He is clever, and intelligent, and often merciless, but never cruel.

The Marquess accused Wilde of sodomy. Wilde, angry, Lord Douglas egging him on, sued him for libel. This was the defining moment. Wilde’s fate was sealed the second he sued. The entire thing might, might, have gone away if Wilde had not sued. His suing meant there would be a trial, a highly public trial which would reveal WHY he had sued, and WHAT the Marquess had accused him of.

In the 1895 trial, Charles Gill, the prosecutor, asked Wilde about the “love that dare not speak its name”, a quote which came from a poem by Lord Douglas. Wilde, a broken man already by this point, answered, in a passage that brings tears to my eyes:

The ‘Love that dare not speak its name’ in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a young man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michaelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep, spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art like those of Shakespeare and Michaelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may described as the ‘Love that dare not speak its name,’ and on account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an elder and a younger man, when the elder man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so the world does not understand. The world mocks at it and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.

Caricature of Oscar Wilde, by Max Beerbohm

Max Beerbohm, writer/drama critic/caricaturist and an old friend of Wilde’s was there that day and wrote to a friend afterwards:

Oscar has been quite superb. His speech about the Love that dares not tell his name was simply wonderful and carried the whole court right away, quite a tremendous burst of applause. Here was this man, who had been for a month in prison, and loaded with insults and crushed and buffeted, perfectly self-possessed, dominating the Old Bailey with his fine presence and musical voice. He has never had so great a triumph, I am sure, as when the gallery burst into applause – I am sure it affected the jury.

It did not.

Wilde was given a sentence of two years hard labor.

Wilde wrote about his passage to prison:

On November 13th 1895 I was brought down here from London. From two o’clock till half-past two on that day I had to stand on the centre platform of Clapham Junction in convict dress and handcuffed, for the world to look at … When people saw me they laughed. Each train as it came up swelled the audience. Nothing could exceed their amusement. That was of course before they knew who I was. As soon as they had been informed, they laughed still more. For half an hour I stood there in the grey November rain surrounded by a jeering mob. For a year after that was done to me I wept every day at the same hour and for the same space of time.

On today, Oscar Wilde’s birthday, a man who has given me so much pleasure, has made me laugh until my stomach hurts, I didn’t mean to write about all his pain and suffering, but I found I couldn’t help it. His suffering had an air of the sacrificial lamb about it. It was excessive. While in prison, he wrote the blisteringly painful De Profundis, a long letter to Alfred Douglas, a wail of pain and betrayal.

Of late I have been studying with diligence the four prose poems about Christ. At Christmas I managed to get hold of a Greek Testament, and every morning, after I had cleaned my cell and polished my tins, I read a little of the Gospels, a dozen verses taken by chance anywhere. It is a delightful way of opening the day. Every one, even in a turbulent, ill-disciplined life, should do the same. Endless repetition, in and out of season, has spoiled for us the freshness, the naivete, the simple romantic charm of the Gospels. We hear them read far too often and far too badly, and all repetition is anti-spiritual. When one returns to the Greek; it is like going into a garden of lilies out of some, narrow and dark house.

— Oscar Wilde, “De Profundis”, written in prison, 1897

“The Ballad of Reading Gaol” is, of course, Wilde’s long poem about his experiences in prison (full text here).

Those only familiar with his plays will immediate recognize the radical alteration of his style. Those familiar with Oscar Wilde’s other poems will also immediately see (just by looking at the thing) that he is up to something different. His poems were usually lush, intricate, with long lines on the page. Here, this LOOKS like Kipling. It is a ballad.

In one of his published lectures, “Speranza in Reading: On ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol'”, Irish poet and Nobel prize winner Seamus Heaney makes a case that Wilde, by “coming back” to the ballad form (and its propagandistic purposes), was “coming back” to the example led by his mother, Speranza, who also had her trials and tribulations in the public court (although not as literal as Wilde’s.) She was in the center of a couple of major scandals, some involving her husband, and she behaved with fierce loyalty and grace. Heaney uses Speranza as the jumping-off point to talk about the various versions of “Ballad of Reading Gaol” that had been published – not to mention Yeats’s inclusion of it in the 1936 Oxford Book of Modern Verse, a version with some very interesting edits by Yeats himself. Yeats was trying to protect Wilde, even after his death, from his own rhetorical excesses. You can read more about Heaney’s essay here.

Here is an excerpt from Heaney’s essay.

‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ is Wilde’s poem of human solidarity, his attempt to produce, in Kafka’s great phrase, a book that would be an axe to break the frozen sea in each of us. Bu the literary fact of the matter is that the axe which is still capable of shattering the surfaces of convention is neither the realistic ballad which Yeats fashioned nor the original romantic plea from which he extracted it; it is rather the hard-edged, unpathetic prose that Wilde created in dialogues like ‘The Decay of Lying’ and dramas like The Importance of Being Earnest. His brilliant paradoxes, his over-the-topness at knocking the bottom out of things, the rightness of his wrong-footing, all that exhilarated high-wire word-play, all that freedom to affront and exult in his own uniqueness – that was Wilde’s true path towards solidarity. The lighter his touch, the more devastating his effect. When he walked on air, he was on solid ground. But when he stepped on earth to help the plight of lesser mortals, he became Oisin rather than Oscar. His strength dwindled and his distinction vanished. He became like other men. He became one of the chain-gang poets, a broken shadow of the brilliant litterateur who had once written that ‘Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art.’ By the time he wrote the ballad, however, his aim had come to be the telling of the ugly true things:

The vilest deeds like poison weeds
Bloom well in prison-air:
It is only what is good in Man
That wastes and withers there:
Pale Anguish keeps the heavy gate,
And the Warder is Despair

For they starve the little frightened child
Till it weeps both night and day:
And they scourge the weak, and flog the fool,
And gibe the old and grey,
And some grow mad, and all grow bad,
And none a word may say.

Each narrow cell in which we dwell
Is foul and dark latrine,
And the fetid breath of living Death
Chokes up each grated screen,
And all, but Lust, is turned to dust
In Humanity’s machine.

All the same, if the propagandist ballad is not Oscar Wilde’s proper genre, it is still a kind of writing which was naturally available to him from the start. His mother, Jane Francesca Elgee, had begun her writing career in Dublin in the 1840s with a series of fiery patriotic poems published in the Dublin Magazine. Writing under the pseudonym of ‘Speranza’ and under the impression that her family name, Elgee, meant that she was descended from the Alighieri family – as in Dante Alighieri – the future Lady Wilde composed poems that proclaimed a heartfelt sympathy for the plight of the famine victims in Ireland and a firebrand’s enthusiasm for the cause of rebellion against British rule. Speranza herself, of course, was from a well-to-do Dublin Unionist background, so her association with Charles Gavan Duffy and other activists and intellectuals in the circle was already an act of rebellion, an embrace of the forbidden other which foreshadowed her son’s more extreme rejection of the conventional pieties. And Oscar in his turn was very much in favour of the company she had kept.

Wilde did not last long once he was released from prison. He had lost everything, most of his friends (who turned out to be the fair-weather brand), his entire library, his social standing, his health.

In 2009, a new book came out by Thomas Wright called Oscar’s Books, an examination of how reading formed Oscar Wilde’s life. I read it, and it’s wonderful. (A personal story about this book here.) Brenda Maddox, who wrote Nora, a biography of James Joyce’s wife, in her review of the book, wrote:

Among the humiliations Wilde suffered after being sent to prison were not only compulsory silence – prisoners were forbidden to speak to one another – but deprivation of books. All he had in his cell at Pentonville, apart from his bed (a plank laid across two trestles), were a Bible, a prayer book and a hymnal. When at last his sympathetic MP won him permission to have more books, Wilde nominated Pater’s The Renaissance along with the works of Flaubert and some by Cardinal Newman. These were allowed, but only at the rate of one a week. Moved to Reading Gaol, he found himself under a more sympathetic prison governor. His book request lists after July 1896 show him developing an interest in more recently published titles, including novels by George Meredith and Thomas Hardy. Wilde later said that he also read Dante every day in prison and that Dante had saved his reason.

There was a giant auction at his house to pay off his debts, and his books were sold off. It was a circus, many people there just to get a ghoulish view of the sodomite’s lodgings. A couple of his remaining friends actually went out and tracked down many of those books sold that day, buying them back for Oscar when he got out of prison. Now those are real friends.

At first, he was denied any books while incarcerated. But eventually, the milder warden (mentioned by Maddox) asked if Mr. Wilde could write out a list of the books he would like, and he would see what he could do. The warden would look over the list, catch sight of one controversial title, and scold Mr. Wilde (“This book helped cause all of your troubles, Mr. Wilde …”), but in general, the warden did his best to provide Wilde with a makeshift library. Friends began to send books to the prison. The nice warden would bring them to Wilde’s cell, and Wilde would break down in tears at the sight.

In Wilde’s prison file, there is a letter from an anonymous “Irishwoman”, written in 1895. It brings tears to my eyes, and makes me feel that yes, there is good, there is mercy on this planet. Listen:

Please give Mr. Wilde the book. I have never ever seen him but it must indeed be a hard heart utterly unacquainted with God’s love that does not bleed for such a shipwrecked life … I feel this book which I send, may be helpful. Faithfully yours, an Irishwoman.

The greatest gift we can give to others is kindness and understanding. I wish I knew what book she had sent him. I imagine a prayer book. Across the century, I love this anonymous Irishwoman as someone who represents the best in all of us.

After his release, Oscar moved to a small village in France. On Nov. 16, 1897, he wrote to a friend:

It is curious how vanity helps keep the successful man and wrecks the failure. In old days half of my strength was my vanity.

Maddox writes in her review:

When he was discharged in May 1897, he was not allowed to take his accumulated books with him and faced what he called the horror of ‘going out into the world without a single book’. But friends rallied round. Entering the hotel room in Dieppe where he was to begin his exile, he found it full of books furnished by his friends and he broke down and wept.

During his exile, he reconnected with Lord Douglas, something many of his friends warned him against, but by that point, Wilde was on his way out. Life had broken him. He converted to Catholicism on his death-bed, something he had wanted to do for years. His father had not let him convert back when he was younger. Catholicism was way beyond the pale for people of their class and standing, but Wilde never got over yearning for it. A local Catholic priest was found in the middle of the night, and baptized Oscar Wilde on his death bed.

I came to him first the way I think it is best to come to him: as an actor, working on his plays in college.

There is a stark tragedy in the life of Oscar Wilde, and yet his work is the opposite of tragic. He is one of the only playwrights who makes me laugh out loud just reading his words on the page (Shakespeare is the other one). To me, his major life’s work was not his own life (although he did try to create an artistic life, an aesthetic life), or his prose works, his essays, his poetry (all formidable stuff) – and neither do I see his major life’s work as his sacrifice at the end, a martyr to future gay generations, an example of a dignified man who paid the ultimate price. A hero, essentially. Which I believe he is. All of these things are extremely important, and you cannot understand Oscar Wilde without understanding all of these elements.

But for me, it’s about the plays: A Woman of No Importance (my thoughts here), The Importance of Being Earnest (my thoughts here), An Ideal Husband (my thoughts here). That’s the legacy.

The epigrams leave a huge mark as well. It is quite unsettling what he does within them, and it is easy to understand why the powers-that-be found him disturbing. His epigrams are not just clever (that is the greatest misunderstanding about Wilde, that he was “clever.” The man was a radical.) Wilde’s epigrams have as their goal to up-end the status quo. To turn society upside down. You think you’re going one way when he starts out, it feels good and right that you are going that way, and then the second half of the epigram scrambles everything up, leaving you in a state of chaos.

Hopefully you’re laughing, throughout, as well, that’s the beauty of Wilde, he was not a scold.

Here’s an excerpt from one of the scenes in The Importance of Being Earnest, a perfect scene, a classic example of two objectives doing battle.

GWENDOLEN. Are there many interesting walks in the vicinity, Miss Cardew?

CECILY. Oh! yes! a great many. From the top of one of the hills quite close one can see five counties.

GWENDOLEN. Five counties! I don’t think I should like that; I hate crowds.

CECILY. [Sweetly.] I suppose that is why you live in town? [Gwendolen bites her lip, and beats her foot nervously with her parasol.]

GWENDOLEN. [Looking round.] Quite a well-kept garden this is, Miss Cardew.

CECILY. So glad you like it, Miss Fairfax.

GWENDOLEN. I had no idea there were any flowers in the country.

CECILY. Oh, flowers are as common here, Miss Fairfax, as people are in London.

GWENDOLEN. Personally I cannot understand how anybody manages to exist in the country, if anybody who is anybody does. The country always bores me to death.

CECILY. Ah! This is what the newspapers call agricultural depression, is it not? I believe the aristocracy are suffering very much from it just at present. It is almost an epidemic amongst them, I have been told. May I offer you some tea, Miss Fairfax?

GWENDOLEN. [With elaborate politeness.] Thank you. [Aside.] Detestable girl! But I require tea!

CECILY. [Sweetly.] Sugar?

GWENDOLEN. [Superciliously.] No, thank you. Sugar is not fashionable any more. [Cecily looks angrily at her, takes up the tongs and puts four lumps of sugar into the cup.]

CECILY. [Severely.] Cake or bread and butter?

GWENDOLEN. [In a bored manner.] Bread and butter, please. Cake is rarely seen at the best houses nowadays.

CECILY. [Cuts a very large slice of cake, and puts it on the tray.] Hand that to Miss Fairfax.

[Merriman does so, and goes out with footman. Gwendolen drinks the tea and makes a grimace. Puts down cup at once, reaches out her hand to the bread and butter, looks at it, and finds it is cake. Rises in indignation.]

GWENDOLEN. You have filled my tea with lumps of sugar, and though I asked most distinctly for bread and butter, you have given me cake. I am known for the gentleness of my disposition, and the extraordinary sweetness of my nature, but I warn you, Miss Cardew, you may go too far.

CECILY. [Rising.] To save my poor, innocent, trusting boy from the machinations of any other girl there are no lengths to which I would not go.

GWENDOLEN. From the moment I saw you I distrusted you. I felt that you were false and deceitful. I am never deceived in such matters. My first impressions of people are invariably right.

CECILY. It seems to me, Miss Fairfax, that I am trespassing on your valuable time. No doubt you have many other calls of a similar character to make in the neighbourhood.

One of the most satisfying scenes ever written, which is why it is done so often in acting classes. A perfect lesson for young actors on how to play your objective, while trying desperately to look like you are NOT playing an objective, which is how most people live their lives in real life. Easier said than done, but that’s a great scene to practice with.

Some quotes from (and about) Wilde below.

Mankind has been continually entering the prisons of Puritanism, Philistinism, Sensualism, Fanaticism, and turning the key on his own spirit: But after a time there is an enormous desire for higher freedom – for self-preservation.


The mind of a thoroughly well-informed man is a dreadful thing. It is like a bric-a-brac shop, all monsters and dust, with everything priced above its proper value.


To win back my youth … there is nothing I wouldn’t do – except take exercise, get up early, or be a useful member of the community.


Miss Morris is the greatest actress I ever saw, if it be fair to form an opinion of her from her rendition of this one role. We have no such powerfully intense actress in England. She is a great artist, in my sense of the word, because all she does, all she says, in the manner of the doing and the saying, constantly evoke the imagination to supplement it. That is what I mean by art.


To disagree with three-fourths of the British public on all points is one of the first elements of sanity.


from a letter Wilde wrote to Walt Whitman:

Tennyson’s rank is too well fixed and we love him too much. But he has not allowed himself to be a part of the living world and of the great currents of interest and action. He is of priceless value and yet he lives apart from his time. He lives in a dream of the unreal. We, on the other hand, move in the very heart of today.


Wilde on Walt Whitman:

He is the grandest man I have ever seen, the simplest, most natural, and strongest character I have ever met in my life. I regard him as one of those wonderful, large, entire men who might have lived in any age and is not peculiar to any people. Strong, true, and perfectly sane: the closest approach to the Greek we have yet had in modern times.


To be either a Puritan, a prig or a preacher is a bad thing. To be all three at once reminds me of the worst excesses of the French Revolution.


The most graceful thing I ever beheld was a miner in a Colorado silver mine driving a new shaft with a hammer; at any moment he might have been transformed into marble or bronze and become noble in art forever.


“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.”


Praise makes me humble. But when I am abused I know I have touched the stars.


1883, letter of Oscar Wilde to Marie Prescott:

All the great men of France were cuckolds. Haven’t you observed this? All! In every period. By their wives or their mistresses. Villon, Moliere, Louis XIV, Napoleon, Victor Hugo, Musset, Balzac, kings, generals, poets! Those I mention, a thousand more that I could name, were all cuckolds. Do you know what that means? I will tell you. Great men, in France, have loved women too much. Women don’t like that. They take advantage of this weakness. In England, great men love nothing, neither art, nor wealth, nor glory … nor women. It’s an advantage, you can be sure.


1883, letter of Oscar Wilde to Marie Prescott:

Now, one of the facts of physiology is the desire of any very intensified emotion to be relieved by some emotion that is its opposite. Nature’s example of dramatic effect is the laughter of hysteria or the tears of joy. So I cannot cut my comedy lines. Besides, the essence of good dialogue is interruption.


1885, letter of Oscar Wilde to Marillier

There is an unknown land full of strange flowers and subtle perfumes, a land of which it is joy of all joys to dream, a land where all things are perfect and poisonous.


1885, letter of Oscar Wilde to James Whistler

Be warned in time, James; and remain, as I do, incomprehensible: to be great is to be misunderstood.


To be at one with the elements seems to be Mr. Swinburne’s aim. He seeks to speak with the breath of wind and wave … He is the first lyric poet who has tried to make an absolute surrender of his personality, and he has succeeded. We have the song, but we never know the singer … Out of the thunder and splendour of words, he himself says nothing. We have often heard man’s interpretation of Nature; now we know Nature’s interpretation of man, and she has curiously little to say. Force and Freedom form her vague message. She deafens us with her clangours.


As for George Meredith, who could hope to reproduce him? His style is chaos illumined by brilliant flashes of lightning. As a writer he has mastered everything, except language; as a novelist he can do everything, except tell a story.


How much truer Imagination is than Observation.


The amount of pleasure one gets out of dialect is a matter entirely of temperament. To say “mither” instead of “mother” seems to many the acme of romance. There are others who are not quite so ready to believe in the pathos of provincialism.


Actors are so fortunate. They can choose whether they will appear in tragedy or comedy … But in real life it is different. Most men and women are forced to perform parts for which they have no qualifications.


It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.


We Irish are too poetical to be poets; we are a nation of brilliant failures, but we are the greatest talkers since the Greeks.


letter of Oscar Wilde to W.B. Maxwell

You mustn’t take a story that I told you of a man and a picture. No, absolutely, I want that for myself. I fully mean to write it, and I should be terribly upset if I were forestalled.


Oscar Wilde, responding to a critic who balked at all of the literary references in “Dorian Gray”:

I cannot imagine how a casual reference to Suetonius and Petronius Arbiter can be construed into evidence of a desire to impress by an assumption of superior knowledge. I should fancy that the most ordinary of scholars is perfectly well acquainted with the Lives of the Caesars and with The Satyricon. The Lives of the Caesars, at any rate, forms part of the curriculum at Oxford for those who take the Honour School of Literae Humaniores; and as for The Satyricon, it is popular even among passmen, though I suppose they have to read it in translations.


George Bernard Shaw to R.E. Golding Bright, Nov. 19, 1894

You must give up detesting everything appertaining to Oscar Wilde or to anyone else. The critic’s first duty is to admit, with absolute respect, the right of every man to his own style.


Anyone can sympathise with the sufferings of a friend, but it requires a very fine nature – it requires, in fact, the nature of a true Individualist to sympathise with a friend’s success.


Mallarme is a poet, a true poet. But I prefer him when he writes in French, because in that language he is incomprehensible, while in English, unfortunately, he is not. Incomprehensibility is a gift, not everyone has it.


1891 letter from Stephen Mallarme to James Whistler

No O.W. —! just like him! He pushes ingratitude to the point of indecency, then? — And all the old chestnuts — he dares offer them in Paris like new ones! — the tales of the sunflower — his walks with the lily — his knee breeches — his rose-colored stiff shirts — and all that! — And then ‘Art’ here — ‘Art’ there — It’s really obscene — and will come to a bad end — As we shall see — and you will tell me how it happens —


I detest nature where man has not intervened with his artifice.


1891 letter of Oscar Wilde to Edmond de Goncourt

One can adore a language without speaking it well, as one can love a woman without understanding her. French by sympathy, I am Irish by race, and the English have condemned me to speak the language of Shakespeare.


I have equally recognised that humility is for the hypocrite, modesty for the incompetent.


1891, letter of Andre Gide to Paul Valery

Forgive my being silent: after Wilde I only exist a little.


“Know thyself!” was written over the portal of the ancient world … the message of Christ to man was simply, “Be thyself.”


I can see they are servants by their perfect manners.


For do you know, all my life I have been looking for twelve men who didn’t believe in me …. and so far I have only found eleven.


Poem by Dorothy Parker:

Oscar Wilde

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

Happy birthday, to Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde. You were the pioneer in a cruel and vicious world. You made the ultimate sacrifice for being who you were.

Although I have focused much today on your tragedy, it is your humor and your plays that ring across centuries, not just your martyrdom. Your works will live forever.

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