How Oscar Wilde’s Arrogance and Disdain for Bohemia Led to His Downfall.
Oscar Wilde’s Salomé as described by Joseph W. Donohue in the article “Salomé and the Wildean Art of Symbolist Theatre”, has often been considered as something of an oddity, and has certainly been associated with controversy since it was first put on stage. Wilde wasn’t embraced by establishments like the Oxford Union, largely because his work was not viewed in the same regard as many other poets and playwrights who came before him at the time (Donohue, pp. 85). Wilde had a deep attraction to France, which might signal as to why he so closely channeled the work of Stephen Mallarme, Gustave Flaubert, Jules Laforgue and Jules Massenet, to name just a few notable figures (Donohue, pp. 86). As an adult Wilde frequented and lived in France and was surrounded by many Bohemian artists and contemporaries, including W.B. Yeats, and received an invitation to be part of the Rhymers’ Club, a hallmark of Bohemian culture in London at the time (Donohue, 87). However, Wilde voiced his loathing for Bohemia and rejected the invitation to join the society that was happy to welcome him to become a part of (Donohue, 1994).
Salomé was effectively outlawed in England when reviewers decided it to be “half biblical, half pornographic” as explained by Katherine Brown Downey in the book “Perverse Midrash Oscar Wilde, André Gide, and censorship of biblical drama”. Wilde’s reaction to this was brash, and he claimed that he would defect from England and give up his citizenship to the country, and pointed to France as being a place that would warmly embrace his work. This led Wilde to deciding to produce the play in French rather than English. In the midst of all of this, before Salomé made it to stage to premiere, Wilde travelled to Algeria, and when he returned to England he was arrested and dealt a lawsuit (Downey, pp. 2). Wilde was in prison for two years, and after leaving jail he fled to France (Downey, pp. 3). Wilde would never end up seeing Salomé on stage, as he ultimately died before it would premiere (Downey, 2004).
Oscar Wilde’s detesting of bohemian culture as mentioned that he proclaimed to possess, seems rather ironic, considering how events unfolded surrounding his publishing of Salomé and eventual imprisonment. Wilde resisted joining the bohemian movement, but at the same time felt harassed and censored by the establishment in Britain, and would be consistently going up against this authority, while still considering the bohemian world to be beneath his standards. As detailed in Dorothy Barenscott’s “Popular Bohemia: Modernism and Urban Culture in Nineteenth Century Paris by Mary Gluck (review)”, bohemian culture allowed artists who found themselves outside of the official and recognized society of salons to break new ground in Paris (Barenscott, pp. 139). It would appear that Wilde would have fit in quite comfortably in the Bohemian community in either London or Paris, considering his attitude towards establishment and his obvious position as an outsider at the time in the nineteenth-century in terms of his personal identity, as a gay man. This suggestion that Wilde would have probably found a sense of belonging in Bohemian society is only made more apparent by his radical nature as an artist, unafraid to go against the status quo and create controversy.
As described by Miranda Gill in the book “Eccentricity and the cultural imagination in nineteenth-century Paris”, the idea of Bohemia, particularly in Paris was grounded in reality, with physical features that marked areas, neighbourhoods and communities of Bohemian culture, but a certain level of this society was also hypothetical and invented, a spirit or myth of sorts, that individuals propagated (Gill, pp. 170). In the nineteenth-century Bohemian society became more self-aware, in which individual artists were intensely lauded and admired, as a result of Romanticism. At this time there was also an increased interest among the population to read literature, and in turn the printing industry blossomed and grew. An issue with this though was that the Bohemian community became more saturated with artists, and becoming a successful and professional literary artist was now more daunting due to the higher level of competitiveness between contemporaries. Still though, it meant that choosing an artistic lifestyle and career allowed for more possibilities, and it was progressively more socially recognized and accepted for an individual to decide to take a creative direction in life, even with all of the risks associated in doing so, economically speaking, for example (Gill, pp. 171). Could it be that perhaps Oscar Wilde, although clearly sharing many similarities with Bohemian literary artists, felt that entering such an active and crowded scene might make it harder to stand out and emerge from the increasingly dense populace of Bohemian society? It could have been, or possibly even due to his ego that made him feel as though he needed his own space away from other artists, or to follow the herd and become yet another figure who followed and gave in to the craze of the time.
What is interesting about Oscar Wilde’s attempt to distance himself from Bohemian society, mostly in London and England at large, is the inevitable spread and eventual mass appeal of Bohemia on an international scale. In Daniel Cottom’s book “International Bohemia: Scenes of Nineteenth-Century Life’’, Cottom explains how although the idea of Bohemia was born in Paris in the early to mid nineteenth-century, and shortly afterwards evolved in England, by the twentieth-century Bohemia had broadened and penetrated into the American, Italian, Spanish and German societies as well (Cottom, pp. x). Although it seems that Wilde often felt insecure and out of place in his position in mainstream British society, exemplified by his frustrations in the outlash against his dealing with religious themes in his play Salomé, Wilde didn’t appear to be able to predict the rise of Bohemia on a universal level, and didn’t foresee that he could also become internationally acclaimed by becoming a member of the Bohemian subculture of London. Cottom points to a quote (Cottom, pp. 256) from James Glass Bertram that expresses that “A true Bohemian has a natural love of license”, “and an intense hatred of law and order”, (Cottom, 2013), and it could be fair to say that Wilde didn’t initially have a particularly strong disliking for law and order prior to his issues with play examiners who censored his Salomé, or before the government in England eventually called for his arrest. It seems like the reality and external forces surrounding Wilde pressured and pushed him to join Bohemia, and although he chose not to willingly engage and participate in the Bohemian community, it was practically preordained that he would have to take that step in due time.
In Enzo Traverso’s “Bohemia, Exile and Revolution: Notes on Marx, Benjamin and Trotsky”, Bohemia is finding liberty from “what is forbidden, conformist and powerful; debauchery against repressive morality” (Traverso, pp. 124), and of course Wilde wanted liberty from what was forbidden and conformist and would have likely seen the censors in England to be promoting that of a repressive morality, however Wilde also appeared to want to enjoy the benefits of being close to the powerful establishment in his society at the time. This sort of purgatory Wilde found himself in would have been the bane of his journey in getting Salomé to stage without the English authority censoring it or threatening to invoke legal action against Wilde. While the attitude of Bohemia might have seemed like just the latest trend at the time to some such as Wilde, it was really more than that, and instead a definitive cultural shift and omnipresent phenomenon that would become a permanently lasting outcome of the radical birth and flourishing of its earliest occurrence in Paris in the nineteenth-century. Undoubtedly, if Wilde knew how the last years of his life would have played out, it’s not a stretch to imagine that Wilde would have more openly immersed himself in Bohemia at a much earlier time.
Donohue, Joseph W., Salome and the Wildean Art of Symbolist Theatre, 1994, “Salome” and the Wildean Art of Symbolist Theatre — Mount Royal University (mtroyal.ca)
Downey, Katherine Brown, Perverse Midrash Oscar Wilde, Andre Gide, and censorship of biblical drama, 2004, Perverse Midrash Oscar Wilde, André Gide, and censorship of biblical drama — Mount Royal University (mtroyal.ca)
Barenscott, Dorothy, Popular Bohemia: Modernism and Urban Culture in Nineteenth-Century Paris by Mary Gluck (reciew), 2007, Popular Bohemia: Modernism and Urban Culture in Nineteenth-Century Paris by Mary Gluck (review) — Mount Royal University (mtroyal.ca)
Gill, Miranda, Eccentricity and the cultural imagination in nineteenth-century Paris, 2009, Eccentricity and the cultural imagination in nineteenth-century Paris — Mount Royal University (mtroyal.ca)
Cottom, Daniel, International Bohemia: Scenes of Nineteenth Century Life, 2013, International Bohemia : Scenes of Nineteenth-Century Life — Mount Royal University (mtroyal.ca)
Travenso, Enzo, Bohemia, Exile and Revolution, Notes on Marx, Benjamin and Trotsky, 2002, Bohemia, Exile and Revolution: Notes on Marx, Benjamin and Trotsky — Mount Royal University (mtroyal.ca)