“There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about,” wrote Oscar Wilde in his only novel, 1890’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.
The Irish playwright, novelist, poet and critic experienced both good and bad ‘talk’ in his lifetime. Celebrated throughout the late 1800s for his satirical society plays and flamboyant charm, he fell from public regard after his infamous trial and conviction for ‘gross indecency’ and subsequent imprisonment between 1895 and 1897.
After his release from Reading Gaol, Wilde went into exile in France and Italy and, taking the alias Sebastian Melmoth, lived for the most part alone and in poverty. He died of meningitis, in the company of just a few companions at Paris’s Hôtel d’Alsace, in 1900. It’s this period – the final three years of his life – that is the subject of Rupert Everett’s new film, The Happy Prince.
Everett, who has written and directed the film, also stars as Wilde. He has performed in many of Wilde’s works, including two film versions – An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Ernest– and played Wilde in David Hare’s 1998 play The Judas Kiss. He first encountered the Irish writer as a child, when his mother read him The Happy Prince, Wilde’s children’s story from which the film takes its name.
Though Wilde’s life has been addressed in three other films, Everett explains: “I’ve always found his period in exile to be the most moving side of his life. The image of Wilde in Paris at the end of the 19th century is one of the great defining images between the 19th and the 20th century. It’s full of fantasy and sadness, tragedy and humour”.
On Wilde’s life in exile: “Wilde was recognised, and everyone started shouting and spitting at him”
In The Happy Prince, Everett’s Wilde is haunted both by his former success and humiliation: while one flashback scene shows him addressing an adoring theatre audience, another shows a jeering public accosting him as he is transferred through Clapham Junction train station during his imprisonment.
“The Clapham Junction incident actually happened,” says Everett, “when he was being transferred from Wandsworth to Reading; it actually happened twice. The events in the film are true: he was manacled to a warden, and the warden read the newspaper while Wilde was recognised, and everyone started shouting and spitting at him.”
Another scene shows Wilde and his companions intimidated and chased by a group of young men who shout homophobic insults. “Such things happened to Oscar all the time in exile,” explains Everett. “He was constantly being told to move out of restaurants; people would call the head waiter and ask to have him removed.”
On his relationships: “Wilde’s true love was not a histrionic love affair”
Many will know of Wilde’s relationship with Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas. It was Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, who attempted to end his son’s relationship with Wilde by publicly accusing Wilde as a “posing somdomite” in 1895 (though the exact wording of Queensberry’s message is still disputed). The message prompted Wilde to accuse Queensberry of criminal libel and was the catalyst for a chain of legal events that led to Wilde’s later conviction.
In The Happy Prince, Wilde and Bosie – the latter played by Colin Morgan – are briefly reunited in Naples, before their affair disintegrates. Although their tempestuous relationship is a key part of Wilde’s life (and the film), Everett found that deeper interest lay in another of Wilde’s companions: his friend and lover Robbie Ross (played by Edwin Thomas).
“I was interested in putting across [the idea] that Wilde’s historical so-called ‘great love’ wasn’t really that between Wilde and Bosie,” says Everett. “Whereas real love, for Wilde, was sitting there all the time: it was Robbie Ross, who loved Oscar unconditionally; Oscar just never noticed.
“It’s a touchingly human thing, to not be able to see what’s at the end of your nose. I found that Oscar really loved Robbie, too: they always say that the first sexual experience he had with a man was with Robbie Ross in a public loo, and I sort of believe it. Oscar completely relied on him by the end and wanted Robbie to be with him when he died. They’re buried together, in fact. For me, an important part of the story was to try and explain that Wilde’s true love was not a histrionic love affair.”
It was Ross who arranged for Catholic priest to baptise Wilde on his deathbed in Paris in 1900. “Robbie was a Catholic,” explains Everett, “and Oscar was always fascinated by Catholicism. If you read De Profundis [Wilde’s posthumously published letter to Douglas, written from Reading Gaol], all the sections about Christ are fascinating and beautiful.
“In fact, when Oscar came out of prison, he wanted to go into a Jesuit retreat, though they turned him down. But it was always in his head to become a Catholic, although he had never got around to it. When Robbie found Oscar on his deathbed, he immediately called for the priest for Wilde’s conversion.”
On Wilde’s fame: “His fall was brought around by his own vanity and ego and snobbery”
“One of the things that, for me, is very appealing or very familiar, is the notion of celebrities who get to a point where they think that the whole universe is built around them,” says Everett. “I think that was the problem for Wilde: at one point, he was the most famous man in London. Even though it’s small fry compared to our kind of fame now, he was hugely famous by the standards of the time: he was the life and soul of every party; he was known to royalty; he had three consecutive hits in the West End; he was the toast of the Café Royal; he was a huge star.
“He became blind to the rest of the world and thought that it revolved around him. His fall was brought around by his own vanity and ego and snobbery. That’s something that I find particularly touching and moving about him, because that’s what we’re all like, really – we just don’t do it so graphically.”
This blindness is also evident, Everett says, when it comes to Wilde’s wife, Constance (played by Emily Watson). Following his trial, she lived estranged from her husband with their two sons, until her death in 1898.
“He never understood all through his life, right until the end, how horrible he had been to Constance. Looking at it now, you can’t figure out how someone could be so blind. That’s the most extraordinary thing. He actually put himself in the position as her victim, after a while. It’s a fascinating relationship: she adored him and she was very good to him.
“He was definitely in love with her at the beginning; but after the first child, my feeling is that he started treating her very badly. He certainly didn’t fancy her anymore. It was around the time of their second child’s birth that he met Robbie Ross. It was after this time that Constance’s life got very difficult. The scandal for her was absolutely horrendous and she died in a very tragic way.”
Wilde’s place in the LGBTQ movement: “The tragedy or scandal of Oscar Wilde is one of those punctuation points in the history of gay liberation”
For Everett, Wilde’s trial, imprisonment and subsequent exile stand at the dawn of the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning and queer) movement.
“It’s so interesting that, at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, many of the great debates of the 20th century were happening: modernism; suffrage; war; gay liberation. The tragedy or scandal of Oscar Wilde is really one of those punctuation points, I think it became a debate because of him.
“So the gay liberation movement, I think, starts from 1900. I think he’s a very important figure for us and he’s certainly someone that is worth knowing about. We pay too little heed to history, in my opinion, and we need it in order to put things into perspective.”
The Happy Prince is released in the UK on Friday 15 June 2018.
Rupert Everett was talking to Elinor Evans, Deputy Digital Editor of HistoryExtra.com