[ Insert Website Name Here ] | home
The Language of Sigur Rós | I'm A Bad American | The Authenticity Of The Christian Scriptures | Tragic Epilogue | The Avant-Pop Manifesto | On Popular Music | Countdown To Armageddon | A Day In The Life Of A Musician | Oscar Wilde's Influence on Stephen Fry and Morrissey
Oscar Wilde's Influence on Stephen Fry and Morrissey
By David Pinching
"All beautiful things belong to the same age":
To be a famous wit is to have a reputation and often infamy, especially in the sordid, absurd and pompous world of 'Art'. Beauty, style and elegance can rarely be sustained into old age. Therefore, if one good thing came of Oscar Wilde's early death, it was the sealing as if in amber of his elegance and charm. He made it into his early forties and no further, dying on November 30th 1900 (explaining our current obsession with the man and the spate of Wilde related mumbo jumbo: a volume of letters, new editions and so on). Dreadful though it is to say, he was probably born at the right time. Nowadays, his homosexuality is unlikely to have caused anything more than a headline or two - and then not even on the front page - but he is raised up as an icon of homosexuality and an example of the injustice its repression. Had he been born in 1956 we would be more likely to have had the Ballad of a Late Afternoon Tea Room than a Ballad of Reading Gaol. Besides, what would the twentieth century have been without Oscar? As the line goes in An Ideal Husband: "Life is never fair. And perhaps it is a good thing for most of us that it is not". Wilde may have died of cerebral meningitis before the close of its first year, but even in the 1990s, his influence was still quite apparent. I am not referring to his wonderful plays, although they have been brought back to life numerous times in the last few years on stage and screen (An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest spring to mind). Nor am I referring to his prose: the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and his many short stories for children and adults. Set aside too, if you will, both his frequently appalling poetry and his influential criticism. What remains then? Ah… everything of importance: the character, the attitude, the wit and the suave image of a wilfully fey man in a smart velvet suit raising an eyebrow and a cigarette in an absurdly long holder down from the stars into the gutter.
This image abides, quite aside from the art. Wilde exists as an image and thank god for that. The man was in so many ways a failure, especially by his own standards. The hilarious arrogance of his sayings cannot help but turn a spotlight on his insubstantial output ("To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance" indeed!). His plays are hilarious, tawdry affairs with many of the qualities of Restoration comedies (see Wycherley, Congreve etc.) but some of their failings of shallowness and lack of substance. It was the witty dialogue, stuffed to the brim with pith and social comment, that survived best. The Importance of Being Earnest gave us "In married life three is company and two is none" and An Ideal Husband, "Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike".
It is from this well-spring of wit and intelligence that two of his most vocal and talented admirers of the last half-century seem to have drunk. The first of these, born one hundred and three years after the man he played in the biopic Wilde in 1957, is Stephen Fry. The appearance of Fry in an article nominally about Wilde is no surprise and the former is likely completely sick of the comparison with the latter. That is understandable. Fry is certainly as versatile as Wilde was: writing a short play (Latin! Or Tobacco and Boys), comedy, journalism, novels, and acting. That Fry played the part of Wilde is no surprise. They look uncannily similar, and Fry's grace and style fits very well with the modern image of Oscar, how ever inaccurate it may be. It is more than this, though. Fry is a witty, camp and recklessly articulate human being (read Bibliomania's new interview with him if you need proof). His novels tend to explore the concept of the individual placed by circumstance, sexuality or both outside of society and convention. Ultimately, though, Fry himself seems slightly reserved and distant from the extremes of his hero. The extremes he reaches tend to be found in his prose. His shorter pieces, collected in Paperweight, contain some of his sharpest comments. Like Wilde, he tends to side with no one but laugh heartily at the absurdities of everyone: "A generation of citizens who buy red leather combination locked attaché cases and heated trouser presses while remaining ignorant of the metrical constitution of The Faerie Queene is not one ready to lead the world". There it is again, the grandiose statement as knowing as knowing can be without becoming a hermit and having one eyebrow surgically raised.
One man who has mimicked Wilde just as closely as Fry is Steven Patrick Morrissey. Lead singer of 1980s band The Smiths and then solo artist of note ("Everyday is Like Sunday", "Suedehead" etc.), Morrissey is now something of a recluse. In his art there was certainly the sense that his (incidentally very handsome) eyebrow was permanently raised: a hearing aid worn on Top of the Pops should have given that away immediately. In his heyday, though, his pithy responses to interviewers' questions and his simultaneously self-aggrandising and self-deprecating comments reminded all too clearly of a certain homosexual dramatist. In 1984, Morrissey claimed "Oscar Wilde and James Dean were the only two companions I had as a distraught teenager. Every line that Wilde wrote affected me so enormously". The fanaticism did not stop there. In the same year he noted the religious connotations of such reverence: "As get older the adoration increases. I'm never without him… It's like carrying your rosary around with you". Wilde is, as Morrissey suggests, not only a literary figure but also an attitude, a stance, a sexuality even. Wilde represents isolation within one's own world and at the same time a very grand set of theories about the most irrelevant or absurd things. Similarly, Morrissey says that, "Going into Ryman's [the stationer's] is the most extreme sexual experience one could have". Elements of his pithier statements obviously reflect the Wilde notion of the extreme and improbable aphorism that sets one apart from one's contemporaries and establishes one as something of a bohemian. Some of the more notable examples from interviews have been, "I think a sex symbol is possibly the best thing to be", "If you've got a grain of intellect you run the risk of making your critics seem dull. So people feel the need to adopt the most violent attitude, even when they like you", "I would never, ever do anything as vulgar as having fun". As in the case of Wilde, this catalogue of amusing statements that amount to nothing in particular except self- promotion can be and is compiled frequently into pretty little books of quotations to be read while doing one's teeth or washing the dog. Fry has added more than his fair share of pithy little wisdoms too, such as "I don't watch television, I think it destroys the art of talking about oneself" and "You know what they say, if at first you don't succeed you're not the eldest son". The power of such statements in thi age of soundbites and spindoctors is to make oneself known even to those who have never and will never read your books.
Morrissey noted the problem inherent in his self-appointed position as a thinker and commenter on social matters and manners: "Because I come from a penniless background - a shack upon a hill - people find it fake that I come bounding down the hill clutching a copy of De Profundis. By rights I should be sitting here talking about Sheffield Wednesday or the length of Jimmy Hill's beard" (Nov 1984). To a similar end, Fry observed in The Liar that, "Sophistication is not an admired quality. Not only at school. Nobody likes it anywhere. In England at any rate". There lies the basis for all these writers' powers. It is hard to imagine any of them being less than one hundred per cent English. That two of them were Irish is of little concern. The point is that Wilde, Fry and Morrissey have the same peculiarly English attitudes of scepticism towards the press and their detractors while always giving good copy through endless witticisms and sheer dandyism that would not be amiss in the seventeenth century. They also all give the impression of being great romantics while maintaining their disinterest in women or sex or both.
All three of these arch, witty and camp men exist now as images as much as people. Disturbingly, Fry and Wilde in particular are near indistinguishable in the modern imagination. This situation allows, however, for the abiding theme of Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray to live on through his disciples. It has been observed that Anton Corbijn's photo of Morrissey putting together a jigsaw of Elvis (like his early habit of collecting photos of himself) is very suggestive of Dorian Gray staring into his mirror and becoming then destroying that image. Notice too the opening of "Rusholme Ruffians" that emulates almost precisely the Elvis song "(Marie's the Name) His Latest Flame". Genius doesn't borrow, of course, it steals. No less Dorianesque, and typically humorous is the video made for the unreleased single "Stop Me if You've Heard This One Before" where Morrissey rides around Salford in Manchester with a troupe of look-alikes on push bikes wearing Smiths T-shirts. Everything for these aesthetes who revel in the reflection of the self becomes a mirror. Morrissey has been as direct in his citing of Wilde's influence in his work as Fry has. In terms of his image, it has again been a case of direct visual quotation - the flowers and specifically gladioli that he paraded on television for instance were a homage to his hero: "I used flowers because Oscar Wilde always used flowers" (June 1984). In "Cemetry Gates", on "The Queen Is Dead" (The Smiths' best album and certainly one of the top five best albums of the 1980s), Morrissey sings, "Keats and Yeats are on your side but you lose because Wilde is on mine". Even in itself this seems to refer to Wilde's claim that, "More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn't read". The influence of Wilde was clear enough even in the lyrics to their first great single, "This Charming Man" two years earlier where Morrissey asks, "Why pamper life's complexities, / When the leather runs smooth on the passenger seat?" Suggestive, beautiful, outrageously camp and pithy, Morrissey soon made himself the hero of every bed-sit poet and simultaneously established himself as popular music's equivalent of Wilde. Further, a voice murmurs the Wildean mantra, "Everybody's clever nowadays" in the background to their song "Rubber Ring" - which is in itself a celebration of the influence on a young mind of songs and lyrics.
Fry and Morrissey both spent much of their time in the public eye renouncing sex and proclaiming their own celibacy. In 1986, Morrissey asserted that he was "just dramatically, supernaturally non-sexual" and Fry - before and after coming out of the closet - spoke of a lack of interest in all things carnal. In an article for the Tatler from 1985 (now collected in Paperweight), he argues cogently against such "moist, infected pleasures of the bedroom" saying, "Sex does not enrich or deepen a relationship, it permanently cheapens and disables one". Like Wilde they seem more interested in beauty and specifically male handsomeness than any act of love. The charade of celibacy, paraded in public, reminds strongly of The Importance of Being Earnest : "By persistently remaining single a man converts himself into a permanent public temptation. Men should be careful; this very celibacy leads weaker vessels astray" (1986). We know that Wilde led certain 'vessels' astray, but Morrissey and Fry have kept their affairs, in every sense of the word, as secret as possible.
They revel in the myth of the self, the heroic, distant poetic figure. It is no surprise that when Johnny Rogan's biography of The Smiths (Morrissey and Marr: The Severed Alliance, a fine tome) threatened to cast light upon the goings on of his band, Morrissey said he hoped that Rogan would die in a motorway pile-up. Another similarity between these men lies in their disappearances, then. Morrissey wanted to hide himself, much like David Bowie in his many disguises, behind the protective veil of his heroes: his Wilde, his Elvis, his James Dean. His art and life needed to be separated like theirs. As Wilde writes in The Critic As Artist, "Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth". In the mind of the fanatic, Wilde did not become fat and lose the plot in prison, Elvis did not exist in his bloated later state, and James Dean did not crash and lose the beauty so fundamental to his appeal. They were preserved in their art and in that crucial image. So, his mask removed, Morrissey has disappeared now, escaping media attention totally after the court case where a judge famously ruled that he was "truculent and unreliable". How does the heroic aesthete and lyricist emerge from such a judgement pure and untainted? He does not, he resigns entirely. Fry too has taken some knocks. His disappearance from the stage play "Cell Mates" was ridiculed and his name tarnished. His public appearances since have notably been fewer, while in his latest novel, The Stars' Tennis Balls (see our review) the main character is catapulted away from real society to live in contemplation while the world believes him mad or dead. As Wilde wrote in An Ideal Husband, "Public and private lives are different things. They have different laws and move on different lines". For men who confront the world's pettiness and vulgarity with their intelligence, sensitivity, non-conformity and beauty, the fall must be greater and absolute. Morrissey said during his time in The Smiths that, "Television still has this mystical ability to separate you from the world and confer importance upon you". This is the precise problem they face. Fry, Morrissey and Wilde are all extremely well-known faces. So, they are distanced from reality by their inability to act normally within it. Their very anonymity is taken from them. These bookish recluses then become more like themselves, and like Dorian Gray start to become their own pictures from the past - incapable of changing. However, there lies their success. As Wilde said, "He who stands most remote from his age is he who mirrors it best".
The controversies, mostly sexual that have surrounded the lives of these men is unfortunate but typical of the British public and media. It is typical of Wilde's contemporaries that they would not accept his relationship with his young lover, Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas and found a way to throw him into jail for perversion. Many found Fry's exaggerated peek into public school life in The Liar (consisting of buggery and flattery, essentially) hard to stomach. English tabloid newspaper, The Sun, effectively forced a ban of The Smiths' early material (particularly "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" and "Reel Around the Fountain") from the radio by describing Morrissey as "sick", "evil" and all the rest for apparent references to child abuse in his songs. This is, of course, from the paper that prints photos of girls as young as 16 daily. Naturally, all three writers have courted controversy in their time, but it hardly stands to reason that they therefore deserve to be vilified as perverts. The infamous picture of Wilde dressed as a woman turned out to be of someone else entirely. Morrissey went from "the fabric of a tutu/ any man could get used to/ and I am a living sign" in the '80s to butch boxer imagery and fake scars in the late 1990s. But still, the implication is there: as Wilde wrote in The Importance of Being Earnest that, "All women become like their mothers - that is their tragedy. No man does. That is his." In the case of these three, though, that accusation will never quite stick. Of course, as Wilde says in Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young, "Wickedness is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others".
There are differences too, of course, between these wits. Wilde is dead. Fry is an actor. Morrissey is a heterosexual (probably). Wilde hated sport; Morrissey says "I never wanted to get off P.E. - it was the only intellectual subject in school". Fry and Wilde wrote novels; Morrissey never wrote anything longer than a lyric. Morrissey and Fry were journalists; Wilde hated hacks. Fry and Wilde were Cambridge and Oxford graduates respectively; Morrissey
sat in a room a lot but was not university educated. People write books about Wilde and Morrissey; Fry writes them about himself. Oh, there are differences all right. But they clues are all there. Fry and Morrissey wanted to be Wilde and became exaggerated versions of themselves. Wilde wanted to be great and as a result failed (he once said that ambition was "the last refuge of the failure"). That, though is not the point. In a sense, none of these men are great writers because they all brush everything aside with a velvet glove. But who else would you quote. That's what counts. If you put together the sayings of these three men, you could very nearly get away with saying nothing else ever - which is probably the highest compliment you could pay anyone.
David Pinching (Editor)
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Wilde's Short Stories
Stephen Fry Interview
Review of The Stars' Tennis Balls
COMING IN DECEMBER:
All of Wilde's plays
Videos / DVDs:
"An Ideal Husband"
"The Smiths: The Complete Picture"
The Smiths - "The Smiths"
The Smiths - "The Queen is Dead"
Morrissey - "Viva Hate"
Morrissey - "Vauxhall And I"
Stephen Fry - The Stars' Tennis Balls
Stephen Fry - The Liar
Stephen Fry - Making History
Johnny Rogan - Morrissey and Marr: The Severed Alliance
Oscar Wilde - Collected Letters