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The Art of the Pose

Oscar Wilde’s Performance Theory

Heather Marcovitch

This book revisits Oscar Wilde’s major writings through the field of performance studies. Wilde wrote about performance as a cultural dialectic, as a form of serious and critical play, and as the basis of a subversive poetics. In his studies at Oxford University, his famous lecture tour of the United States and Canada, his friendships with famous actresses Sarah Bernhardt and Lillie Langtry, the writing of his critical essays, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Salome, and his society comedies, and culminating in his post-prison writings De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Wilde develops a rich theory of performance that addresses aesthetics, ethics, identity and individualism. This book also traces Wilde’s often-troubled relationship with late-Victorian society in terms of its attempts to define his public performances by stereotyping him as both irrelevant and dangerous, from the early newspaper caricatures to its later description of him as a sexual monster.


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Introduction Oscar Wilde and Performance Theory 9


9 Introduction Oscar Wilde and Performance Theory Oscar Wilde was a man of the theatre. The statement sounds ob- vious, given his renown as a playwright, but, for Wilde, the theatre was more than just a venue for his plays. His writings, both dramatic and non-dramatic, are full of meditations about the theatre and more specifically about his fascination with acting. During the pe- riod in the 1880s when Wilde was a working journalist, he published many theatrical reviews; his acquaintanceships with the famous actors of the time such as Ellen Terry, Modjeska (he translated a poem of hers), Henry Irving, and especially Sarah Bernhardt and Lillie Langtry helped to define his public image when he was be- ginning his career in London. The doomed Sibyl Vane in The Picture of Dorian Gray is, of course, an actress, the Canterville Ghost delights in scaring the American tenants of his ancestral home by staging elaborate theatrical tableaux, and his short story ‘The Model Mil- lionaire’ might not involve an actor, but the title character is a fairly successful impersonator. Among his full-length critical essays is not only his analysis of Shakespearean costume in ‘The Truth of Masks’ but the telling quote in ‘The Portrait of Mr. W.H.’ which states that ‘all Art [is] to some degree a mode of acting, an attempt to realise one’s own personality on some imaginative plane out of reach of the trammelling accidents and limitations of real life.’1 This quote links Wilde’s interest in the theatrical...

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