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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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Chapter One Foundations and Experiments: Oscar Wilde at Oxford 23

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23 Chapter One Foundations and Experiments: Oscar Wilde at Oxford Neither a theory of performance nor a concept of an individual’s persona emanated fully-flung from Wilde’s head. There was a rather lengthy process of germination, of putting together discrete pieces of a more complex theory, sometimes with a teleology in mind, and sometimes through trial and error. Wilde at Oxford University was immersed in the scholarly world’s attempts to reconcile the ‘new’ evolutionary theories of Darwin with still-popular philosophical idealism, most notably that of Hegel and Hume. The importance of the notebooks Wilde kept while at Oxford from 1874 to 1879 is not that therein lies a nascent theory to be read into all of his works; indeed, the notebooks, like many student notebooks, largely consist of copied quotations from works Wilde was either reading or studying at the time and a smattering of half-formed ideas. But there are certain key thinkers and ideas that never left Wilde’s thought and that, in revised forms, become part of the ‘critical spirit’ lurking behind his poetry, fiction, essays, and dramas. Smith and Helfand argue in the introduction to their edition of Wilde’s Oxford Notebooks for the particular importance of Hegel in shaping Wilde’s thought. Indeed, Hegel’s dialectic might be the singular most important piece of philosophy Wilde utilizes in his writings. As well, Wilde’s exposure to Oxford’s Walter Pater’s Stu- dies in the History of the Renaissance (especially in its tacit argument against Matthew Arnold’s ideas about criticism) gave him not only...

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